30 January 2009

Undreamt of in your philosophy

The problem with capitalism, well, there are two, one obvious and one sneaky.

Socialism is widely understood to not work very well because you have to care as much about other people as you do about you (or your immediate kin group) and people aren't like that.

Capitalism requires you to prefer losing to cheating, and people aren't like that, either. This gets us to the regulated mixed economy, and an attempt to make cheating expensive enough to be rare.

Various people then claim that a pure capitalist system would work better, be more productive, and so on. It would necessarily be more merciless, in a win-or-die sort of way, but supposedly reputation labelling mechanisms and various sorts of techno-utopian information transfer systems would work to identify cheaters, and then everything would work; improved tools would beat the obvious people-aren't-like-that problem.

That gets us to the sneaky problem. Communication works, is authenticated and trusted, because there's a cost to signal. Lions "believe" antelope because the cost of leaping into the air, to indicate "see, healthy; not much chance of catching me, try another antelope", is that if you're not a healthy antelope, it shows; the leap is visibly and obviously sub-standard, and the lion can decide this one is worth a pursuit effort. (And probably because the leap itself costs time; straight up is not away from the lion, which is a disadvantage if the lion is feeling lucky and decides to try it anyway.)

What makes this interesting is that, if communication can be faked—if the antelope could buy really springy shoes—the resulting system isn't stable. (This happens, and has been studied extensively, with songbirds and mate selection.)

If most of the population cheats, being honest is disproportionately advantageous. If most of the population is honest, cheating is disproportionately advantageous. The proportion of "honest" and "cheats" will reach an equilibrium, but only for a specific environment. If the environment changes—as it will—the point of equilibrium moves. Behaviour moves in response, trying to optimize individual results. (Or, rather, the behaviour that works best moves, and fewer of those following the works-best-now strategy fail to reproduce, which changes their share of the total population.)

That's with little chirpling birds, where the environment changes due to pure contingency (mostly; nest building, population effects on food supply, etc. But so far as anyone can tell, they're not executing planned changes in their environment). In human interactions, most of the people involved are actively trying to alter the environment to their advantage. So you can't get a stable result from a "these are the simple rules" system. (Well, assuming it doesn't crash completely, and stop being a system; that's a stable result of a sort.)

What this means functionally is that all of the great simple philosophical approaches to coming up with a short set of rules don't work. They may approximate working for a little while in a particular place, but then the environment changes and things start to become a tangle of approximations and it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-times.

What can work is regularly re-visited quantified evaluation of results; is this policy, mechanism, market, or other system producing the desired results? If not, it needs to be changed.

This also shifts the argument into what the desired results are, rather than what simple philosophical system will surely produce the best results, but that's another post.

Bringing numbers to a culture war

Brad De Long, generally smart guy, is having trouble understanding why various solved problems are rising from their graves in the American debate over the stimulus package.

Brad knows way, way more economics than I ever will, but I have a knack for system and process design, and I think this one is obvious.

The purpose of a system is what the system does. The post-Regan American polity existed to secure and increase existing wealth, and the patterns of trade and resource access which underlay that wealth, by more or less any means. If it increased wealth, it was good, and laws designed to maintain the common weal were explicitly targeted as barriers to wealth maximization, and mostly removed.

Given that the result has been a fiscal disaster, a banking system that requires wholesale replacement, and a media totally captured by the aristocracy, the question of "is this the right thing for the American polity to do?" is being asked.

Which is all well and good; from a sane technocratic point of view, it's obvious that something different should be done, that whatever that thing is, it should promote the general prosperity, and that a resumption of regulation is a necessary part of that change. The debate should be about ways and means and optimization of results for resources committed.

From the point of view of the people in that aristocracy, the people who deeply and sincerely believe that other people exist to serve them, that they are in some inherent sense just better, and thereby deserve to have everything they want, it may be more obvious that a sort of in-between state can't exist. (I am sure Brad could rapidly explain why not if it ever occurred to him that this was a question anyone needed to be concerned with.)

Your country can have a well-run mixed economy, with stringent and effective regulation of the capitalist parts, a free and honest press, and fair elections which naturally give the most weight to the concerns of working people who are after all the greater fraction of the population, or it can be run to secure the wealth of an elite, in the American case a robber-baronial elite. Half way in between isn't just unstable, it's not functional. Since the robber-baronial aristocracy case is obviously also economically wildly sub-optimal, sane economic technocrats don't consider either the half-way or the aristocratic case very much; they're obviously dumb things to want.

Unless, of course, your self image is incredibly tightly bound up in a belief in your inherent superiority, as demonstrated by wealth. Then you want the aristocratic model for reasons entirely disconnected from any rational analysis. (If all you wanted was power, the relatively smaller share of an absolutely much greater amount would be the goal, not the relatively greater share of an absolutely diminished amount, and you would be pushing the general prosperity, scientific research and education, and innovation just as hard as you could.)

So the real long term policy question is, always, between a mixed economy that works for everybody, obliterating the aristocracy in the process, and an economy run for the benefit and purposes of the aristocracy.

