Archive for April 2010
Yesterday, April 28, was Terry Pratchett’s 62nd birthday. Those who follow Wickersham’s Conscience know that Sir Terry is WC’s favorite author. And those who follow Sir Terry know that he suffering from a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s Syndrome.
WC learned decades ago that life doesn’t offer much justice. But it is particularly disheartening that a man and writer with such an agile mind is suffering such a fate. It is harsh that such a throughly humane author faces such an end. Dylan Thomas said it best,
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But Terry professes to not be bitter, and WC can do no less. So Happy Birthday, Sir Terry. Thank you for all of the pleasure and delight of your novels over all these years. And may you live just exactly as you wish.
WC sold a dozen or so bird photos to a local company recently. He was a little alarmed to learn that (a) they were going to print them at 36 inches by 48 inches, and (b) they were going to use a local vendor here in Fairbanks, Alaska to do the printing.
After all, these are 10.1 megapixel Olympus E-3 photos, some of them cropped down a bit from that. There’s no way that the pixels on that tiny Olympus Four-Thirds sensor were going to be adequate for the 155 million necessary to print at even 300dpi.
WC just saw the prints. They are stunning. You have to be within 10 inches or so of the photo to make out any loss of detail (it’s 1440dpi), the colors are perfect, they are vivid and the printing comes to within a quarter inch of the edge of the page. The company is Date-Line Printing, and the printer they use is a Xerox 8265. WC doesn’t know whether the prints are enlarged in a computer or on the printer itself. And they only charge $75 per print.
WC is very, very impressed. Kudos to Xerox and Date-Line. First rate stuff.
Don’t miss New York Magazine’s take on our grubbing ex-governor. And remember, whenever someone says “It’s not about the money” that it is always about the money.
There have been hundreds of thousands of words written about Apple’s Steve Jobs. Most of them aren’t very insightful. But here’s an essay from Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini that nails some of the critical bits of Jobs’ special genius.
Tog was a part of the original Macintosh design team, and has a long series of publications on human-computer interfaces that are very good. He’s currently working with Jakob Nielsen, arguably the leading authority on web design (the New York Times called him “The guru of web page usability”), and Donald Norman (The Way Things Work), inarguably the leading authority on all things design. Heady company, but Tog’s a bright guy, and his stuff is always worth reading.
WC and a buddy headed down to the Delta Junction area again on Saturday morning. One of the goals was to find (or re-find) a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. Since the males are on the lek early in the morning, we headed out at 5:30 AM, and blasted straight through to the Meadows Road area. Unhappily, we didn’t find the lek, although we did find some possible clues, including a large flock of Sharp-tails. This lady was among the females:
The views of the mountains were simply outstanding all day. While there was a breeze at midday, it never produced the dust clouds over the Delta River that often obscure the view. This photo is from Barley Way:
Migration has moved through waterfowl and into the passerines, with sparrows starting to arrive. This American Tree Sparrow was skulking in the brush alongside the road:
The best came last. Buzzing along Shaw Creek Flats on the way home, in the late twilight, we found a Short-eared Owl, uncommon in Alaska, posing on a post:
And excellent day of birding. Great weather, good light and good birds.
The finger-pointing has started over the causes of the Great Recession. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission – the SEC – has filed a civil lawsuit against Goldman Sachs, one of the larger players in the toxic bonds debacle that triggered the financial collapse.
There’s a lot of confusion about what “caused” the recession. Of course, there’s rarely a single cause for an economic crisis. And that’s true here. But to WC three events seem to have combined to make the current recession severe.
First, there was a housing bubble in more than half of the states. A bubble occurred because a fundamental premise about housing purchases – that it’s a well-considered, carefully weighed decision and something a would-be homeowner does only a few times – became false in fact. The mortgage industry made home acquisition ridiculously easy. No downpayment, initially low interest rates, and no serious credit evaluation, let alone measure of ability to repay. With easy access came speculation. Buy it, hold it a year, spin it and clip the appreciation. It didn’t matter that the “appreciation” was created by others spinning, too. And it was all based on the assumption that prices would never fall, that appreciation in value would continue, and that you could sell before the interest rate climbed, pushing the payments out of your reach. It was a very fragile bubble; the moment the time it took to sell exceeded the no-payment period, it would all come crashing down. It was musical chairs for high stakes; it was a crisis when the music stopped.
