30 December 2008

Incipient lurkage

Aoife is really not too keen on the camera; she likes to have a good view of it from a position of concealment.

She had not quite reached that position when this picture was taken.

28 December 2008


I think it might have been squirrels (well, the first one) on the peanut feeder.
At least one appears to have devised a working technique for slurping peanuts out of the holes; I shall have to make sure to get larger peanuts next time.

She was, on the other hand, very good about staying well away from the whisker-crisping substances involved in oven cleaning today, so perhaps it takes more than squirrels to produce a look like that, and my lamentably limited primate senses did not permit me to perceive what the whole thing was about.

27 December 2008

Chickadee against a bright sky

The tummy colour washes right out; this is actually a bit brighter than it looked.

26 December 2008

A Finch of Countenance

This is scaled but not cropped, so I'm especially pleased with it. The green thing is the top of the post that holds the finch feeder; they sit on it sometimes, but rarely for long, so I was particularly fortunate in getting this pose from the wee cheepling thing.

25 December 2008

Cardinal in the rain

Yesterday was rain; today was sunny and (for December) warm. Tomorrow is supposed to be well above freezing, and the day after is forecast to have a low of five degrees, and rain. Not going to be much snow left.
But, anyway, I'm blaming the rain for the colours in Mrs. Cardinal's tail, here. It was blessed damp.

Statistical Abstraction

Getting exiftool to cough up lens type and focal length data is straightforward; it just takes ages to do it for 11,944 files.
for x in */*/*dng; do exiftool -FocalLength $x >> LengthList; done
for x in */*/*dng; do exiftool -LensType $x >> LensList; done

Focal length is a simple single number; that means
sort -ung UniqueLengths > UniqueLengthList
for x in `gawk '{print $4}' UniqueLengthList`; do print $x,`grep -wc $x LengthList` >> ShotsPerLength; done
will get me a useful table:

Length(mm) Shots
0 27
14 119
31 1565
35 916
50 820
55 332
62.5 27
70 398
75 19
77 849
77.5 24
80 12
85 4
87.5 35
97.5 58
100 2405
107.5 34
108 21
120 72
133 52
135 91
150 150
170 199
190 351
210 250
230 153
240 14
260 135
300 2812
Which can be graphically represented as:

Lens names are more interesting to extract; I had to use perl, rather than a combination of awk and grep, since having parens and square brackets in lens names that span several fields (from awk's point of view) made things Interesting. One can get the whole lens name out just fine, but quote-escaping it so the shell doesn't split on spaces before grep gets it either lumps them all together (zero matches) or fails, so all the elements of the lens name are split out by spaces, leaving many matches, few of them useful. But a little perl gives me the useful:

Lens Shots
M-42 or No Lens 27
Sigma Lens (3 255) 2120
smc PENTAX-DA 14mm F2.8 ED[IF] 119
smc PENTAX-DA 35mm F2.8 Macro Limited 916
smc PENTAX-DA 55-300mm F4-5.8 ED 3044
smc PENTAX-DA 70mm F2.4 Limited 83
smc PENTAX-FA 31mm F1.8AL Limited 1565
smc PENTAX-FA 50mm F1.4 820
smc PENTAX-FA 77mm F1.8 Limited 849
smc PENTAX-FA MACRO 100mm F2.8 2401

Which can be graphically represented as:
I'm not sure what this tells me; I use the long zoom a great deal, I use the 100mm macro a great deal, I would probably use a fast 200mm lens if I had it (that cluster around 200mm in the focal length graph is trading off focal length for f-stop number taking pictures of feeder birds) and a I really like the 31mm Ltd. out of the primes. I also spend a lot of time at 300mm and would probably use a longer lens if I had it.

None of this is precisely news, but I suppose it's a good thing to be able to back it up numerically.

23 December 2008

Non-conspecific obstruction

By a female housefinch
And a male house sparrow.
These are some of the best pictures I've yet obtained of a female cardinal; this particular pair of cardinals seem surpassingly shy birds, and the female more than the male.

22 December 2008

But why do they?

Is traditionally answered with "money", but that's not really it just now.

The combination of biotech, ubiquitous computing/vastly better communications technology, and the angry sky ("anthropogenic climate change") are going to compel economic re-organization on the scale of the industrial revolution. (Two generations of wars, bloody revolts, and remarkable nastiness on the part of the entrenched landholding ruling class; another generation or so the entrenched landholders refusing to share political power; a generation after that of great political upheaval. And that's the United Kingdom, 1775 - 1875, more or less the best case until you get to things like Taiwan where it was done with careful purpose in the 1950s and still cannot properly be considered "gentle".)

Lots of people, the great majority of people, who presently belong to the ruling classes (whatever their job title is; the folks who make policy and have it stick) are aware of this, and are going la-la-la with their fingers in their ears about root causes. (No matter what, they're going to lose status, and no one stays in that class without being intensely concerned about status.) They're also wildly unsure about what to do about the root causes; nobody stays in that class through being comfortable with making mistakes, and it's pretty much guaranteed that waiting until there's enough information to be sure what the right policy is would itself be a mistake.

So, instead, by a sort of social reflex, they're cranking up the oppression; secret trials, police check points, "papers, please", ubiquitous surveillance, because, hey, when the revolution comes they want to be ready.

Very predictable; also very stupid.

That economic transformation is also an immense opportunity to make people materially much better off, increase the general standard of living, and to wind up with a whole world that's educated, healthy, and has interesting stuff to do.

We need to insist on a ruling class that's in favour of those things, instead of opposed.

That would require not just a message of hope but a goal of progress, and if the deity of progress died in the mud of Flanders, well, that's a god people made, and what was made once can be made again. It would require a recognition that, yes, democratic constraints and reduced—hopefully greatly reduced—relative economic standing and being constrained by facts are all constraints on power, and very sharp constraints on relative power, and you still wind up with more actual power and resources to direct by any absolute measure than you do by keeping things from changing.

Clever Rodent

This batch are in for a lot of blown backgrounds, because I foolishly left the ISO set at 800 from last night's attempts to get a useful picture of a cardinal at dusk.

