31 May 2009

Your guess is as good as mine

This is what comes of trying to track small, fast birds against varied backgrounds.

No idea what it is; it was flying rather like a swallow (zig-zagging over water) but the wing shape certainly does not seem swallow like.


While there are a pile of technical senses in which this is not a good picture, having actually caught this particularly squackly moment—trumpeter swans can and do express themselves vocally, and anyone with the least experience of red-winged black birds is aware that they are vocally equipped with a number of penetrating tones—where momma swan apparently wishes to register doubt, disapproval, and dubiousness concerned the intentions of the red-winged black bird, that makes me happy.

Just don't ask me to diagram the preceding sentence.


So, despite rather chilly temperatures (13 C) for the last day of May, wind, and approximately eleven zillion people out for a cystic fibrosis station-counting walk of some kind, I got myself out to the zoo today.

I took 711 pictures. A disturbing fraction of them fail to abjectly suck.

I have a lot of flowers, a lot of butterflies, and probably too many cygnets, but there's rather a lot of other stuff, too.

Some of the other stuff is this splendid fellow, who had been lured into a patch of shrubbery by folks tossing what I hope was popcorn, and whose picture has been scaled but not cropped:
This is an 85% JPEG of a hundred percent crop of the head, after I'd fiddled colour and contrast but no sharpening:

And roughly the same (100% crop, 85% JPEG quality, but not exactly the same 100% crop), after application of unsharp mask. The top version is the post-unsharp mask version.

This is the sort of image that makes me understand why someone wants to print their pictures at 11x17 or larger sizes; there's a whole lot of detail in there, and it can go into the print but not into any generally plausible screen display.

30 May 2009

Lamentable Oversimplification

To a trained economist, the basic Ricardian model seems almost trivial. Two goods, two countries, one productive factor, perfect competition: what could be simpler? — Paul Krugman, from here

It's simple, all right, but the simplicity is also an error.

Uncertain social status makes primates panic. People are primates. The effort, including the hugely "no, that's not really in your best interest" effort, that goes into making social status stable is simple, obvious, and wrong from an economic point of view. So there's no such thing as perfect competition because humans are ground-dwelling plains apes that gang up in problems and apportion resources on the basis of social status and will do so, even when they are fully aware that economically, this is insane.

To a very large (I would argue completely dominant) extent, government exists to implement a choice about what kinds of economic competition will be permitted.

So we have a sort of general case where you aren't allowed to compete by the use of military force; that took a long time to establish (post-Rome, in Europe, to the banning of mercenaries in the Treaty of Vienna, is something like 1400 years. The Dark Ages can be defined as the period where "go conquer some place and extract taxes/tribute from it" was your best economic bet in purely rational terms, and so on.)

We also have a widespread general case that you're not allowed to unseat an incumbent industry, no matter how inefficient, corrupt, polluting, or just surpassed that incumbent might be, because the value of the incumbent to the existing social hierarchy is great and the value of the innovative efforts that might unseat that incumbent are negative. This is the disease of empires; trade away economically rational behaviour (or, rather, laws and customs that encourage pseudo-rational conduct in most people, most of the time) for a predictable—NOT stable; one of the predictable things about it is that it will eventually collapse—social order.

So we get things like the US bank bail out, where members of a ruling class agree that other members of the ruling class belong in that ruling class and will have the social status, irrespective of how much diversion of public funds to maintaining the personal wealth that guarantees that status is required; the various government bailouts of auto workers in the US and Canada, where some simulation of a good job–with its attached social status–is being preserved despite terrible price/benefit, no obvious public value to (and considerable obvious harm from...) the business, and obvious areas where government funding in transportation would have much, much greater long term economic and social value; or Atrios' cogent complaint that most of the US, through various mostly municipal laws, forbids high density residential development, so that there are entire classes of economic activity that just don't happen because there's been a political decision that they shall not.

So, sure; if everything was being run by a bunch of Culture Minds as a bizarre bet-settling experiment, Ricardian model comparative advantage would be a fine thing.

Everything is not run by a bunch of Culture Minds; everything is run by people who, to a first approximation, insist that they never, ever, lose any social status. By no means can they always pull that off, but they're always, always trying.