The US has historically had serious problems with half measures when it comes to aristocratic suppression; neither the Civil War nor the New Deal did a thorough job. The aristocracy knows this, and is doubtless afraid of a political consensus that decides that this time, the thing to do is to set up guillotines on the National Mall and run them round the clock for a year. It is also clearly afraid of anyone, ever, believing that government action can make them better off, lest taxes and regulation and the mixed economy develop a constituency. Preventing ideas of the utility of government and public policy from taking hold consumes enormous resources. That effort does not consume any intellectual integrity, because that isn't the point; the point is to say something vaguely plausible over and over again, because what is repeated often enough becomes true. (This is a basic wetware bug in humans.)

So whether or not the question is properly settled in a scientific sense has nothing to do with its utility to the aristocracy. Never has. The question is whether or not it has utility in preventing an effectively administered mixed economy for the purposes of securing the general welfare. Preventing that is the first, core, and inescapable priority, because if that happens, it necessarily removes the aristocracy.

The awareness that the corresponding priority is to remove the aristocracy, because otherwise the general prosperity and common weal cannot be achieved, is not getting the kind of air time and mind share I could wish it had.

28 January 2009


This is Christian Cameron's book Tyrant, rather than any of the other potentially applicable references for the term.

The great flaw of the thing is that it's not actually a book; I mean, it's bound properly between covers, the cover illustration is respectable if possessed of a dubious metallic sheen in key parts (something utterly beyond the author's control in any case...), there's a proper set of author's notes and a dedication and all, but we only get up to the troll fight, so this is neither the whole tale nor a thematically complete section of the tale.

So in one sense reviewing it is silly; the whole of the tale isn't there. In another, this is what has the covers, so presumably there is something to be said about it.

When I say "troll fight", I do not mean a literal troll, but a literary one; after the structure of Beowulf, the hero fights a troll (to demonstrate, yes, hero; Grendel, in Beowulf's case), the main scary monster (Grendel's mother), and then eventually the final battle in which the hero dies (the dragon in Beowulf's case).

What we have in Tyrant is up to the troll fight in the heroic progression of the protagonist, Kineas of Athens. Since I happen to know that this is a series and that there are pretty strict size limits on books these days in terms of publishable page count, that's not anything like the difficulty not getting to the troll fight in the first book would be.

This brings us to considering the fellow who is fighting the troll, which gets us to our hero, the exiled Athenian Kineas, sometime cavalry officer in the host of Alexander of Macedon.

I have trouble being fair to Kineas, because he's one of those people whose emotional complexity is a great deal larger than their ability to conceptualize or express emotions. We spend the book fairly tightly attached to Kineas' viewpoint, despite him having the approximate level of self-awareness of a couple pounds of haddock fillets. This makes me want to shake the fellow from time to time, but this cannot be regarded as a failure of craft in the writing. It's also clear in the text that he's going to have to correct this deficiency if he is to fulfill his heroic destiny. (And find a way to manage his fits of brutal temper.)

On the positive side, the resulting Kineas-filter on the narration results in a generally clean and sparse descriptive text which does not act to blunt events for the reader by attempting to impose a particular viewpoint. Stuff happens, and we get information about it, and can make up our own minds. Quite a lot of stuff happens; there is action and politics and travel and drinking parties and mighty striving, all quite cohesively inter-related and driven forward at a suitable tempo.

Kineas' military companions—the cadre of the cavalry unit he has been commissioned to create for the tyrant of the city of Olbia—are drawn in a necessarily spare and sparse style through Kineas' perception of them. This does not limit the effectiveness of the characterization if one is paying attention, though it does require that the reader pay attention, since the majority of that characterization is done through completely unflagged-for-significance descriptions of the habitual interactions of old comrades. (The unflagged for significance part is something I wish a great many more authors did.)

The feel of the classical Greek culture is very good; they think they're normal, and the text does an excellent job of presenting them that way. Which in part means that there are effectively no women in the story. (The Scorching Babe and prophetic eunuchs in dresses do not count as women for review purposes.)

This is socially appropriate for the period, but it does require the author to elide a few attitudes to avoid making the characters revolting to moderns. This is about the best that can be done with the problem of historical authenticity to a culture that is in its details seriously objectionable. Slavery is handled in much the same way, as a common fact of life. This is much better than making a moral point of it that would have been alien to any of the philosophies actually prevalent in that time and place, but it does require a suspension not of disbelief but of social judgement.

Which is not to say that the characters lack moral sense or social judgement of one another; these are classical Greek gentlemen, and they take their philosophical attainments as seriously as their military ones.

In particular, the core cavalry characters have all had long military service; they have been variously damaged by it, to the detriment of their ability to be contextually decent human beings, they're conscious of this, and they are all in various ways disparaging of glory as a motivation and of the presentation of glory in poetry. (Absolutely every Greek character we see talk, significant military experience or not, has an opinion about the Iliad and whether or not Achilles is a sound role model. This, too, is highly appropriate to the period.)

Of particular note is Kineas'—with haddock fillets for self-awareness—foil, the accomplished, consciously complex, and apparently badly conflicted philosophical Spartan Philokles. We don't find out what specific virtues he's driven to pursue nor who he really works for, but it's clear that he thinks about these things a great deal. He also talks about them elliptically and caustically at the slightest provocation.

