Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Posts Tagged ‘minimalist

The wild remains of wild onions

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There’s a little stretch along upper Bull Creek where wild onions (Allium canadense var. canadense) flourish. Though I didn’t go there this spring when they were fresh, I stopped by on June 25th and found that the upper parts of the dried plants had taken on some rather wild shapes. You’re looking at two of them.

 

  

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“Science and Civil Liberties: The Lost ACLU Lecture of Carl Sagan”

That’s the title of a July 1st article in Quillette by Steven Pinker and Harvey Silverglate. Steven Pinker is a psychologist, linguist, and best-selling author of many books, most recently Rationality: Why It Seems Scarce and Why It Matters. Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties litigator, as well as a co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). His website says he has been “taking unpopular stances since 1967.”

In the Quillette article, those two have resurrected an “uncannily prescient” speech that astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan (1934–1996) gave to the Illinois state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in around 1987. “Sagan spoke prophetically of the irrationality that plagued public discourse, the imperative of international cooperation, the dangers posed by advances in technology, and the threats to free speech and democracy in the United States.” Here’s a portion of what Carl Sagan said:

The conclusion is that we desperately need error-correcting mechanisms. We are fallible. We’re only human. We make mistakes. We have a set of new technologies that, in many cases, we barely know how to control. Those in charge pretend otherwise. The question is how do we make sure that the most serious sorts of errors do not occur?

Now there is another area of human activity that has to face the same issues, and that’s the area called science. Science has devised a set of rules of thinking, of analysis, which, although there are exceptions in individual cases (scientists being humans just like everybody else), nevertheless, on average, are responsible for the remarkable progress of science.

And you all know, certainly, what these rules are. Things like arguments from authority have little weight. Like contentions have to be demonstrable. Like experiments must be repeatable. Like vigorous substantive debate is encouraged and is considered the lifeblood of science. Like serious critical thinking and skepticism addressed to new and even old claims is not just permissible, but is encouraged, is desirable, is the lifeblood of science. There is a creative tension between openness to new ideas and rigorous skeptical scrutiny.

This set of habits of thought could also, in principle, contribute to the kind of error-correction mechanism that is desperately needed in the society that we are generating. In public affairs, this sort of error-correction machinery in our society is institutionalized in the Constitution. It’s institutionalized, first of all, in the separation of powers, and secondly, in the civil liberties, especially in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution: the Bill of Rights.

The founding fathers mistrusted government power, and they had very good reason to, as do we. This is why they tried to institutionalize the separation of powers, the right to think, the right to speak, to be heard, to assemble, to complain to the government about its abuses, to be able to vote or impeach malefactors out of office.

 

You can read Carl Sagan’s full speech in the Quillette article.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 4, 2022 at 4:26 AM

Looking up at composite architecture

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On June 5th I stopped by Vaught Ranch Rd., thinking I might find some skeleton plants, Lygodesmia texana, flowering there again this year. I did. The architecture of these flower heads always appeals to me. My use of a ring flash in broad daylight allowed me to stop down to a small aperture. That combination caused the bright blue sky to come out looking darker than it really was—but hey, what’s reality, anyhow? In the upward-looking view of a nearby zexmenia flower head, Wedelia texana var. acapulcensis, the sky came out brighter than with the skeleton plant but still duller than it actually was. In both cases the uniform blue proved a good isolating element for the subject.

 

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The purpose of a military is to keep a country safe from physical attack and to wage war against an enemy. People in the military train to be physically fit and to use defensive and offensive weapons. People in the military study tactics, strategy, and military history. And now in the American military they study pronouns. Once again I have to make clear that that last sentence is not something from a satirical publication like the Babylon Bee or the Onion. No, as far as I’ve been able to determine, this is for real. The U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center has apparently prepared a video about the importance of pronouns for members of the military. In style and vocabulary the film is something you’d think was geared for children in elementary school. You can watch the four-minute video, which talks about creating a safe space rather than defeating an enemy. This is madness.

