The Casual Blog

Tag: Yuval Noah Harari

Sally revives her orchids, and the new panic about Bernie and socialism

 

Sally’s three orchids are blooming!  They lost their flowers at different times last year and looked about as dead as house plants could look.  But she nursed the sad little remnants lovingly and hopefully, and a few weeks ago, they all decided to revive.  Together, as though they had planned it!   

This week the last bud burst into flower, and they spent some time modeling for me.    For each of these images, I made focus stacks with 20 shots, which I then stitched together with Helicon Focus software.

We watched the beginning of the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate on Tuesday, but neither of us could make it to the end.  What a mess! It was disappointing that the moderators didn’t ask questions about our true emergency issues, like the peril of nuclear holocaust and disastrous man-made climate change, and made the candidates look like quarrelsome children when they couldn’t keep order.  

It seemed to me plain the debating contenders were all smart and reasonably honorable people, and for this alone any would be a huge improvement over Trump.  I’m best aligned on policy issues and temperament with Elizabeth Warren, so I’ll be voting for her, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that this is not looking like her moment.

The Democratic establishment seems unhappy and uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders, and I can understand why.  His mannerisms can be grating. More important, he seems serious about shaking up the status quo, which they are part of.  The conventional establishment wisdom has it that as a self-declared democratic socialist, mainstream America won’t vote for him, but I’m not convinced that the socialist label is a serious impediment.  

There’s never been a purely capitalist system in the US.  Government subsidies for business are as American as apple pie.  The free market system has at times brought great material progress, and at times political, social, and economic disaster.  Idealizing capitalism as a perfect system is just silly, as is demonizing socialism.

I just finished rereading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which is a brisk and spicey history of humankind.  It begins with the early hominoids of a couple of million years ago, on through the first homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago, to their departure from Africa about 70,000 years ago, and the first agricultural civilizations of 12,000 years ago.  He has a bit to say about a lot of big developments, including the industrial revolution.  

Harari views capitalism (as well as communism and other isms), as equivalent to religions, inasmuch as they’re all shared systems of ideas that are only real insofar as groups of people adopt and share them.  He points out that capitalism has been effective at producing wealth for elites, but it is essentially amoral. In its raw form, its only concern is profit.  

To serve the profit objective, early capitalism developed the African slave trade and imperialism, and the misery and death entailed were of no concern.  Only the looniest devotee of Ayn Rand views this raw form as an ideal. The rest of us think markets will not solve every problem, and that other values, like fairness and compassion, are at least as important as profit.  

A lot of our climate crisis is related to unconstrained capitalism.  The highly subsidized fossil fuel industry accounts for a good part of our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the disinformation campaign that supports climate change denialism.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise when Larry Fink, the chairman of Black Rock, recently issued a call to arms regarding climate change.  Fink, who may be the world’s largest investor, issues an annual letter that the captains of industry read carefully and take seriously. This year he focused on sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  He presented this as a matter of preserving profitability, which will likely eventually go down if humans destroy more of the natural world. But of course, stopping global warming would have some other benefits, like saving millions and millions of lives.

In the letter, Fink also talked about the importance of “embracing purpose,” which he contrasted with simple concern for short-term profitability.  He seemed to be saying that companies need to do more than make as much money as possible for investors, and should take account of the interests of other stakeholders.  In other words, unalloyed capitalism needs to be alloyed with other values. 

When I was a lad, part of our national religion, along with veneration of capitalism,  was hatred and fear of communism. We were taught it was an evil force that would take over the world, unless we worked tirelessly to stop it.  This fear turned out to be exaggerated, though we wasted many thousands of lives and millions of dollars before we understood that.  

The upside of this sad history:  it’s harder now to get people panicked about considering socialist policy choices.  Bernie’s detractors will try the old time red scare tactics, but they probably won’t work.  Of the possible reasons for opposing Bernie, moral panic about socialism is the weakest.

 

The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy

 

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing.  It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty.  But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.

I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface.  I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings.  A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.  

Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush?  I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing.  We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past.  That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.

There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause.  This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person.  It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it.  This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.  

That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects.  On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh.  I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.  

On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book.  In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.

Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope.  He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines.  Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals.  This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.

I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others.  He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system.  He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair.   I found his book an inspiring source of hope.

Sunrise this morning, looking northeast toward Raleigh, with the new Metropolitan apartment building in the foreground nearing completion

A PB spin, Goode piano, Sapiens and science, and an operatic pearl

Blooming this week at Raulston Arboretum

I had an epic personal best spin class at Flywheel on Friday morning, with a score of 360.  That’s big!  The second place finisher’s score, 342, would also have been a PB.  It was like expecting to run a 10k in 43 minutes and finishing in 33.   I’d like to thank my teacher Matt, and the other fine spin teachers over the years (Vashni, Heather, Jen, Will) who helped me along the way.   

I wish I knew for sure what produced all that energy, so I could bottle it.  It might have been a good dinner the night before (Sally’s Blue Apron Thai cauliflower rice).  It might have helped that I woke up early and did some pre-class foam rolling to loosen the muscles.  Doing more interval work recently at the gym probably contributed.  Also, there were several pretty girls in the class, which tends to increase peppiness.  And it’s possible I drew a recently serviced and well-oiled bike.  In any event, I will not be sharing the number of that bike, as I hope to get it next week.

That night we went over to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium for a concert by master pianist Richard Goode.  He performed Bach’s sixth partita and three late Beethoven sonatas (Ops. 101, 109, and 110).  These works are well known to aficionados, but they’re also deep and mysterious.  Even after two centuries, the interpreter can still find new things, and bring new life.  Goode communicated the power and cohesiveness of the rich musical ideas, and also sang — literally!   This was musicianship of the highest order, and I felt privileged to share the experience.

At the gym, I’ve been listening to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.  Harari challenges a lot of widely shared assumptions about our origins, such as the notion that we were the sole human species on earth when we arose some 200,000 years ago.  What happened to the Neanderthals, Denisovans,  and other non-sapien human cousins?  There are various theories, including the possibility that our ancestors exterminated them, as they killed off most of the existing species of large animals.

Harari points up that homo sapiens’ ruthless success as a species is attributable to our brilliance at social organization, and he accounts for this in part by our use of religious, economic, and other social myths. This is thought-provoking stuff, though Harari doesn’t always distinguish between matters of wide scientific consensus and ideas that are much more speculative.

I wouldn’t expect Harari to get everything right, since no one ever does.  A recent edition of the You Are Not so Smart podcast (not yet posted at the web site) noted that medical students are now taught that half of what they learn in medical school will eventually turn out to be wrong. Science is always a work in progress.  Fortunately, the scientific system is built for testing and error correction.

Not so long ago, I’d have thought the value of science was self evident and not in need of advocacy.  Was I ever wrong!  I expect that, barring nuclear catastrophe, science and reasonableness will prevail in the long run, but at the moment, we’re in trouble, with unreason ascendant on urgent questions of the environment, health, and social issues.

Raulston viewed from the Tiller quadcopter

On Sunday afternoon we went to the N.C. Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.  It was a new opera for us, and we found the melodies very beautiful.  The principal singers were excellent, as usual, and the chorus was particularly strong.  The orchestra had a rich sonority and tonal variety.  Conductor Timothy Myers is a brilliant musician, and also a wizard, to conjure all this in little ole Raleigh, NC.  We’re really sorry he’s leaving us for bigger things next year.  It was touching when, in the final curtain call, the company threw roses at him.