The Casual Blog

Tag: Yuval Noah Harari

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.