Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Posts Tagged ‘clouds

Lost Horizon not always lost

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When the day number was most recently twice the month number, I stationed myself late in the afternoon at a place with a good vista along Lost Horizon Drive in our Great Hills neighborhood and waited for what I hoped would be a colorful sundown. Most of the sky stayed clear, however, which doesn’t make for good sunsets, so I decided to use a long lens to get close looks at the layers of wispy clouds close to the horizon. Zooming in like that to magnify the relatively small band of colorful clouds gave the resulting photographs a lot more drama than a person standing there would have perceived in the scene as a whole; call it not poetic license but photographer’s license.

Thanks to the orientation of the horizon, sunset pictures are usually horizontal, so for variety I experimented with a few vertical takes like the one below that came four minutes after the one above. The second picture excludes the horizon and is therefore also more abstract.

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With regard to the current pandemic, an article from Our World in Data clears up the confusion that some or maybe even many people have about the risk of dying from Covid-19. The easy-to-follow article distinguishes between, and offers simple numerical examples of, three ways to estimate or determine that risk: the case fatality rate, the crude mortality rate, and the infection fatality rate. I wrote “estimate or determine” because only the infection fatality rate is the number we really want to determine. The case fatality rate (which is often reported in the media), like the crude mortality rate, likely misses the true value by a wide margin.

 

That website’s About page also offers the following insights:

 

To work towards a better future, we also need to understand how and why the world is changing.

The historical data and research shows that it is possible to change the world. Historical research shows that until a few generations ago around half of all newborns died as children. Since then the health of children has rapidly improved around the world and life expectancy has doubled in all regions. Progress is possible. 

In other important ways global living conditions have improved as well. While we believe this is one of the most important facts to know about the world we live in, it is known by surprisingly few. 

Instead, many believe that global living conditions are stagnating or getting worse and much of the news media’s reporting is doing little to challenge this perception. It is wrong to believe that one can understand the world by following the news alone and the media’s focus on single events and things that go wrong can mean that well-intentioned people who want to contribute to positive change become overwhelmed, hopeless, cynical and in the worst cases give up on their ideals. Much of our effort throughout these years has been dedicated to countering this threat.

Researching how it was possible to make progress against large problems in the past allows us to learn. Progress is possible, but it is not a given. If we want to know how to reduce suffering and tackle the world’s problems we should learn from what was successful in the past.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 8, 2021 at 4:38 AM

Red oak leaf and soft clouds

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While down close to the ground on November 22 photographing the Great Plains ladies tresses’ orchids you saw last time, I noticed some oak leaves near by that looked bright red from backlighting by the sun. As shown here, I managed to isolate one of those leaves against soft clouds. The species could well have been Texas red oak, Quercus buckleyi.


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“We write to express our alarm over recent trends in K-12 mathematics education in the United States.”

So begins an open letter signed by hundreds of experts in mathematics, computer science, engineering, and related fields. The letter goes on to explain that the movement for “equity” in mathematics education, whatever its professed goals, actually harms American students and reduces our nation’s mathematical preparedness. The letter isn’t long, and I encourage you to read it.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 7, 2021 at 4:15 AM

Craters of the Moon — in a way

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So you don’t see a moon or craters in these two October 19th photographs
of Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) and wispy clouds.

The title of today’s post’s refers to the location: Craters of the Moon Blvd. in Pflugerville.
Even now, in mid-November, some Maximilian sunflowers are still with us.

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I’m about a third of the way through Bad News, by the interestingly named Batya Ungar-Sargon, who declares herself to be on the political left. If you’d like, you can watch her in a C-SPAN interview from October 24th. Here are a few things in her book that stood out for me so far.

According to a sociological study of the American press done back in 1986, “journalists were getting more and more liberal with each new generation. Among journalists fifty and older, 43 percent said they were left of center and 23 percent said they were right of center. Of journalists between the ages of thirty-five and fifty, 52 percent identified as being on the left, but just 16 percent as conservative. And in the post-Watergate generation, 70 percent identified as liberals, while just 13 percent said they were conservative.”