What we observe here is a squirrel:

  1. clinging to the anti-pigeon matting with its back feet
  2. holding up the weight-sensitive lever that blocks seed access with one front paw
  3. stuffing its face with the other paw
I removed the anti-pigeon matting. (None of the squirrels are looking much other than sleek and plumptious, and there are many of them. Bad enough that I'm feeding starlings.)

21 December 2008

Returns the sun

Not that I'm going to particularly notice for a week or six, but with the arbitrary point in the orbital mechanics now past, it seems like I ought to remark on it if I'm going to mark it at all.

I'm warm, fed, and housed, and have some prospect of that staying true for awhile. That hasn't always been true, especially during this time of year, and the memory sticks. Having it be true is reassuring.

I'm not in constant pain; quitting my job at AMD and de-tensioning (I hesitate to say "relaxing" just yet) got rid of the neck and shoulder lockup, and the wear arthritis in my neck is very likely reversible. The "no constant pain" part has done wonders for my mood and outlook.

Sometime this year, when I wasn't paying attention, my heart got unbroken. I suppose the "not paying attention" part to be required.

That's doing pretty well, even without considering friends and taking better photographs and the disturbing insight that my brain might be wired for functional programming languages rather better than procedural. Oh, and Aoife letting me sleep in; I don't know what brought that on, but I'm grateful.

So a pretty good year, all in all.

A selection of oppressed finches

Taken on 19 December during fairly active snowfall. Almost certainly all different individuals.

Definitely oppressed.

Despite what looks like immense feeder activity, I'm starting to wonder if it's more that I'm home to see it; the consumption rate is up some, but not all that much greater than it was in the temperate part of the fall. Having to shell the oil seeds may slow them down.

20 December 2008

Waiting their turn

It's rare that they'll sit still on branches, or at least sit still on branches when there's a large house ape with some sort of shiny clicky thing pointed at them, so the feeding priority introduced by the snow was useful to me in as much as they got into what seemed for all the world like a line for the feeder and then stayed put.
This is a little later in the day, not snowing so hard, and the balcony railing below the feeder.
Also saw (but was too slow to photograph) goldfinches on the main platform feeder. Don't know if they were after peanuts or oilseed, but were presumably feeling the chill to be after either.

Opportunistic foraging as an ecomorphology

A starling with one of the last black currants. It didn't last very much longer after the shutter click.
I suppose that even your typically voracious (which is to say, extensively voracious) starling will hesitate a moment before swallowing a frozen berry; scaled, and supposing the human gullet to have the capacity, it must feel a lot like swallowing a whole frozen grapefruit.

19 December 2008

Sit Like An Egyptian

Some poses can overcome random heaps of cardboard boxes in the background.

She spent all day staring at the rather large number of birds at the feeders; we've been having a robust sort of snow fall, and the birds are hungry. I have indeed a bunch of pictures of poor oppressed finches, but think that I shall try to post those tomorrow instead.

Leaves die when the roots are cut

There's much discussion in the US about how to recapitalize their banking system, and what will restore consumer confidence, and return velocity to credit.

There's much discussion of this globally, and it's mostly wrong because it's mostly talking about finance.

Finance depends on, derives from, work done to create value. If the work is not done, the finance system hits some inelastic limits about how much value exists and therefore how much of a loan we can get from the future.

All of the public suggestions so far in the States seem to have missed the idea that it does not matter what happens to the finance system if the work being done to create tangible value is supported, protected, and extended; with sound roots, new leaves will appear.

I'm kinda hoping we get—though I would needs must be an exceptional idiot to expect a CPC government to produce, or Ignatieff Liberals to push for—something that recognizes the need to support productive work in the January budget.

That means differentiation, extension, and expansion of industries producing value add in tangible goods. Services are real work and produce real value but only in a context of the tangible goods. (Perfect accounting will not rescue you from no tractor tires; enough tangible goods will excuse shoddy accounting.)

18 December 2008

Maple-orange-garlic pork loin, four days early

Though the weather is certainly doing its very best to be Yule-appropriate, and schedules are tricky things.

  1. Get your butcher to bone a pork loin for you; you want the non-rib end, that usually gets turned into chops. Unless you are really good at this specific evolution, you want them to do the boning, not do it yourself.
  2. Put it on a broiling pan, fat side up; make sure there's at least two centimetres or so of water in the bottom of the pan.
  3. Score the fat, deeply; this is to keep the interesting stuff from running off.
  4. Sprinkle with crushed tarragon, cinnamon, and thyme; there is four times the tarragon as thyme, and twice the cinnamon as tarragon.
  5. Drizzle with maple syrup; about tablespoon, or a bit more. (15 to 20 mL.)
  6. Pulp eight or nine cloves of garlic over the loin, as evenly as your garlic press will permit you.
  7. Cover the loin with the pierced segments of two oranges, peeled and de-pulped. (Next time, I will probably chop them.)
  8. Drizzle with maple syrup again, a teaspoon or two. (5 to 10 mL.)
  9. Heave into an oven on bake at 425 F for two hours.
  10. While it is cooking, make some maple-garlic-orange sauce to go with it once it is done.
Comes out of the oven looking like this.

And went on the table like so. That's the sauce in the gravy boat, and next time I take pictures by candle light I will remember to adjust the exposure. Side dishes were bacon and mushrooms, and, not yet visible on the plate, green beans.
Fairly simple for Yule, even counting the somewhat deflated gluten-free sponge cake, but eaten with good cheer in excellent company.

It might even be said that the excellent company expressed kind words about the cooking, to my considerable delight.[1]

[1] What with never having made this specific dish before, and all.

17 December 2008

Mostly goldfinches

This is the snow before the current snow, but it does serve to show how any snow at all brings a certain voracity to small passerines.

They're picking up a more pronounced lemony colour, especially about the throat feathers. A month ago, they were all dull olive. I really need to read up on their molt strategy.

The good red gold

Money has the awful property of looking like a more comprehensive solution than it actually is.

Money can give you an answer to "what is for dinner tonight?", "can I afford that?", and "how long do I have to work before I can buy that thing?".