The story is not in the period of Spartan power; this is after the Thebans broke that forever, and after Alexander destroyed Thebes, at that. Despite this, Philokles exists in an interesting tension between extremely un-Spartan characteristics—when Kineas rescues him from the sea, the other characters describe him as fat—and the killing machines of legend. The first thing we see him actually do, fat or not, is win a javelin throwing contest in a fashion fatal to one of his host's sheep.

I find Philokles almost more interesting than Kineas; with Kineas, it's fairly clear where the broad sweep of the plot is going to take him, but with Philokles, who is after all not the protagonist, I remain highly uncertain just what is going on. That uncertainty is something I value in books.

The only depicted material culture issue I'd raise with the book is that I refuse to believe anybody would use sinew bowstrings if they have access to silk. (Or linen, and the text makes it clear they have both.)

I am certainly interested to find to find out what happens in the next one, to the literary equivalent of Grendel's Mum.

26 January 2009

The lion sleeps tonight

A look of disapproval. (Aoife's just not much into having her picture taken)
Scaled but not cropped; there are uses to taking pictures of one's cat with a very long telephoto lens.

Siskin on the snow

One of the pine siskins, poking through the fallen thistle-seed husks for an unhulled one. (There being at that time quite some number of goldfinches on the finch feeder...)

A good demonstration of the very narrow depth of field with the 800mm mirror lens; a teeny bird with its tail feathers in focus and its head not.


Annular bokeh and all, this reminds me very much of some of the Raven masks and costumes in the British Columbia provincial museum in Victoria.

Buffalo Spirits

At least, that's my best guess as to what's got into this particular male house finch.

The flatter an angle to the glass of the balcony door, the happier the Rokinon appears to be.

25 January 2009

LBA - Rokinon 800mm f/8.0 Mirror Lens

This is not a hand-holdable lens.
Not because it is large (it isn't, especially) or heavy (also not; about 800 grammes) but because 800mm focal length combined with a razor-thin depth of field makes the vibration introduced by one's pulse significant.

Mounted on the K20D, itself on a tripod.

Not much view of the camera from the front...

Manual focus is fine—not up to the standards of the Pentax Limiteds, but for about 200 USD, that would be an expectation somewhere past unreasonable and deep in delusional—green button metering is fine, and focus confirmation works.

However, it requires a 30.5mm filter as part of the optical formula, and does not ship with one. Fortunately this is a common size; unfortunately you need fingers like an aye-aye to get it installed.

One side effect of the narrow depth of field is that things appear and disappear as the focus is adjusted. This is especially disconcerting when one is trying to find something like a bird feeder.

This is a downy woodpecker on the finch feeder. I have no idea what Mrs. Downy here thought she was doing, but none of the wee tiny holes have been swagged wider, so I think it ended well.
Goldfinch and a bright "sky" (mostly snow roof) background completely collapsed into blur.

Like the other bird pictures, this is from about four metres away, just at the inner limit of the focus distance. I suspect more distant subjects will not have the sky go uniformly bright like that.

Quite respectable for the cardinal's head; the background, on the other hand, is clearly bifurcating. So right up against the close focus limit has side effects.

This is a random branch, about 10 metres from the camera. It's respectably sharp; the branches behind are weirdly blurry, but I kinda like the effect. There's probably a way to get a distant snowy thicket to look the Gate of Horn and Ivory.

So, anyway; sharper than the Opteka, not hand-holdable, probably just the thing for waterfowl. Funky bokeh. Very tricky focus right in at the close focus distance, because the depth of field is razor-thin. Fixed f8 aperture means it's for sunny days.

22 January 2009

Who is this, and what is here?

Picture taken out my bedroom window, after camera grabbing was sufficiently speedy for a change.
The mostly-dead tree is in the back yard of one of the units in the row across the parking lot; the background is a very snowy roof, rather than a cloudy sky.
Given the perceptual size—much larger than the mourning doves who usually sit in that tree, something that you'll just have to take my word for—and the profile, I am saying female Cooper's Hawk.

21 January 2009

Camera unavailable

I have learned to look up when the birds at the feeder stop cheeping, and especially if they explode outward in all directions.

It was a mature redtail hawk; despite going out on the balcony, I could not spot landing marks, so either the snow is tough (given the squirrel ditch, I doubt it) or the hawk did not actually land. I assume the squirrel made it under something, probably the currant tree.

It did row back out across the parking lot and perch briefly in a tree, but by the time I got the camera in hand and myself back to a window, it was gone.

Aoife was at her perch by the balcony sliding doors; I think she was a bit freaked out by the Giant BIRD! because she wanted petting after I went downstairs, but has reverted to her regular insouciant self.

20 January 2009

LBA - Opteka 500mm F/8 mirror lens

Size comparison between the 50mm refractive lens and the 500mm cadioptric lens:
The implement has a 2" imperial scale, which is the one closest to the lens, should you not be reflexively familiar with the size of the Pentax FA 50/1.4.

This is a t-mount lens, and it is not a sharp lens. (Without the neutral sky filter in place, it's a hopelessly not-sharp lens; the filter is part of the optical formula.)