“And yet, the trends the sociologists noted in 1986 have only accelerated today. In 1984, 26 percent of journalists voted for Ronald Reagan; by 2014, just 7 percent of journalists identified as Republican. By 2015, 96 percent of journalists who made donations to a political campaign donated to Hillary Clinton. When researchers from Arizona State University and Texas A&M University surveyed business journalists from the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg News, Associated Press, Forbes, New York Times, Reuters, and Washington Post in 2018, they found that just 4 percent had conservative political views.”

Such a strong leaning in one political direction has colored the way the news gets reported. “It took all of twenty years for the stories on the front pages of the nation’s major newspapers to go from being descriptive to being analytic and interpretive, a shift that began in 1954 and was completed by 1974. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt gave this shift the justification is needed: By reporting his invented accusations of communism, reporters were amplifying his charges. The lessons many (liberal) journalists learned from the episode was that it was important not just to report the facts but to interpret them. That this interpretation would inevitably have a liberal bent was not the goal so much as it was a byproduct of their sociological make up.”

Batya Ungar-Sargon reports that as far back as 1963 perceptive people in the industry were troubled by the trend. “The shift from description to interpretation was not without its critics—including on the left. James S. Pope of Louisville’s liberal Courier-Journal decried the ‘Frankensteinish’ copy that intermingled the ‘writers personal notions’ with the facts. And John Oakes, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, wrote a letter in 1963 to his cousin and Times publisher, Punch Sulzberger, decrying the shift. He felt that the news side was encroaching on his territory by becoming increasingly opinionated: ‘I suppose I am butting my head against a stone wall; but again I feel I must call your attention to the editorialization in the news columns, which in my view is steadily eroding the Times’ reputation for objective news reporting.’ He was ignored.”

Of course the editorialization and slanting of the news have grown much worse since then. As recently as maybe eight years ago I subscribed to the New York Times but gave it up because too much of the reporting had become blatantly biased.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 16, 2021 at 4:29 AM

Rain-lily seed capsules and clouds

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By the time I found a group of particularly tall rain lilies (Zephyranthes chlorosolen) in Great Hills Park on October 23rd, the flowers had given way to seed capsules. At least the height of the capsules made it easier for me to get on the ground below them and aim partly upward to include clouds as a backdrop, as you see here. Change the scale of the top picture, use a hefty dose of imagination, and you might be looking at the Tower of the Americas 90 miles to the southwest.


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“The miracle is how robust free expression and liberal science have proved to be, despite unremitting attacks from every direction over hundreds of years. The idea that obnoxious, misguided, seditious, blasphemous, and bigoted expressions deserve not only to be tolerated but, of all things, protected is the single most counterintuitive social principle in all of human history. Every human instinct cries out against it, and every generation discovers fresh reasons to oppose it. It is saved from the scrapheap of self-evident absurdity only by the fact that it is also the single most successful social principle in all human history. Those of us who favor it, and also our children, and also their children and their children, will need to get up every morning and explain and defend our counterintuitive social principle from scratch, and so we might as well embrace the task and perform it cheerfully.” — Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge (2021)

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 14, 2021 at 4:35 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , , ,

Maximilian sunflower time

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As September approached its end, erect stalks of Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) became an increasingly common sight in central Texas. In a field along TX 71 in Spicewood on October 3rd I took advantage of the morning’s wispy clouds to photograph a good stand of those sunflowers. The maximum Maximilian in the field towered over me and could well have climbed above 10 ft. (3m):

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 12, 2021 at 4:29 AM

Standing winecup revisited

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Here are two more portraits of standing winecups, Callirhoe digitata, from the dedicated
little wildflower area at the Floral Park entrance to Great Hills Park on July 23rd.


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Continuing from yesterday with more pictures of this kind of wildflower, standing winecups, symbolizes my wanting to continue with the theme of yesterday’s commentary: the justice system should deal similarly with similar criminal offenses. Alas, that has not at all been the case with the chaotic events of 2020–21 in the United States.

Throughout the second half of 2020, rioters attacked various institutions of our democracy. Among the earliest targets was the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis. A mob burned it, along with nearby buildings, on May 28th.

Portland, Oregon, was especially hard hit in 2020. On May 29 at the Multnomah County Justice Center, “some crowd members made it inside the building, setting fires while corrections records staff were working inside. Others fanned out across downtown, vandalizing and looting as they went… While many Independence Day celebrations had to be canceled or altered due to the coronavirus pandemic, downtown Portland had plenty of fireworks. After a couple weeks of dwindling crowd sizes, another riot was declared when people launched mortars and other fireworks near the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse, prompting a clash with police and federal officers.” By Labor Day last year, Portland had already had a hundred nights of rioting. Many more followed.