Second, all of those billions of dollars of mortgages were sold. Not in the usual way, but bundled into giant packages, mixes of loans that were stupidly risky and loans that were merely risky. Supposedly smart people decided, against all the evidence, that these toxic bundles, built on a bubble, weren’t risky, and bought them. And paid face value. Other supposedly smart people even insured some of these bundle of junk, promising to pay the owners a lot of money if the bundles of junk crashed. When the bubble burst, and those bundles of mortgages were waste paper, the clever bankers and the clever insurers were wiped out. Stuff that had been valued at hundreds of billions of dollars was now worth much, much less. Worse, no one could tell exactly how much less, because the bundles of junk were so hard to figure out.
Third, the immoderate greed of those folks who were spinning houses was left far behind by the completely unbelievable greed of the bankers and insurers who clipped hefty premiums and big bonuses on all of these transactions. To quote Paul Krugman,
There were ever-greater rewards — bonuses beyond the dreams of avarice — for bankers who could generate big short-term profits. And the way to raise those profits was to pile up ever more debt, both by pushing loans on the public and by taking on ever-higher leverage within the financial industry.
The combination of this disconnect from history in home purchases, financial structures that were too clever by far, and the greed of the financial industry nearly killed the world’s economy.
Now when those same financial wizards oppose reform of their industry, you have to ask if they are selflessly defending the free market, or trying to keep those “bonuses beyond the dreams of avarice.” And you have to ask if the risk of a repetition of this debacle outweighs any claim that reform will “hurt the financial industry.” Hey, some of WC’s best friends are bankers. But it’s all about greed. When a banker blathers about a free market, get a firm grip on your wallet and find the police.
Book Review: Cubs by the Numbers, Al Yellon, Kasey Ignarski and Matthew Silverman, Skyhorse Publishing (March 26, 2009)
As WC has described earlier, his antitrust law professor – one of the lawyers involved in Flood v. Kuhn – took WC’s antitrust law class to the bleachers of Wrigley Field for “field work” in antitrust law. And so, in the middle 1970′s began WC’s hopeless addiction to the Chicago Cubs. WC has a virulent case. And one symptom is WC’s near-daily participation in Al Yellon’s “Bleed Cubbie Blue” Cubs’ blog. Al’s Cubs’ addiction makes WC’s look mild. But he has turned it to more useful and, WC hopes, profitable purposes.
Al is one of the co-authors of this amazing book. Every player since 1932 (when the Cubs first numbered player’s uniforms) is organized by uniform number, and the better players for each jersey number are discussed in some detail. And there’s usually a note on the most obscure Cubbie to wear a given number.
As an approach to organizing the history of the Cubs, it’s excellent. As a research effort, it is very, very impressive. As a read, it is simply delightful. While Al and his fellow authors are serious Cub fans, the book is light-hearted and very well-written. Packed with anecdotes, insights and trivia, it manages to celebrate the team without the self-flagellation that afflicts too many Cubs’ authors.
The book works as both a read and a reference. It’s also great fun; the Cubs have had more than their share of characters over the years. WC’s very highest recommendation for any Cubs fan.
And a special thank you to Al and his co-authors for autographing WC’s copy. The charitable contribution to Doctors Without Borders was a small price to pay.
Sarah Palin spoke in Ontario, Canada on April 15. It was a charitable event. The complete transcript of her speech is available.
WC bets none of his readers can force their way through and read the whole hour long speech. It’s bad beyond belief. She comes off like an idiot den mother. If WC had paid paid $200 Loonies to attend this thing, he’d be asking for his money back.
(Oh, and Sarah, we don’t say “eh” in Alaska. We never have. What a hoser…)
My modest respect for Sean Parnell took another, more serious blow today. He’s announced he has directed Attorney General Dan Sullivan to join 20 other states in challenging the constitutionality of recently enacted federal heath care reform legislation.