Money can't give you an answer to "what kind of things are there to eat around here?", "why does that cost that much?", or "why do I make this much for an hour or work?"

Those latter questions involve choice. It's a choice about the purposes of social organization, about whether to be concerned about this year, next year, ten years from now, or three generations into the future, and about the relative value of human beings, whether the forms of social organization and politics are there for the people or the people and politics are there for the forms of social organization. (If the people and the forms of the social organization are there for the politics, you get revolutionary France; interesting to read about as history, but not persistent in historical time. The United States is currently showing strong signs of being in such a period.)

None of those choices can be made on the basis of money, or, rather, the decision to make them on the basis of money is a decision that the people and politics are there to serve the forms of social organization.

Of course those choices about social organization and how to value people are in part choices about resource allocation, and other things that have real costs, but money is not an accurate representation of either of those dimensions, because money has all the previous social and political decisions built into it. It's a rubber ruler.

16 December 2008

Sub-optimal background

All that reddish blur is an extremely out of focus red brick wall, back there somewhere.
This is another shot at a fairly steep angle—though not so steep as the cardinal—through the sliding glass door, so there's a bit of the lens-of-former-days effect going on again.
Very Christmassy birds, house finches.

15 December 2008

Classic nuthatch pose

Head down, beak up, gleam of suspicion in the eye, strong foot-grip on a vertical surface.

The nuthatch or hatches—I have seen two at one time, though only ever one on the peanut feeder—is mightily fond of the peanuts, and a little snowfall is not going to dissuade it in any way.

14 December 2008

Less depressed

I don't know if this is a grey squirrel with a rufous tinge, or a red squirrel/grey squirrel hybrid. But they're certainly less annoyed by the snow than the black squirrels are.
As long as they don't figure out how to ravish the peanut feeder, I shall not complain.

13 December 2008

It got away

Picture taken mere moments after the feathery toy plummeted to the floor.
First picture I've processed with UFraw 0.14; they've changed some of the buttons. Seems like a general improvement so far; it has now heard of the K20D, so I won't have to do the trim-to-delivered-pixels step by hand any more.

12 December 2008

Wealth and Prosperity

I should never be allowed to have a "definitions" tag.

Wealth is a relative measure. If you take 100 pounds, troy, of silver, current price something like 12,250 USD, and get in a time machine and go back to the Kingdom of Wessex in 950 CE, you would be wealthy, having 20 years of a minor nobleman's annual income as cash in hand. (An income of five pounds a year is when you started paying thane's taxes.)

You would be in an excellent position to buy land and be set for life, for the values of "life" and "set" that applied to a time when "the worms that dwell in a man" was a proverbial utterance.

Prosperity is an absolute measure: what is the infant mortality rate? how old are people when they die? what proportion of the population does not get enough to eat? how many people can read and write?

Policy should always prefer the absolute measure of prosperity to the relative measure of wealth.

This is for three reasons:

  1. the proper function of government is to promote the general welfare, rather than the benefit of some specific group over other groups of people. Prosperity is the measure of the general welfare.
  2. prosperity without wealth will, given time, produce wealth as the exceptionally gifted, able, driven, or lucky work. Wealth without prosperity collapses, as the range of wealth the society can support diminishes below the level of existing fortunes.
  3. Increase of prosperity is a positive sum activity; increase of wealth is at best a zero-sum activity, because concentration of wealth decreases the general accessibility of choice, which in turn reduces the overall scope of innovation available to that society.
One of the things afflicting the present global economy is that it has spent 30 years being tremendously concerned with wealth, and as a result, against the general increase in prosperity.

A short digression about information as a thing

Because I'm going to want to talk about information as a thing in some survival-of-government posts. Consider this a giant footnote.

The formal mathematical definition of information is that it reduces the probability of uncertainty.

This has the advantage of being rigorous and correct, and the disadvantage of being extremely hard to use. (Ever tried measuring the uncertainty in an unknown specific customer in the future?)

The much more usable heuristic is "information causes change". If it doesn't cause change, it's just data.

One easy example of this is a computer log; it's full of things the people don't care about, more or less "the computer says it spun the disk!" and "the computer says it talked to the network!". This is data; it's when it says things like "the graphics card is on fire!" or "crackers keep trying to get through port 40" that, suddenly, people care and that log entry is information, instead of data.[1]

Another example is a bank or credit card statement; the stuff you care about is the stuff you don't already know. If you recognize the line item, nothing changes. If you find yourself wondering "when did I start paying 28% annualized interest on this card?" that's information, in that it causes change. (Maybe only change in your mental state, but change.)

So if I start talking about information as a thing, what I mean (usually!) is that there's enough information to make substantially the same changes you would if you had complete information. (Not perfect information; perfect information involves the information that's in the future, and we don't have any practical expectation of getting that.)

[1]the most reliable method yet found for writing a "logwatch" program, one that is supposed to provide a system administrator with just the information in the computer logs, is to throw out everything known to be boring. Whatever is left over should at least get some cursory human attention. This is both much easier and much more useful than trying to teach the computer to figure out what the human will care about.

Winter for sure

Not that I couldn't have told from the snow and the wind, but juncos at the feeder are one of the signs.
Best guess—dark-eyed juncos being a species of strong variation, though only one should be found in this part of Ontario—is that this is a female slate-coloured dark-eyed junco. She was all by herself, and giving the house sparrows and house finches what-for when they didn't want her going after the fallen seeds.
I don't expect "cold enough that the snow freezes to your beak" to become a proverb any time soon, but it certainly provides further illustration of why all the birds are in fully fluffed up mode.

11 December 2008

Predator-Prey interaction

Fortunately with significant temporal displacement, or I'd be taking Aoife in for a completely parasitology work up, a thing certain to fill her wee feline heart with joy.
I had perhaps foolishly opened the door to get a shot of all the bird tracks without the glass in the way, and the wee creature just had to go out and make her paws cold. She's going to be so pleased when the incompetent monkey figures out how to un-break the outside, which is supposed to be much warmer than that!