On May 31st in Washington, D.C., rioters tried to storm the White House: “Uniformed Secret Service officers made six arrests Friday night after ‘Justice for George Floyd’ protests. A total of 11 Secret Service officers were taken to hospitals in the D.C. area, according to officials. With 60 uniformed officers protecting the area around the White House, the Secret Service said its officers were kicked, punched and exposed to bodily fluids. Bricks, rocks, bottles, fireworks and other items were also reportedly thrown at the Secret Service, who with U.S. Park Police, held the area by using riot gear, pepper spray and rubber bullets to deter violent riots that ensued after peaceful protests. ‘Demonstrators repeatedly attempted to knock over security barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue,’ a Secret Service statement said. ‘Some of the demonstrators were violent, assaulting Secret Service Officer and Special Agents with bricks, rocks, bottles, fireworks and other items. Multiple Secret Service Uniformed Division Officers and Special Agents suffered injuries from this violence.'” The Secret Service was worried enough about the mob breaking through their lines that it moved the President into a bunker.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. There were hundreds of riots last year. Insurance claims just from the initial period of May 26–June 8, 2020, are estimated at between one and two billion dollars, making the 2020 riots by far the costliest in U.S. history. By the end of August, in Minneapolis–St. Paul alone “nearly 1,500 businesses were heavily damaged in the riots, and many were completely destroyed.” Thousands of people there, many of them minorities, got put out of work as a result.

And rioters murdered people. “A retired police captain fatally shot during looting in St. Louis was passionate about helping young people and would have forgiven those behind the violence on the city’s streets, his son says. David Dorn, 77, was killed while responding to an alarm at a pawnshop overnight Monday, St. Louis Police Department announced in a news conference Tuesday.

And yet relatively few of 2020’s rioters, looters, arsonists, and murderers have been prosecuted.

Now compare those seven months of frequent, violent, destructive rioting in 2020 with what took place in Washington, D.C., over several hours on a single day, January 6, 2021. A mob broke into the Capitol. Some of the rioters damaged the building and assaulted police.

Justice requires, and I wholeheartedly agree, that all of those January 6th rioters should be prosecuted to the full extent the law allows. Our government has indeed put enormous resources into identifying the perpetrators and arresting some 570 of them in places all around the country.

In the last few years, activists on the left have been pushing for and increasingly succeeding in institutionalizing “bail reform,” which means that many people indicted for crimes are allowed bail without having to post any bond money at all. On June 1st, 2020, Kamala Harris urged people to help out rioters who had been arrested: “If you’re able to, chip in now to the @MNFreedomFund to help post bail for those protesting on the ground in Minnesota.” Contrast that with the fact that a few of the people indicted in connection with the January 6th riot at the Capitol have been denied bail. One rationale the judicial system put forth for denying bail is that the people in question organized the riot. However, after more than half a year of extensive investigation, yesterday the news broke that “the FBI has found scant evidence that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the result of an organized plot to overturn the presidential election result, according to four current and former law enforcement officials.”

And yet the riots throughout 2020 did have organizers and provocateurs, most noticeably members of the group that calls itself antifa, who have never even been charged, let alone held without bail.

Some of those indicted for the January 6th riot have been held in solitary confinement, despite the fact that many on the political left have long been making the case against that practice.

In some cases the government has refused to give defendants and their lawyers relevant video footage recorded in and around the Capitol on January 6th. In other cases the government has placed onerous restrictions on defendants and their attorneys who need access to relevant video.

One of the rioters inside the Capitol, Ashli Babbitt, was shot and killed by a police officer, apparently with no warning. That killing may have been justified, but to this day, more than seven months later, the authorities still refuse to identify the police officer or give an account of the event, even to the slain woman’s family. Contrast that with the clamor in recent years to have authorities release within days or even hours the name of every policeman involved in a fatal shooting.

