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.

The last rose

One of my neighbours has a rose blooming in November. It's not even close to the house.

It's snowing a bit now, but it wasn't not quite an hour ago, when I lucked into some sunshine.

It's rose leaves like that as will lead to me buying a real photo printer, I can just tell.

06 November 2008

Making Change

Likely not the sort of post I should attempt on the outside of a couple glasses of wine, but here goes.

Various people have been commenting—typically sensibly—about what they'd like to see from the first 100 days of an Obama presidency.

The difficulty with these things is that they are, even when obviously just and right, like closing down the CIA's secret prison system or delivering Dick Cheney and boxes and boxes of evidence to the Hague, events. Not a tendency, and not as such stable change.

Most reactionary right wing political movements are after something that can't happen; a return to the pleasant remembrance of childhood or an imagined former days, where things were simpler and better and much more shiny.

The US neocon and theocon movements are fundamentally after a return to two things; the economic conditions of a world just devestated by war everywhere developed but North America, and to an explicit and unquestioned social caste system in the US. (Gay rights are the current leading edge of the work of removing that system; they're not separate from the long struggle to make people who didn't happen to be white, male, and protestant human.)

So no amount of events is going to do anything lasting, no matter the events.

What matters is closer to a theological problem; getting lots and lots of people to believe that fear is not something you can kill with knives, that the future is a better place (true for the last couple-three hundred years, and potentially stably so hereafter), and that the increase of general realizable access to choice is what society is for, its purpose and its justification.

That is one tough row to hoe; things repeated become true, and there are a great many people repeating all manner of counterfactuals all over the place, all to the amount that change is death and that fear must be fought outside your heart.

Change, well, reality gets to weigh in there in a functioning industrial or post-industrial society; that's a lot of why the theocons would cheerful have everyone back tilling the soil. So there's the long trend of the last hundred years, fought tooth and nail by diverse wealthy upper classes and the people who think money is a thing, rather than an idea, but ultimately looking more successful than not. (Though the idea that the natural condition is a labour surplus needs to be taken out and knocked on the head good and hard.)

Fear, well, the example Barack Obama needs to set there is possible, if he is sufficiently indifferent to his short term survival; it's more possible because he's good with words.

The guy who planned that campaign, and started with logistical transformation through public involvement through hope for a better future, I am pretty sure he knows that fear is not something you kill outside your heart.

Now here's hoping that guy really was Barack Obama. :)

05 November 2008

A collision of greens

From Edinburgh, back in September; Albert the Prince Consort considered as an equestrian statue in a park that was quite closed, apparently so it could be radically de-sodded.

This is a 100% crop from the image above it.

No idea why the statue is there; funeral monument seems plausible, given the poses of the people around the base, but I couldn't get close enough to read anything that might have explained it.

04 November 2008

Further Snoozle

From two days ago; not as sunny, but a cat must make do.

The poor wee creature has been a bit grumpy with me; I'm not as completely self-propelled as I'd like today, and the awake? therefore available to play! rule has not been holding up as well as Aoife would best prefer.

03 November 2008

Snoozle Kitten

It was sunny this afternoon.

02 November 2008

Downtown from an edge

From the East Humber Parkland, back in early October. This is one of the LX2 shots, rather than from the K20D. Taken in a spirit of good hope in such bright sunlight I couldn't see the LCD viewfinder.
It would be much better without the layer of smog on downtown, to be sure. May the all-electric vehicle revolution come very soon.

01 November 2008

November Leaves

This time of year, it's remarkably easy to tell which trees use light level and which trees use temperature to decide when they need to shed their leaves for the winter.