On the other hand, it's very inexpensive (~100 USD), the K20D meters exposure through it just fine, and the manual focus (the only kind it's got) works admirably with the K20D focus confirmation. The usual factor of four downscaling corrects much that might be objectionable in the sharpness department, as well; certainly this is good enough to tell what bird this is.

Calving front of a roof-glacier. It turns out one can use the annular highlights as a focus guide; if they are the smallest points they can be caused to appear as, the image is in focus.
I rather like the depth of field side effects in this one, though I can quite see how someone wouldn't want their trees to look quite so much as though the air were water.
Aoife's "smokey jazz" portrait; like the chimney, but unlike the previous three, this was taken hand held. (Also unlike the others, this got significant post processing for light levels, as well as being converted into black and white.)

Only really useful for birds in the field in the blazing bright day, but it's also outright teeny and very light; the whole package was under a pound. The lens itself is supposed to be around 300 grammes.

It does rather make me think there's a lot of development room for this class of lenses; the Minolta (now Sony) 500mm version has autofocus, and I don't see why with the modern, stuff-some-refractive-lens-in-the-optical-out designs, automated aperture couldn't be arranged.

I expect I shall get some use out of it for distant creatures. It's not like it'll be painful to carry around.

19 January 2009

Keeping up appearances

Various sensible people (Atrios, Brad DeLong) have been commenting lately to the effect that it makes no sense to bail out banks in a way that preserves shareholder value; the economically rational thing to do is what was done with the Saving and Loan mess, and nationalize the bank, wiping out the shareholders in the process, fix it up, and sell it.

I would go so far as to say that it makes no sense to preserve the institutional structure of any major American bank; pretty much every major US bank has been doing something between theft and counterfeiting to keep their declared profits high, and leaving those responsible for that systematic and deliberate abuse of the fractional reserve banking system running a bank strikes me as culpably idiotic.

However, the "don't wipe out the shareholders" response—the proposed massive transfer of tax revenue to bank shareholders—makes perfect sense, in that it's defending the class status of those bank shareholders.

When Atrios says there's zero reason that shareholders of large banks are special creatures who deserve to be bailed out he's wrong, or, at least, wrong from the point of view of the folks proposing that massive transfer of tax revenue to private individuals. He's entirely right from a general economic perspective. That's not the perspective the folks involved are using.

Because the banks have lied about value they've destroyed a lot of actual value while having the market value of their mis-labelled collateral drop to something like an accurate valuation. This is making a lot of accounting-money vanish. If more vanishes, lots of people who are currently rich, and thus upper class, will stop being rich, and fall out of their class identity.

Since to a first approximation all the legislators share that class identity, they are highly sensitive to the plight of their fellows (and probably some of those fellows are fellow legislators, grimly aware that you can't run for national office in the US if you're not part of that class) and don't really see why bank shareholders should not be preserved as members of the upper class.

That's the benign interpretation; it's probably wrong. The more probably correct interpretation is that a substantial majority of the legislators truly believe that the proper function of the government is to secure existing wealth, and that by rescuing the shareholders of the major banks they are doing precisely what they ought to be doing.

This is, after all, the view of government that's been pushed ever since the Regan Revolution; government is there to secure and defend existing wealth and the global economic order that produces that wealth.

I'm going to stop there; the rant about why that's a terrible idea goes somewhere else.

I will say that it's going to be a very strong indicator of the worth of the Obama Presidency, whether or not the banks and bank shareholders are burned right down to the ground and replaced with something able to serve the general prosperity.

Sad squirrels

Here we have an example sad squirrel in snow.
This is the ditch produced by all the squirrels taking the same route from the tree to the space under the feeder, which has fallen oil seeds in it.
The much longer squirrel ditch from those trees over there to this tree here, produced after the fence top became impractical.

The squirrel ditch pictures are in black and white (post processed, not camera), and somewhat more dark than the actual scene in its natural collection of blinding white shades. This was undertaken in the hopes of producing a picture where the causal onlooker can justly perceive the topography differences in the snowfield.

18 January 2009

The mighty hunter

Is a woefully kinetic portrait subject.
But here we see her exploiting available cover. Below we see the intent look that bodes so poorly for her prey.
This one is scaled but otherwise completely unadjusted; exposure, white balance, saturation, everything, straight off the camera. So I'm kinda pleased.

Possibly not pleased enough to make a habit of lying on the floor to take pictures, but hey; it does seem to work.

It's snowing today

And the icicles are getting longer, that inevitable side effect of insufficient roof insulation.
There are certainly places I do not want to be standing when it thaws!

16 January 2009

By request

These are my books. Got that?
Gaze bent on the birds.
And to the kitchen, in what I believe was a suggestion I put the camera down and do something useful.

One of the few times it's clear that she's a really really dark grey cat, rather than actually black, at least at the tips of her fur.

The roots are close to white, giving individual hairs a disturbing resemblance to neutral grey on some backgrounds. It's more or less perfect fur from a cat's perspective; when shed, it will show on anything, white, black, or coloured.

15 January 2009

The mismeasure of money

One of my pet irritations is that money is an accounting tool that's more or less taken over the world, and the number of places where the map is not merely not the territory, but some place lamentably unrelated to the territory is increasing.

The simplest example of this I can think of is error rate.

