31 July 2009

Not actually madness

Brad DeLong has been referring to the US Republican Party as being composed of insane people rather frequently lately, on the grounds that they are taking the Birthers, the people arguing that Barack Obama was born outside the US, seriously.

This is to miss the point, I think. The Republicans have been arguing for the fundamental illegitimacy of every Democratic president since Jimmy Carter. This has a whole lot of contributing reasons—a sincere disbelief in the legitimacy of government, in preference for a purely corporate form of organization; a desire to privilege religious conviction over the civil law; xenophobic Manichean world views—but only really one cause. That cause is to reach after a reason why social changes supported by a majority of Americans aren't acceptable. (Never mind that social forms are a function of the ability of a society to communicate, which controls how it can organize itself. The post-1950 expansion in communications ability, even ignoring all its consequences for economic productivity, is pretty much guaranteed to produce new social forms. The general public acceptance of these is a second-order effect to the raw ability to have different social forms.)

This minority-refuses-to-accept-the-results-of-a-vote view is exactly the same as the one that lead to the US Civil War. Only this time there's no single rallying issue that the progressive—if not being violently anti-change makes you progressive; it's more like change-can-be-OK than progressive—side is focused on or willing to get vehement about, never mind go to war over, and there's no significant progressive media presence. And what is repeated enough times becomes true to the people who hear it.

So, sure, there's a wild disdain for facts going on here, but it's not crazy. It's feeding into the same "the result of the vote is illegitimate if we don't like it" pattern that's been going on for forty-odd years now.

Cheap Consumer Zoom

The DA 55-300 is admittedly only cheap in comparison to the pro-grade DA* zooms; it's about twice the price of the other variable aperture out-to-300mm zooms available in Pentax mount.
On the other hand, these were taken at 300mm, hand held, less than 30 degrees off the setting sun, and the subject was in front of a whitish concrete wall. So not the easiest subject and grounds to be pleased with the rendering and the bokeh.

Absolutely no idea in this world what kind of butterfly is going nom-nom-nom on these particular flowers.

Not a Marigold

In front of the crested serima cage on the path into the Kid's Zoo. About 15 cm across. Very yellow, and like a lot of swamp plants, much happier at the end of this rather rainy July than it would usually be.

30 July 2009

New Digs

The Metro Zoo's -- I think it's officially the Toronto Zoo these days, since Metro Toronto got mushed into Toronto some time since, but the habits of childhood are hard to alter -- new Tundra Exhibit opened today. It's a replacement for the old polar bear exhibit, which was becoming structurally decrepit. (So were the bears, who had been there since the zoo opened and were in their late twenties.)
The new exhibit is much larger and designed to allow more bears and breeding, which is a reaction to figuring they might be extinct in the wild in ten years if the nasty end of the sea ice projections turns out to be correct.
The exhibit is well done, and gets bears and wolves and foxes and owls all in one place where they're much more visible. (The wolves, for example, used to be down the bottom of the Canadian Domain hill, which is something of a hike.) On the other hand, it looks about as much like tundra as your typical suburban lawn.
Slippy rocks! More than one pool!
Room for a good amble!

Much, much better sight lines for photography.

Laminar Flow

This is what happens when you let people behind waterfalls with cameras.

Laminar flow:
Disrupted flow:
This sort of thing is fun, and I suppose you can all be thankful that there aren't that many places available to get behind a waterfall.

29 July 2009

The Caracal reclines sultanic

Aside from the blown patch of tummy fur, this one came out OK.
Though I really want to be living in a future that has optically absent enclosure force fields. (Heavily redundant ones!) Or in which there's a lot more use of moats.

Extremely blue

No idea what it is, and it was in a wretched awful tangle of vegetation, but I entirely love the colour.
I'm only moderately blue myself; the prospective employers in Winnipeg allowed as I certainly knew my stuff but would be a very poor cultural fit. Which is too bad—I think I could have worked well with the person I'd have been reporting to, and I really liked Winnipeg—but I can't say as they're wrong about the sub-optimal nature of the cultural fit.

