Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Watch the Solstice Approach (and Recede)

As an equinox or a solstice (in this case) approaches, my year clock starts indicating the time of the event with increasing precision, using indicator arrows like the one shown below (each equinox and solstice has a unique arrow; this one is for the winter solstice).

While such arrows are visible year-round in the clock’s year ring, as the month of the event is entered an arrow appears at the exact point around the month ring’s outer circumference that corresponds to the time of the event. As the week of the event is entered, same thing … and so on for the day, hour, and minute rings. So, the approach (and retreat) of the event can be observed in real-time, if you happen to be of a mind to do so.

(If you only want to know the times of equinoxes and solstices, see my perpetual table of them.)

The year clock requires any version of Firefox, or the WebKit-based browsers like Safari and Chrome (WebKit currently has the better SVG engine, IMO), that have been released since about 2008. The latest Internet Explorer can probably handle the clock, too.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Check Your Drug Interactions, Avoid Rude Surprises

I recently found myself in a situation in which an over-the-counter pain medication prescribed by one of my doctors began to poison me, and, given enough time, probably would have done permanent damage to some major organs I've come to depend on over the years. I didn't realize what was happening at the time, I just lost feeling in a section of one hand, as the pains that were supposed to be treated by the drug rose to entirely new levels.

What allowed me to diagnose the problem, and realize that I had to stop taking the pain medication immediately, was a combination of the National Institute of Health's MedlinePlus drug data, and an automatic drug interaction checker that I found about a year ago: Medscape Multi-Drug Interaction Checker. (That's a link to the web version of the checker, but there is also a free iPad/iPhone app. The app has the virtue of remembering the medications you've previously entered, among other things.)

Just enter the name of every drug, supplement, etc. that you're taking, or being told to take, and see what the interaction checker comes-up with. Interactions are classified by their severity, and their effects are described.

If an interaction turns-up, there's a good chance that the description will be very specific, like a reduced ability of the kidneys to eliminate some medication. However, it won't tell you what effects you may experience as a result. In a case like that, logically you know that a build-up of any drug could lead to an overdose situation, but you'll need the NIH's Medline Plus data to learn what effects you might be experiencing as a result. Therefore, neither service is necessarily sufficient by itself, but, together, they can let you ask specific and important questions of your doctors, and maybe spare you some serious nastiness. Of course, when you have to catch a problem yourself, following-up with a good doctor as soon as possible is prudent.

Now, ordinarily, I won't use dot-com sites for health information, because there's no reason to assume they are remotely objective, employ quality controls, keep material up-to-date, etc., but this interaction checker was unique, as far as I could tell, when I found it. Since then, it's done me very good service. So, this is the exception to my rule.

If you know of something even better out there, leave a comment or drop me a line. If you don't, I recommend getting in the habit of using the interaction checker, even if you never take anything other than supplements, over-the-counter meds, caffeine, etc. Forwarned is forearmed, as they say, and since some doctors can't be bothered to gather basic patient histories (like what drugs you're on), to check for drug interactions, or to otherwise demonstrate even rudimentary competence in their fields, you're going to have do that for them, just to protect yourself.

(Old joke: "Did you know that 50% of all doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class?" Unfortunately, the joke's on us patients.)

Disclaimer: I'm a software engineer, not a doctor. I have a better grasp of logic, rudimentary statistics and the basics of the scientific method than some of the doctors I've dealt with over the years, but not one, single medical credential. Don't trust your health to me, please.

Be well, folks.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Wolfram|Alpha: How it Came to Be, What it Does, How it’s Done, How it Grows

I’ve been sending this link to people for a year or more. I think I’m overdue to make it available to everyone:

Making the World’s Data Computable

Personally, I found it fascinating and illuminating after being left clueless about what Alpha was by the industry press.

Need some specific examples to understand how to use Alpha? See their examples page.

And if you try Alpha and it doesn’t meet your needs now, try it again in a week; a new version is put into production every week (or that was the case at the time the blog post referenced above was written).

Monday, October 17, 2011

Maintaining In-House Technical Skills

From Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions by Robert C. Seamans, Jr., pg. 84:

When conducting advanced technical efforts, it’s imperative to maintain in-house technical skills of a high order. But high-grade technical personnel cannot be stockpiled. They must be given real rabbits to chase or they will lose their cutting edge and eventually seek other employment.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The “Glass Teletype”

From TOG on Interface by Bruce “TOG” Tognazzini, pg. 131:

Early computers used printers as their sole output. When programmers at various large traditional computer companies were first given monitors, they immediately duplicated the printer interface on their green, glowing screens, giving rise to the term “glass Teletype.” With this lavish investment of more than 20 minutes of design time behind them, they saw no need to update the interface for the next thirty years.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Intuitive Person vs. Western Education

From TOG on Interface by Bruce “TOG” Tognazzini, pg. 103:

Western education is heavily biased toward intellect over intuition: Intuition is endowed with a perverse habit of delivering results most slowly when the need for speed is greatest. [....] Telling a bunch of kids to “think about it for a couple of hours, a day, a week—whatever it takes—then get back to me” just doesn't fit into our lock-step educational process. Betty Edwards (1989): “The right brain—the dreamer, the artificer, the artist—is lost in our school system and goes largely untaught. We might find a few art classes, a few shop classes, something called ‘creative writing,’ and perhaps courses in music; but it’s unlikely that we would find courses in imagination, in visualization, in perceptual or spatial skills, in creativity as a separate subject, in intuition, in inventiveness.”

While I admit to having no idea what classes in “imagination” or “creativity as a separate subject” would amount to, and therefore no idea what benefits might be expected from them, this quote otherwise summarizes one aspect of my dismal school experiences better than any other statement I’ve come across, especially the notion of intuitive people going “untaught.” Am I an autodidact by nature, or necessity?

When I signed-up to take shop classes in Junior High, I was hauled before some school authority and lectured that people on the “college track” couldn’t take shop classes. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine why any college in its right mind would care about anything that happens in Junior High, or hold it as anything other than a virtue that you know how things work and how to build them, but the view in my Junior High was definitely that people on the “college track”—a track I’d never imagined existed, because it’d never occurred to me that the school was excluding anyone from it—didn’t need to, and shouldn’t, know how to produce anything. Needless to say, I signed-up for the shop classes anyway, and only wish they’d been better and more numerous. There’re still a lot of questions I’d like to ask my shop teachers; none at all that I want to ask of my other pre-college teachers.

As an aside, as far as I can tell, white kids from upper-income families were automatically on the “college track,” and everyone else was apparently disposable. Was that a hold-over from the traditional, strictly stratified southern social structure, with a dose of probable racism thrown in for good measure? This happened in Houston, Texas at a time when school officials still quivered in fear (or anger, depending on their viewpoint) at the prospect of forced-bussing, and, yeah, I think it was all those things.

Also, the general insight that intuition operates least effectively when speed is most demanded, rings true well beyond my school experiences. (Put another way, telling people who are meant to be operating in a creative capacity: “Create! Create now! Faster, faster, faster!” …is not a formula for success, yet organizations that depend on creativity do it all the time, apparently oblivious to how creativity works, or doesn’t.)

As to the issues of pedagogy as I experienced them at all levels of the educational system (well, up to and including undergraduate college, anyway) and what I call the doctrine of “disposable people,” I have a great many thoughts and criticisms, but that’s for another time. (However, if anyone can recommend a good book summarizing modern thinking on pedagogical techniques, please let me know; a comment to the blog will be fine, or you can email me at any of my well-known email addresses.)

