• Carnage at Sea: A Photographic Memoir

    Yesterday I showed off the results of my new camera vs. the old one on a few tests of lens quality. Today I’ve got the results of some of the focus tests.

    Any camera can focus pretty well on a stationary object, but it’s a lot trickier to follow-focus a moving object. My old Lumix did pretty poorly on this score, but the new Sony allegedly does this very well. The handiest way I have of testing this is to go out and try to take burst mode shots of flying birds. And while I don’t like seagulls much, I’ll give them this: they aren’t lazy. They really fly around a lot, so it’s lucky they’ve taken up residence on our local lake. Yesterday morning I went out to track them in flight.

    Overall, the Sony did very well under the circumstances—the “circumstances” being a photographer who has a hard time following birds around in the viewfinder and keeping them centered. Still, I did OK some of the time, and when I did the camera kept focus pretty well. For starters, here’s a Canada goose chasing another Canada goose:

    I don’t know what that first one did, but the one in back sure seemed pissed. A few minutes later a little boy started tossing some bread into the water, and naturally everyone went nuts. Here’s one of the gulls on an attack path:

    Oh yeah, that’s a gull who knows what he wants. A little later, a coot beat some gulls to a feast and they weren’t happy about it:

    That poor little coot has a piece of bread as big as its head, but it needs to move fast if it wants to keep it. So did it? I don’t know. I was busy taking pictures and missed the end of this little maritime skirmish.

    Eventually the bread was all gone, and so were the gulls:

    Needless to say, I’m showing you the pictures that were in focus, not the ones that weren’t. Overall, though, an impressive number were in sharp focus—and even more will be when your humble photographer improves his tracking skills. So far, though, it appears that fast, accurate follow-focus is as good as advertised. The Sony also has a very nice feature that allows you to define a shooting profile and then temporarily recall it at the push of a button. For shots like this, for example, I’d typically use burst mode, shutter priority, 1/1000th second shutter speed, and continuous focus. That’s a bunch of settings to change, but all I had to do was hold down a button, start shooting, and then release the button. Then I’m back to the settings I was using before. Very nice.

  • Democratic Rebuttal to Nunes Memo Finally Released

    Trump campaign advisor Carter Page during a trip to Moscow in December 2016.Korotayev Artyom/TASS via ZUMA

    A couple of weeks ago President Trump approved the release of the “Nunes memo,” which alleged FBI abuse of the FISA warrant process to get a wiretap approved on Carter Page, a Trump campaign aide. Remember that? Most people probably don’t, what with a news cycle that runs on a fruit-fly timescale these days. So now that everyone has (a) absorbed the allegations that the FBI is corrupt and (b) isn’t paying attention anymore, it’s time to release the Democratic rebuttal. And of course it will be heavily redacted, to make it really hard to read.

    I’m busy with issues of crucial importance today, so I don’t have the time to spend properly on this. All part of the GOP plan! However, the full text of the Democratic memo is here. LA Times reporter Chris Megerian‏ summarizes the key points here.

    The basic takeaway is that the Nunes memo was nonsense, but I think we all knew that already. Nonetheless, the damage has been done, and expertly so.

  • Do Republicans Really Want to Be the Party of Homer Simpson?

    It sure takes a big hat to cover up Lisa's hair.20th Century Fox Television

    Ted Cruz has said a lot of dumb things during his history of CPAC appearances, but he’s getting a lot of undeserved flak for something he said at this year’s conference:

    The Democrats are the party of Lisa Simpson and Republicans are happily the party of Homer, Bart, Maggie and Marge.

    Here’s the thing: Cruz was talking about gun control, but he’s more right than he knows. And this, in a nutshell, should be a lesson to both liberals and to Americans more generally.

    For liberals: A lot of people do view us as Lisa Simpson. We’re the no-fun party. We want you to read books and learn science. We want you to eat your vegetables and get rid of your SUV and stop telling ethnic jokes. We’re earnest about plastic bags and concussions in the NFL and islands in the Pacific that are slowly drowning. We want you to be careful about how you treat other people; generous about how you treat the poor; and thoughtful about how you treat the planet. We have the media on our side, we have Hollywood on our side, and we have the universities on our side. This means that our message is not just annoyingly omnipresent, but generally delivered by folks who make a lot of money and have highbrowish interests. They probably don’t want SUVs or inch-thick steaks in the first place, and they can afford to buy their way out of the other stuff.

    In other words, modern liberals are your dentist. You should use a different toothbrush, she says. You should floss more. You should come in for checkups more often. Well, hell, we all know we ought to do these things, and this hectoring just makes us feel guilty. So we nod and promise to do it and then go home and forget about it.

    No broad-based political movement wants a reputation like that. But when lefties get advice to ease up a little—advice that’s often earnest and poll-based and not to our liking—we react the same way other people react to us: either we fight it contemptuously or else we nod blankly and then go about our business of doing what we wanted to do in the first place.

    And now for Americans more generally. Leaving Maggie and Marge out of this, modern Republicans are, as Cruz says, happily the party of Homer and Bart. They scoff at science. If they want something, they just buy it without a second thought. They go to church, but with a wink and a nod that they don’t really take it seriously. They care only about themselves. They don’t like being lectured by Lisa or Marge—or women in general. They watch Fox News and believe whatever it tells them. They are prone to lunatic conspiracy theories. They are constantly in need of rescue by others. They are idiots. A lot of fun, maybe, but still idiots.