Because of that insistence, we do not and will not get smooth movement from local maximum to local maximum (as new and better local maxima come into reach due to accumulating capital, new technology, etc.); we get jerky, painful, abrupt transitions as existing local maxima get crushed out of existence, and the people who used to do that actual work are thrown out of work in an environment that makes it really, really tough to get equivalently good work again as an inherent, structural part of a "the economy is for maintaining and displaying social status" view. (Which is worse now than it used to be, at least in Anglo NorAm; insecurity drives out charity, hope, and risk-taking.)

As information management ability increases with technological improvement, this tendency, which is mostly driven by illusions of control, trends worse, not better.

A really good government would be set up to arrange smooth transition from local maxima to higher local maxima; that would require forbidding economically dominant industries, making money effectively useless to politics, and probably a couple of other things that would take those Culture Minds to actually implement. But we haven't got that. What we've got a diversity of ruling classes more or less determined to reintroduce peonage in one form or another because that it what makes their percieved position most secure, even if this makes no economic sense whatsoever.

28 May 2009

Bonnie and Clyde

They don't normally either sit on the rail or hold still much at all for photographic purposes, but it was raining.
And I think they were hungry.
Cardinals have proportionately long tails; this comes under the heading of useful but superfluous field mark.
This picture is the reason for the post title.
I can't call it looting—the bird seed in the bird feeder is there for the birds—but I'm not sure they know that.

27 May 2009

Spring Chickadee

Nothing like a steady rain to bring birds to the feeder, and this little fellow is either very hungry or not much worried about people, because having me standing in the doorway with a camera—a distance of about 2 m—was no reason to not grab another oil seed. (Which are then flown to a convenient branch, held down with a foot, and hammered open with repeated bill strikes. Didn't know chickadees did that.)

Another iris

A different yard, shot during a break in the rain from much further away on a funny angle to leave maple branches out of things. Possible the same variety of iris.

26 May 2009

Unnatural selection and the avoidance of harm

Natural selection works as a sort of statistical sieve; things that best avoid the sorts of harm that affect reproductive success become more common. There's no overall direction to this; if the environment, and thus the supply of harm changes, so do the various populations of organism.

This is not how anyone wants to live, in the natural form; people are capable of forethought and planning, and can avoid many kinds of harm through the exercise of those skills. They're also good at ganging up on problems, and one of the kinds of problem is "bad things we didn't expect". One of the important ways forms of social organization compete with each other is how well they deal with that "bad thing we didn't expect" case, because that issue at various scales directly effects how people live their lives. Since, from individual illness through pandemic, from local crop failure through widespread drought, and from personal job loss through global economic meltdown, live a normal span of years and these things will happen to you, and pretty much everyone knows that, a concern for how well the society you're in can cope will be common and will have political consequences.

One of the political consequences is that this kind of concern scales badly.

If you're trying for a good outcome, you necessarily construct it based on your experience, and the extended pool of experience found in family, friends, and colleagues. This more or less guarantees that there will be a bunch of competing desired good outcomes in whatever scale of political process applies. This doesn't precisely clog the political process but it does limit it; if the general question is "is this good for me?", any political process is forced into the role of constructing a hierarchy of importance in deciding whose goods come first and whose goods have to wait.

This hierarchy of importance, implicit or explicit, is of great advantage to factions (such as those deriving wealth-concentration opportunities from large process industries) who can use reflexive social hierarchy assumptions to avoid quantitative analysis (the "business is important, people complaining about pollution are just a bunch of whiny ecofreaks" dodge) and those factions who wish to arrange society in their preferred hierarchy, because there is already agreement that some fixed hierarchy in unavoidable.

Fortunately, a fixed hierarchy can be avoided. (Changing fixed hierarchies is expensive, slow, and often bloody. Avoiding this every time the march of progress produces a fundamental change in social organization is highly desirable, especially since the first culture that figures out how to do that will have a very large relative advantage compared to the others.)

The trade-off involves a moderate loss in the belief that the future is predictable and the general loss of the idea that a fixed social hierarchy is necessary or desirable, but these are mostly intangible things; it should (though I recognize that this is not always the case) be easy to give these up for a political process that handles large numbers of competing goals better and the resulting greater material benefit.

The trick is a very simple one; stop trying to achieve good, and start trying to avoid harm. Do this in a quantified, careful, statistical way; that avoids both legitimizing the use of political processes for the benefit of specific individuals (because statistical approaches don't give you answers about individuals) and making 'avoid harm' become "avoiding harm is me getting good things". All the different values of "me" in there mean there's no net gain, and we're back to a mechanism to establish and maintain a fixed hierarchy of worth.