An illusion of depth

The rendering from the FA31 Ltd. is notoriously difficult to describe, and the term "3D" is often used. It's not; it's a photograph, and flat as a flat flat thing in its essentials, but certainly one can tell which thing is in front of the other thing.

So I decided to take some shots with the DA35 to see what I thought of the equivalent effect; I'm just not a walk-around-with-normal-lens type of photographer, so I don't use the DA35 for streetscapes and candids of passer-by and such; I tend to use it for very close, colourful things.

A great many purple flowers
The concreted-against-further-water-pooling-and-rot top of a post. Post and flowerbed are in front of the Golden Lion Tamarin outdoor enclosure of the Americas Pavilion of the Metro Zoo.

Really not much to complain of in the effect of depth or the bokeh here.

A probable bee

Might be a fly, might be a very small bee; I'm not really equipped to tell.

Starting to label pictures by lens; I'm not going back to re-label all the prior ones, but figured it might be of interest going forward.

28 July 2009

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud!

Pygmy hippo, complete with wallow and relaxed outlook.

A Warm Rock is a Joy Forever

A Nile Monitor Lizard; these climb, swim, and burrow, but being lizards they also bask with devotion. Just out of the cropped frame is one end of a large ABS pipe, carefully painted to look like bamboo. It has one closed and one closable end, and it's used to feed the lizard, since that way it's used to crawling into the pipe which makes transporting the lizard every so much easier.
I certainly wouldn't want to have to pick up even a torpid Nile Monitor this size.

Shedding Chameleon

Trying to take pictures of this particular terrarium is normally hopeless; there's a tide of small children making cheerful "oooh" noises and there's bright sunlight coming in the skylights. (Which I'm sure is good for the purposes of keeping a happy chameleon, but it turns the glass into a mirror.)
Yesterday I lucked out; cloudy sky and relatively few people in the Africa Pavilion.

26 July 2009

Bokeh with Purple Flower

I wish all my snapshots turned out like this.


Neighbour's back fence. Odd, pre-storm light. FA31. Yes, the fence really is that colour where it's trying to be baby blue and failing.

Too Many Cat Pictures

Though I am aware that there will very probably be disagreement on that point, at least from certain persons, especially given the numbers of them I have not been posting lately.
Maybe I should go for the hand?
Death to feathers!
Wait, wait, he's moving the hand!
So sleepy...
A proper feline recline.

All with the FA31. Holding the toy in one hand and the camera in the other is remarkably tricky. Having a black cat lurking behind a pile of boxes in a room that doesn't get all that much sunlight is not a help, either.

Weirder than I can imagine

I've been staring at this image off and on all day.

Titan's surface—all of it—moves. ("We had an erroneous spin model.")

The best available explanation of this is that Titan's cryo-geology, where water is a rock, leads to a large liquid water layer, decoupling the upper crust from the rest of the moon. (Earth has the Moho, where rock stops being a solid and the plates slide on the upper mantle, but this is one of the places where the parallels between terrestrial and Titanian geology break down, since water is way less viscous than molten rock.) This isn't news, it was published more than a year ago now.

The image? Various outer-system bodies—Galilean moons of Jupiter, Titan, Neptunean ice-moons, Sedna, Eris, and Pluto—all hypothesized to have liquid-water layers. Europa's is apparently relatively small, it's just under much less ice crust.

So this whole decoupled surface, the outer crust just rotates on its own thing, might well be relatively common. (Never mind the whole "liquid water in Pluto" thing. It's more like an aqueous mantle, I can keep that from melting my brain.) It's the notion of gyroscope planets, the outer shell spinning freely on a water bearing over the rocky core, that's really messing with my head. What happens if you lay equatorial cables and stick up lots and lots of shiny-one-side, black-the-other fins? Can you run a dwarf planet as a generator?

And certain parties wonder why there's so little solar-system science fiction being written.

