31 March 2008

I don't think they call him Rudolph

Though I could be surprised.

This one ought to have comments turned on, if anyone has anything to say.

My god, it's full of swans

There is one open pond at the Metro Zoo, all through the winter. I don't know what they do to keep it open; if they were heating it I would expect it to steam a lot more than it does. This is four of the flock of resident and overwintering trumpeter swans, along with some miscellaneous ducks.
Resident swans have yellow plastic wing numbers, and leg bands; the wild ones have neither. It's hard to tell which is which with confidence when they're in the water, but I think these are all wild overwintering examples. (Anyone claiming a truly wild bird would find its own pond, and disdain the Zoo's grain bin, is invited to try a short course of winter survival.)

Fear makes you stupid. This iterates...

I originally posted this on Making Light, as a comment in a thread about what the folks in security uniforms who try to forbid photography in public places are thinking.

Like most things I produce, it goes rapidly a bit meta.

The world is too complex to understand. Improved communications makes this much, much harder to ignore than the prevailing village-customs used to do, and don't think the rich and powerful don't have village customs and aren't cranky about it when they are forced to look outside and notice that they have no real idea just exactly what is going on.
Everybody is helpless, all the time. (This is not the same as hapless.) It used to be that most people worked, or had worked, the sort of hard manual labour job, or job with large livestock, or outside job that forces you to come to an accommodation with this awareness; the wind blows, blizzards happen, kicks from horses can kill you, plan and cope as you can.
The primary present cause of helplessness in the US (and increasingly in other "First World" nations) is not the environment, but large and indifferent organizations that regard individual people as something between an annoyance and a food source. It is not acceptable to publically acknowledge this, nor the erosion of the rule of law and mechanisms of rights which were intended to prevent such a state of affairs.
So everybody is aware that there's stuff going on they don't know about, and that some of it is (effectively) malicious, and that the mechanisms that are supposed to protect them aren't reliable.
You can react to that by trying to fix the mechanisms that protect you; you can react to that by working on the great 'build an external brain to understand this stuff with' project called science; you can react to that by striving to achieve a sort of balanced Zen detachment.
If you can believe that you can fix the mechanisms by making them very, very simple, simple enough that you're comfortable with understanding them even when you're frightened, that gets you away from feeling helpless and away from feeling confused and it's much, much easier than any of the three approaches which produce tangible good results. So it has a huge selective advantage, in an environment that is not yet all that actually dangerous -- it's much less work, so you have lots more energy and effort left over for other things.
So you get the whole "fear makes you stupid; iterate" process of people doing their best to solve the problem of not understanding what's going on, or why, by simplification through appeal to authority. Through the creation of authority; you don't have to understand, you just have to follow the rules. It's -- in a cognitive load sense, in a systematic sense of difficulties of decision and control -- very, very easy.
It's a long term utter disaster, but that doesn't keep it from spreading like a very sincere fungus in the short term.

30 March 2008

Living in the Future

There's a lot to be said about living in the future -- I have a canned rant about laser spectroscopy, stainless steel, and the quality of cheap knives -- but this post is really a small gloat.

I can get a camera that has sensor-based shake reduction that's good enough to let me do hand-held macro photography of very small flowers. (Said very small flowers are in the "spot the Motmot" section of the Americas pavilion at the Metro Toronto Zoo; that presumably means they're Central American in origin, but they aren't labeled and my botany isn't so much weak as missing.)

The same camera -- a Pentax K20D -- is from a manufacturer generally held to have at best OK auto-focus. If you read up on DSLRs on various web fora, you will find out that Pentax has interesting lenses and anti-shake and sound ergonomics but iffy-to-unacceptable auto-focus; Canon, especially the pro cameras, is held to be much better and Nikon best of all, particularly for fast moving subjects and low light.
Now, I am quite willing to believe this; I have certainly not been able to do any comprehensive comparison testing.
On the basis of the results I'm getting with the K20D, though, I have to assume that the Nikon auto-focus is just this side of Delphic.

Mislabeled gulls

Fortunately it is still that season of the year in which there shan't be any grade five teachers having to cope with "but the sign said..."

29 March 2008

There's Just Something Substantial About a Rhinocerous...

Co-operation and Hierarchy

If you want to co-operate in a group to solve a large problem, you need some amount of hierarchy, just so you know who is the expert on which subject. It really doesn't matter if the subject is computer support, roving the rivets in lapstrake ship planking, or washing the wort kettle; the point is that division of labour implies specialization implies hierarchy, because once you have specialization you have specialization in keeping track of things, and thus taxonomies, and telling a taxonomy from a hierarchy in the presence of a determined will to keep them separate requires good light and some squinting. (Also, you get arbitrage. But I probably shouldn't try to talk about arbitrage.)

This being the case, and people being East African ground apes highly specialized to co-operate in groups, the task related hierarchy becomes a social hierarchy, sometimes. Or, rather, to some degree; the existing social hierarchy will generally not quietly adjust in accordance to a maximum-consensus algorithm, because social standing matters -- in terms of your quality of life, in terms of your freedom of action, and in terms of the probable fate of any descent you may have. (Neeves count.)

And that's where the axiom lock comes in; the folks focused on do-the-job view the hierarchy as a necessary and inevitable and useful means of getting organized to get the job done, while the folks focused on their position in the social hierarchy view the hierarchy as a tool for creating and maintaining and enhancing their own social position, and the large co-operative job as significant solely in as much as it affects their position in the social hierarchy.

So the one set of folks think the hierarchy is legitimate and useful if it's helping get the job done, and the other think it's legitimate and useful if it's conferring social status on them.

This is obvious in a workplace context; it's also (I hope) obvious in a political context, where the one side figures the common problem is "take care of everybody" and the other side figures the utility is the preservation of existing wealth and status.

And since caring about relative status -- low status gets you left of the leopard, somewhere deep down in our primate brains -- is hardwired into people, it's kinda tricking figuring out how to reliably prefer the absolute changes to the relative. (Better to be a middle class member of the current Anglosphere than the King of Kings at Karnak in many-centuries BC, unless you have to be able to put people to death to feel content, and that change comes from absolute-scale improvements. From the point of view of someone after relative social standing, everything is worse now, at least to the extent that the rule of law actually applies.)

What's important about this one is, I think, recognizing the axiom lock; there is no useful compromise possible between the two different sets of objectives.

26 March 2008

It is traditional...

to include one's cat, and everybody can do with a sunbeam now and again.