I’m not aware of a single person in 2020 who used the word insurrection to characterize seven months of sustained attacks on the institutions of American democracy: thousands of police officers committed to keeping the peace while allowing people to protest; various police stations and courthouses; and even the White House. Yet when it came to the January 6th riot, activists, politicians, and the media on the left acted as if a commandment had come down from on high: “Thou shalt not fail to call this an insurrection,” and they faithfully obeyed.

Even-handed justice requires that prosecution of rioters with leftist ideologies be carried out as thoroughly and vigorously as prosecution of rioters with rightist ideologies. That’s not what has happened. Our legal system has treated the two groups very differently, and in so doing has blatantly denied equal justice under the law.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 21, 2021 at 4:32 AM

Standing winecup and clouds

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On July 23rd in the dedicated little wildflower area at the Floral Park entrance to Great Hills Park I made some portraits of standing winecups, Callirhoe digitata, yet another member of the botanical family that has featured prominently here in recent posts, the Malvaceae, or mallow family. I’m fond of portraits in which a wildflower seems to be soaring above the clouds, as in this case. For that perspective I get down close to or actually on the ground.


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For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed that our legal system should treat similar things similarly. (Don’t you believe that, too?) For example, it never made sense to me that adults could legally drink alcohol but not smoke marijuana, especially since drinking large amounts of alcohol causes much more damage to individuals and society than consuming large amounts of marijuana. Of course use of either drug entails responsibility: no one should drive drunk or high. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) appears to be a growing factor in impaired-driving crashes,” and some jurisdictions are considering drugged-driving laws that would be on a par with drunk-driving laws, now that increasingly many states have been legalizing marijuana.

I bring up my longstanding belief that the legal system should treat similar things similarly because I recently started reading the 2021 book Noise, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Siboney, and Cass R. Sunstein. Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, is the author of Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, which I read several years ago and recommend to you. Olivier Sibony “is a professor, author and advisor specializing in the quality of strategic thinking and the design of decision processes.” Cass R. Sunstein is a professor at the Harvard Law School and the author of various books.

Early in the new book Noise comes a consideration of the sentences meted out to people convicted of similar crimes. In the book’s parlance, such sentences have been “noisy,” meaning they’ve shown undesirably large variation. The book points out that as far back as 1973 Judge Marvin Frankel drew attention to the disparities in sentencing for similar crimes. As a result, a study was done in 1974: “fifty judges from various districts were asked to set sentences for defendants in hypothetical cases summarized in identical pre-sentence reports. The basic finding was that ‘absence of consensus was the norm’ and that the variations across punishments were ‘astounding.’ A heroin dealer could be incarcerated for one to ten years, depending on the judge. Punishments for a bank robber ranged from five to eighteen years in prison. The study found that in an extortion case, sentences varied from a whopping twenty years imprisonment and a $65,000 fine to a mere three years imprisonment and no fine. Most startling of all, in sixteen of twenty cases, there was no unanimity on whether any incarceration was appropriate.”

Studies in subsequent years found similar disparities. In 1984 the U.S. Congress, responding to those studies, passed the Sentencing Reform Act. The law “created the US Sentencing Commission, whose principal job was clear: to issue sentencing guidelines that were meant to be mandatory and that would establish a restricted range for criminal sentences.” A later study compared sentences for certain offenses in 1985, under the old system, with those in 1989 and 1990, under the new system. “For every offense, variations across judges were much smaller in the later period, after the Sentencing Reform Act had been implemented.”

It will probably come as no surprise to you that in spite of the much better uniformity in sentencing that was documented after the guidelines created by the US Sentencing Commission went into effect, many judges complained that they could no longer adequately take account of the particulars in individual cases. “Yale law professor Kate Stith and federal judge José Cabranes wrote that ‘the need is not for blindness, but for insight, for equity,’ which ‘can only occur in a judgment that takes account of the complexities of the individual case.'” In 2005, the United States Supreme Court struck down the obligatory guidelines; they became “merely advisory.” The authors of Noise note that “seventy-five percent of [federal] judges preferred the advisory regime, whereas just 3% thought the mandatory regime was better.”

The result was what could be expected. Harvard law professor Crystal Yang investigated, gathering the data for almost 400,000 criminal defendants. Her study found that in comparison with sentences under the obligatory regime, the disparity in sentencing doubled under the advisory regime. “After the guidelines became advisory, judges became more likely to base their sentencing decisions on their personal values… After the Supreme Court’s decision, there was a significant increase in the disparity between the sentences of African American defendants and white people convicted of the same crimes… Three years after [Judge] Frankel’s death in 2002, striking down the mandatory guidelines produced a return to something more like his nightmare: law without order.” So much for “equity.”

