Category Archives: photos

Pretty simple, really. These are posts with photos in them.

Four Awesome South Texas Birds I Don’t Know

I shot these pics yesterday while kayaking on an arroyo near (in?) Los Fresnos. I have no idea what any of these birds are, except the cormorant. The rest are pretty much just awesomebirds. Maybe I should learn about birds.

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Science in its underwear is still science

[flickr width=200 align=right float=right]3980267537[/flickr]So some hackers hacked some scientists’ email accounts and found that science is messy. The scientists can be petty, personal, wounded, angry, and are not always nice people. The science in question is the hot (heh heh) topic of human influence on global warming. Those who done the hacking, or at least done profited from it, claim they’ve found evidence of a global conspiracy. I doubt it. Scientists don’t cooperate enough to pull off a conspiracy of that size.

What seems to have been found is a lot of good science and a little bad science, with plenty of human foibles thrown in. Of course the negative aspects are exaggerated on websites run by climate change skeptics, and minimized by people on the other side of the debate, but it’s really just science in its underwear.

Humans make judgments based on the wrong kinds of information in many circumstances. For example, we sometimes base our judgments of the quality of a group’s arguments on our perception of how consistent the group is in communicating those arguments. That is, we decide how right people are by how consistently they agree. Many groups, aware of this bias, have learned to emphasize consistency and consensus above almost all other virtues. Civil rights groups have implemented this principle for decades. Nancy Pelosi imposed it on the Democrats, after seeing the political benefits of the Republicans’ emphasis on party loyalty. Science has also felt the pressure to unite behind a single message, knowing that the public would find the science itself to be more credible if there were fewer visible disagreements among scientists. Keep the arguments in the family. Don’t air your dirty laundry.

But that’s stupid. People disagree, and their disagreements, per se, have nothing to do with the quality of the ideas they are discussing. In fact, in areas where we don’t actually know for certain what’s going on (e.g., all of science), the disagreements themselves are an important element of the method for approximating the truth more and more closely. Science can never be perfectly certain about anything, but imperfect certainty is not the same as total ignorance; imperfect certainty leads to working suspension bridges, space shuttles that don’t always blow up, cures for diseases, and therapies for mental disorders. Science doesn’t discover Truth, really; it formulates working models. And the models, in most fields, have worked better and better over time.

Sadly, the way many members of the general public see science seems more like religion or theistic monarchy, and that creates problems. Scientists are supposed to be the infallible high priests handing down wisdom from on high. With that setup, any perceived inconsistency is assumed to invalidate the entire enterprise. Always h the baby with the bathwater.

  • A skeleton is found with weird features: throw out a century of evolutionary research.
  • Climatologists can’t explain ten years’ tree ring data: throw out half a century’s findings on climate change.
  • Red wine drinkers in the Mediterranean live longer than other people elsewhere: throw out all we know about the negative effects of alcohol.

Scientists don’t think like this; only certain non-scientists do. Individual findings almost never invalidate an entire body of work (though there are notable exceptions). Science cannot be held to some arbitrary rules of consistency completely divorced from the realities of what science is. Science, although sometimes requiring quite a lot of expertise and knowledge to carry out, is inherently mundane. The steps are humble and unpretentious. You change one thing to see if another changes. You measure two things and see if they are related. You seek the opinions of other people who understand the issues and look for a consensus. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t, but you almost never find unanimity.

Finally, heed the wisdom of Gavin A. Schmidt, a NASA climatologist: “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice. Newton may have been an a**, but the theory of gravity still works.”

Travel Update: 8/27/09

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The pic is the lovely pyromaniac I have left behind. :'(

Travel was uneventful, which is usually best. After a 3-month absence, my apartment is still here and unflooded (no hurricanes or even rain here, apparently), the phone and internet work, nothing smells weird, and I am really hoping there are no dead animals in either of my kayaks, this year. I made all my flights, they were all on time, and I wasn’t in any middle seats.

My car still works. I reconnected the battery, put the license plates back on, and drove it a little, feeling the whumpy whumpy of the flat spots on the tires. I got $90 worth of groceries, which feels like nothing; it always does when you start from nearly zero.