Wickersham’s Conscience, in this post at least, isn’t going to argue the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or the economic impacts of a successful court challenge. Since the Roberts’ SCUSA doesn’t care about or follow precedent any longer, the lawsuit is a crap shoot. Instead, WC proposes to examine the premises underlying this idiotic idea.
First, as Palin’s Tool acknowledges, some twenty other states are already suing to challenge the law. What’s the point in spending our Attorney General’s time on it. Is he so naive as to think the issues won’t be adequately addressed already? What is the point in Alaska spending money as well? And Alaska will spend money. It won’t be AG Sullivan doing the litigating. Some Washington, D.C. law firm will milk this cow until the udders are chapped and bleeding. Remember, this is the same former Governor Lite who promises to save the State money by vetoing capital budget items. WC wouldn’t usually criticize spending money on lawyers, but in this case it could be better and more usefully spent on bridges to nowhere. Shucks, why not just burn the money on a street corner? The entertainment value would be better.
Second, assuming you succeed, what’s Plan B? The Department of Health & Human Services already spends $2.1 billion of the $8.9 billion budget. Most of that $2.1 billion is spent on health-related services. It increases both in dollars and as a percentage of the budget each year. How does the Guv plan to manage that amount in the absence of the federal regulation? The private side is worse off. Small businesses are facing annual increases in health care insurance premiums in the range of 20-50% per year. WC never got along with his ’60s era revolutionary college classmates because they could never tell him what would happen after the revolution. WC wants to know what happens without a health care revolution?
Third, even by Republican standards, this is stomach-churning hypocrisy. We’ve had mandatory health insurance for older folks – Medicare – for years. Are you proposing to throw it out, too? The elderly can just die? Shades of Caribou Barbie’s death panels! And anyone whose memory isn’t hampered by politics recalls that the Republicans, in response to former President Clinton’s truly revolutionary health care bill, proposed the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993.” That bill had 21 co-sponsors, including Alaska’s very own Senator Ted Stevens. And it had a striking resemblance to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Oh. Right. That was then; this is now.
Can everyone be honest and candid for a moment? This silly lawsuit is simple Republican posturing. No one has thought it through. It’s not about “bedrock constitutional principles of federalism.” It’s about getting re-elected. It’s about pandering and not leadership. And it’s embarrassing.
UPDATE April 26, 2010: Jeff Feldman, one of the best attorneys in Alaska, agrees with Wickersham’s Conscience on Gov. Parnell’s challenge to the national health care bill.
Spring migration is a little early this year, with the Canada Geese arriving at the one of the earliest recorded dates.
It’s a fine thing for those of us who like birds but are tired of Redpolls, but the impact of these increasingly early arrivals on the species and the habitat is unknown. Along with thousands of Canada Geese, we get a few Greater White-fronted Geese as well.
And usually not long after the geese fly in the Swans arrive. Trumpeter Swans are the heaviest North American flying bird, but have an unusual grace despite their size.
About the same time that these birds arrive, down at the Delta Barley Project the raptors start to move through. Usually the earliest arrivals are the Rough-legged Hawks, who fuel up on small rodents before heading on up to the North Slope to breed.
A trip down to the Delta area was especially lovely. In very good weather we birded the Meadows Road area, and were able to easily drive over Windy Ridge; something that’s usually not possible for another four to six weeks. Along that drive we found a bull Wood Bison, who posed by his harem long enough to make certain WC wasn’t a threat.
We made a second loop through the Ag Fields after supper. Immensely long strings of Canada Geese flew in to land in the fields under blue spring skies. An excellent trip, and a fine – if slightly alarming – start to Spring Migration.
The federal government admitted today that the PRO-IP Act is based on mostly bogus data. The PRO-IP Act was the federal government’s Big Payback to outfits like the Business Software Alliance under the Bush Administration. It declared an emergency in digital content piracy and ratcheted up penalties, created a “copyright czar” in the federal government. It’s odd how none of the Republicans complained about that federal expansion, but that’s an issue for another blog entry.