Anybody, doing anything, will make mistakes. You can, and it is very often done, relate these mistakes to a cost; if you have a robot on an assembly line tightening bolts, and it snaps one bolt in 400, rather than successfully inserting and tightening that bolt, you can figure out how much that costs to fix (somebody has to drill and tap the snapped bolt to get an extractor in it, and then replace it with a bolt at the correct torque, and they want to be paid...) and then build that cost in as representing the error rate.

Only, it, well, doesn't. It represents the pricing of the error under some set of accounting assumptions, and assuming the prices come out the same, there's no difference in that model between the bolt example and lighting every 10,000th thing that's having the bolt inserted on fire.

Which is a bad model. If there is no difference in the model between "defective robot applies over-torque" and "defective bolts snap sometimes", you can't tell those two cases apart. Since "I wonder how we fix the robot, to keep it from mangling these good bolts" and "I wonder how many of those defective bolts are almost at the point of snapping, allowing the wheels to fall of cars at speed" are extremely different questions when it comes to fixing the problem, you want a model that allows you to distinguish these cases.

Similarly, prosperity is difficult to measure with money, since prosperity is a measure of predictability (in the future, will I be better off? worse? about the same?) that's at least somewhat relative to the people around you (do you want to be highly prosperous by the standards of Early Modern London?) but which can be measured in fairly absolute ways across populations (literacy, age at death, etc.) but this does not stop wide swathes of media and government from using median income as a nominal measure of prosperity and collapsing huge swathes of differing access to choice into an inappropriate proxy measurement.

The worst assumption is that money is a good proxy for the things available for you to choose to do; that anybody with 10 dollars, or ten thousand, can do the same things with them.

Since that's obviously not a factual statement, and since the ways in which that isn't factual are in many respects proper targets of public policy, dropping the monetary proxy and starting to count the actual access to choice would be the better thing. (The more challenging thing, too, but we have really good computers these days.)

14 January 2009

An increasingly filthy window

Though at -13 C and falling I do not propose to clean it any time soon. (Note to self; ideal house must include a shutterable, cleanable viewport with optically coated glass for the camera that points at the bird feeders.)

Taken at a low level above the floor, this one has some interesting reflections that are (I think) internal to the thermopane window.
Very Christmassy, this one.

13 January 2009

Yanni got skinks.

"Yanni got skinks".

I don't know if I can begin to explain why that is funny, if you wouldn't already laugh; I know that most people don't laugh reading the middle book of the Chanur seies, either. But C.J. Cherryh's Regenesis is, in a dark, grim, rationalist way, a glorious example of a comedy of self-image.

In talking about this, there are going to be massive spoilers, few direct and many by implication for both Cyteen and Regenesis. You have been warned.

Spoilers Spoilers Spoilers

Part of this is that azi—they grow them in vats, and shape their brains with tape, so that the normal human confusion of emotion must struggle, and in nearly all cases, fail, to afflict them—are the perfect straight man, and some of them, especially the alphas (Hi! we grew this highly trained high-end genius in a vat for you, and made them intensely goal directed!) know this.

"Sera," Catlin said to her, "agents have entered Dr. Patil's residence. They were on watch. They saw no one. But Patil has fallen out her window."


"Quite fatally, sera. It's twelve stories."
Part of this, more focused than Cyteen but actually a bit funnier, is the extent to which Regenesis goes to "put the fun in disfunctional"; there isn't, wasn't, hasn't been, anything that begins to resemble a functional family in Reseune in a very long time. Reseune is a research lab that manufactures personalities in wholesale lots, started during a desperate war by idealist scientist revolutionaries at the then-limit of human settlement, knowledge, and technical capability. The third successive generation after that of raving genius psychologists is responsible for creating the setting the characters live in...

Most of it, though, is Ari and Justin.

Both of these people are way, way off down the right hand end of the bell curve; they find ordinary geniuses socially dull. Ari is the psychogenetic recreation of Ariane Emory, whose name, status, and position she is intended to take over, because Ariane Emory the initial is the Architect of Union—Union is a multi-system interstellar polity with a population in the millions—and they need her to tell them if her social design experiment—you need those millions of people in a hurry, you grow them in vats, you create their minds with tape, they have kids, you better have got that tape right, hadn't you?—is going off the rails.

She's 18. She's madly in love with Justin, because Justin is the only other CIT—maybe grown in a vat, but not given tape until after they're born—in existence who can (mostly) follow what she's saying and who treats her as who she is now, not who she is expected to become. (The first Ari was a terror and a glory, capable of compassion only in the abstract. This influences how just about everyone interacts with present Ari.)

She can't get him into bed (Justin is gay; Justin and Grant, an exceptional alpha-azi the initial Ari created just for Justin, have been lovers for years, and that relationship is $MAJOR_REASON Justin isn't completely bonkers from stress; Justin is terrified of present Ari, on that level, thanks to several complex unfinished dire things her predecessor did to him; Justin is on the official semi-permanent security shit list, because of his father Jordan, officially responsible for murdering the first Ari, and because the folks who ran Reseune while present Ari was growing up broadly hated Jordan; they hated Justin's own unplanned interaction with both Aris, but especially present Ari, whom they were not creating quite to program, and the memory of 20 years of sudden interrogations in little rooms with bright lights and unspecified drugs has made Justin rather skittish...) so present Ari, carefully, as honestly as she can, and with the lavish hand of someone who exists at a level of political power at which numeric values of money aren't a relevant question, is nice to him. Which terrifies him more.