My job is still here, and all the people I love, whom I work with. Now I have a new next-office neighbor, Edna, who is an awesome developmental researcher, a set of skills I wish to exploit. Heh heh. I have put my Algonquin 8x10s on my office wall. They may not be the most artfully-placed things ever (wall space = limited), but they remind me, and make others jealous. Their purpose is fulfilled. I renewed my campus gym membership and parking tag (total price for the year: about $300; kind of a bargain, in the case of the parking permit). I got my accumulated mail (nothing from U.S. Immigration). I have migrated my Outlook settings from the summer back into my desktop machine, and am working on synchronizing the files, now. I watched the Fall Convocation on le internets, and then sneaked into the after-convocation brunch to chat with people I haven’t seen all summer. Nice :)

Ah, to be back home. Perfect? No. But it’s home, and there’s something to be said for not worrying every day whether it’s still there ;)

Rabble-rousing Tuesday

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Bullfrog on Biggar Lake, Algonquin Park

…aaaaand to spoil the effect, a little rant from one character in the book I’m listening to in my current workouts:

“Let’s see… you work every day of the year except for three lousy weeks. You make about a hundred thousand dollars. Your boss takes two-thirds and gives you one-third, and you give a third of that to the government. The government uses what it gets to build all the roads and schools and police and pensions, and your boss takes his share and buys a mansion on an island somewhere. So, naturally, you complain about your bloated, inefficient Big Brother of a government, and you always vote for the pro-owner party.” From Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Forty Signs of Rain”

Of course the character who says this is ignoring some things (like the fact that the government can, indeed, be bloated and inefficient, and not all executives can afford mansions); but the point it makes is acute: we complain more about the small percentage of our paychecks we give to the government — for which we receive some benefit — than we do of the much larger percentage that goes into corporate profit, for which we arguably receive little (or certainly much less) benefit. We feel the visible loss in our monthly paycheck more than the much larger one that happens before the check is even cut.

Graduation: No Hands, Ma! (cause of teh swine flu)

Grads!So far, the Swine Flu hasn’t really lived up to its early media-fueled pandemic potential. Thank heavens. Still, people down here on the border are making a big show of reassuring the public, despite the fact that we haven’t had (so far) any more cases than anywhere else in the country. But big gatherings are still suspect. btw, sorry for the bad photos. Handheld little snappy camera with ISO 400 max.

funny robes

Our commencement ceremonies were changed in subtle but noticeable ways. No touching. I was on the stage shaking hands and routing traffic (me: not shown), and after a few shakes, I was told to stop. No touching. This made me realize how much the touching is usually a part of the ritual. It’s a production line of touching. You get touched to be hooded, then handshake that simultaneously serves to hold you back until it’s time to walk across the stage, then the President shakes your hand, hands you the degree, and poses for a picture, then the Dean shakes your hand and sends you to the individual photographer (offstage) who probably touches you to pose you. Well, none o’that. Me, I put a reassuring (I hope) hand on arms or shoulders, the President cleverly put a hand on the back, with the other hand holding the opposite end of the (probably empty) degree tube, and then — weirdest of all – the Deans. No props, and no reason to be there except to congratulate the grads.

As you see, they settled for a weird hand-clasping, praying-type half-bow (or full bow). The whole thing struck me as kind of sad.

Graduation - no hands

Congratulations - No Hands

In more interesting news, these tubes are cool. The stacks of tubes on shelves seems to fit the medieval academia feel of the funky robes.

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In other news, the big square-topped stick in the foreground? I got to carry it last year. It’s called the MACE! I guess graduations used to get rowdy, back in the old days. KEEP IT DOWN YA FRIGGIN’ UNDERGRADS ELSE I’MA MACE YA!

What Flickr Needs: Fewer Titles

Don't Fence Me In

Flickr has a weakness: it allows photographers to title their own photos. This is often a bad thing. Let me demonstrate:

Exhibit 1: a lovely photo. Simply great. It’s got a wonderful balance of color, some excellent use of depth of field, and really nice composition. Title: “Enchantment.” Now I’m forced to experience intrusive images from bad fantasy novels when I see the picture. Not even good fantasy; bad fantasy.

Here’s another one. Not as stunning as the first, but still, interesting point of view, nice visual lines, etc. And then a title that wrenches my mind toward bad 1990s Lifetime Network movies: “Follow Your Own Path.” Plus, in the description the artist says s/he “literally kissed the sun” in that spot. No, you did not. Back to my original point, the title is not good.

This one I really like, too. Great plant shot. While you’re enjoying the juicy green, look at the title. LOOK AT IT! Now wash your eyes out at the hazmat station for a minimum of five minutes. Follow workplace standards for contamination with caustic substances.