So you get, basically, unnatural selection; we're going to apply effort and rigour to identifying and reducing sources of harm to people in a quantified worst-first order. We do this as a gang-up-on-problems thing, rather than as a "oh, well, you didn't get copies of your genes or ideas into the future, did you?" slow filter thing. (That filter, whatever the ethical arguments for or against, and I do hope mostly against, is much too slow to cope with the complexity of a global industrial culture with billions of members. Since that global industrial culture is what we've got, being able to deal with it is a requirement in any advocated mechanism.)

This would be politically difficult; it would certainly require removing the people insisting on maintaining both the current fixed hierarchy and some, any, fixed hierarchy from access to political power. It would never work perfectly.

But it would work; it would work better than what we have now, as a basis for political discourse; and, most importantly, it would scale to a large and culturally diverse population's need to agree on what is important.

23 May 2009

A variety of rumpled surfaces

I customarily stick a towel on the bed when it gets hot; this saves some unnecessary sweating on the coverlet.
Aoife has some strong opinions concerning to whom this towel might properly be said to belong.

22 May 2009

Some sort of lily, maybe

In a neighbour's back yard; I may have waited until too late in the day to grab the camera and lean over their back fence, but I think this came out OK.

As is usual with flower pictures, I have no idea what it is and would welcome suggestions.


Finding this juxtaposition interesting probably has something to do with the number of un-collapsed wave forms my job search has been accumulating.

20 May 2009

Explicating the loathing of cities

I really don't quite get what motivates people in basically every newspaper market to flock to the website and absolutely hate on everything urban - (the city itself, public transit, parking issues, etc..). It isn't that my or any city is perfect, or that I expect everyone to want to live in one, but the degree to which people are absolutely enraged by them is entertaining if still puzzling. -- Atrios, here

It's really not that complicated, though I suppose it's a bit mad.

The core common goal of neo-conservativism, in all its odd braided threads—objectivists, libertarians, Christian dominionists, free market supremacists, etc.—is to have it so no one can tell them what to do.

That's led to coming up on forty years of attacking the legitimacy of elected government and any other collective institution, especially the can-be-irritating things like taxes, consensus, and tolerance, but fundamentally it's this mass "if civilization can tell me what to do, civilization has to go" thing.

Living in cities doesn't work unless people can, implicitly or directly, tell you what to do. (Walk left, stand right on the subway station escalators, for example.) So they are by definition awful places to live, irrespective of any possible material or social benefits.

As I said, a bit mad, or maybe more than a bit, but that's what it is, a belief that co-operation is evil because sovereignity is individual.

Responsibility is individual, and sovereignity is collective, I would say.

Favoured among lurking places

Of course, right now she is doing "all your towels are belong to me", but the living room/dining room railing is one of her favourite things.


A squirrel (I'm pretty sure a squirrel) got this one, not too long after I took the picture. Which is just what happens to nearly all of the very many of these being produced by the maple trees hereabouts, but only nearly all. If it was more than nearly all, it would become very hard to explain the number of opportunistic maple saplings.

Blooming as on ongoing process.

The bokeh on this one makes me happy.
It's amazing how chilly these can look, without everything around them to provide the warm earth tones. Reasonably accurate colour, though.

18 May 2009

Any Idiot

This post is a side-effect of reading about the new US auto requirements; by 2016, light trucks will be required to produce 2 MPG better performance than they do now.

It's important to remember that there's a "everybody dies" level of atmospheric CO2, and that we're about a third of the way there. The right thing to do is not to improve, marginally—about 4%!—the mileage requirements for SUVs.

The right thing to do, well, this is the "any idiot" part. Transportation and energy policy needs to produce results such that:

  1. Fossil carbon extraction stops, completely and globally
  2. Atmospheric carbon is sequestered so that the total atmospheric carbon load drops to not more than one quarter of the way to the pessimistic value for the "everybody dies" level.
  3. Extant species diversity and disparity increases, by actual measurement, everywhere. (Because "ecological collapse" and "reduced carrying capacity" don't mean "famine"; a famine ends, it's not a permanent loss of food availability)
  4. The real cost of food does not increase and the median and mean quality of available food increases
All of which needs to happen in such a way that:
  1. cities work ( = support active import replacement while being pleasant places to live)
  2. employment such that one can live and accumulated capital is the norm
  3. the century-plus of climate fluctuations we're in for don't readily crash the infrastructure; it needs to be redundant and robust
How to get there from here, well, I have various ideas, but the right thing to do with a policy outline like that is to turn it into a real quantified functional specification, work out an audit mechanism, and then get an even larger bunch of experts than came up with the functional spec to produce the list of policy objectives, which one then turns into the necessary laws. And yes, this is a mobilization level problem. Which is OK; existing social mechanisms can manage those.