Justin is fortyish. (One could probably figure this out exactly from Cyteen and adding on one's fingers.) He's a clone. His father Jordan, whom he is cloned from, is a Special; this is like being a Nobel Laureate if that was a legal status of "too important to break". Jordan's a Special in educational psych specifically and psych generally, and Justin is his, decidedly failed, pyschogenisis project. Jordan's also wildly narcissistic and really, permanently angry that the first Ari altered Justin's mind in ways that prevent him from belonging to Jordan. (Not, note, that initial Ari drugged, raped, and altered Justin's core personality; that Ari I stole Justin.)

Justin winds up, dutifully, in a very adult-children-of-alcoholics way, having multiple dinner conversations with Jordan. None of them go well, and the rapidity, scope, and spectacle of the train wrecks, well. It ought to give almost everyone something to be thankful about how bad their family doesn't get over the holidays.

In the midst of all these very, very smart, and very, very socially constrained, in the sense of "do not get out much", people having doubts and agendas some plot happens; it is, like the usual plot of a comedy, not really that important. There's nothing wrong with it, and it does the right things at the right time to drive the comedy of self image along.

The main thing is still Ari and Justin.

Ari's supposed to be her predecessor, almost literally; the whole point to the very expensive project was to reproduce not just a geneset, but a psychset.

The people running the psychogenesis project in Cyteen didn't play it straight; they tweaked things, in part because they didn't fully understand what they were doing and in part because they did not want the original Ari back, who was staggeringly scientifically brilliant, all right, but also an unstoppable force of nature politically. So they were trying for a controllable, or at least less politically capable, Ariane Emory because she really was smart enough that they really do need her, because no one else has or can get a grip on what she did, but having her is a lot like accepting that you're going to be living in a society that has an invisible hand with an agenda, said agenda driven by the will and desires of this woman who has a biblically horrible temper and motivations you are, literally, too stupid to understand.

You can forgive people for not wanting to do that.

Present Ari even realizes, uncomfortably, that she can't be all that good a match for the personality of Initial Ari; the first Ari didn't care about people or want to be loved. So she thinks around "the project failed"—Cherryh makes it clear that Present Ari is as capable, scientifically and politically, as the Initial Ari, if not more so—and scrambles around trying to figure out how to make everything she loves and values safe, which includes not letting anyone else doubt that she's really Ariane Emory.

By the end, it's pretty clear Present Ari's going to pull that off; the ability and ambition and temper are all there, more consciously directed, perhaps, and the rigid streak of self honesty. So she's extremely effective.

Justin is not, generally, extremely effective; extremely skilled (he is clearly qualified for Special status as a psych-set designer), yes, and extremely stubborn, also yes, but he starts off stuck in the same "just survive" imagination of himself that he had throughout Cyteen. By the end, he's been through enough arguments with Jordan that the Initial Ari's intervention has, twenty years late, had a chance to finish; the bonds of filial piety are loosed, and the conviction of defeat is, obviously, ablating. Initial Ari's dead will is succeeding, again; Justin will be there for Present Ari, without Jordan's inability to not be in charge and with a nigh-equivalent brilliance to Present Ari, safely insulated away from the possibility of sexual complications. (Initial Ari's biases; present Ari laments this extensively, while admitting to herself that Initial Ari was probably right in this case.)

Justin hasn't had his freakout, yet, by the end of the book, but you can imagine that it's going to happen, as he finishes internalizing what the brilliant and ruthless personality who loves him only slightly less than her symbiotic security azi has determined that he can and should become. (The brilliant and ruthless personality that wanted her replicant to have him expected the fights with Jordan to happen sooner, very likely, but her determination about what he can become is still in there, too; there is a broad sense in which Justin isn't getting a real choice in this, and another in which he no longer actively minds.)

Justin and Ari sit down together at the end, legally and properly named to the Council of Nine that runs Union, after the plot has had things to say about the rule of law, scrambling Initial Ari's traditional political alliances in the process, and this has the same place in the story that the wedding would have in a more traditional romantic comedy.

That's what it is, too; they aren't going to be any physically closer than across the hall and the occasional hug in moments of courage and necessity, but they're going to be across the hall from each other for the next hundred years at least, and there is no one else in human space who can fully keep up with either of them when it comes to designing human minds. Present Ari has her echo; she isn't going to be alone in the dark with no one to bounce off of, going farther and farther from being something she could honestly call human.

See, say, Wave Without a Shore, and leave the question about present-Ari's humanity for another time; this is a Cherryhian happy ending to a romantic comedy, and that is enough marvel for one day.

Cherryh tends to write books from different viewpoints, that call into question what's going on in previous books in the same continuity. Regenisis isn't Cyteen, in the sense of being a ground breaking work, the first major artistic take on "what would you need to do to replicate a personality?" Cyteen, necessarily, came with an answer for "why in the nine hells would you try?" that made the attempt worth the expense for the people making the attempt, and Cyteen is in that sense epic.