I have to think the leaders in China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and other countries can’t believe their great good fortune that the American military is busy weakening itself so they don’t have to worry about it as much anymore.

 UPDATE: An article in The Federalist goes into detail about how ill-equipped the U.S. Navy is becoming even as it’s wasting time and money on “wokeism.”

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 23, 2022 at 4:34 AM

Redwing blackbird

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On the dozenth day of this month I spent time at Cypress Creek Park along Lake Travis. At one point I noticed a redwing blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, had settled near me atop the remains of a dead tree. I went to my camera bag, took off my macro lens and attached my telephoto lens, turned around, and found the bird had flown away. Off with the telephoto lens, back on with the macro. Except a moment later the blackbird came back. Another round of lens changing, and this time I managed to get three avian pictures. Even without the blackbird the spiderwebbed dead whitened tree called for a portrait.

 

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Disingenuous

 

For decades I watched the television program CBS Sunday Morning, first with its original host, Charles Kuralt, and later with its second host, Charles Osgood. What I and presumably everyone else in the program’s audience enjoyed about it was that its stories were what you would call “human interest,” not dealing with politics or current world events. Beginning in 2018, however, after the third host took over, politicized and ideological segments began appearing. Needless to say—it’s CBS after all—those segments leaned in one and only one ideological direction. Things got to the point where I gave up watching the show I’d looked forward to for decades.

This past Sunday, I’m not sure why, I turned on the show for the first time in several years and caught a few of its stories. One, about the son of singer/songwriter Jim Croce, was fine, just like in the old days. Another feature was not. It was a narrated animation about how “ravenous for ancient sunshine” we are today. The narrator talked about Kentucky, a state that mines plenty of coal, which is a major fuel in the generation of electricity. Coal, the narrator explained, was formed aeons ago from trees. He stated the average amount of electricity a Kentucky home uses, then worked backwards to determine how much coal and therefore how many ancient trees a Kentucky home consumes each year. The program made it seem as if the burning of coal formed from trees millions of years ago is just like cutting down vast forests of trees today. That’s disingenuous. The trees that turned into coal died millions of years ago. Refraining from burning coal today isn’t magically going to bring those trees back to life.

Then the narrator launched into a similarly disingenuous shtik about oil, which he told us formed from microscopic organisms millions of years ago. It turns out we now use up the equivalent of trillions upon trillions of those ancient organisms when we burn petroleum to get energy. Once again the program seemed to suggest that burning oil that formed millions of years ago somehow amounts to destroying trillions of organisms that are currently alive.

Hey, I can play that game too. Let me talk about how many zillion photons of light a solar panel steals from the sun every day. What’s more, those photons were generated just eight minutes earlier—the time it takes for light to travel from the sun to the earth—not millions of years ago like the trees and microscopic organisms that went into the making of coal and oil. If consuming the byproducts of entities that died millions of years in the past is bad, then for solar panels to consume photons born of the sun’s fiery womb just eight minutes earlier is downright solar infanticide.

I told you I could be just as disingenuous as the people on CBS Sunday Morning.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 22, 2022 at 4:32 AM

Pink and blue and a change of pace

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On June 3rd, after touring the exhibits inside Corpus Christi’s Art Museum of South Texas, I focused my attention—which is to say my camera—on the museum’s exterior. If you call these views colorfully and geometrically minimalist you’ll get no argument from me. And speaking of pink and blue, I guess this is a good time for my periodic reminder that before the middle of the 20th century blue was considered the color for baby girls and pink the color for baby boys.

 

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Here’s a passage from Luke Rosiak’s new book Race to the Bottom: Uncovering the Secret Forces Destroying American Public Education.

Beginning in 1985, a federal judge named Russell Clark tried to find out what would happen if money was no obstacle. He ordered a massive spending program that infused billions of extra dollars over twelve years into the decaying city schools of Kansas City, Missouri. This made Kansas City the highest-spending large school district in the country, adjusted for cost of living. It outspent similar districts around the country by two or three times. Clark said that he “allowed the district planners to dream.”