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 20, 2021 at 4:37 AM

Līmax in the sky with branches: both sides now

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From July 27th along John Henry Faulk Dr. you’re seeing both sides
of a little white snail (for which one Latin word was līmax).

In the title of today’s post, readers of a certain age will likely catch
the references to two songs from half a century ago.


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Ever since elementary school I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of language. George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm, which I read in high school, and later his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which you can read online, made me aware of the ways in which propagandists distort words for ideological purposes. For example, in the appendix to 1984, Orwell explained that newspeak, the language that the dictatorship imposed on people, allowed the word free to be used only in the sense that a dog can be free from fleas, but not in the sense that a person has free thought and freedom to act independently.

The other day I came across a recent example of language distortion (and also of pusillanimous groveling):

During a recent endocrinology course at a top medical school in the University of California system, a professor stopped mid-lecture to apologize for something he’d said at the beginning of class.

“I don’t want you to think that I am in any way trying to imply anything, and if you can summon some generosity to forgive me, I would really appreciate it,” the physician says in a recording provided by a student in the class…. “Again, I’m very sorry for that. It was certainly not my intention to offend anyone. The worst thing that I can do as a human being is be offensive.” 

His offense: using the term “pregnant women.” 

“I said ‘when a woman is pregnant,’ which implies that only women can get pregnant and I most sincerely apologize to all of you.”

I invite you to read the article by Katie Herzog about that incident. Illiberal activists like to impugn people they disagree with by calling them x-phobic, where x represents some favored cause or group. I’m now proposing the alliterative term fact-phobic to describe people who deny reality, including the biological reality that anyone who becomes pregnant is a woman. Refusing to deny reality isn’t offensive. Denying reality is.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 18, 2021 at 4:27 AM

July 4, 2021

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Today being July 4th, here’s a vintage red-white-and-blue picture of Ipomopsis rubra, known as standing cypress and Texas plume. The sky was filled with plumes of its own in Williamson County on that long-ago day (May 20, 2009), so I included both kinds of plumes in the portraits I made.

And here’s a quotation that relates to July 4th:

may it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

That’s from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Roger Weightman on June 24, 1826. (I’ve preserved the idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization of the original.) It was the last letter Jefferson ever wrote. He died on July 4, 1826, as did John Adams. The story (perhaps slightly embellished) has come down to us that Adams’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson lives”; unbeknownst to Adams, however, Jefferson had died hours earlier in Virginia. Was any other simultaneous death ever as symbolic as that of the second and third presidents of the United States, both of whom were deeply involved in creating the Declaration of Independence and seeing it adopted exactly 50 years before the day they died?

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman (whose age today and for a year to come will match the Spirit of ’76).

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 4, 2021 at 4:45 AM

Vernal pools at Enchanted Rock

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Enchanted Rock is known for its vernal pools, shallow depressions in the stone where water accumulates and fosters plant life. In past years I’ve seen water in some of the vernal pools there, but on April 12th all the ones I noticed had no water standing in them. That didn’t mean there wasn’t residual moisture that plants were still taking advantage of. In the first picture you see a closeup of a vernal pool only a few inches across filled with stonecrop plants (Sedum nuttallianum).

The middle picture shows a much larger vernal pool with plenty of lush vegetation in it. The flowers are spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.) and the cacti are prickly pears (Opuntia engelmannii). Below, notice how a bunch of vernal pools had obligingly lined up.

Two days ago I posed a few questions. Robert Parker proved by his answers that he’d been holding out on us and that he’s really Mr. World Geography.

Which river touches the most countries? It’s the Danube, which borders or passes through 10 countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, in that order. The river that touches the next highest number of countries is the Nile, with 9.

Which country is the least densely populated? It’s Mongolia, with not quite 2 people per square kilometer. Greenland (whose name is misleading because it’s largely covered with ice) has a significantly lower population density but it’s not an independent country (Denmark owns it).

Which country borders the greatest number of other countries? Russia and China tie at 14 apiece.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

April 29, 2021 at 4:41 AM

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