24 July 2009

Hard Rain

Aoife is convinced (probably correctly) that there is a mouse in back of the stove in the kitchen. This has resulted in her displaying a great deal of very focused behaviour, which I took advantage of last night to remove the screen (and the fan) from my bedroom window, so I could take some unobstructed pictures of the deluge in the dark.
These are long exposures off a tripod; 4s, 4s, and 15s. (The first two images in this post are different processing treatments of the same raw image.) I was both surprised by how much came through—more green than I see with my eyes, for instance—and how fragile the images are; they have very flat histograms, and there isn't much actual information space for post-processing to move around in.
The un-tweaked version, very yellow sodium light and all.
The tweaked version, which was an attempt to get more of the character of the rain to come through.
There's a tree in the way, but you can hopefully discern the very wet playground to the right of the submerged parking lot with the rain still hammering down on both.
Panned to the right; that's my back fence, various bits of diverse trees, and what I hope continues to be an impression of rain.

I thought this was a very interesting exercise, if not completely successful in its results; if I ever manage to get somewhere with clear skies, I'm going to have to try to get a starry sky.

23 July 2009

Perl and birdsong

Today, it is raining hard enough that I had to have a reading light on at noon. Though I will admit it isn't raining as hard as it was raining earlier, or might yet if we get the forecast risk of a thunderstorm turning into an actual thunderstorm. So not a day to go outside and take pictures.

Being an inside sort of day, I have a DVD with various bird songs on it, courtesy of it being an insert in a Smithsonian field guide. The problem is that there is no indication in the individual track what bird song this is; all of that information is in a combination of the directory (which has the full common name) and the file name (which has a cryptic abbreviation of the common name, and then an explanation of the call), which is fine if one is deliberately going through a list of references but not so fine if one wants to stick the lot on a portable music player and wander about the landscape acquiring bird-song knowledge by dint of osmosis and massive repetition.

So, I thought I could unwind the combo of directory name and file name into a text string, stuff the text string through a text-to-speech program, and glue the result of that on the front of the existing mp3 file.

It turns out I can; it also turns out to be much more interesting than I expected, what with:

  1. the various mp3 files are at different bit rates and frequencies; proper join requires the same bit rate and frequency
  2. inconsistent file name conventions, including the presence of apostrophes in the file names, which does awful things to quoting them during processing
  3. all of the mp3 files on the DVD have header issues; some of them have no headers at all, causing mp3 utils to choke
But it's done now. I've got things like:

there because there is one and only one file name that lists four source states (well, three, one twice) for the recording. I've learned way more than I thought I was going to need to about command line utilities for handling mp3s, too.

Next step -- create a playlist for Samsung's undocumented playlist format.

I haven't heard back about the prospective employment; that ought to comprise an adequate distraction.

14 July 2009

There are still birds

There are indeed still birds but I haven't been taking any pictures of them, or of anything much else. This is mostly because I have been trying not to twitch to death over waiting to find out if I was going to get the second, in-person, takes-airline-travel, interview with one prospective employer. (I did, however, prune and pack most of my books. Aoife accepted the presence of the stack with aplomb, and now sits on it with every evidence of contentment.)

I don't know when this interview will be, yet, but I have found out that it will happen. (And that it will be a five-person panel interview. Urk.) So hopefully I will be twitching a bit less and posting a bit more.

05 July 2009

Channelling Casandra

I don't do this very often, and it'd probably be a better thing for my equanimity if I didn't do it at all, but here goes.

There are two real problems with the global economy right now.

A financial sector, a banking system, whatever you want to call it, is fundamentally a predator. Predators can't convert inorganic materials into food; some other organism has to do that, and they get food by eating those organisms. Sometimes they do this at several layers of remove, such as in an ocean ecosystem where the plants are too small to see individually and we eventually get up to blue whales, but they must eat to live, and that means eating food, and the plants are what create food, everything else is just moving it around from organism to organism.