The district constructed laboratories, a planetarium, and an Olympic swimming pool, and it provided kids with computers, foreign language programs, and field trips to Senegal and Mexico. It added all-day kindergarten and aftercare, and every elementary school classroom had $25,000 of toys in it. It had a teacher-student ratio of one to twelve or thirteen and gave teachers 40 percent raises. Clark anticipated that Kansas City students’ achievement would match the national average within five years.

By 1995, the dropout rate had not decreased and test performance showed “no measurable improvement.” Over four years of high school, the average black student’s reading skills increased by only 1.1 grade equivalents. As Gary Orfield, head of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, whose testimony helped spur the bonanza, later admitted, “They had as much money as any school district will ever get. It didn’t do very much.”

Most people would interpret the statements of politicians to mean that low-income students have less money spent on their education than their middle-class colleagues. This is because they do not understand the power of the word equity to distort reality. Only through such a word can people say that getting the most money for the worst results proves that they are oppressed…. But in reality, equity means writing bigger and bigger checks to the bureaucrats who run inner-city schools, until equal outcomes by students are achieved—even though there is little evidence that money will ever cause that to happen.

That’s because education is primarily about minds, not materials. As a Peace Corps volunteer in 1968 and 1969 I taught math for a year and a half at a school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where high school graduates pursued a three-year course to get certified as teachers. I was a brand-new teacher myself, only a few years older than my students, far from knowing as much and being as effective as I later became after years of studying and practice. My Spanish was adequate but not perfect. During my first half-year we didn’t even have a textbook. I made things up out of my head and used the school’s hand-cranked ditto machine to run off worksheets. The point is that even with those limited resources the students learned. It doesn’t take a lot of money. It does take a culture of knowledge, something American schools have been increasingly downplaying in favor of sociopolitical indoctrination and the excuse of eternal victimhood.

  

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 17, 2022 at 4:24 AM

Grabbing grape

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The most common native grapevine in Austin is the mustang grape, Vitis mustangensis. Last year I showed how a prolific one on the side of FM (Farm-to-Market) 2222 just west of the Capital of Texas Highway covered a tree. On May 10th of this year I went back to the same highwayside and focused on young mustang grape tendrils. In the top picture you see how some had latched on to a couple of Mexican hats, Ratibida columnifera. Even when nothing external is available, mustang grape tendrils can live out their innate impulse by curling around themselves, as seen below.

 

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The fight against mis- and dis-information—a worthy goal—is often based on two flawed assumptions. The first is that definitive answers are known to the disputed points. The second, related to the first, is that the right people to provide those answers can be identified and agreed upon. Both assumptions are themselves often steeped in the Certainty Trap—a resolute unwillingness to recognize the possibility that we might not be right in our beliefs and claims.

To understand the implications of the mis- and dis-information labeling, we need only consider instances like the initial response to claims around Hunter Biden’s laptop or the source of COVID-19. In 2020, several major media outlets dismissed as mis- or dis-information (see here and here for examples) the possibility that a laptop of incriminating emails belonged to Hunter Biden. The certainty with which this position was held led to the silencing of anyone who publicly questioned it—so much so that it has been called “the most severe case of pre-election censorship in modern American political history.” Recent evidence, however, has forced the same outlets who invoked those labels to acknowledge the laptop’s authenticity. Similarly, in early 2020, the suggestion that COVID-19 might have originated in a lab in China was dismissed as groundless fodder for racism and xenophobia. The certainty that led to this reflexive dismissal was walked back just over a year later, but the judgment of the once dissenting voices shouldn’t be forgotten.

 

That’s a passage from a May 9th article in Tablet titled “The Certainty Trap,” by Ilana Redstone, which you’re welcome to read. On March 21st Tablet had run the related article “Invasion of the Fact-Checkers,” by Jacob Siegel, which I also invite you to read. Its title reminds me of a line from the Latin poet Juvenal’s Satires: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Who will watch those watchers?” Now we’re forced to ask who’s going to fact-check the fact-checkers.