PRO-IP was driven by some remarkable claims about the economic impact of software, music and movie piracy, the financial harm of counterfeit goods and the cost to America.
- The National Association of Manufacturers claimed that “intellectual property theft costs American businesses $250 billion in lost revenue each year and we simply cannot afford to let this continue.”
- The RIAA scale that extraordinary number back to $58 billion a year and 370,000 lost jobs.
- The Copyright Alliance was more vague with “billions of dollars in lost revenue and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.”
It turns out, all those claims are made up. There is no research to support a single one of those claims. PRO-IP is based on lies.
The Government Accounting Office, in a paper published April 12, 2010, concluded:
Three widely cited U.S. government estimates of economic losses resulting from counterfeiting cannot be substantiated due to the absence of underlying studies.
For those who aren’t used to GAO phrasing, “cannot be substantiated” means “lies.” Take just the issue of pirated music. The industry repeatedly and forcefully blames declining sales on illegal downloads. But one of the more reputable studies cited by the GAO concludes there is no relationship between illegal downloads and declining sales:
Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf used modeling to determine that illegal downloads have no effect on record sales. They concluded that, in contrast with industry estimates, declining sales over the period of 2000-2002 were not primarily caused by illegal downloads. The results were found after compiling a data set of illegal downloads from a prominent server and testing the variation between illegal downloads and legal sales in the United States of specific albums on a weekly basis for 17 weeks in the second half of 2002. . . . While this is an enviable data set of actual illegal downloads, the study has two main limitations: first, the study uses a static model which does not reflect the effect of downloads apart from the week the download occured. Second, the study only observed the supply side of music. Thus, it is not clear if consumers who are illegally downloading music would have purchased the genuine albums.
So the bottom line here is that PRO-IP is just another government bailout of a sick industry. It’s another bill created without really looking at the data that is claimed to support the need for the law.
But this hardly the first Congressional action taken on dubious data and lies. It’s only another example of the Bush and Republican legacy. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?
MagicJack is a USB widget that connects your phone to the world via the internet. It’s gotten mixed reviews. Walter Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal was grudgingly positive. Others, not so much. But WC isn’t writing this about marginally useful voice over internet gadgets; this post is about ignorance. Specifically, criminal ignorance. And not just in criminals.
The FBI found the guy who was making threatening phone calls to Nancy Pelosi. These were the anonymous calls (some four dozen in all) in which the caller threatened to torch Speaker Pelosi’s home if she voted for health care reform. The FBI was able to trace the calls, even though the thug thought the calls were untraceable. It seems the accused, one Gregory Giusti, was using a MagicJack to place the calls, and thought the gadget made the calls untraceable. He was wrong. Even cuter, when the FBI came to visit, he denied making the calls and one of the FBI agents dialed the number on his cell phone, and Giusti answered. Oops. The Amended Criminal Complaint and the Affidavit of Special Agent Bryan Smith are available on-line.
Years ago, WC did some criminal defense work. One case involved a theft of some lumber. The tire tread on the vehicle used for the theft had a slash in it, allowing the cops to follow the tire tracks in the fresh snow directly to the door of my client. The conversation went like this: “Hello, I’m Officer Dave Curwen. I’m investigating the theft of some lumber.” WC”s client: “Yeah, that’s us.” Some folks are too stupid to succeed as criminals.
An incomplete understanding of technology – assuming anonymity because, I suppose, you don’t know how it works – creates additional challenges for would-be criminals. But it’s really a symptom of larger suite of problems, displayed by people ranging from Sarah Palin to many members of the “Tea Party.” It’s a combination of willful ignorance, intellectual laziness and group think. The world is a complicated place. Technology is sophisticated.
The issues facing America are also difficult. Trying to address them with incomplete knowledge can lead to disaster. Refusing to look further than the surface – or embracing leaders who boast of their unwillingness to look deeper – will compound the disasters. The least of which might be the FBI knocking on your door.