The idea that trivial improvements to a fossil carbon consuming transportation infrastructure's efficiency are significant strongly suggests that what we're dealing with in terms of policy formulation isn't even an idiot.

14 May 2009

Hybrid Squirrel

Another juvenile squirrel; from the back shading, I strongly suspect this is a red/grey hybrid.
It spent quite a while in that position before recovering enough composure to actually sit on the branch; I didn't see quite what caused the stress, though the squirrel was initially in a front-paws-only grip position, with the rest of it hanging down between the forks of the branch. I suspect a missed leap.

Ornamental bird

I can rather see how House Finches wound up getting imported to the Eastern Seaboard.

I'm having no luck finding an indication of what molt strategy house finches use; a short shedload of information about social status, carotene uptake, and colour-related breeding strategies, but nothing so basic as molt strategy.
That said, I would not be surprised if this fellow was in fresh plumage.

13 May 2009

The world-tree will sprout anew...

Periwinkle, I think.
Centre crop of the picture above.
More postulated periwinkle.
I have no idea, but it's purple.
And seems to wish it had teeth.

and the green world rise from water blue

Wee tiny bug, provenance and affiliations unknown.
Yes, it's a dandelion. It's a rather pretty one, too.
I don't know, but it's determined.

Natural Selection and Strictly Contextual Heirarchy

Ken MacLeod has a post up on Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution is True"; if one follows along to the blog post about Richard Lewontin's review, one can find a discussion of the criticism that while evolution—change in the type and kinds of living things over geological time—is incontrovertible, the status of natural selection as the explanation is less strong, and the sufficiency of natural selection ought not to be presumed. ("that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred", to quote the review.)

Coyne's discussion of the evolutionary issues is much, much better than mine could possibly be, so I'm going to leave it under that third link up there and talk about a meta-issue.

Natural selection is one of those mercilessly simple ideas, like charge or gravity, that can give useful results right away and still have people wrestling wih the fine points a century or more later. It says that there will be statistically significant differences in reproductive success based on the interactions between the variation between organisms in a population and the environment of those organisms, and that this can eventually lead to populations of organisms distinct from the original population.

Which is one of the major problems with getting people to think about natural selection; it's all probabilistic. People are bad at thinking about probability.

But, anyway, that is a well understood problem. One of the problems which does not appear to me to be well understood—I read a lot of this stuff, some of it from the technical literature—is that the notion of "fitness" is not merely contextual, it is dynamic.

Consider a day with a surprise hail storm, one that involves substantial hail that could cause real injury.

If you're at the park, and you happen to have an umbrella, the cost of carrying the umbrella is offset by the benefit of not being struck on the head by the hail and injured. It's even better if you're under a strong roof, and better still if you happen to be somewhere the hail isn't falling, but let's just consider the umbrella/no umbrella case.

Carrying the umbrella is work; it uses up a hand, or space in a bag; you have to remember you've got it and not lose it, you have to manage it in crowds, and it might not rain, never mind hail. People who see you may treat it as a social signal; the content of the signal will vary, both depending on whether or not it is raining and depending on social expectations; some of the social expectations will result in a negative evaluation. (Which is to say, most people seeing you bring an umbrella to the park on a sunny day will decide you're timorous, stuck-up, or silly, rather than careful, prudent, or practical.)

Not having an umbrella if it rains means you get wet; this might not matter (you're going straight home, where you can get warm, dry, and fresh clothes) or it might matter a lot (it's cold rain, it's going to go on for a long time, and you have no where to go; hypothermia and death are real risks). If it's hailing, you might, instead of getting wet, wind up injured or killed. Certainly, looking like someone has thrown five or six buckets of ice cubes in your face won't enhance your reproductive success.

The trade-offs are (I hope) obvious; what is not obvious, what is painfully slippery, is that the evaluation of the trade-offs changes continuously; the weather is always changing. The other people seeing you with your umbrella have different views depending on the weather: you look prudent in the rain, paranoid in the warm sunshine, prescient in the hail. Their own history and expectations alter what the other people see; someone who had a horrible experience being caught in cold rain on their way to an important social function is going to see someone with an umbrella on a sunny day differently than someone who more or less doesn't doesn't care about being rained on.