 

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 22, 2022 at 4:31 AM

Inland sea oats looking different

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I’ve often photographed seed head arcs of inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), and my post on January 16th showed two views of this grass’s leaves looking backlitly colorful. I commented then that although the species name latifolium means ‘wide leaf,’ I’d never considered inland sea oats leaves particularly wide. Now I get to add that not until walking the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt Trail on Valentine’s Day had I ever seen a leaf of this grass as tightly rolled up along its axis as the one you see here. It pointed not only to the farthest seed head but also to the fact that nothing would keep me from photographing so distinctive a leaf.

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Yesterday morning I successfully woke up. I successfully got out of bed and successfully made my way to my computer, which I successfully bought three years ago. I successfully looked at e-mails that had successfully come in overnight, and I successfully replied to some of them. Then I successfully went into the kitchen, where I not long ago successfully got the fluorescent light fixtures successfully replaced. Nearby was the toaster oven I successfully ordered last month. After its arrival I’d successfully removed it from its shipping box, successfully unwrapped it, successfully put it on a counter, successfully plugged it in, and successfully turned it on. Since then we’ve successfully cooked various foods in it and successfully eaten those foods.

What I’m getting at is that increasingly many people feel obliged to attach the word successfully to routine actions. For example, in January I sent an e-mail to a company after I kept getting billed each month for a subscription I’d canceled. The first reply I got said: “The escalation form has been successfully submitted to Gannett Subscriber Services Team.” Notice the unnecessary successfully.

One place where I think almost everyone has encountered this is on websites that require you to log in. After you log out, you almost invariably get a message with wording like “You have successfully logged out.” Logging out of a website is hardly special enough to be considered a success. It’s mundane. But do you think I’ll ever successfully convince website programmers to successfully drop the superfluous word successfully? I’d say my chances are on a par with getting advertisers to stop hyping a sale as a “sales event,” or businesses that deal in X to stop calling themselves “X Solutions” — which is to say the likelihood is zero.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 21, 2022 at 4:32 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , ,

Drowned remains

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At Barkley Meadows Park in Del Valle on January 29th we walked completely around Berdoll Pond, at whose far end I did many takes on drowned tree remains. The nearby skeleton of the plant shown below (perhaps poverty weed) also attracted me.

  

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The press is an availability machine. It serves up anecdotes which feed our impression of what’s common in a way that is guaranteed to mislead. Since news is what happens, not what doesn’t happen, the denominator in the fraction corresponding to the true probability of an event—all the opportunities for the event to occur, including those in which it doesn’t—is invisible, leaving us in the dark about how prevalent something is.

The distortions, moreover, are not haphazard, but misdirect us toward the morbid. Things that happened suddenly are usually bad—a war, a shooting, famine, financial collapse—but good things may consist of nothing happening, like a boring country at peace or a forgettable region that is healthy and well fed. And when progress takes place, it isn’t built in a day; it creeps up a few percentage points a year, transforming the world by stealth.

Steven Pinker, Rationality, 2021

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 18, 2022 at 4:36 AM

More fog

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The first day of February came up foggy, so I relished another chance to take pictures in weather that’s not so common here (though the previous time had been not that long before, on December 14th). I headed for the pond along Kulmbacher Drive in far north Austin, which proved a worthwhile place for the kinds of misty photographs I imagined. The top view shows winter cattails (Typha sp.). Below, the reflections of so many bare stalks intrigued me.

 

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 Education in the news

 

In my October 23rd commentary last year I reported that the public schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, were segregating students in “affinity groups,” which is to say illegally according to race or ethnicity. Several families fought back against the illegal segregation through a lawsuit brought by Parents Defending Education and have now largely prevailed against the Wellesley school district.