Friday, September 16, 2011


From TOG on Interface by Bruce “TOG” Tognazzini, pg. 91:

For those not well-versed in English folk story tradition, “The Three Bears” is the story of a young juvenile delinquent who breaks into a neighbor’s house, vandalizes it, and manages to kill herself while trying to escape. Good parents read it to their children, instead of letting them watch all that violence on television.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Cost of Imperial America

From War Is A Lie by David Swanson, pp. 284-285:

We are [...] proud, however, of shoveling huge piles of cash through the government and into the military industrial complex. And that is the most glaring difference between us and Europe. But this reflects more of a difference between our governments than between our peoples. Americans, in polls and surveys, would prefer to move much of our money from the military to human needs. The problem is primarily that our views are not represented in our government, as this anecdote from Europe’s Promise suggests:

“A few years ago, an American acquaintance of mine who lives in Sweden told me that he and his Swedish wife were in New York City and, quite by chance, ended up sharing a limousine to the theatre district with then-U.S. Senator Jon Breaux from Louisana and his wife. Breaux, a conservative, anti-tax Democrat, asked my acquaintances about Sweden and swaggeringly commented about ‘all those taxes the Swedes pay,’ to which this American replied, ‘The problem with Americans and their taxes is that we get nothing for them.’ He then went on to tell Breaux about the comprehensive level of services and benefits that Swedes receive in return for their taxes. ‘If Americans knew what Swedes receive for their taxes, we would probably riot,’ he told the senator. The rest of the ride to the theater district was unsurprisingly quiet.”

Now, if you consider debt meaningless and are not troubled by borrowing trillions of dollars, then cutting the military and enlarging education and other useful programs are two separate topics. You could be persuaded on one but not the other. However, the argument used in Washington, D.C., against greater spending on human needs usually focuses on the supposed lack of money and the need for a balanced budget. Given this political dynamic, whether or not you think a balanced budget is helpful in itself, wars and domestic issues are inseparable. The money is coming from the same pot, and we have to choose whether to spend it here or there.

Though I have some problems with Swanson’s book, he raises more than a few important issues, including the one above.

So, what is the price of Imperial America? Military expenditures, as of 2007, were $503.4 billion, the highest in the world by a margin so large that they equalled the combined expenditures of the next thirteen biggest military spenders, which were, respectively, China, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil, South Korea, India, Turkey, and Australia. And, if those are nations we’re meant to be competing with, it’s worth recognizing that at least nine of those are either allies or nations we get along with just fine. And, in my judgement, China, the world’s no. 2 military spender at $114.7 billion per year, is more of an economic threat to the United States than a military one at present, given both the rapid growth of their economy in size and sophistication, and our increasing financial debt to them.

(During the Cold War, I used to think that a phrase like “American Imperialism” was merely rote propaganda. However, to this day no nation on earth has military bases in more countries than America—how many even still have military bases in other nations?—and that’s a sound working definition of “imperial,” so now I take the phrase, and the issue, quite seriously. And, if the bizarreness of this situation isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps due to being inured to it because it was the status quo before most of us were born, imagine for a moment how it would strike you if there were German, Japanese, Cuban, French—take your pick—military bases within the United States. Taking that hypothetical one step further, if you then heard that much of the populace of country X wanted to close their U.S. bases and reserve their national wealth for enriching the lives of their citizens, would you regard them as traitors, cowards, fools, or as people with sensible priorities?)

So, if we were to abandon the course of empire, a course that history demonstrates is fantastically expensive (in purely monetary terms, as well as human ones), and also assured to fail ultimately, our budget problems are readily solved, and our government can concentrate on using budget dollars to enrich the lives of our citizens with first-rate services (many of which would have the great benefit to our economy of taking large and variable financial burdens, like health care and retirement, off of the shoulders of employers, at least those that still attempt to supply such benefits), rather than on attempting to stage-manage planet earth at gun point. In the meantime, we can have as big a budget problem as the empire we desire. (…and as many enemies as its maintenance, through military presence, military action, and secret skullduggery, provokes.)

Further, as the Reagan administration chose to demonstrate with its policy (earlier advocated by the Heritage Foundation, if memory serves) of driving-up military expenditures in an attempt to create a budget crisis that would force Democrats to cut the social programs reviled by the administration and its backers, the budget crisis which pits military expenditures against social expenditures is a manufactured one, given birth and nourished over the decades by a specific desire to gut the nation’s public education system, social programs, its protective regulatory infrastructure, and the like.

We do not have to play along in this carefully orchestrated game. Discard its premise—that America must be an empire—and the constraints imposed by the game on our thinking about the scope and proper applications of our nation’s wealth, its international and domestic policy, even how we relate to the rest of the world and whether that can conform with our stated ideals of liberty and inalienable personal rights – all those constraints fall away, and we find ourselves freed to consider futures for America and we, its people, that have been withheld from us for generations. Renounce the confining darkness from our past, and we can have a long, bright future – and at very affordable rates.

This is not an especially nuanced presentation, which I regret, but the facts of government services and military expenditures substantially speak for themselves, so, in all the places where nuance is missing here, its modifications to this message would, I believe, be minor and would not substantively affect the overall conclusion.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Syntax of Photography

From The Keepers of Light by William Crawford, pp. 6-7.

[....] Are there "syntactical" rules of structure for the way we turn objects into photographs, rules that compel the infinite possibilities to fall along a finite line, just as there are rules for the way we turn concepts into statements? How you answer this question tends to determine how you approach the study of the history of photography.

My answer is that there is a photographic syntactical structure for the "language" of photography and that it comes, not from the photographer, but from the chemical, optical, and mechanical relationships that make photography possible. My argument is that the photographer can only do what the technology available at the time permits him to do. All sorts of artistic conventions and personal yearnings may influence a photographer—but only as far as the technology allows. At bottom, photography is a running battle between vision and technology. Genius is constantly frustrated—and tempered—by the machine.

Contemporary sensibility puts so much emphasis on photography as a "creative" activity that we can forget that what photographers really do—whether creative or not—is contend with a medium that forces them to look, to respond, and to record the world in a technologically structured and restricted way. I think that this point is essential to an understanding of photography. You simply cannot look at photographs as if they were ends without means. Each is the culmination of a process in which the photographer makes his decisions and discoveries within a technological framework. The camera not only allows him to take pictures; in a general sense it also tells him what pictures to take and how to go about it. It does this by restricting the field of view. The technology itself has blind spots and often stumbles through the dark. It is ornery and obstinate and sees only what it will. As a result, human experiences and natural wonders that the technology is not yet able to see go unrecorded—and even unnoticed. Each time the technology enlarges its sight, our eye grow wider with surprise.

Having struggled over the years with stereo photography, including long baseline (100-150 feet) stereo of moving objects, high dynamic range photography, and, perhaps worst of all, panoramic high dynamic range photography—photographic methods that, in some or all applications, show us visions (or versions) of reality that the human eye is physically incapable of seeing for itself, and all of them photographic methods that current technology struggles against, thereby demanding significant effort from the photographer in the attempt to impose them on the medium—these words ring especially true, and reinforce the understanding that whatever the available photographic technology, it will always fall short of some photographer's yearnings, and impose limits on the "human experiences and natural wonders" that can be recorded. However, I must admit that the "running battle" of realizing a vision against the limits of available technology is an aspect of photography that I find engaging, when I have the energy for the fight, and that those challenges make the successes especially sweet, even, and perhaps especially, as they ensure an overwhelming number of failures.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


What’s great about hiring consultants is supposed to be that your organization has no committment to them. What isn’t much mentioned is that, by the same token, consultants have no committment to your organization.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Measurement of Misfortunes Revisited

A few days after posting Mark Twain and the Measurement of Misfortunes, I realized something obvious that I’d overlooked for years: The bad habit of seeking an external yardstick by which to measure, compare and disregard human pain and suffering—well examined by Twain in that quoted material—is the basis for a reductio ad absurdum.