10 December 2008

It's been snowing

And somehow, one gets the impression that the squirrel has been hunkered down there awhile out of sheer disgust with the weather.

09 December 2008

No one sells cat toys with black feathers

Which leaves me with what are for fair and certain blown highlights in the picture.

A lengthy observation of feeder birds leaves her very gronchy about the feathered toys, in what I presume is displacement behaviour.

It seems appropriate

to send M. Dion a thank-you note, for his work in creating the coalition and determination to serve Canada.

Stéphane Dion, M.P.
750 Marcel Laurin Boulevard, Suite 440
Saint-Laurent, Quebec
H4M 2M4

An enormous amount of good will has just been squandered by his colleagues, to our collective considerable cost.

08 December 2008

It's all for me suet...

Female Downy WoodpeckerThough, strictly, the peanuts seem to be the stronger draw, or at least the preferred first feeding station. Though none of the woodpeckers seem at all inclined to disregard the suet.

Too much glass

Assuming that Google and dusty memories have excavated basic trig correctly for me, the about fifteen degree angle to the very wide glass in the patio door, which I can presume to be two layers of 7mm float glass, means these are going through 27mm of glass, twice, with an internal air gap.

Which does rather explain the regular vertical streaking in the full sized versions of these, and the what-is-going-on-with-that-lens? effect. The lens is fine; it has no way to prevent the photographer from over-reacting to a cardinal that will hold still and trying to shoot through what amounts to four Coke bottle bottoms.

Looks like he'd really like to be able to come in there and thump me a good one, doesn't it? Doesn't mind the oilseeds, though, even if both he and Mrs. Cardinal are tremendously shy on the feeder.

A question

Has Michaelle Jean made any public statements of her own since last Thursday's decision to prorogue Parliament?

I can't seem to find any indication that her office has even issued a statement, or that the meeting with Dion and Layton took place.

07 December 2008

Some thoughts towards a philosophical basis for an Egalitarian Party of Canada

Very short version: I'm not special, and neither are you.

Rather longer version, though probably not as long as it ought to be:

In the beginning of fully modern humans, we got, along with better language, cultural transmission by means other than imitation, and the utility of rhetoric surprasing that of violence in social organization, specialization.

Ung the Maker of Pictures or Arv the Knapper of Flint don't need to be—are very probably discouraged from being, lest the mammoth step on them—mighty hunters, because everyone who is a mighty hunter is willing to swap them some food for what they can do. This kind of spear-points-for-meat exchange produces the basic insight that you have a good trade when both parties feel they have benefited from the exchange.

As civilization progresses, the number of kinds of things you can do for trade (as opposed to for the use of your own immediate household) grows until pretty much everybody is doing things for trade, rather than direct use. (This is why money gets invented, but it's thousands of years between the first money and the present "everyone engaged in specialized work and generalized trade" stage in industrial and post-industrial countries.)

It's obvious that specialized work and general trade is a more capable system than generalized production for your own consumption. Ung can now have eleventy different kinds of media, from the oils directly descended from ochre earth and soot ground in mammoth fat and put on the walls of a cave through to the purely digital. And the general stress tradeoff, even if it's for different stress, is a win; better to worry about losing your job than being eaten by bears. Being worried about starving (and I have been, bytimes) is better when it's a question of who can you get to give you food instead of being the case that there is no food to be had for anyone, too.

The problem becomes how to organize it.

There we run into the older basis of prosperity, which is band status; if you're high status, you don't get left for the leopard. Your breeding opportunities are better, and you get first choice of which bit of freshly-bludgeoned antelope you want. What you don't get is any ability to co-operate in really large groups of, say, more than a thousand (though more than fifty would be the usual limit) because basic primate band status isn't capable of that. It works on who does or doesn't get hit, and avoiding pain works less well as a basis for co-operation than does getting what you want. (Getting what you want without being hit, even!)

Band status is deeply engrained in human social organization; being civilized socially exploits the long evolution of the primate band structure. The difficulty is, band status is exactly what the specialized work/general trade system of civilization does not need. In that system, no one is important, or it, to various degrees, stops working. (Historically, it would be more correct to say that it never starts working.)

That's because once someone is important, they can insist that it is more important that they are happy about the trade than that you are happy about the trade, and the whole thing stops being a mechanism to produce general benefit and starts being a mechanism to maintain importance.

That's the core fight over how the mechanism should be used right there; is this thing—society, government, a decent respect for the common opinions of all people everywhere—there to keep the important important, or is it there to advance the general prosperity through insisting on real consent from all parties to trade?

I strongly advocate the real consent position; the maintenance of importance harms almost everybody to one degree or another, which is bad, and what is worse, it's much less capable at solving problems. Which means that eventually either a real problem comes along and breaks it ("outside context problem") or another system of organization that solves problems better will come into conflict with it, with messy results.

So, basic ideas:

  1. division of labour—productive specialization—leads to generalized trade amoung people which in turn leads to greater access to choice, general prosperity, and individual happiness than production for you own consumption does.
  2. good trade is trade which all parties benefit from AND which no party is able to bias in its favour to get greater relative benefit. ("I get rich, you don't starve" is not good trade.)
  3. personal importance is a barrier to good trade; it creates a belief that the primate band rules, rather than the civilized modern human rules, should be used, and that belief leads to bad trade.
  4. Bad trade, to the extent that it exists, reduces the prosperity and capability of a society or nation over time.
  5. Good trade, to the extent that it exists, increases the prosperity and capability of a society or nation over time.

There are lots of corrolaries that can be drawn from this; the Canadian policy of a single legal system and social multiculturalism makes a lot of sense in this context, for example. But the core points are the above five.

The derived political manifesto has three points:

  1. On the scale of the market place or the public square, no one is important or special; it is a proper function of government to suppress attempts to claim special importance by the least sufficient means required.
  2. The core purpose of government is to increase the amount of good trade taking place in the future, compared to the amount taking place today. This includes both replacing bad trade with good trade, finding means to encourage good trade, and dismantling systems of organization antithetical to the growth of good trade.
  3. No one is special, but everyone needs a job to do. Government derives the obligation to explain the general jobs, the civilization-keeps-running-as-a-sum-of-daily-choices work, and to provide everybody with access to the means of having a selection of divisions of labour to occupy. ("For there isn't a choice in a village so small/you either work with the granite or you don't work at all"; people should not be left in that condition.)
As a personal note, I am very pleased to have finally got this right way round in my head, so that it feels like I can explain it[1]. I am kinda hoping this is going to let me produce a good theoretical explanation for corporations as people is a bad idea, too.