The real trade-offs are much more complicated than the umbrella case. (What makes you less of a target for one predator might make you more of a target for another, for example.)

In the human case, the failure mode comes from thinking fitness as static; that you can take the media or mean utility of carrying that umbrella and derive a stable hiearchy of fitness from it.

Or, more accurately, you can derive that stable hierarchy—something people certainly do—but err in treating it as meaningful.

Humans gang up on problems; that's the basic human thing. What problem means "what hierarchy?" because different people have different skills, just like "what does today's weather forecast say?" has different implications for how likely you are to carry an umbrella.

It is my suspicion that the people objecting to natural selection as the mechanism for evolution have not made the necessary mental leap to recognize that the hierarchy of selection under natural selection is dynamic and unstable. Natural selection, rather than implying a fixed order of superiority, implies an impossibility of fixed order and a necessary recognition of context in human social organization. (Not to mention recognizing that the purpose of social efforts to produce a fixed hierarchy is necessarily not efficiency or optimal results for anyone other than those located at the pinnacle of that fixed hierarchy.)

11 May 2009

Apple blossoms

These are from last week; I took a lot of pictures of blossoming apple trees and dithered a bit as to which pictures I might consider representative.
Many, many blossoms; I recall this as being at least three trees.
And a single distant clump.
Both taken with the Tamron 500mm mirror lens, partly because I didn't want to take it off the camera (the instant you do this, interesting birds become visible) and partly because I was curious about the effect of the very thin focal plane on massed flower shots.

Folly of the young

So here we have a juvenile black squirrel, on the balcony.
On the balcony with door open and Aoife already on the balcony. (We must suppose the little guy is mighty hungry.)
Aoife does not entirely believe what she is seeing. Or perhaps she thinks I think she's expected to eat that for lunch, I don't know.
Some deep instinctive prompting kicked in and the wee squirrel attempted to escape.
See that bit of wire in the lower left of the first picture?
This is it, complete with juvenile squirrel hanging over eight feet of drop. (The adult squirrels dive for the currant tree.)
A necessary pause for the recovery of composure.
"Getting food is hard!" Or at least mildly frightening.

07 May 2009

More of a dark slate grey, really

Black-crowned Night Heron, mildly grumpy at all the birders making pleased noises in its general direction going round the corner of the overflow pond at the bottom of High Park.
Even with a shorter lens on the camera, I would not have been able to get more of the bird in the frame; much diverse vegetation and a fence in the way. (I remain pleased I was able to get this picture, given the complexity of the angle involved.) Several attempts to get a picture from the water side, rather than the land side, wound up defeated by a combination of intervening sticks and branches and the glare shiny of the white front of the heron in a basically shadowy location.

06 May 2009

To see again the northland spring

When iris bokeh becomes pointillism. :)
I didn't do a good job of these; there's a portion of the central flower that's one big blown highlight in all three trilliums.
On the other hand, this was uphill, from a low height, on a funny angle; partially to avoid going off the path (and into the vehemently signed risk area for poison ivy) and partially because there really wasn't any way to get actually closer without having destructive interactions with the foliage, which would be wrong.
Probably because I haven't been looking in the right places, I haven't seen any trilliums in the last couple of years. I remember them as a kid carpeting the understory in various bits of woods in the corners of fence lines, and I have to admit there's a whole lot less of that in Toronto than there is in rural Lanark. Still, I find them a very cheering flower.

The First Wave

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler; they're typically the first warblers through Toronto, and so they seem to have been this year as well.
Warbler photography is a challenge to my serenity.

04 May 2009

As so she floated...

K20D, Rokinon 800/f8, 1/800, ISO 400
Sometimes 800mm is too long. :)

02 May 2009

Where yellow grows the something-or-other

Slightly dimmer than reality so the detail in the flowers shows.
100% crop from the vague middle of the picture above.

Anyone care to opine about what it is?

01 May 2009

New-sprung spring each year

Looking west, across the back of the house-row and into a little patch of vigorously leafing border trees. Note concealed swing-set and distant high-rises.
Purple flower knocked off its plant by the rain.
The back fence/embankment, complete with something with a lot of white flowers growing across it.
Detail on the white flowers. I like the FA 100 Macro a lot.