The reduction is straightforward: If the pain or suffering of any person can be denied significance because someone else (call them person two) is suffering, or has suffered, more as measured by some external metric, then it follows that if anyone can be found who has suffered more than person two, then person two’s suffering is also of no significance. Repeat this process with that external metric long enough and, given a sufficiently broad knowledge of human misfortune, in principle one person (whether actual or archetypal) can always be plausibly identified as having suffered worse than any other human being. Thus, through this process, and by the logic of the external metric (whatever it happens to be), the pain or suffering of only one person in the entire world matters, and the experiences of the remainder of humanity have no significance.

It’s an obvious absurdity, but a convenient one for anyone disinclined to empathy: by defining a metric—any metric—to judge the relative importance of anyone’s pain or suffering, their empathy can be reserved for just one person in the entire world, who they’ll probably never meet. Thus the wielders of such metrics may, in practice, forever absolve themselves of the exercise of empathy.

(Admittedly, few people employ any idea with absolute consistency, so I’ve constructed a scenario that is, by and large, artificial in its purity, but I believe my critique of this mode of thought is correct – the fact that its adherents will tend to apply it inconsistently is good [the less it is applied, the better], but that in no way diminishes the error inherent in such thinking.)

Any behavior, mental or otherwise, tends to serve some purpose for the person employing it. In this case, that raises the disturbing question: what purposes might be served by, or benefits derived from, an individual’s elimination of empathy? I leave that to the contemplation of the reader.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mark Twain and the Measurement of Misfortunes

Ever since reading Mark Twain’s autobiography years ago, I have, with some regularity, found myself presented with situations that brought the following passage to mind. Another such situation arose recently, and caused me to search out the passage, as my memory had stored the lesson well enough, but had come up lacking in the matter of retaining the story sufficiently to pass it along properly when it needed passing along. With the passage located, allow me to share it with anyone who can find good use for it, which, roughly speaking, I think is every human being who can still draw breath.

From The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider, pp. 251-253:

[...] Susy aged seven. Several times her mother said to her, “There, there, Susy, you musn’t cry over little things.”

This furnished Susy a text for thought. She had been breaking her heart over what had seemed vast disasters—a broken toy; a picnic canceled by thunder and lightning and rain; the mouse that was growing tame and friendly in the nursery caught and killed by the cat—and now came this strange revelation. For some unaccountable reason these were not vast calamities. Why? How is the size of calamities measured? What is the rule? There must be some way to tell the great ones from the small ones; what is the law of these proportions? She examined the problem earnestly and long. She gave it her best thought from time to time for two or three days—but it baffled her—defeated her. And at last she gave up and went to her mother for help.

“Mamma, what is ‘little things’?”

It seemed a simple question—at first. And yet before the answer could be put into words, unsuspected and unforseen difficulties began to appear. They increased; they multiplied; they brought about another defeat. The effort to explain came to a standstill. Then Susy tried to help her mother out—with an instance, an example, an illustration. The mother was getting ready to go downtown, and one of her errands was to buy a long-promised toy watch for Susy.

“If you forgot the watch, mamma, would that be a little thing?”

She was not concerned about the watch, for she knew it would not be forgotten. What she was hoping for was that the answer would unriddle the riddle and bring rest and peace to her perplexed little mind.

The hope was disappointed, of course—for the reason that the size of a misfortune is not determinable by an outsider’s measurement of it but only by the measurements applied to it by the person specially affected by it. The king’s lost crown is a vast matter to the king but of no consequence to the child. The lost toy is a great matter to the child but in the king’s eyes it is not a thing to break the heart about. A verdict was reached but it was based upon the above model and Susy was granted leave to measure her disasters thereafter with her own tape-line.

Perspective that extends one’s understanding beyond one’s own experiences seems to me to be a key component of wisdom. However, denying anyone’s pain legitimacy because it doesn’t measure-up to some external yardstick, is an exercise in intellectual negligence and emotional denial, because it fails at the most basic task of understanding in such situations: realizing that the pain is fully real and deeply felt to the person experiencing it, and that attempting to deny the legitimacy of their experience of that pain—as a whole, or by degree—will not help them deal with it, and to the extent that it encourages the sufferer to deny or repress their pain, rather than process it and come to grips with it, the application of that external yardstick is, I believe, a destructive folly.

So, full points to Susy, aged seven, for raising a profound issue. And my thanks, again, to Mark Twain for so openly and ably sharing his experiences in his autobiography.

Finally, to the people I’ve known, some gifted with great intelligence, who have admonished suffering people that their problems are trivial compared to those of person X or Y, a reminder that intelligence does not automatically supply wisdom, and that a genius may, therefore, also be a damn fool.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

All Branchers (and Owlets) Safe and Sound

All three branchers were sighted at the same time in the same tree (the tree in which I deposited owlet/brancher no. 5 after it left the nest on the 8th). The brancher that appeared largest had its own perch, while the other two (presumably owlets 1 and 2, who left the nest together on the 10th) were perched together on another limb. Those two had to cross perhaps 75 feet of "open" space (the ground is littered with limbs fallen from the dead nest box tree) to get from the nest box tree to the tree they were in, so everyone, whether or not they’re skilled distance fliers yet, is getting around with apparent ease. They certainly did a good job of being somewhere else everytime I managed to get my light and camera pointed at where they had been. So, the entire family is accounted for and is doing well. I always worry about them, even as I assume they're doing fine, so this confirmation is a welcome relief.

The best of the few brancher photos I managed to take. I believe this is owlet/brancher no. 5.
Understandably, he/she didn't appreciate my bright light and kept moving to different limbs
until vanishing into the depths of the canopy.

While I was out searching for, and ultimately photographing, the branchers (well, trying to photograph the branchers), I had three thawed mice in my pocket, with the idea that I’d inevitably end-up with at least one of the adults watching me (rather than just attacking me), and could then deposit the mice in some convenient place for it to pick-up after I was gone. It took a surprisingly long time to be certain I was being watched carefully enough for the owl to realize what I was carrying (to pay attention to the rodent dangling from my hand, rather than just perceiving me as one big threat) and to note where I deposited the mice, but I eventually convinced myself that those criteria were met, and left the mice on top of a fence beneath the tree in which the branchers are roosting. I was probably worrying needlessly—if owls are anything, they’re first rate observers—but I wanted to be as sure as possible that the mice would get to where they were needed.

My scheme must have worked, because around 7 AM one of the adults appeared in the nest box. Upon hearing that, I arrived at my TV (which is pretty much continuously tuned to the “owl channel” these days) in time to see a mouse tail disappearing into a satisfied looking owlet.

A check around noon revealed all three mice were still where I'd left them. I'm not sure why they're being ignored.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Owlet Family Portrait and No. 5 Grows Up

I brought down the nest box late this afternoon to install the owlet rail. Fortunately, as I was in the process of assessing what pieces of its mount I'd have to replace, I discovered that (once again) I'd made a spare. So, the only part I actually had to replace was the branch that forms the rail. The old one would probably have been fine, but I tripped over it while owlet herding, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nest box with new owlet rail.

Owlet herding? Oh, yeah. The first owlet could leave the nest any time now, even tonight (as, indeed, it did; see below), so this may very well have been my last opportunity to take a family portrait that shows the owlets essentially in their “brancher” configuration. Of course, the portrait didn't include the adults. The adults were there, but they confined their participation to clicking in occasional protest, and swooping down to hit me in the head during one of my owlet herding efforts.