[1] If it parses like I'm from Arcturus, well, I still want to know that. Because it's still the right way round, and I am still happy.

06 December 2008

Not a bad crowd

Not a bad speaker, either; an accent in English but comes across as good kinds of clueful and good kinds of concerned. I do wonder if this doesn't come across well when televised.
The snow held off until both Dion and Layton had finished speaking, which was nice of Her.
Gave me a new respect for folks who photograph crowds, too; all those waving placards make things like focus rather tough.

05 December 2008

Auto industry and the common good

Ok, some postulates:

  1. Internal combustion engines are a bad idea from every perspective except performance
  2. Modern materials and engineering can beat internal combustion engine performance using other means
  3. While it's not in Canada's interest to have a whole bunch of people out of work or no cars to buy, it's not in the national interest to spend a lot of money to keep making the kind of cars we have now.
So, what to do?

A good solution keeps people employed at good, stable jobs; it maintains the power of labour to bargain collectively; it produces cars that don't use internal combustion engines; it produces stuff we can export; it supports a longer term removal of energy dependence on fossil carbon.

Which is really pretty easy.

Long term energy storage ideal results are unknown; we have no idea when or if someone will come up with a way to have a big tank of electrons with an energy density greater than that gasoline. What we do know is that a combination of a generator, some chemical engine, some batteries, and direct electric drive can beat internal combustion engines on performance, thermal efficiency, and parts count grounds. (Parts count is important because cost scales with parts count; getting the parts count down drives costs down, even when some of the individual parts remain expensive.)

So the governments of Canada and those provinces (mostly Ontario) with a large auto sector need to do four things:
  1. Take over the existing auto makers in Canada, outright; just buy them. All of GM's market capitalization is down to 2.5 billion. The other two "big three" are in about that kind of shape. Toyota and Honda are likely smart enough to want in on this; talk to them about what kind of capital and other resources they are willing to put up. This is not a tough deal to cut with resources of a solvent Canada.
  2. Standardize on electric drive characteristics; the voltage, at a minimum, but battery pack physical characteristics (size, weight) is good, too. This is so car designs (if not actual cars already made) can have different power packs swapped in when that genius or geniuses gets the electron tank going.
  3. Start—capitalize, fund training for, and own a substantial stake in—four or five car companies to produce electric-drive electric and hybrid vehicles. None of the hybrids us internal combustion. The other capital stake goes to the workers; they are eventually going to buy out most or all of the government stake.
  4. Specify a potentially non-fossil fuel or two. (Methane/methanol seems the only plausible choice, here.) Under no circumstances may this fuel use food stocks. (Direct cellulose conversion, conversion from sewage, yes; grain to methanol or ethanol, absolutely not.)
So we've got Stirling-electric, fuel-cell electric, battery-electric, and so on; they all have in common that they use direct electric drive, and hopefully, as time goes on, all the cool stuff like regenerative breaking and powered suspensions.

There are some details around the edges; someone is going to have to come up with a tractor plant, too, but food production and the train locomotives go after getting the cars sorted out. There's an issue about adapting all those gas stations to direct battery charging and variants on methane. There's another issue making sure the kinds of vehicles required are produced. (It's no good if we've got 8 kinds of commuter car and no light trucks, or vice-versa.) There's going to need to be a date when the last gas station with actual gas in it closes, and when the last internal combustion engine vehicle leaves the roads. Fire trucks will be interesting. So will replacing the current dealer system with something worker-owned.

None of this is difficult in a technical sense; all of these technologies have been demonstrated in bits and snippets, and an educated, motivated work force can do a lot. The only real problem is political will; to make the change to stop burning oil, and to explain to people that they're going to be a bit uncertain about their next car for a couple-three years.

Nor is it really difficult to tackle the next project, which is non-fossil methane sources and getting people working on that electron tank.

In return, we get a stable domestic car industry; we get an international leadership position in terms of technical development; we get to stop burning fossil carbon. There isn't much not to like.

Gold is not money; oil is not gold, but it's not money, either...

We don't know who Steven Harper is beholden to, for the money to make his original leadership campaign run, but is there anyone who wants to argue that there's no oil money involved at all? (Didn't think so.)

Alberta's tar sands oil extraction industry is only profitable when oil is expensive; exact figures are hard to get, but it was generally held that the tar sands would be profitable at about 60 USD a barrel. This turned out not to be the case; if the price of energy goes up, the prices of everything else goes up, and the profit horizon retreats.

Oil is at 46 USD a barrel, and dropping, due in large part to collapsing demand. The actual point of profitability for the tar sands may be around 100 USD a barrel. The majority of the money being made from tar sands development is made via a chain of subsidies.

One of the reasons Harper is frantic right now has to be that he's beholden to somebody to keep those subsidies high.

Any sensible economic policy is going to move away from fossil carbon for energy just as fast as it can, and note that the current effect of the subsidies are to get a lot of perfectly good natural gas burned to melt perfectly good road surfacing material in order to spend a lot of money turning it into oil. This kind of good sense contributes heavily to why so many people appear to hate Dion; it's the sort of thing his economic policy pointed out. It makes no sense to spend money to avoid having to admit fundamental change has happened. It makes less sense to spend money to cause environmental harm while trying to avoid admitting that fundamental change has happened.

This is a big part of what all the screaming is about from the CPC camp. It's not in Canada's interest in any way to subsidize tar sand production, with its attendant massive environmental cost, in order to ship oil to the US. But I'll bet you that's what Steven Harper promised someone on his knees he'd do.

04 December 2008

On Being Politically Active

One does not have to be decisive. One just has to do something that does more good than harm.