Predator populations are sharply limited by the size of the prey population; the famous example of lemming populations in the Arctic setting the population sizes for owls, hawks, and foxes is well known, but it's obvious on its face that you can't have more predators than there is food for them to eat, or, at least, not for very long.

In an ideal world, a banking system is taking its 1% cut for facilitating import replacing activity (import replacement = actual, as opposed to fraudulent, economic growth); it's tightly controlled and its profits are forcibly limited to not much more than that 1% rate.

Pretty much all "business-friendly" (meaning "profit-maximizing") development and investment activity is the equivalent of over-grazing or a lemming population boom; it collapses, and it collapses in a way that destroys value (the money that got taken out of the various mortgage markets remains real money, with some relationship to value; by destroying the value of wide swathes of the housing sector, the amount of real value backing that money is reduced. This is why there's a deflationary direction to currency right now). It's completely indifferent to import replacement activity; it's interested only in what the peak nominal value is going to be, because that represents the amount of cash that can be extracted from the enterprise.

Do this enough, and forty or so years is plenty-enough, and the underlying substrate of import-replacing activity is full of holes: the educational standards that produce a labour force able to innovate generally are gone; the insistence that labour is an expense, rather than capital, has produced a mix of the underpaid, overworked, and desperate; the mechanisms of investment and credit exist to prevent value-add economic activity, because that activity is never profit-maximizing. (It can't be; profit maximization destroys value.)

At this point, you get—and we are presently seeing—a predator population collapse. In the process of collapsing, they eat everything they possibly can, and thereby greatly reduce the ability of the populaton that supports them to recover. (Lemmings in the Arctic operate on a roughly three-year cycle; lemmings have a 2 year lifespan. Unmediated recovery takes generational time, in other words.)

It's not enough to regulate banks. It's not enough to force their activities into simple, generally comprehensible patterns, or to limit compensation so that it rewards medium term (10 year) rather than short term (1 year) success. Profit maximization is equivalent to a predator determined to eat as much as it can, as fast as it can, and because the analogy breaks down we don't get the fat-wolves-run-slow feedback mechanisms, and we don't get the questions of if-all-you-do-is-eat-you-have-no-breeding-success; we've got potentially immortal and immense predators that grow more able to eat the more they do eat.

We've also got a lot of people absolutely, religiously, convinced that this is good; that the bigger their pile of money the more god loves them, the better a person they are, the more social status they have.

The idea that money is a collectivist distributed accounting system, and not a fundamental natural thing like gravity or sunlight, doesn't register; sometimes it is fairly spectacularly denied and you get a gold bug. This is going to make doing any of the necessary things to fix this particular mess, starting with liquidating the existing financial system(=thin out the predator population), remonetizing (certainly the US needs to do this; various other places probably need to do this, too), and creating a financial system able to invest in import replacing activity, in reliable but not maximal profits(=let's garden, instead of over-grazing our herd animals), effectively impossible.

Without that change, the predator overpopulation will keep right on destroying value until they starve, and if they're starving, most everyone else is going to be starving, too.

What that means—and this is the second real problem—is that lots and lots of vital stuff is not going to get done. The US is only somewhere between a quarter and a third of the global economy, but it's going to take all of the rest of it with it for a time.

There's no end of work to do; we need to replace the entire transportation infrastructure with something that doesn't involve fossil carbon, we need to move all those coastal cities uphill, we need to get most of the human species out of subsistence and into prosperity. But at least a fifth and more like a quarter of the people who would work, who want to work, in advanced economies aren't going to be able to; the remaining four-fifths or three-quarters aren't going to be doing anything much that's good, just staggering on under the predator load and trying to keep staggering. Not much innovation, not much import replacement, just running down the machine while the wheels still turn. Markets do not pick long term objectives worth a damn, which is, in part, why they bubble so inherently. This is certainly not going to do anything good for the folks who are trying to either go from subsistence to prosperity or to make sure their newly-obtained prosperity continues.

So, specifics?