Taking the family portrait proved to be complicated enough that the photographic opportunity it represented wasn’t fully realized. The owlets were more interested in testing their flying skills (not bad, by the way) and exploring the world, than they were in standing together side-by-side to be photographed. Having to put down the camera, and go round up an owlet or two every time that happened didn’t allow opportunities for carefully checking the results and adjusting camera settings accordingly. Nonetheless, with good subject material, you’re halfway to good photos, and I had very good (if uncooperative) subjects, so I think I managed an acceptable portrait in the end. Well … decide for yourself....

Best guess caption, from left to right: Owlets 2, 3, 1, 4 and 5 (the adoptee).

The first owlet left the nest box at around 9:20 PM tonight, almost exactly on schedule. Having observed that, I went outside to keep an eye on my young friend. For ten minutes or so, the owlet stood on the rail, and studied its options. It then flew a good distance to a lower limb, paused there for a few minutes, then flew somewhere else. A quick search turned-up the owlet (now a “brancher”, technically) on the ground below its previous perch. What it had in mind to do next, I don’t know. What I had in mind was getting it off the ground and into a large tree with lots of foliage to hide in, which is exactly what I did, under the watchful eyes, and occasional attacks, of the adults. At one point, I found myself standing under the relevant tree with the owlet perched on the hand of my outstretched arm, while I waited for the owlet to step off my hand and onto the tree limb directly in front of it. One of the adults was waiting on the same limb, not ten feet away, watching us both intently, and calling to the owlet, who saw no good reason to give-up a perfectly good perch (my hand) to join mom/dad on the limb. As usual, I had to pry the youngster off/out of my fingers and place it on the limb, a situation it seemed to find no more or less agreeable than perching on my hand. Nonetheless, that tree can provide a lot more places to explore and hide in than I can, and the adults were a lot happier with the owlet in the tree, so I think that was the right move for all concerned.

If I had to guess, I’d say that was owlet no. 5, the adoptee, who was always a little bit bigger, and a lot more adaptable to strange situations (undoubtably due to its early, positive exposure to the very strange situation of being raised by Sallie, my raptor rehabilitator friend), than its acquired siblings.

By the way, screech owls normally keep a low profile, and do not do things like attack people. Ordinarily, they merely observe people, just as they observe any other part of their environment that does interesting things. However, during the week or so that they have flightless branchers, their attitude changes completely, and anyone caught after dark in an area where a brancher is located becomes a potential target for attack. (A brancher can fly a bit, but can't stay in the air for long, and, at first, often can’t hold altitude during flight, so “flightless” isn’t a perfect term, but it’s basically correct.) Once the branchers have learned to fly, and thus become fledglings, the adults calm down dramatically, and basically go back to being their usual, calm, low-profile selves. But, once a year, for a week or so of nights, they’re hyper-defensive, and prove that within those tiny breasts hidden under camouflage feathers beat the hearts of lions. Don’t hold it against them; admire it – even while you’re washing out your talon scratches.

Owlet no. 5 when he/she was added to the nest on April 24th.
(Yes, there is a spot of green food coloring marking its head.)
The family portrait was shot just 13.9 days later, and no. 5 left the nest only 1½ hours after that.
Good luck, you splendid little punk.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Owlets Four and Five on the 21st

Since acquiring owlet no. 4 for medical treatment, Sallie, my raptor rehabber friend, has acquired two more young screech owls, which she refers to as “screechlets” to distinguish them from the three great horned owlets, and four barn owlets she was also caring for on the night of the 21st when these photos were taken. One of the screechlets, now designated owlet no. 5, is young enough to fit in with my owlets, and will be added to the nest soon, since being raised by wild owls is always better than being raised by people. Below you can see owlet no. 4, whose face is still worse for the wear, owlet no. 5 (the soon-to-be adoptee), and an older owlet who is keeping them company.

Owlets no. 4 (left), and no. 5 (right). The owlet in the middle is too old to be adopted by my owls, but provides good company for the younger owlets.

Owlet no. 5. Out of focus, but still a good looking kid.

Owlet no. 5. Is sitting up really worth the effort?

The eldest of the screechlets in Sallie’s care. He/she is too old to fit in my with owlets, and thus won’t get to be owlet no. 6, but is a great source of company to the other screechlets.

A pair of the barn owlets that Sallie is raising. They do not like having people around; they both hissed like a punctured high-pressure gas line the whole time we were in the room with them. By the time they are adults that hiss will be ear-splitting.

The great horned owlets were enthusiastic and beautiful, but not very photographable in their crate; out of their crate, they’d’ve been quite a handful (about four handfuls, in fact).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Owlets on the 17th

As people following my notes on the screech owl cam’ page will be aware, on the 17th I brought down the nest box mid-afternoon in order to remove a worrisome build-up of what appeared to be fire ants (the small, vicious, invasive species we have here in central Texas; not the big, relatively relaxed natives that live further north in Texas). Needless to say, I took the opportunity to photograph the owlets on this occasion.

The scene when the nest box was opened. It may be a mess, but it’s home.

One box of owlets to go.

Removing the ants from the nest box meant removing the owlets, too. As long at they were all together, they didn’t mind. Also, it was a lot cooler in the open air and shade than it had been in the nest box. They didn’t mind that, either.

Their mother, by the way, watched all of this with remarkable calm from perches on various tree limbs, all within about 25 feet of the owlets and me. I’d hoped she’d be able to stay around to oversee the entire process, and thus see that I would not do anything to harm her owlets, but birds chased her away long before the process was complete. And, since owlet no. 4 had to go in for medical care, she probably does regard me as a threat now. Oh well. If it’s a choice between helping an owlet and being trusted, I’ll help an owlet every time.

Owlet no. 1

I am no longer interesting, but the just-noticed, great big outside world is fascinating. All further attempts to get the owlet to look at me or the camera fail completely.

Owlet no. 2

When it’s nap time, any comfy place will do.

The action sequence: Turn head and yawn.

Owlet no. 3

“Whatever. Just let me sleep.”

Owlet no. 4

I really thought this little one had been a victim of the fire ants, and when I emailed a similar photo to my raptor rehabber friend, Sallie, she was on her way to give owlet 4 all the help she could (and to give the others a once-over while she was at it). Since being taken into Sallie’s care, it has been discovered that most of what looks so awful in this photo is a bloody cedar waxwing feather that had dried across the owlet's eyes, gluing itself firmly in place. The feather was removed with great care, and the damage from the feather and the parasites appears superficial, although we wait anxiously for no. 4 to open his/her eyes and lay all lingering concerns to rest.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Today’s Chickens; Yesteryear’s Goats

Observed on my street today: A pair of chickens browsing someone’s front lawn. Not the sort of thing I see everyday. Or ever.

However, there was a Christmas day around ten years ago when I looked out of my front window and saw someone leading a herd of goats down the street. I’ve checked on subsequent Christmas days and not seen a single goat, which has been disappointing. I wouldn’t like to think that neighborhood weirdness had peaked all those years ago, with no chance of a comeback.

Today’s chickens show that there’s still a modicum of hope for this old neighborhood.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fourth Egg Laid

The fourth egg has been laid, but, due to the exceptionally poor reliability of the video capture system lately, I wasn’t able to get a picture of it. With luck, the video capture system will stay up for a while, and Mme. Owl will reveal the eggs again soon.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Better Look at All Three Eggs

With Mme. Owl out for a bit of hunting, a good look at all three eggs was available this morning. Next step: Reviewing the image archives to try to determine more specifically when they were laid.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Egg no. 3 Arrives Early?