03 December 2008

Don't need a stamp for this one

Though I should probably use one anyway. The opportunity to write the Governor General about a constitutional crisis and use an Anne of Green Gables commemorative stamp isn't going to come along that often.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall
1 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A1

To the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, Greetings!

It is my view as a citizen of Canada that prorogation, which is in normal times a formality in the functioning of Parliament, properly serves only its traditional purpose of ending a sitting of Parliament which has completed its legislative agenda as set out in the Throne Speech.

A Prime Minister seeking to have the House prorogued to avoid a confidence vote is a complete acknowledgement on the part of that Prime Minister that the government has lost the confidence of the House. Given that acknowledged loss of the confidence of the House, the government cannot continue and should not be permitted, through prorogation, to pretend that it can continue until some miracle favourable to it should occur.

The House should sit; the confidence vote should be held.

Should that confidence vote, as seems now likely, return a result of non-confidence in the present government, the Liberal/NDP coalition should be permitted to attempt to form a government. I say this because it is the constitutional custom for the leader of the opposition to be offered the opportunity to form a government when the present government loses the confidence of the House, a federal election has very recently been held, and the time required to hold a federal election would detract significantly from the ability of Parliament to address the present fiscal crisis.

More speculatively, the willingness of the Bloc Québécois to participate in the government of Canada, in any way at all, is a new and remarkable thing. For a party founded in large part on feelings of alienation and not truly belonging to participate in the government of Canada, even indirectly, and to gain a greater sense of inclusion, welcome, and belonging as a result, is a rare opportunity that I think it would be a great shame to waste.

May you find your duty clear before you and your wisdom and understanding entirely sufficient to your needs.


Graydon Saunders

02 December 2008

First, find some stamps

I am not sure it counts are participating in democratic processes—I'd have to be sure they'd open it—but it seems like the appropriate thing to do.

The Honourable Yasmin Ratansi,
Member of Parliament for Don Valley East
220 Duncan Mill Road
Suite 211
Toronto, ON M3B 3J5

2 December 2008

Cc:Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario)
10 St Mary Street, Suite 205
Toronto, ON
M4Y 1P9

To Yasmin Ratansi, Member of Parliament for Don Valley East, Greetings!

Firstly, I am writing to express my support for the proposed coalition government with the New Democratic Party. I believe that directly addressing the present economic situation is of the utmost importance for the long term well being of Canada and Canadians. I further believe that such a coalition would better accomplish good economic ends than the present Conservative minority government.

Secondly, I am writing to express how completely, utterly, and irredeemably Mr. Michael Ignatieff is unacceptable as a possible Liberal Party leader. It is a stain on the honour and reputation of the people of Etobicoke—Lakeshore that they should consider him, a public and prolonged advocate of torture and aggressive war, fit for any fashion of public service whatsoever. He is most certainly not fit to serve as party leader or Prime Minister of Canada.

Should the Liberal Party select Mr. Ignatieff as leader, I would find myself unable to support any Liberal candidate for any elected position whatsoever, until the party should be dissolved and replaced by an organization more worthy of the trust of Canadians.


Graydon Saunders

If anyone has better web-fu than me and can find the actual riding association's postal address, I'd appreciate being let to know.

01 December 2008

Not a bird

I am sure there is much rejoicing.

The stuff on the cutting board under the tea pot is salt; that particular board needs a level 2 scrubbing.

What I want for Christmas

Assuming, that is, we get Liberal-NDP coalition with the backing of the Bloc.

I want a bill introduced in the new Parliament; let us call it the Clean Campaigning Bill.

Said bill would empower and require the Auditor General to:

  1. perform annual audits of each duly accredited national political party (aka, does it get tax money due to its share of the vote? Does it have more than one member of parliament and any one of caucus? a whip? a policy paper? a logo? If either of those are true, the audit happens) and all its officers, paid staff, directors, members of parliament who have been seated at any time during that year, and any other persons doing business on behalf of the party are audited, too. In addition, any persons who may have campaigned for office and who received greater than 5% of the vote in their riding shall likewise be audited.
  2. lay and prosecute criminal charges should any violations of existing campaign finance law, the requirement minimum accounting practises ("that money? Oh, that money just, uh, appeared"), or anything legally qualifiable as fraud be discovered to have occurred.
  3. hire the necessary persons to accomplish 1 and 2 in a timely and capable manner.
Every year. Without fail.

I want this very much. I can hope that the present and future leaders of the NDP, the Liberals, and the Bloc can see how such a thing might function in their collective interest, now and in the future.

27 November 2008

It wasn't the paisley

I had thought for months that she hated this cat bed.
It turns out that I had it in the wrong place; the feline feng shui was off, and no respectable cat would ever consider sitting in it.
Move it to the end of the couch and lo! it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Aoife is a morning cat; this is not the same as being a cat who doesn't nap with great determination and scope during the middle part of the day.
She really does not trust the clicky thing.

Better than a recurrent vulture

I have successfully installed Fedora 10, or, well, mostly.

None of the arrow keys work -- I suspect .xmodmap confusion of some sort -- and mail isn't going properly through procmail, which causes me to suspect I've done something untoward to the exim configuration, though gods alone know now. (It's the same one that was working with fedora 9....)

The only really toward element of that is that if you've sent me email in the last 12 to 24 hours, you might just possibly want to send it again, in case it was the one that got eaten.

25 November 2008

It's cold and I'm hungry

Sharing of the suet feeder doesn't happen often. I'm wonder if I'm going to see more of it as the weather gets colder.

24 November 2008

The utility of scale references

Field guides mention but don't treat as useful the size difference between the visually very similar Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker, on the completely sensible grounds that judging size accurately for something up a tree is difficult.
Fortunately for me, I have great confidence that the suet feeder does not change size depending on what bird lands on it.
So I'm pretty sure this is a female Hairy Woodpecker.

23 November 2008

Midnight Snowfall

Of course, by the time I took this, it wasn't midnight; it was 05h33, EST. That being about when Aoife demands breakfast.
The dark vertical bar to the right of the view is the finch feeder.
Not quite five hours later, 10h35 EST, with daylight and dark branches warming up and shedding snow. The view is to the right and up of the pre-dawn picture.