I think it's at least 50-50 that Barak Obama will be a one term, failed president; if the US offical jobless rate is over 15% for any length of time, especially in 2011 or 2012, it's difficult to see how he could avoid this outcome. It's also difficult to see how the jobless rate isn't going to go at least that high and stay there, when policy arguments remain about how to best enable the good health of the predators.

(It's more than possibly to empirically determine what results in a real labour shortage, active and ongoing import replacement, and ecologically sane economic activity; the problem is that doing this isn't what anyone with actual power wants or is trying to do. They're trying to protect the predation mechanisms because those mechanisms are what create their power.)

The US wasn't politically stable with 20% unemployment in a plurality-agrarian economy during the Great Depression; I wouldn't want to take any bets that it's politically stable with 20% unemployment, for some value of unemployment, with a primarily service economy. If the official unemployment rate goes over 15% and stays there, I'd expect there's going to be real and prolonged political instability in the US, probably violently so. There's certainly a ton of existing rhetoric supporting violence, and it's pretty much all rhetoric that wants desperately to do things that will make the problem much worse.

Information is lost when plant closures occur; most of the knowledge about how to do something is transmitted verbally and by demonstration by the people who are doing the work. Stop doing the work, and this knowledge is lost. Starting to do new things takes time; it relies (heavily) on a willingness to adopt an empirical approach, and success requires moving responsibility and decision making down to the layer of the people doing the work. Most of the world has varying degrees of problems with those requirements, generally socially driven problems with giving people with grease under the fingernails control of the operations budget; the US has particularly bad problems with them, and the reasons housing was such a successful bubble—the work is uncomplicated and quality is almost impossible to evaluate, especially for inexperienced buyers—do not apply to much else. So innovating out of the hole is not an option.

Or, rather, innovating out the hole is not an option without profound, usually, this takes a big war, levels of social change.

Canada, internally, is in a bit less of a hole; we hung on to better banking regulation and we have less of a constituency for naked greed. We also have 80% of our economy interacting with the US, a pretty much unrecoverable traditional manufacturing sector, a disturbingly well-financed effort to create a permanent constituency for greed and ecological indifference, and absolutely zero political leadership that shows any slightest evidence of clue with respect to the core issues and how to fix them. (The last fellow who tried, St├ęphane Dion, was met with a full-spectrum suppression effort by the entire width of Canadian political institutions.) So we're going over this cliff, too.


Wind chimes belonging to a neighbour, I hasten to add, though I do think the colours are pretty.

04 July 2009

Juvenal Plumage Nuthatch

I originally thought this was a white-breasted nuthatch in juvenal plumage. Having looked more carefully, I think it is a red-breasted nuthatch in juvenal plumage; the beginning of the eye-stripe is there, rather than white all round the eye.
I am not at all certain of this identification, and have been finding images of either kind of nuthatch in juvenal plumage difficult to find.
A fondness for peanuts does not distinguish between the types.
I believe this is a look of disdain, presumably for my insistence on interrupting dinner with photography.
Oil seeds are good, too. You just have to be willing to reach in after them.
I did remember to refill the feeder, much to the delight of the voracious flocks of house sparrows.

03 July 2009


From a neighbour's hanging basket.
Something of a test to see how manageable over-saturation of reds might be.

Contingency and Exigency

I have argued before that profit maximization is an obviously disastrous standard for economic activity because it destroys value. (Very Short Version: Value is the ratio of cost to benefit; lots of benefit for low cost is high value, little benefit for high cost is low value. There is no way to maximize profit without reducing value.)

The push to insist on profit maximization ahead of everything else happened in the early 1970s, along with two other events of historical note.

Firstly, the United States became a net oil importer, undergoing a larger than it might have been economic shock associated with this event due to the OPEC oil embargo.

Secondly, integrated circuits got developed and were commercially bootstrapped by military programs, mostly for ICBMs; the development didn't have to go through the usual commercial funding filters, and thus avoided the mechanisms that normally act to slow or stifle truly disruptive technology.

This had a bunch of side effects.