Noticed just now: Egg no. 3 has arrived. Unless my memory is going, the interval between the laying of each egg in a clutch is supposed to increase over time, but I don’t think that has happened in this case. I’ll have to review frames from the nest box this weekend to try to narrow-down the time at which each egg appeared, but I think the delay between eggs no. 2 and 3 was either the same, or a bit less than, the delay between eggs no. 1 and 2. If so, Mme. Owl has pulled-off an interesting trick.

In any case, egg no. 3 has arrived, and that’s good news, no matter the timing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Egg no. 2 Appears

Egg no. 2 was laid sometime this afternoon, probably between 1 and 5:50 PM. Right now, I can’t narrow down the time better than that.

The time between eggs will increase with each egg, so some patience will be required before we know the size of this clutch. As always, stay tuned.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Egg no. 1 Debuts

Well, I’m going to have to start updating the nest box cam’ site properly, now; Mme. Owl has laid her first egg. And the viewers get the credit for this find. I thought that I was watching the owl cam’ as I worked frantically into the wee hours on a major project at work, but I failed to notice in between all of the work that my web browser had stopped updating the page hours before. There was nothing going on in the box, because Mme. Owl was out hunting for the night, so every frame looked alike and I didn’t bother to read the timestamps. Then I checked my email and found that I had been sent a frame by a loyal viewer that clearly showed an egg, and just above that message was a notification that someone had posted a comment to the blog to the effect of “hey, there’s an egg!” Needless to say, I was a bit confused for a minute, until I realized that I needed to refresh my browser window.

So, full points to my two late night viewers.

Because I knew this night was probably my last chance to solve the problem with the ceiling illuminators in the nest box, I came home dead tired sometime after 5 AM and desperately set to work on the box. That gave me a chance to both photograph the egg, and to find a loose connection in the attic camera compartment that was almost certainly the source of the illumination problem. I finished my work on the box as the sky was just beginning to brighten, and wondered what Mme. Owl was thinking about my doings. I fully expect that she, or her mate, or both, were in the area and watching, but there wasn’t so much as a click of protest. I’m unusually confident that this is the same pair of owls that nested in the box last year, and I suppose they know me by now as the pest that comes with this nest – but a pest that never does any harm, no matter how odd its activities appear.

And so they look down upon my comings and goings with equanimity.

The egg sitting safe and secure on the shredded wood bedding of the nest box floor, just where Mme. Owl had left it before setting out on the night’s hunt. She won’t start incubation in earnest until at least the second egg, so her ignoring the egg for now and going off to hunt was to be expected.

An egg in the hand is worth ... putting back in its nest as soon as the photo shoot is over.

The egg next to a U.S. quarter dollar coin. Quarters are good sources of scale in these situations, because there’s a fair chance you have one in your pocket (at least for us locals), and they’re very nearly an inch in diameter. And, if memory serves, an inch in diameter is just about right for an eastern screech owl egg. If that’s correct, however, Mme. Owl has clearly outdone herself – this egg is a lot bigger than that, which should portend big, healthy owlets. What it says about clutch size, I can’t be sure. It takes extra resources to make a larger egg, so maybe the clutch will have to be on the small side to make up for the big eggs, or maybe the big eggs are a sign of Mme. Owl’s unusually fine health and strength, and those same qualities will permit her to lay an unusually large clutch. Only time will tell.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mme. Owl Spending Her 2nd Day in Nest Box

Mme. Owl spent all of yesterday in the nest box, which suggests that the appearance of the first egg is very near. She’s now begun spending her second consecutive day in the nest box, which suggests that that bit in the first sentence about “the first egg is very near” is correct. You can see for yourselves on the owl cam’, assuming it isn’t de-railed by one of the technical issues I’m trying to deal with.

BTW, fellow owl watchers, I brought-down the nest box last night and removed all of the nesting materials dumped there by the pair of starlings that’ve been trying to claim the box. So, today you should actually be able to see Mme. Owl. (Thanks to my raptor rehabber friend, Sallie, for supplying some spare bedding material at the last minute.)

The only bad news is that something has begun preventing the ceiling and entryway illuminators from working correctly. I did not open up the entryway assembly as part of the post-bee cleanup work (doing so requires a socket wrench, some pounding, and time), and since that contains an illuminator wired in series with the ceiling illuminators, I suspect the problem is in there. If Mme. Owl spends the night outside the nest again, I’ll see if I can fix the problem tonight.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mme. Owl May be Spending Her First Day in the Nest

Mme. Owl may be spending her first day in the nest box this year. If so, things are moving along a bit faster than I expected. The first egg, if memory serves, may appear within two days.

Mme. Owl in the nest box this morning, amid debris deposited there by a pair of starlings. So far this year, she hasn’t remained in the nest box for more than about 10 minutes at a time (although the number and duration of her nightly visits has been increasing), and she has never been in the box during daylight hours.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Owl, meet Owl Box; Owl Box, meet Owl

I haven’t brought-up my eastern screech owl nest box cam’ for the year, because nesting isn’t underway, but I’ve been running the image capture software anyway, trying to confirm my suspicion that my local owls are actually preparing to nest in my box. And, as you can see, I now have confirmation.

That’s the female owl shoving around the bedding material to create a depression to hold her eggs at some point in the future. She probably gets it more-or-less the way she likes it every night and then a pair of starlings spend the day ruining everything. Fortunately, shoving around the bedding material is quick work.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Screech Owl Nest Box: A Depression Sets In

My ability to sleep and my sleep patterns are in ruins, my local medical community notwithstanding. As an example, I just got back from 16 hours at the office. Why a sleep-deprived person can even do that, I don’t know. But for some reason I did, and there went my opportunity to keep an eye on owl TV last night in hopes of seeing a visitor.


Nonetheless, I tuned in as soon as I got home. The nest box was empty, as expected. But it had changed a little, too. It acquired, at some point in all those hours, a depression in the middle of the floor’s bedding material (AKA the pine shavings sold for lining guinea pig cages). That’s exactly the sort of depression I’d expect an interested female screech owl to make on the floor of a favored would-be nest site. (And making such a depression, by shoving around the debris on the floor of a nest cavity, is as close to nest building as screech owls ever come.)

Of course, it might have been made by some squirrel that spent the night. But given half a chance, a squirrel will bring in nest building materials, especially, if they can be found, leaf-covered twigs. In time, they’ll build quite a substantial nest that covers them completely as they sleep. But there’s not a twig or leaf in sight.

It might even have been made this morning by a very early rising, very busy starling.

But my money is on a lady owl with eggs on the way.

During all of my work to clean and repair the nest box yesterday night, the owls will undoubtably have visited the area (it’s their territory after all - they make the rounds of it repeatedly each night) and they’ll have observed some of my activities. What they thought of the situation at the time, I couldn’t say, but I’m confident that it set that little flag in their heads that says: next chance we get, we’ll have to check-out that box and see what’s happened to it. I’d guess they did that last night, and liked what they saw.

There’s no guarantee of success in this, but there is now some room for cautious optimism – about as much as’ll fit in a little bowl shaped depression around an inch and a half deep and seven inches across.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bee Removal Phase 3: The Box is Back

It took about eleven contiguous hours of work, but my screech owl nest box is back in business, and not as a bee hive.

The nest box had to be disassembled to properly clean all of the bee grunge out of it. That meant breaking it down into its major components: (1) the frame, which includes the back wall visible in the photos, (2) the fold-down front with integrated infrared entryway sensor assembly, (3) the side compartment with thermometer and perch, (4) the side camera compartment, and (5) the roof, which includes the ceiling-camera assembly. Components 1, 2 and 3 were thoroughly cleaned using a combination of a putty knife, a garden hose with a high-pressure nozzle on it, a bucket of soapy water, and a heavy-duty scrub brush. Spray, scrape, scrub with soapy water, rinse, repeat. The technique worked well, and—apart from the beeswax, which must be a permanent part of the wood at this point—provided the fastest and most effective cleaning of all the methods I used.