The problem of bank profits

Not, I hasten to add, the problem where they're supporting their profit margin through counterfeiting, which is the essential problem with the "bad loans" currently causing such a mess with the global credit system.

The problem is that there are three ways for a bank to make a profit.

  1. Transaction fees
  2. Financial services
  3. Return on investments
Transaction fees are effectively a regressive private tax, which to the extent that they generate profit for the bank function as a brake on the general economy. I can't see any strong argument that these should be, in a well regulated banking environment, permitted at all.

There's a weak argument that something like Interac transactions are best handled by a common infrastructure, and that the agency maintaining this infrastructure must survive somehow, and so charge fees.
I don't think this argument is an obvious support for per transaction fees on private citizens; it might be an argument for charging banks for their use of the infrastructure, and seeing which banks attract the most customers based on their degree of electronic banking offerings, or it might be an argument for a regulated not-for-profit monopoly providing electronic banking infrastructure to all, but as an argument for a regressive private tax, I think it's much too weak.

Financial services are, if adequately regulated (=no doing risk transfer in favour of you or your buddies, or in return for favours), conceptionally unobjectionable; you're selling specialized expertise, something in principle no different from a dentist or a roofing contractor.
In practise, two problems arise; it's a lot easier to tell, in the case of an immediate service (like getting a filling or a new roof) if the specialized expertise did a good job than in the case of a long-term financial service, for one, and for two, there's a misalighnment of incentives; the financial services guys get paid now, you get your investment returns later. The reputation feedback that helps people select a dentist or a roofer doesn't apply, because the results haven't happened yet. (And the best you have to go on is a very long term version of what the results used to be, based on the results people are having now; that's not a good indicator of what the different people who run the financial service now are likely to do.)

So the problem here is to tie the bank's profits to the client's profits; the simple way to do that is to forbid fee-for-service models and insist on fixed-rate -- 2%, say -- agency fees based on profits received by the client, due after the profits have been received.

Three, though, return on investments, is the seriously difficult one.

On the one hand, individual people certainly don't want the bank taking chances with their money, or at least chances that they didn't specifically consent to have the bank take. Nor do the officers of the bank want to lose money; that makes them look inept and drives away customers to other, more able or more careful banks. This makes well-run banks extremely conservative investors; they aren't going to take any chances on what they invest in, so they're only going to invest in kinds of business that have made a profit before.

On the other hand, there's obvious social benefit to innovation; at the present time, there's a pressing need to innovate so we can replace the fossil carbon energy economy with something else, but in general, technical innovation is a very large net social good, and requires funding. The venture capital model wants a high rate of return, to balance their high rate of risk; this is OK for economic areas that are already started and have an obvious possibility of high return; it doesn't work well for somebody who has come up with a small good idea, one that applies on the scale of a small business of, say, fewer than 20 employees.

The question then becomes, how does one get a bank to invest some money in something they don't know will work? There's good historical reason for being confident that, as a sort of statistical generalization, this is a good idea; the bank will, or at least can, make money, and the support for innovation will have general social and economic benefit. If banks are going to make substantial profits (which they certainly want to do), this is the area where policy would want to push them into making those profits.

How, though, continues to not be at all obvious.

21 November 2008

It was bound to happen eventually

Your results:
You are Qui-Gon Jinn

Qui-Gon Jinn
Obi-Wan Kenobi
Mace Windu
Luke Skywalker
Han Solo
Darth Maul
Lando Calrissian
Overall, you're a pretty well balanced person.
But maybe you focus a little too
much on the here and now.
Think about the future before its too late.

(This list displays the top 10 results out of a possible 21 characters)

Click here to take the Star Wars Personality Quiz

20 November 2008

Power and Imagination

There's been a lot of discussion on the potential for the Obama administration to end the use of torture by the US. (At least the direct, officially sanctioned use of torture; the indirect use has been going on as long as there's a US.)

One of the things that comes up in that discussion is the likelihood that anyone, or anyone at the Cabinet level, or anyone who actually performed torture, or anyone writing an authorizing order, or whatever, will be tried and if found guilty punished.

Power comes down to "do people do what you tell them?"

There are all sorts of shades to this; when they think you are wrong, when they think you're the wrong person for the job, if they do just what you specifically say (or just claim to be doing that) , or if they set out to do their best to implement your policy intentions despite any doubts they may have. There are all sorts of supports-civilization ideas like respecting the office, not the person, and the rule of law, that says you're supposed to respect duly constituted authority, not the wishes of individuals, and so on.

At seventh and last, though, it comes down to if, when you tell somebody to do something, they do it.

Both the neocon and corporatist movements have spent a lot of time pushing the idea that they they can't really be told what to do; that, somehow, the rules everyone else is bound by don't really apply to them.

This is a naked power grab; it's also mostly worked, because a sensible, cautious, respect-for-consensus sort of approach doesn't have a good way to deal with something that is not, itself, a violation of law. It's an attempt to set up a separate process of decision that makes law irrelevant for a class of people, but talking about aspects of that in the abstract isn't itself unlawful.

The problem is that once there's this alternate system, you get people who start making the decisions about who or what to obey based on the alternate system, rather than the ostensible laws and governing institutions. And that means no one in the legitimate system is sure what's going to happen when they pick up the phone and give someone lawful orders. The orders should be obeyed, but what if the person is in the other camp?

That makes people reluctant to give orders; it's a very bad idea to give an order you know won't be obeyed, and if you can't be certain your order will be obeyed, you get more careful and more circumspect.

This is precisely the result that the neocon and corporatist folks want; they think it's wrong for anyone to be able to tell them what to do, and they want as many people as possible to agree with that.

Not prosecuting people for their really flagrant violation of the spirit of the laws about the treatment of prisoners makes the alternate source of legitimacy and authority really strong; it is good enough to let you get away with murder. (There's been lots of people tortured to death, at least one for purposes of amusement.)

So the Obama administration has to do that, or surrender its legitimacy. (Which will already be under attack, because the corporatists own the news.)