This link is a fine example of why Tom Ricketts may be the best thing to happen to the Cubs since 1908.
Readers of this blog know Wickersham’s Conscience is no fan of the ex-gov. But sometimes Alaska’s Quitter reveals truly epic levels of ignorance. Consider her recent comments on the Obama Administration’s proposed Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the related Nuclear Posture Review.
This is the key sentence from the Posture Review:
The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.
Obama’s policy provides that if a non-nuclear state were to use chemical or biological weapons against the U.S. or its allies, it would face a potentially devastating conventional military strike by the U.S., but not a nuclear one.
“No administration in America’s history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today,” Palin said. When President Obama noted he wasn’t too concerned about Palin’s opinion, because she wasn’t much of an expert of nuclear policy, Palin came back with a classic ad hominem fallacy, that Obama had “all the vast nuclear experience that he acquired as a community organizer.”
Of course, Obama has all of the expertise of the United States at his back. Palin? Not so much. In fact, none. Obama’s position has the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. That would be the same man who was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense. So the “community organizer” is simply a cheap shot, another of Palin’s many ad hominem fallacies. She can’t respond on the issues, so she takes the cheap shot instead.
Palin’s own party – always assuming she is still a Republican – is much more rational. Peter Feaver, writing in the New York Times, wonders what all the excitement is about. A Republican, a former staff member on the National Security Council under Bush, he says “I suspect the White House intends to do what every previous administration has done: reserve the right to determine for itself what constitutes compliance when making security decisions.”
And let’s think about it, Caribou Barbie: the real risk is outfits like Al Qaeda. They’re willing to blow up their own people to accomplish their aims. Does anyone but you seriously think the threat of nuclear retaliation will deter a terrorist? Does anyone think they value life? Nuclear retaliation may work at the MAD level – Mutually Assured Destruction – against Russia or China. But there’s no reason to think it works against terrorists. There’s a lot of reason to think it won’t work. Why would Al Qaeda care if part of Afghanistan was nuked? Exactly how does a promise to nuke’ em if they were to use biological agents in New York deter them? If anything, it would create a new cause and alienate even more people.
More than that, some of us think that having enough nuclear weapons to blast all intelligent life from earth ten times over just might be overkill. We can get by with a reduction.
By contrast, Sarah’s reflexive reaction – “Obama supports it so I will attack it” – is ignorant, unreasoning and asinine. Stupid is the kindest term.
UPDATE: In an April 12, piece, Slate Magazine agreed with WC. Slate goes on to say:
What’s really going on is this: The Republicans are looking for any excuse to lambaste anything that this president says or does. You’d think matters of national security might be exempt from this election strategy, but apparently you’d be wrong.
Hummingbirds are flying jewels, arguably the most amazing of the New World bird families. But WC finds them very difficult to photograph. Apart from being hyperactive, the wing beats are so fast that, absent a sophisticated flash system, there’s little chance of freezing them in flight. They are also, gram-for-gram, the most belligerent birds on the planet. It’s very difficult to capture that attitude.
So would-be hummingbird photographers are reduced mostly to perch shots. Even then, they are a real challenge. Consider this photo:
Tucson, AZ 2007
This Anna’s Hummingbird gave me a pose, but like many hummingbirds, it was resting partly in the shade, which made exposure difficult. To get enough light on the flank, WC had to increase to ISO400, crank the aperture to f3.2, while shooting with my 300mm f2.8 supertelephoto. The wide aperture wasn’t all bad; the background is a pleasing, brown blur, but the tail and part of the perch are out of focus. And the right part of the chest is just slightly too bright.
This Brown Inca, by contrast, perched in brighter light:
Guango Lodge, Ecuador 2009
It’s bright enough light that WC could move the aperture to f5.7, which is the 300mm’s “sweet spot” and allowed WC to get the whole bird in focus, without making the background too distracting. But the shooting angle lost all of the hummingbird’s iridescence.