The roof component didn’t need cleaning, because the glass window, which separates its camera, infrared illuminators and other electronics from the interior of the nest box proper, kept the bees out. However, that window was the attachment point for most of the combs, so cleaning it took quite a bit of work. For that I used careful handling, hot water, dish soap, a putty knife, and a Scotch-Brite Heavy Duty Scour Pad. That did the trick and, after a few iterations, took every last trace of the comb off of the window. (As I would later learn, it also scratched the window, in a manner that was only evident when light hit it at just the right angle. Those scouring pads are like plastic sandpaper, so I should have guessed, but didn’t. Do not make this mistake yourself.)

Unfortunately, I couldn’t use the garden hose technique with the side camera compartment, because its interior wall, which was the part that needed cleaning, was only designed to keep out insects and owls. It wasn’t designed to be water-tight, so the garden hose technique, or any similar technique, would have leaked water into the electronics inside. So, I had to disassemble the compartment enough to take off its interior wall (which is how I access the internal electronics for modifications and repairs). Unfortunately, in this case, though it’s absolutely necessary in order to get good illumination, the infrared illuminator LEDs are integrated into the interior wall, so washing that wall would have meant pouring water over the LEDs and into all of their wiring. It’s all carefully insulated with heat shrink tubing, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether water finding its way into one of the stranded wires that join the LEDs in series would have caused a problem.

In any case, I started-off with the goal of cleaning the side camera compartment’s interior wall without disassembling anything. That almost worked. A couple of problems cropped-up, however. One was that I found that the bees had sealed the tiny gaps around, well, absolutely everything, including each LED where it projected through the wall. That meant that I could no longer use the small gap between the LEDs and the walls of the holes they stick out of to tweak their angles to optimize box lighting. Also, the bees found the other hole in the wall, the one that is covered with a screen to keep insects out (an especially good design decision under the circumstances, if I do say so myself) and is positioned directly in front of the microphone which is mounted further back in the compartment, thus providing a straight-line air path to the microphone. The bees, however, in their instinctive zeal to seal their hive, had descended into the hole and filled in every last gap in the screen. So, no direct air path, anymore. And no hole, for that matter. Finally, my efforts to get all traces of the bee comb off of the camera window, resulted in my using the same technique I thought had worked so well on the ceiling camera compartment’s window: the scouring pad. This time the pad not only scratched the window, but came close to fogging portions of the glass before I happened to look at the glass at just the right angle to see the scratches and noticed that I'd just ruined the window. (That’s when I went back and checked the ceiling camera compartment’s window and found that it was scratched to, though not nearly as seriously.)

At that point, cleaning the interior wall of the side camera compartment went from tedious to a huge time sink. I had to disassemble the interior wall into its five (or six) components, in order to replace the window. Fortunately, I’ve often made spares of owl box components, and in this case I had about six more windows of the same size on hand. Unfortunately, after finding them, cleaning one with great care, and sitting down to install it, I found that the hardware store glass cutting fellow had not made all of the windows to precisely the same dimensions, whereas I had routed into the wood a socket of precisely the right dimensions (and the first window I tried happened to fit). Now that the first window was history, I found that the other windows were a few millimeters too large to fit in the socket, and ripping the interior wall assembly apart completely so I could put the sheet of wood containing the window socket on my router table and fix the socket, wasn’t an appealing option. There ensued a period of careful, awkward work with a wood chisel until window no. 2 eventually fit.

With the interior wall already fully disassembled, I then took great care with a tiny pick to remove every bit of bee sealant (propolis) from the LED sockets and the microphone hole. After reassembling the whole interior wall, adjusting the LED angles, and making a few more cleaning passes to try to get every trace of bee gunk off of the aluminum walls, I cleaned an accumulation of dust out of the underlying camera compartment containing the camera, microphone, and the bulk of other electronics. Then I reinstalled its interior wall and carefully sealed it.

At long last it was time to put the whole box back together again. That went smoothly enough, and the nice, clean box with fresh bedding material, adjusted lighting, and the elegant new beeswax coating on its interior woodwork, was hoisted back into its mount in the nest box tree.

The box is ready and waiting, so now all I need is for my pair of owls (or some other desperate pair) to choose it as a nest site. It may be too late to attract an initial nesting attempt in this part of the country, but I’d blame myself mightily for not trying, so at least I’m off that hook. Now we’ll wait and see if owls appear sometime in March. Nest Box Cam’ followers, cross your fingers, knock on wood, etc., because I’m certain that I should have done all of this at least a month ago, and, at this late stage, we either need last year’s pair to prove that they’re highly dedicated to this nest site, or we need luck.

P.S. Now that I know how to kill invading bee swarms, I promise not to let the screech owl nest box be co-opted again. In the future, I’ll either have the swarm moved more-or-less immediately, or I’ll kill it shortly after arrival, before it can do any significant harm.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bee Removal Phase 2: The Smell of Honey and Death

Yesterday (Saturday), it was misting heavily when I would like to have begun the nest box cleanup, and, under those circumstances, just handling the plastic covered steel cable that runs through a block and tackle to raise and lower the box would have been a challenge. Also, I’d’ve either had to stifle in a rain suit, or be soaked during the time it would take to get the box down and begin the cleanup. So, cleaning didn’t start until this (Sunday) afternoon. As you may gather from the photos below, this won’t be a quick cleanup job. Unfortunately, time is of the essence, so I have to find some way to get it all done very soon.

Since it died in 2009 from the combined effects of the 2008 and 2009 droughts, the nest box tree has been falling apart more and more with every set of strong winds that move through the area. That didn’t get underway until the wood had had a chance to dry out and become brittle, which fortunately didn’t occur until after the 2010 nesting season, but it did begin occurring shortly after the bees had moved into the owl box in the Spring of 2010. Unfortunately, the work of cutting away major broken limbs could, it seemed to me, run the risk of provoking the bees, so I hadn’t attempted to remove any of the mess until now. Just cutting away enough of the broken limbs to clear the patches of ground beneath the tree where I needed to work was a major undertaking, so most of this mess remains as you see it above, prior to the start of today’s work.

The nest box on the ground and opened. The bees’ combs nearly fill the entire interior, and the layer of black material on the floor of the box is composed entirely of dead bees. The smell was strong and vile – a combination, I presume, of the cloying scent of a large amount of raw honey, and the odor of hundreds of dead bees. I had hoped that I could accomplish the removal of the combs with hand tools, starting with a small pruning saw to sever their connections to the ceiling. Unfortunately, they were well connected to the back wall, too, and that meant hand removal. For some reason, I'd expected the combs to be stiff, but, in fact, they turned out to be flexible, soggy, heavy, dripping with honey, and, of course, reeking with that smell I found so vile. That olfactory and tactile combination made for repugnant work. Just to make the experience perfect, the removal distributed honey throughout the interior of the box, adding an extra dimension to the mess I still have to clean-up.

The front wall of the nest box, which is also the fold-down access door. It’s never been that color before. Beeswax, I presume.

The nest box interior after the initial comb removal. Observe that there’s still plenty of comb to remove where it attached to the ceiling (not directly visible, but the cut-off comb hanging from it can be seen in the shadows). The back wall also needs a good bit of attention. So, the honey running down the back wall is only the first of the cleanup problems I have to tackle there.