It should do that under the exact same rules Douglas MacArthur imposed on the Japanese at the end of the Great Pacific War, and under those rules—and under current precedent, President Obama can just declare that these, and only these, are the rules that apply—everyone found guilty of torture will hang.

That's the guys who authorized it, and those who carried out those orders. They get real trials, but if found guilty, they hang.

That's the very least much that will start the rest of the world believing that anything important has changed, and it might also be the very least much that will convince the neocons and corporatists that, indeed, the hurt can stick to them. Which is absolutely vital to restoring the supremacy of the duly constituted civil authority by means short of war.

16 November 2008

Having a hard grip

One of the things I particularly like about bird photographs is the things that show that I can't see when I'm just looking, sometimes even just looking through binoculars; in this particular instance, it's the whole biomechanical pose involved in the chickadee about to try to pry up some substantial amount of peanut from the feeder. It doesn't last long enough to really see with the unaided eye, so the photo serves as a reminder that, in their scale, little passerines are proportionally strong creatures.

14 November 2008

Feeding Behaviour

Haven't seen these guys—goldfinches, now in winter plumage and looking much more drab—around much since August. Probably not the same group, even. Though possibly it just took them that long to figure out what the different, non-transparent, finch feeder was. They definitely appear to have it figured out now, though.

Winter plummage

Goldfinch in winter plumage.
This is probably the most heavily processed photo I've put on the blog; the light metering very correctly made it a dim little bird against the tree trunk, and I had some trouble to get the contrast back.

13 November 2008

A modest proposal

I have a modest proposal.

While things are a monstrous mess on the credit front at the moment, the real problem is a very simple structural one.

Everyone, starting nearly two generations ago now, absorbed the idea that money is an idea, rather than a thing. Money—however regulated in its transfers by central banks—is actually created by work, and that value of the work is set, ultimately, by commercial financial institutions through a sort of vague social consensus. (Every had a pay review that compared your salary with a target taken from an industry average of salaries for people with similar job titles? Ever wondered why that makes sense, rather than attempting to determine your actual contribution to the company? Which would be pretty easy to evolve simple mathematical rules for? That's what I mean by "vague social consensus".)

At which point enough people figure out that the best way to be really rich is to turn government from a machine for securing the general welfare into a machine for ensuring the continuation of wealth, and away we go.

There are two really serious, and various minor problems associated with this.

Really serious problem the first is that this results in risk-shifting, generally from the wealthy to the defenceless. At best this produces results which are horribly and systematically unjust, and maintaining the injustices in place requires corrupting or suppressing any representative or democratic institutions, so that the people being subjected to the injustice can't vote to remove it. Eventually they figure out that they can't fix the problem within the scope of the existing society, and bloody revolution, actual or attempted, results.

Really serious problem the second is that the banking system works, in large part, by valuing work that's going to take place in the future. When you take out a loan, the value on the loan goes on the bank's books as an asset. When they do this, they (in effect) create money. It is, if the system is working properly, done very carefully and the risk is managed by charging interest and the future value is appropriately discounted, but, fundamentally, fractional reserve banking is a process that assigns present value to work that will be done in the future.

This is, in and oft itself, a very good thing. It lets people with good ideas build them much faster than they could if the kind of credit available through fractional reserve banking wasn't present.

However, as a mechanism, it's subject to the general human tendency to excess hope. People want to believe in a secure and good future; perversely, there's nothing like expecting such a future to keep you from getting it. Once a mechanism is found to legitimize this hope, it's very easy for the banking system to get turned into a machine for shifting value from the future to the present. This presents very serious problems the instant the future is not the expected future and the whole structure falls over.

In a context where the prevailing view of the economy is that it is a machine to ensure the security and continuity of existing wealth -- if you're rich now, you will stay rich tomorrow, next year, next decade, and next century -- this goes from being a problem to a disaster, because the expectations of class are at work in the decisions about what things will be valuable in the future, and the relatively harmless error of hope is replaced with the harmful errors of greed. Notably, pricing things based on what they "should" be worth, rather than in a quantitative way. This eventually introduces enough instability (=not matching reality) into the system to wreck it.

Minor problems include how easy it is to exploit that hope to build a money pump to get a disproportionate amount of the value from the future concentrated in very few hands, the equation of wealth and goodness, typically as a conscious strategy of justification by the folks doing the risk shifting, and the tendency to extremely wasteful conversion of what could be future benefit into future harm; by treating the entire future as beneficial the majority of the future becomes harmful until the accounting is again in accord with reality.

The question is mostly what to do about the whole thing, which brings me to the modest proposal.


Three things need to happen to return to something like a stable financial system.

People need to believe it is, as a system, sound.

The pre-eminence of capital over labour needs to be broken; that includes limiting the range of compensation, and regulation with the intent to produce general economic prosperity in the future. (Which means, in part, that the proper purpose of a corporation is not maximal profit but reliable profit.)

Great concentrations of wealth must be dissolved and distributed. Oligarchy through capital is as bad for democratic principles as any other kind, and is the inevitable end condition of unconstrained and unregulated capitalism.

So, change the money. The carefully hidden offshore hoards become valueless; the concentrations of wealth must submit to conversion or similarly dissolve into nothingness.

At the same time, taking the opportunity to switch to a system where there's coined gold in circulation, no paper money, and most transactions are electronic, would create a general upswing in belief in the system. Gold isn't inherently valuable but it remains hard to fake, and it retains significant emotional status which would be useful just at the moment.

At the same time, re-denomination—one thousand old dollars are fifty new—allows two important things to happen. One is a reset of the long pattern of inflation more or less inherent to a fiat currency (this will have to happen again sometime...), and the second is a partial reversal of the chronic and systematic underpricing of labour by setting up the salary conversion rules differently from the capital conversion rules.

I don't believe it would even be that difficult to do, considered purely as a logistical problem.

Awkward suet

They seem to manage, all the same.
And I like how the leaves in the background added colour.

12 November 2008

Bird watching

She can be quite intent about it.

11 November 2008

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

–Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD 1872-1918

10 November 2008

Found a Hazelnut

Sometimes the little furry creatures just pose.