This bird’s cousin, the Collared Inca, was more cooperative:
San Isidro Lodge, Ecuador 2009
This handsome fellow perched in bright sunlight, gave me an angle that showed off his iridescence, and let me shoot at f5.7, although the ISO was cranked up to 800, creating some noise. But his pose is marred by the stick crossing behind the bill, and the bright leaf behind his head.
Hummingbirds are a real challenge, even perched, but photographing them can teach you a great deal about avian photography. And show that WC has a long ways to go yet before he’ll call himself a pro.
A quick note: Upwards of a hundred Canada Geese at Creamer’s last night, along with 5 Trumpeter Swans and a small flock of Snow Buntings. It’s a week or more early, but Spring Migration is fully under way in Fairbanks.
Opening Day is only a few days away, and once again the Cubs will try to overcome more than a century of futility and win a World Series. Wickersham’s Conscience will once again go through his Opening Day rituals: play Steve Goodman’s “Dying Cub’s Fan’s Last Request,” watch “Bull Durham” in its entirety and wear his lucky Cubs shirt to work.
The problem is that while the Cubs are no longer awful, they’re also not quite good enough. St. Louis isn’t really that good, but most folks think the Cubs aren’t quite good enough to beat the Cards. So most folks pick the Cubs to finish no better than second in the National League Central.
For the Cubbies to win the NL Central, a number of stars have to come into alignment: Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano have to stay healthy; Ted Lilly has to be back in the rotation in last season’s form my early May; the squad of rookies in the bullpen have to over-achieve; Carlos Zambrano has to grow up; Carlos Marmol, if he remains closer, has to find consistency. It’s a long list that’s unlikely to happen.
There are bright spots: Tyler Colvin, who batted his way onto the team, may be the real deal: a guy with decent defense who can bat for power and average. Esmailin Caridad may live up to his promise. In fact, the Cubs farm system is the best it has looked in decades. Of course, that’s not much help this season.
But I’m a Cubs fan. I Bleed Cubbie Blue. This could be it. This could be the year. It could happen. Or at least the Cubs aren’t likely to break my heart earlier than, say, September. It’s Opening Day! The Cubs are tied for first!
A Red-bellied Sapsucker – a pretty rare bird for interior Alaska – was seen earlier this week over in Westgate Subdivision. I made three trips to try and get it, without success.
I have the bird on my Alaska list. I watched one hawking bugs over the Situk River outside of Yakutat, Alaska. But it would have been nice to find one closer to home. But I never got it.
However, I did find a very handsome adult Bald Eagle as a kind of consolation prize. He was perched in a cottonwood, across the river, checking out the ducks there with a view to dinner.
Sometimes the consolation prizes are almost as good as the grand prize. It’s part of the joys of birding and bird photography.
Wickersham’s Conscience has a whole closet full of notes and issues that don’t quite work as full blog posts. Instead of throwing them out, WC throws them up here, cleaning out the office for Spring 2010.
- There’s a nice color graphic of a Palin in 2012 poster circulating, with the comment in smaller print, “The World is supposed to end, anyway.” But the misinterpretation of Mayan numbering and reference to a very bad movie don’t offset the horrific idea they mock. So, no.
- An anonymous commenter sent WC “The Geek Hierarchy Chart,” by which geekiness levels are compared and ranked, presumably by other geeks. For example, Trekkies are geeks, but Trekkies who speak Klingon are geekier, and Trekkies who get married in Klingon garb are geekier still. This all cut too close to the bone for WC.
- Yet another anonymous commenter offered this gem, called “Computerworks.” I’m not sure it does anything except demonstrate someone had far too much time on their hands. But it does that effectively, and there’s a certain mindless fascination in trying to follow along:
- April 22 will be the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. WC remembers the first Earth Day mostly for the Eugene city cop’s baton, the baton’s impact on his Minolta SRT-101 camera, and the camera’s impact on WC’s nose. Not a happy memory. For the second anniversary, the late, great Walt Kelly did one of his best Pogo cartoons, found laying on the floor of WC’s closet. It’s dusted off and posted here. Pogo’s coda remains depressingly true, all these decades later.
WC can’t possibly top Pogo. The rest of the stuff can stay in the closet a while longer.