Comb remnants and honey on the aluminum walls, infrared illuminators, and glass window of the side camera compartment. Unfortunately, I can’t just hose it off as a first step in cleaning, because the compartment’s inner wall isn’t water tight. (It only needed to keep out owls and bugs, not rain, and letting its interior breathe a bit is, ordinarily, a good thing.)

The interior’s left wall with the thermometer and experimental perch. The comb hadn’t yet been built into this area, so it is less affected than most of the interior. All the same, it’s a mess, too. Fortunately, it can be hosed down.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Bees Dead. Next Step: Cleanup.

I've just pulled the No-Pest Strip from the entry hole of the screech owl nest box. It was full of dead bees, and there were no signs of live ones, so I think that a little more than two days of exposure to the fumes from the Strip has ensured that the hive is dead. There's no time to begin cleaning-out the box now. That’ll have to start (and, I hope, finish) this weekend. Perhaps, in the meantime, the squirrels will decide to check-out the box and do me the favor of helping themselves to the honey and comb, as they have in the past. One thing I don't know is whether the fumes from the Strip may have made any of that potential squirrel food toxic. Squirrels have an amazing sense of smell, however, and, with luck, if things don’t smell right to them, they’ll move on to their usual business of raiding my bird feeder.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bee Removal Commences

Well, I couldn’t have put it off any longer without absolutely guaranteeing failure, but I’ve finally begun the process of removing the bees from my screech owl nest box. It’s a very simple, but ugly process: stuff a Hot Shot No-Pest Strip in the entry hole and get away fast. Of course, you have to find a safe way to do that. If you do it in freezing weather, the bees are incapacitated by the cold and you have options. But I let this year’s amazing cold-spell pass by un-utilized. Faced with warm, bee-friendly weather I had to do something a little complex to keep some distance between me and the bees: hose-clamp a long pole and a vise-grip together such that the vise-grip is horizontal when the pole is vertical and the release handle is on the underside of the grip, hang a very light, loose loop of rope around the release handle, close the vise-grip on the wide end of the No-Pest Strip, then go out and shove that Strip into the entry hole of the nest box in one quick motion—it’ll just fit through a 3" hole—then pull the rope to release the grip and go away at once.

That’s done now. Unfortunately, I have nothing against bees, Africanized, or otherwise. Apart from their habit of taking over my screech owl nest box (this is the third time it has happened over the years), and distracting people from the importance of our native pollinators, I like bees, and I don’t even bother them for their honey. At one point I’d hoped to get a local beekeeper to remove the hive, but I put off making the arrangements long enough that I’ve run out of time. So now I’m killing a perfectly nice, if poorly placed, hive of bees. Ugly.

I’m told by people with experience of this technique that it’ll kill the entire hive in a day. I think I’ll give it two. But then I have to rush to clean out the mess this’ll’ve left behind (unless I’m very lucky and the squirrels get in there PDQ and do most of the work for me), make any necessary repairs, and hope that my local owls have not given up on the box and found another nest site. It’s not quite time for nesting (that’s for early March around here), but a pre-condition of mating seems to be that the male owl secure a nest site, and mating has probably already happened. So, unless my female gave her mate the benefit of the doubt about the nest box being available in time for nesting, they may have already selected another nest site.

I have no idea what’ll happen. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 21, 2011

White-Tailed Deer Amid Zexmenia

White-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, amid blooming Zexmenia,
Wedelia hispida. Bamberger Ranch Preserve, June 9, 2007.
Photo ©2007-2011 by Chris W. Johnson.

I keep telling David Bamberger that he should share random photos of interest from around the ranch with his blog readers, even if he has nothing to say about the photos, both because it gives the readers a chance to see something of the ranch they might otherwise never see, and because it will fill-in the gaps between his lengthier posts, which should please his readership. I think I have him convinced, but he hasn’t done it yet. In this case, I’m taking my own advice. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now Playing on Radio Paradise, My Photos

Radio Paradise, an Internet radio station, that also happens to have been my favorite radio station since a friend (thanks Brendan) introduced me to it many years ago, is now offering a high definition video feed to accompany their music. They’re accepting photos from anyone, provided that the photos meet their admittedly subjective criteria.

I’d been meaning to submit some of my own photos for a while. Unfortunately, I found it surprisingly tough to extract a satisfying 16 X 9 image from my 36 X 11 panoramas, and second-guessed myself into believing that none of the results were good enough. (Some of my favorite panoramas simply had no section to be extracted that was interesting by itself – the completeness of the full panorama turned-out to be essential, at least to my eyes, to the composition and appeal of the image.) However, a few nights back I took a fresh look at the candidate images I'd extracted, discarded more than half of them and submitted the rest just to see what would happen. Late the next day I received a flock of emails from Radio Paradise’s proprietors (one for each image), and, to my amazement, every image was accepted.

So, somewhere within the innumerable images that must compose Radio Paradise’s collection by now, are a few handfuls of mine. The odds of anyone seeing them must be exceedingly small, but tune in and enjoy the music (and everyone else’s photos), and you just might see a familiar name go by.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Human Face Recognition, a Presentation by Dr. Shalini Gupta

The Austin Forum, on the evening of January 4, 2011, hosted an interesting presentation by Dr. Shalini Gupta entitled “Digital Human Face Recognition,” which I attended because I find digital face recognition a fascinating technical challenge, an increasingly important social issue, and because I have an interest in a lesser, related problem: automatic face isolation (without regard to identity).

Regrettably, it does not appear to be the practice of the Forum to record video of these presentations, so you'll have to settle for her slides (PDF, 25.4 MB), and various points that seemed important at the time and therefore stuck in my head. Her results were significant, interesting, and some of them were even germane to my face isolation interests.