Ariane Emory is, more or less, the One Ring; Union, the villains from the point of view of the original Merchanters continuity, has lost it and needs it back. Cyteen ends with present Ari doing something very close to "all shall love me and despair"; she's most unwilling to be wielded by any hand but her own.

Regenisis is the scouring of the Shire; the old, bad, mad plans come out, and the old alliances, and are, in the end, more or less cleaned up or swept away or, in the case of Eversnow, adjudged necessary. It's clear that the possibility of something newer and better is there; Ari is expanding her circle of trust, making a conscious decision to prefer that to her predecessor's isolation. Justin is inside that circle of trust and starting to believe it, which means he gets to finish turning into someone who can help guide Union along for the next century or so; the security, success, and useful work he's always wanted. Ari's age mates are clearly able and skilled and interested in building a better world. The last of the old generation is quite happy to pass the torch along to them, and this transition, diverse paranoias notwithstanding, looks like it's going to happen peacefully, post-plot. (Yani naming Justin proxy councilor for Science equates to giving the bride away; discuss....)

Which makes me hope that the next we hear of them is Alliance being, nigh-mortally, appalled; another Reseune book would almost have to heave the lot of them back into the gloom, and right now, I want to sit her and marvel quietly—C.J. Cherryh wrote a romantic comedy, with a happy ending, and she set it in Reseune.

12 January 2009

Slate-sided Dark-eyed Junco

Little grey bird, grey sky, grey bark, little pink beak...

Iridescent and Ploufulent

These guys do not seem to like the cold weather at all. They're really going to hate the rest of the week if the forecast is at all accurate.
Pretty colours, though.

11 January 2009

More Siskin!

Less yellow; no idea why. Probably fewer of the appropriate carotenes in its diet last moult.


I can hardly complain, since this way they're getting the unconsumed oilseeds (flung there by hasty cardinals and squabbling sparrows) off the snow, rather than creating the perfect conditions for me to have sunflowers sprouting from the balcony come springtime.

They're still very intense about it, as I suppose any observation of the thermometer would justify.

10 January 2009

They don't all fit

I am now getting an unquestioned flock of goldfinches, so that they don't all fit on the finch feeder.
At one point today, I had goldfinches on the platform feeder, the peanut feeder (strictly as a queuing position), the finch feeder, and the seed-husk strewn snow of the balcony.
You know it's been cold for awhile when the goldfinches are eating the oilseed.

Tangentially, it must be unpleasant to be a small bird and have your head moulting in January, which is clearly what's going on with these guys. They don't seem to mind, and I'm getting lots of transitional pictures, and so far suppressing the temptation to find a source of the carotene for glare orange and put in their thistle seeds.

On being created

Most online discussion of evolution gets into selection, transitional fossils, and suchlike, often from a viewpoint of attempting to explain why, yes, it really does work like that.

All of this—to my lasting annoyance, hence this post—is, from the one side, generally factual, but not generally effective, because it's missing the point.

Understanding descent with modification, speciation as process (and remember that this is the increase of diversity, really, because species are an artifact of taxonomy, not an actual substantial thing, even in tetrapod zoology and less so in botany or microbiology or the study of the great diversity of creatures that do not descend from a critter with four limbs), and genetics came later, sometimes much later. However fascinating the mechanics of all these things are, they're not the core insight behind the Darwinian view of life.

That core insight is this: "many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive".

This is an observation; a fact, independent of any one person's mind or understanding, verifiable, and verified, by many people in many times and places. (It is true of non-industrial human populations, too. Industrial and post-industrial human populations are something of a special case, one where most children don't die but where they don't reproduce at replacement levels, either, and not reproducing is not, from an evolutionary perspective, necessarily different from having died before you could reproduce.)

Once you start trying to explain that fact, to determine why this inescapably ubiquitous fact is so and what it means for living creatures, you wind up with two things; the definition of a Darwinian individual (born, dies, recognizably itself between those times, reproduces its kind, the reproduction includes the possibility of modification in its descent), and the idea of modified descent as a response to environmental conditions.

No one has come up with a better explanation of why many more living creatures of each species are born than can possibly themselves survive to breed; no one has come up with a better explanation of the filtering mechanism exerted by the not-all-survive being related to the environment producing descent-with-modification. Lots and lots of very smart people have tried very hard.

If you want the Darwinian view of life to be wrong, you have to come up with a better explanation, one with more predictive and explanatory power, of why many more are born than can possibly survive. (Pointing at post-industrial humans won't do it; there will be a lot of people pointing back at fish and pine trees and ducklings, and more pointing at "co-operation in groups" and third-order consequences of being specialized for that.)

The folks who assert that the Darwinian view of life must be wrong are generally emotionally motivated; they're also generally trying really hard to not acknowledge that this is, at core, a theory explaining differential odds of survival.[1]

Until there's an acknowledgement that explaining this simple, narrow, factual thing—many more are born than survive—is the point and power of Darwin's theory of evolution, all of the clever reasoning and really impressive understanding (HOX genes and fig reproduction, just for starters, are well into ow-my-head territory, and someone figured that out) doesn't carry any possibility of emotional conviction, and that emotional conviction is what's required.