At the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Enfield, Connecticut, students were recently given a worksheet that told them to use pizza toppings as metaphors for sex. Honest—I’m not clever enough to have made that up. Examples included “cheese = kissing” and “olives = giving oral.” You can read the details in a New York Post article.

On February 10, Wisconsin state lawmaker Lee Snodgrass tweeted that “If parents want to ‘have a say’ in their child’s education, they should home school or pay for private school tuition out of their family budget.” In other words, even though parents’ taxes pay for the public education system, parents aren’t entitled to a say in how their children are educated in the public schools. You can read more about this in a local television station’s news report.

The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, is “poised to mandate race-focused study as a prerequisite to graduating from law school.”

“Trade publication Education Week recently reported that about 500 school districts around the country are rating teacher applicants according to their ‘cultural competency,’ another code for wokeness.‘ Many of these districts are contracting with a teacher-hiring company called Nimble, which uses artificial intelligence to examine applications and interview answers to determine which candidates harbor the correct political and cultural attitudes.” You can find out more in a Federalist article.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 14, 2022 at 4:29 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , , ,

Winter yellow

with 8 comments

Wildflowers are sparse here in January. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t always at least some. On January 11th in the northeast quadrant of Mopac and US 183 I found a few broomweed plants (Amphiachyris dracunculoides) still flowering—barely. (That stands in contrast to how densely flowerful this species is at its peak.) To give you a sense of scale, I’ll add that each broomweed flower head ranges from 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch across (6–9mm). 

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The other day I heard about an American woman named Chloé Valdary from a New York Post article headlined “How a 28-year-old is fighting against ‘divisive’ anti-racism training.” Check it out for an alternative to the ineffective and racist “anti-racism” programs that have quickly become all too common in American institutions. According to the caption under a photograph of Chloé Valdary in the Post article, she “urges participants to embrace love rather than division in her training sessions, and uses pop-culture references to help foster better connections.” Links in the article take you to her Theory of Enchantment website.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

 

 

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 27, 2022 at 4:32 AM

Lindheimer’s senna leaflets turning yellow

with 25 comments

From my neighborhood on December 16, 2021, come these two takes, one minimalist and the other busy, on colorful Lindheimer’s senna leaflets (Senna lindheimeri).

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Yesterday the United States Supreme Court heard a challenge to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) nationwide mandate that companies with 100 or more employees must require those employees to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The challengers, the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, contend that OSHA, not being part of the legislature, doesn’t have the authority to issue such a mandate, and that only Congress does.

During the proceedings, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the following about Covid-19: “We have over 100,000 children, which we have never had before, in serious condition, many on ventilators.” While it’s true that the rate of Covid-19 infection among children has recently climbed higher than at any previous time in the pandemic, the fact remains that children are still the least affected age group, and the claim that 100,000 children are currently afflicted and in serious condition is a gross exaggeration.

A Yahoo! News story from yesterday says that “The current number of confirmed pediatric hospitalizations with Covid in the U.S. is 3,342, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services released on Friday.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Data Tracker shows that for the entire 17-month period from August 1, 2020, through January 5, 2022, the total number of pediatric Covid-19 admissions in the United States was 82,843.

It’s unfortunate that a Supreme Court Justice would claim that the current number of pediatric Covid-19 hospitalizations is 30 times the actual amount.

UPDATE:

What follows is part of an article from The Epoch Times on January 9.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walenksy disputed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s claim that 100,000 children are hospitalized or seriously ill with COVID-19 during arguments made before the court on Jan. 7.

During an interview with “Fox News Sunday” on Jan. 9, Walensky confirmed that there are about 3,500 children in the hospital who have tested positive for COVID-19….

When asked about there being 3,500 children hospitalized as opposed to 100,000, Walensky said, “Yes, there are, and in fact what I will say is while pediatric hospitalizations are rising, they’re still about 15-fold less than hospitalizations of our older age demographics.”

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 8, 2022 at 4:31 AM

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