  • Ironically, for me at least, Dr. Gupta’s presentation did not cover one of the first problems any real-world face recognition system has to solve, and the one in which I was most immediately interested: face isolation.
  • Much of Gupta’s extremely successful “3D AnthroFace” work was performed against the “Texas 3D Face Recognition Database,” which pre-isolated the faces, consistently positioned them within every image, and used significantly higher resolution images than those I have experimented with. Also, since the photos in the recognition database are stereo and/or 3D, they provide significantly more data than 2D images. Their single deficiency, relative to photos I've worked with, is their apparent lack of color. The choice of monochromatic imagery was presumably rooted in a desire to ensure that their algorithm would work in the absence of color information, thus making it compatible with output from monochromatic cameras, like most security cameras.
  • The “Eigenfaces” algorithm, published by Turk and Pentland in 1991, made face recognition truly practical for the first time by allowing a face to be characterized by as few as five numbers, quantifying key differences between the metrics of the observed face, and a prototypical “Eigenface.” Gupta sites it as having achieved a 21% verification rate with a false acceptance rate (FAR) error of 1 in 1,000, although it is not clear what size of database was involved in the test that produced that figure. Presumably, 20 years ago, the database would have been quite limited. Nonetheless, Eigenfaces has apparently been the basis for all subsequent face recognition work, and has been dramatically advanced over the years. It has also become the basis for many other types of automated visual recognition systems; as Gupta put it, there are now Eigenbolts and Eigenscrews, etc. For a great many classes of objects that require visual recognition Eigen images can be produced which allow the Eigenfaces algorithm (and its improved descendants) to be applied essentially unchanged.
  • In the most recent standard industry test of face recognition (“Multi Biometric Evaluation” in 2009/10), which used a database of 3.6 million people and required the fully automated analysis of 8.7 million photos and videos shot in a variety of conditions, ranging from studio shots only marginally more complex than those in the “Texas 3D Face Recognition Database” (though not 3D), to real world video of moving subjects in widely varying photographic conditions, “3D AnthroFace” was not only better than any other technology, but had a recognition rate equal to, or better than, that of humans. However, the means by which the humans were tested was not specified, so it’s hard to know what to make of that claim. (It seems unlikely that any human was asked to review photos of 3.6 million people, and then search for them in 8.7 million photos and videos.)
  • With regard to human face recognition capabilities, Gupta pointed-out that in a study of prison inmates exonerated by DNA tests, 84% had been incorrectly visually identified by human witnesses. So, at least under the conditions in which crimes are committed, investigated and prosecuted, human face recognition can be so poor as to be actively misleading. This isn’t news to many of us, but given its real-world importance, it probably can’t be repeated too often.
  • Face recognition systems depend, as you’d expect, on a database of the faces they’re meant to recognize. The error rates (composed of the false rejection rate, FRR, and the false acceptance rate, FAR) of all extant, and predicted, face recognition systems increase with the number of faces in the database. This problem is regarded as intrinsic to the task, but it is widely believed that the growth in error rates can be reduced by using separate databases for storing the characteristics of faces that can be differentiated by readily identifiable gross characteristics. Race and, I believe, sex were mentioned as candidates for such characteristics. In such a system, the first step in face recognition would be to make that gross identification, and then to select the appropriate database based on it. After that, the existing face recognition approaches would be used within the selected database with significantly reduced error rates. Of course, the error rates continue to scale with database size, so the use of multiple databases only delays the point at which error rates become unacceptable, as face databases (presumably) will only grow in size for most any purpose for the foreseeable future.
  • Despite the huge strides made in digital human face recognition, it is still bedeviled by a number of quite ordinary issues including unconstrained observing environments, human aging, the poses of subjects, variations in illumination, varied facial expressions, and the poor quality of images available from video systems. The latter issue was of particular interest to me, because many of the photos I have dealt with are comparable to images that might be obtained from video in their poor resolution and quality, suggesting that even the best face recognition systems would have had difficulty with some of the same images that have been a challenge to me.
  • Dr. Gupta repeatedly refused to comment on the social implications of face recognition technology, stating that she was concerned only with the technology; what people did with it was not up to her. One wonders what the uniformed police officers, and anyone else in the audience who might have been considering operating a real-world face recognition system, took away from the presentation. While the results of Gupta’s work were truly impressive, as demonstrated in the Multi Biometric Evaluation of 2009/10, the real-world capabilities of all face recognition systems were called into question by her closing acknowledgement that a host of common issues posed major problems (see item above). Her discussion of the problem of error rates increasing as face databases grow only raised more questions. The industry’s anticipated method of mitigating the latter issue, as previously discussed, is to make an initial gross categorization of faces based on a characteristic like race, and then to search within category-specific databases. While this is a sensible technical strategy (if such gross categorization can be performed quickly and reliably), will its eventual developers and users realize that their technology is engaging in automatic racial profiling? Will they also realize that it is doing so because the more one relies on facial recognition technology, the less reliable it becomes? Either issue is significant independently, but, when considered together, they mean that being a member of one of the races that compose the largest of the category-specific databases brings a higher chance of being falsely identified (bad if the database is looking for criminals), and falsely rejected (bad if the database is supposed to grant someone access to their bank account, or confirm to border officials that they are who their passport says they are).

That’s everything I can think of to report. I hope some of it was of interest, and that I’ve done justice to Dr. Gupta’s impressive work.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Dog I Did Know

My family passed along very few stories to me, or, at least, very few that proved memorable. One of them was Grandpa Johnson’s bacon, to which I was not a witness, though I choose to believe it. There’s another story I choose to believe, one to which I must have been a witness, though, to my sorrow, I’ll never, ever remember it. And I kind of hate to share it (it’s my story, and, in that special sense, not something for the world), but it’s a story I like a lot, and I suspect that one or two members of the world will appreciate it, too, so I also hate not sharing it. In any case, it’s short, and it goes like this:

My family acquired me and a very young puppy within a month of each other. I came first. The puppy came next. Like any human infant, I was useless and tended to sleep a lot. Like any puppy, ours tended to explore and sleep a lot. In the course of its explorations, it soon discovered me and my crib, and quickly concluded that the best place in the world to sleep was with a nice warm baby, in a nice comfy crib. And so it would slip between the bars of the crib and sleep with me. When the family couldn’t find the puppy, they always knew where to look first. This continued for some time, during which, as the particulars of our species demand, the puppy grew rapidly, while I grew slowly. One sad day, as the story goes, the family rushed to the nursery to investigate a piteous whining. They found my young friend crying for help, her head stuck between the bars of the crib. It seems that as she’d slept with me that day, her head had grown that last iota which made the difference between fitting and sticking between the crib’s bars. And so, after her nap, on her way out, she’d become trapped. She was freed easily enough, of course, no harm done, but ever after had to settle for some other, second-best place in the world to sleep.

When I sleep, so many decades later, when I am lucky enough to dream well, she, above all the other dogs I’ve loved, is the one who still comes to see me once in a while. I’d pay good money to forget just about every part of my childhood, but not if it meant losing her.

* * *

When random conversations turn to dogs, and I tell people that I grew up with dogs—which, broadly speaking, is a common enough experience to be unremarkable—none, I think, would guess just how literally that was true. And something about the way I grew up with dogs left a mark: Some friends tell me that their dogs approach me and play with me as if I were another dog, something they never do with any other person.

Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Dog I Don’t Know

I was sure I’d included this story here at some point in the past, but I went looking for it yesterday and couldn’t find it. Therefore, I now pass along the following story from Mark Twain’s autobiography, as edited by Charles Neider, pg. 256:

Doctor John [Brown] was very fond of animals, and particularly of dogs. No one needs to be told this who has read that pathetic and beautiful masterpiece, Rab and His Friends. After his death his son, Jock, published a brief memorial of him which he distributed privately among friends; and in it occurs a little episode which illustrates the relationship that existed between Doctor John and the other animals. It is furnished by an Edinburgh lady whom Doctor John used to pick up and carry to school or back in his carriage frequently at a time when she was twelve years old. She said that they were chatting together tranquilly one day, when he suddenly thrust his head out of the carriage window eagerly—then resumed his place with a disappointed look on his face. The girl said: “Who is it? Some one you know?” He said, “No, a dog I don't know.”

I know exactly how he felt.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How Should the Troops Die?

Alan Grayson, Democratic congressman from Florida’s 8th district, who urged his colleagues to vote against war funding in order to shut down those wars and bring the troops home, was accused by one of his opponents, Kurt Kelly, of putting “our soldiers, and our men and women in the military in harm’s way, and maybe he wants them to die.” Naturally, the accusation was made on Fox News. Here’s the key passage of Grayson’s response, from an August 17, 2010 email, which echos my own longtime thinking on this matter:

Yes, Kurt, I do want them to die: of old age, at home in bed, surrounded by their loved ones, after enjoying many Thanksgiving turkeys between now and then. And you want them to die: in a scorching desert, 8000 miles from home, alone, screaming for help, with a leg blown off and their guts hanging out of their stomachs, bleeding to death.

And how can anyone but a U.S. President be accused of placing U.S. military personnel in “harm’s way”? Ever since Presidents began illegally bypassing Congress to start wars, or otherwise involve troops in combat, they’ve been ultimately responsible for any occasion on which the troops were in “harm’s way.”

Grayson was defeated for re-election in 2010, doubtless clearing the way for a politician whose idea of “supporting the troops” is keeping them on battlefields in routine danger of death, mutilation, and mental and physical injuries that will last them a (possibly quite short) lifetime. “Support” like that is something our troops would live longer, better lives without.