[1] It's one fearsomely elegant system; all the diversity of life comes out of five properties (the Darwinian individual definition, above) and two rules. Rule one is that differential reproductive success—of a population of genes—is affected by environmental fitness, so organisms become better fitted to their environment over time, and rule two is that change cannot happen that reduces differential reproductive success with respect to the remainder of the population. That's it. That's all it takes to go, in time, from RNA to butterflies and beluga.

EDIT, because from Brook's comment I was clearly too terse with rule two. Let this be a lesson to me to avoid footnotes.

"change", there, is standing in for "a change in the distribution of traits (or genes) in a population of individuals, where the population is sufficiently large to function as a statistical universe with respect to the distribution of traits, the selective process is constrained so that it will always approach the local maximum for fitness in a continuous way."

The location of that local maximum may be moving (the climate is getting wetter or drier, say), and it can go away entirely (post-glacial flooding seems to have drowned the nesting areas of the north Atlantic albatross population...) but the selection process is continuous and approaches the fitness local maximum as determined by the environment. (Which is not obliged to be either continuous or consistent, which is where a lot of the interesting stuff gets into things.)

09 January 2009

That's not a goldfinch!

Something I noticed from the kitchen door; I don't know how I noticed, but I consider it a good sign that I did notice, despite the other birds on the finch feeder being, in sober truth of fact, actual, attestable goldfinches.

Getting a little closer (living room) indicated that, definitely, not a goldfinch. Which means "grab the camera!". Since the camera had the strap off and retained the 2s shutter delay after mirror lock and generally unhelpful ISO settings from last night's attempts to photograph festive exterior lights, there was some delay between grabbing the camera and when grabbing the camera was useful.

But useful it was:

Pine siskin! (Carduelis pinus)

That's a new-at-the-feeder bird for me. I guess the goldfinches (counted 9 at once yesterday) got dense enough that the pine siskins (there were two there) decided this new restaurant was worth a look.

Update: today's observed goldfinch peak was 18.

08 January 2009

This does not bode well

There's a door under that roof-eave, though it does not seem to be being used much, if at all.

I expect there shall be a mighty crash, before spring, and I shall have to explain to Aoife that it's not anything that has anything to do with devouring cats.

06 January 2009

More obstreperous rodent

Haven't been taking many pictures the last week or so, and my brain is being used up by job searching (which is not all bleakness and despair, though it is not success yet, either) and attempting to learn Haskell, which last has been undertaken on the theory that I should know something that supports a GUI, and if I like XSL and XSL is a functional language with no side effects, maybe I should try another one like that, rather than trying to bounce my brain off of objects for the nth time.

04 January 2009

Further Squirrel

Gazing upon the bird feeder with conquistadorial intent:

The key is this flappy thing:

Cruel efficiency of design:
Since his head does not fit through the gap between perch and platform.

It's a better try than any of the black squirrels have managed, though.

02 January 2009

One thermopane of glass

Which is a good thing; if it was a single pane, a good deal more heat would get out. If it was no pane, Aoife would get out (or the squirrels would get in, obstreperous rodents) and little good would come of it.

So we have the basic scenario:
The would-be, and much frustrated, mighty hunter:
And a fine display of insouciant regard from the red squirrel:
The pictures of the attempted feeder looting are quite good, and I shall hopefully post them tomorrow.

The documented presence of this little fellow makes me more confident in my suspicion that the local grey squirrels are some of them red/grey hybrids.

01 January 2009

And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

As is my custom, I am playing Melissa Etheridge's "2001", because it will be the whole future someday.

Celebrated the first day of 2009 by getting up at 04h25, feeding the cat, performing necessary ablutions, and taking a sequence of buses and streetcars to get myself to the foot of Tommy Thompson park for 08h00. (Note that this is the "sit in a Timmy's and have a leisurely cup of tea before walking the last 300 metres to the place appointed" timing, not the maximal haste version.)

The reason to be at the park at that hour was an OFO bird walk. We were very fortunate in terms of the weather; once the sun came up, things warmed up admirably (from a solid -14 C or so in the dark before dawn), and there was no wind to mention until about noon.

I saw (the "someone saw" list is a good deal longer) mallards, flying; longtail ducks, common mergansers, a starling, common redpolls (dozens and dozens; there was in one place a modest rain of birch seed cases at ground level, as a side effect of the redpoll flock in the top of the tree being voracious), three (of the four discovered) great horned owls, tree sparrows, song sparrows, slate-sided dark-eyed juncos, at least two and possibly three kestrels (I certainly saw three; there's a question of position as to whether two of the sightings were the same bird), juvenile mute swans, lesser scaup, lesser black backed gulls, black duck and a red necked grebe.

The general view was that with four great horned owls there (presumably the numerous rabbit tracks had something to do with that...), no other owl would want to have anything to do with the place lest it become lunch. Not a particularly high species count for the day, though there were white-crowned and white-throated sparrows seen.

I don't recall another time the transitions lenses in my glasses maxed out; I was startled to discover that a number of regularly black things turned red. It was quite disconcerting, and I want to ask my optometrist about it, in a "is it supposed to do that?" way.

A good time, though; I've certainly had six hour walks in the snow I liked a whole lot less. As an auspicious beginning for the year, it will do entirely well.