It goes on and on. Titles like “Freedom,” “Faerie-House,” “True Enigma” (these are invariably self-portraits), “Indescribably Luscious,” “Ultimate Escape,” etc. etc. etc. (got tired of sifting through the bad titles). And I’m not even talking about the pictures people take of their pets and children. No, these are good pictures, art-wise (IMHO), that have horrendous titles. I breathe sighs of relief when I see titles like “Jan 27, 2008” or “IMG_2452” or the ever-appropriate “untitled.”

People should maybe think of hiring someone else to do their titles. Also, Flickr should let me browse title-optional. Yes, I crave no-title browsing. Because this hurts my brain.

Politics is a John Hughes Movie

Watching Bill O’Reilly (why do I do this to myself? I do not know) “interview” two alleged experts on interrogation has been a frustrating, fascinating few minutes. He’s asking, of course, about torture, waterboarding, etc. One is an eggheaded intellectual, while the other is more of a pragmatic policy man. The intellectual was clearly chosen because he was predicted to oppose the use of torture in interrogations, while the other guy was supposed to support it. But neither of them would unconditionally sign on to the idea of using torture to get intelligence about terror. Bill went around and around, making his question more and more general and gotcha-esque, trying to extract some commitment from these two (or at least one of them) that waterboarding et al. would be the best national security choice in some undefined scary situation. He gives up in exasperation when neither of them will take his bait (probably guaranteeing an out-of-context sound byte later on).

Once again, and more forcefully, I’m struck with the sense that party politics in America is a game of cliques. The in-groups come first, with the dogma, policies, and even values and beliefs, coming afterward. The entertainers (masquerading as newspeople) like O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Maddow, and Olbermann understand this, and feed their audiences a steady diet of self-confirming sugar water. But it’s the clique first. The ideals serve the cliques.

How else to explain the supposedly “Christian” right’s insistence on supporting any war waged by a fellow conservative? Or demanding that concealed handguns be allowed on Texas university campuses ((but notably not in any legislative buildings))? Or supposedly-fiscally-responsible party members calling for increasing expansion of prisons, the military, and police forces at taxpayer expense? Or the antagonism to environmentalism in any form not sponsored by hunters and fishermen? How else to account for the “progressive” left’s protection of endangered species, sometimes at land- and business-owners’ expense, while insisting on the right of choice in even late-term, convenience-motivated abortion situations? And what about the mainstream left’s emerging opposition to nontraditional environmentalism and feminism? The illuminating factor is group loyalty and identity.

The most telling points are the flip-flops whenever the regimes change in Washington. For eight years, conservatives lambasted anyone protesting any of Bush/Cheney’s policies as antipatriotic, while the liberals crowed about the patriotism of dissent. Now that Obama’s in charge, we have John Stewart et al. ridiculing the Tea Party folks ((you will note my amazing restraint in not calling them Teabaggers)) while the right-wingers remind us that our Founding Fathers were protesters. This pattern holds with the expansion of executive power, as well (Obama has decided it’s not so bad, while the Republicans have discovered a taste for restraint). We are true to our school, before all else. And if the ideology fits within that, great. If not, we’ll twist it around until it does. This explains, I think, a huge amount of what goes on in U.S. government.

And now, a picture of some flowers:

little red flowers

Let the Right One in. Meaning this movie. Let it in.

San Antonio

The photo and my comments are unrelated, today. The comments are about the Swedish movie Let the Right One In. Holy creepy awesome, Batman. I have been sick to death of the stupidity, self-importance, and adolescent inanity of most vampire movies, but now I concur with the comment on the poster: BEST. VAMPIRE MOVIE. EVER. There’s absolutely no reveling in power while pretending to be humanitarian. There’s no “tee hee I know so much more than you mere mortals.” There’s no vicarious power-tripping at all, really. There’s no moralizing with the lips while contrived plot devices make a bloodfest inevitable. By dodging the pitfalls of teenage mentality that infest most vampire movies like vermin, this film acquires the power to be simply a good film.

Why is this movie so awesome? It’s real. The vampires (the two we see) are real, gritty, sometimes-hard-to-watch humans. The painstakingly slow scenes as Eli’s middle-aged partner drags the body of a man he’s killed to satisfy Eli’s hunger, step by grunting step through the snow on a child’s sled. The horrible scenes of bullying and violence as Oskar tries in vain to assert himself with his peers. The painfully tender scenes of the romance (or whatever it is) between Oskar and Eli, two twelve-year-olds (though Eli has “been twelve for a long time”). It was eviscerating to watch at times, but I could not take my eyes away. To call this movie “horror” is to insult the movie and create unrealistic expectations for the genre.