Because computers promptly got much cheaper, and continued to do so for the next forty years (equipment costs for chip fabs are now overcoming Moore's law), the impending large organizational collapse of the sixties could be staved off by doing what they'd been doing, only faster. Pretty much all business management use of computers has been to do quill pen and ledger accounting very quickly. Email functions much the same way; there's no structural difference between email and office boys carrying notes, it's faster. So increasingly inexpensive and ubiquitous computing acting primarily as a mechanism to remove the need for fundamental structural change in how people in commercial organizations co-operated in groups to achieve organizational ends.

Because of the "this is too big to manage" experience with large organizations in the sixties, as well as the other social upheavals of the sixties, there was also a cultural shift toward not changing, to proving that it was not necessary to change how things were done.

Going from a net resource exporter to a net resource importer, and then to a heavily dependent net resource importer, requires some fairly fundamental changes in how the economy is structured, especially in terms of expectations about competition and efficiency, since you are competing not merely for resources in terms of the price you will pay, but in terms of how much stuff you get from some set amount of resource. Rather than make these changes, the US used its hegemonic position to establish and enforce resource and market access.

Combined with the Regan "greed is good" economic policy, the net effect of the period from, say, 1972 to the present has been:

  1. general destruction of value in service of maximized profits
  2. obscuration of the stupidity involved in 1 by an unexpected technical revolution comparable to steam power in its effects on scope of choice [1]
  3. dissolution of expectations for democratic norms, especially the right of refusal, as propaganda supporting item 1 becomes generationally pervasive, imperial mechanisms applied to others become an accepted norm while the definition of "other" expands, and personal economic prosperity becomes increasingly dependent on personal and moral submission to a profit-maximizing organization's agenda.
  4. widespread belief that structural change in social organization is impossible and that any attempt to do so is evidence of moral failure, especially if it's change away from an un-mediated winner-take-all capitalism.

[1] consider what it would have looked like without a computer revolution to obscure the control problems and to drive individual productivity.

Which is where the exigency comes in; a combination of historical accidents (the US happening to be in a hegemonic position when developing integrated circuits at just about the same time it ran off the end of its industrial-period economic development) has meant that the "greed is good" political faction in the US has managed to have a long enough run at the levers of power to both effectively destroy the global financial system and to generate generational ("I learnt these obviously correct views from my parents") adherents.

It's fairly obvious how to fix the economic problems; an economy structured to support reliability of profit (as distinct from maximal profit), a permanent actual mild labour shortage, and general increase in access to material choice in a context of being constrained to actual public fiscal transparency and environmental responsibility (=local diversity and disparity of species always increases wherever human economic activity is taking place) is relatively straightforward to enact as a technical question. (Allowing a much greater variety of organizational forms for economic activity would be good, too, though not strictly necessary.)

What is not obvious is how to fix the social problem of having millions of people who sincerely believe that the only legitimate government and economic structure is one which maximizes, defends, and preserves the benefits of individual greed. Even so little a thing as removing the utility of bribery (however formalized and legalized, that's certainly what it is) from the political process.

It's none-the-less critical; not only is the ocean rising, the human thing that's a capable technical economy isn't invulnerable. It's perfectly possible to crash it into an unrecoverable state. (This might be a social goal for some; social change is in large part driven by economic possibility. Shrink economic possibility back to 1890 and supposed 1890 social mores are easier to enforce.)

It's also not a position where there's value in compromise; selection pressure is real, and some greed becomes more greed much more readily than no greed becomes some greed.

Political force majeure probably won't work; it would have to be backed by real force to be thorough enough, and that takes it out of the realm of the purely political.

Or, of course, I could just be too stupid to see the obvious effective way to go about it, which is why I lose sleep over this question.

02 July 2009

Spot the Frog

They don't seem to mind each other, but after the black-crowned night heron flew over, I had to wait quite a while for there to be visible frogs again.

01 July 2009

Green is the Colour

All from the Metro Zoo's little outdoor wetland display.
No idea which frogs any of them are, but feel I got quite lucky in terms of the quality of the light.