Austin, Texas – March 7, 2009

This is what you see if you stand in the middle of south congress ave for a while. If you stand for longer, you'll see something a little different ;)I’ll get to the cool pictures of night life on South Congress Avenue in Austin down at the end of this post. But first, as is my wont, I shall set the stage. I’m a member of the local union (Pan American United Faculty, currently a subsidiary of Texas Faculty Association, which is in some way a child organization of the NEA). Me. In a union. My right-wing upbringing instilled in me a loathing for unions (for reasons I’m still not completely clear on); but now I consider my $40 per month a good investment, because I keep learning freaky insane things about faculty being harassed or fired for bizarre or nonexistent reasons.

Odd that the public seems to think tenure is such a sweet deal, like it guarantees us profs a job for life. Certainly not in Texas. It just guarantees that there has to be “due process” before they summarily fire your sorry butt. In other words, it gives you a level of job security (at most American institutions) similar to (or less than) contracted workers in the private sector. You still get reviewed regularly, and if your performance is too low, you’re out. And for those of us who are not tenured, well, my job terms (I don’t have an actual contract) say I can be fired at any time, for any reason (or no reason), and I have no legal recourse. Continue reading

Why Education? Ask Tristan.

Here in South Texas, stuff blows around a lot. Few trees and certainly no hills to stop it. Lots of wind. So my teeny back “yard” gets its share of trash. This delicious document was in the take sometime last month. Is it not precious? I defy you to malign its preciousness.

(sorry about the quality; it’s a faded, blurry document; I’ve done what I can to make it legible)

False Prophet of Liquid Refreshment and Other Stories

coke redemption
This made me crack up. Turns out, all I got was a coupon for a free bottle of coke, mailed two weeks later. I think I need a new religion.

Online things that are bugging me or I find interesting this week:

  • Yard Signs and Websites – Not that I’m surprised, but this report suggests that Megan’s Law (community notification for sex offenders) probably has no real impact on sex offending.
  • Autism and Fraud – Apparently in a key study cited by folks who firmly believe (despite mountains of evidence to the contrary) that MMR vaccines cause autism… the researcher faked the data.
  • Education <> University – I have great respect for Professor Dennis Rancourt, who dared to think critically about the education system, and got fired for it. The article brings up all kinds of interesting ideas, including the deep intertwining of money and learning in our education institutions, and also the University of Ottawa sounds like a scary place to work.
  • Bailulous? Stimout? This article suggests that the abomination stimulus has a chance (if done properly) of creating job growth. Another recent article demolished claims that FDR’s “New Deal” did not work. Okay, that’s pretty cool, if true. But it’s only part of the problem. The other part is whether we should do this, even if it might create jobs and economic growth. My feeling is still generally “no.”
  • Horrifying – This is horrendous. An Iraqi woman admitting that she orchestrated the rapes of dozens of women, so they would feel — within the strictures of Arabic social structures — that they were better off dead, and therefore be willing to become suicide bombers. It reminds me of reports last year that a high percentage of male suicide bombers were recruited because they were suffering from terminal medical conditions. Evil still exists, apparently.
  • Inconceivable! This questionably newsworthy item is all about the demise of a breed of dog. A non-useful, just-for-show, fully-artifically-human-genetically-engineered pointless breed of ridiculous fluffy dog. The tagline of the article actually says “danger” and (more egregiously) “extinction.” I do not think that word means what you think it means. It’s a breed of dog. It’s not a species. Is there some lonely, mateless Sealyham Terrier living out his or her final, dejected days on an ice floe, drifting farther and farther from his or her traditional hunting grounds, family and friends slowly killed by industrialization and destruction of their natural habitat? Is the decline of this little anti-mutt robbing the world of even one teensy shred of naturally-occurring genetic diversity? NO. More likely, there are many very happy Sealyham Terriers having lots of enjoyable puppydog sex with non-Sealyham breeds of dogs, and raising gaggles and herds of genetically impure, totally adorable little fluffballs who are just as useless and genetically modified as their parents and grandparents, but less racially pure (and less profitable). In the process, they have unknowingly dealt a tiny but meaningful symbolic blow to the whole insane “show dog” culture. Man, this article was stupid. But ranting about it was fun.