    And of course, The Simpsons is a cartoon. Homer and Bart are supposed to be idiots. In a cartoon, that’s good for a lot of laughs. But in the real world? Not so much. And yet, as Cruz says, the Republicans who control our entire government are happily the party of Homer and Bart. This is a pretty startling admission, really, and not in a good way.

    Of course, despite everything, things always turn out OK in the 29th minute of The Simpsons. That’s a cartoon for you. I wonder if Republicans think that’s how real life works too?

  • I Got a New Catblogging Camera This Week

    I got a new camera this week. But why? Don’t I love my Lumix?

    I do, but when I got it I was already squeezing my budget pretty hard for something I wasn’t even sure I’d use that much. It’s now obvious that I am using it a lot, and the Lumix does have a couple of drawbacks. First, the lens is mediocre. Second, the autofocus is not always great, especially on moving objects.

    What to do? I considered going the DSLR route, but once again decided not to. I’ve spent a lot of years trudging around with a heavy camera bag full of lenses, and I’m just not up to it again—either physically or financially—especially considering the quality of mirrorless cameras these days. So once again I opted for a fixed lens camera with a 1″ sensor: light, easy to haul around, good for just about any kind of picture, and fairly high quality. Last year, I considered but rejected the Sony RX10 III as too expensive to beat out the Lumix. This year, however, the RX10 IV (yes, they number them like Super Bowls) was an easy winner. It’s always had a better lens than the Lumix, especially at long focal lengths, and the IV model also incorporates phase-detect autofocus like that used in DSLRs, which is faster and more accurate than contrast-detect.

    So how is it? First things first. Here’s the traditional first shot from a new camera:

    Not bad for just pointing and shooting in low light at a slow shutter speed as soon as I got it out of the box. But how good is the lens? The reviews I read made it sound pretty stunning, but I’m more interested in knowing how well it works in real life. On the first morning I went out, I happened to see a hummingbird sitting on a branch quite a ways away. Normally I wouldn’t bother with something so distant, but what the heck. I snapped off a few quick exposures. Here’s a comparison with a similar picture I took a few weeks ago with the Lumix. Both are cropped full-frame shots. Your browser will reduce them, and you might not even see a difference if you don’t have a 4K monitor or a high-res tablet. But you can right-click to see them full-size:

    The Sony looks surprisingly good, especially since the bird was farther away than it was in the Lumix shot. Still, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions. Then I remembered that it was shots of the moon that first disappointed me with the Lumix. So I went outside and took pictures of the moon with both cameras:

    The Sony is stunningly better—and it doesn’t have the color tint of the Lumix. The moon is also a little bigger, since the Sony lens reaches to 600mm compared to the Lumix’s 480mm. The odd thing, though, is that the Lumix shot looks like it’s showing motion blur. And yet, both were shot on a tripod at a shutter speed of 1/640th of a second. Motion blur shouldn’t be an issue. So on Friday afternoon I tried old faithful: a comparison shot of a page in a magazine. Both pictures were shot at the same exposure; both at the same focal length; both on a tripod; both with the electronic shutter; both at a shutter speed of 1/2500th of a second; and both were triggered remotely. All this was to eliminate even a hint of vibration. Here they are:

    The Sony is fantastically better. It’s sharp as a pin, while the Lumix is fuzzy and washed out. Note that these are full-frame crops with no Photoshop editing other than some lightening to correct the exposure. The reviews were right about the Sony lens: it’s as good or better than a lot of DSLR name-brand lenses I’ve seen. It’s the real deal—though again, you may need a 4K monitor or a high-res tablet screen to really see the difference.

    I haven’t had a chance yet to check out the autofocus. My best bet for that is to see how well the Sony tracks a bird out at the lake, but the birds were all being lazy yesterday. I’ll try again today.

    Both the Sony and Lumix have a few minor features the other one doesn’t, and these are mostly a wash. The big drawback of the Sony is its lack of my beloved fully-articulating LCD. It has only a tilt LCD:

    Before I went to Yosemite last week, I had made up my mind that the tilt screen was really all I needed. But then I suddenly found myself using the full articulating capabilities of the Lumix LCD. I took a number of shots from angles that would have been difficult with only a tilt screen.

    But I took the plunge anyway. Yosemite was a bit of an outlier, and anyway, it often turns out that pictures taken from weird angles don’t really turn out very well anyway. The tilt screen is fine for nearly any purpose, and plenty fine for catblogging, which is what really counts. I’ll report more later, but for now I’m pretty happy based solely on the optical quality of the Sony.

  • Susan Rice Wearily Replies Yet Again to Republican Party Interrogators

    Pete Souza/The White House/ZUMAPRESS

    A couple of weeks ago, Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham took yet another shot at Susan Rice, one of the Republican Party’s favorite punching bags. They got hold of a memo that Rice wrote during her final days in the White House, recounting a meeting with FBI director James Comey related to the Trump-Russia investigation. Rice’s letter was a summary of the meeting, in which she quoted President Obama telling Comey to continue doing everything “by the book.”

    How suspicious! Grassley and Graham thought it “odd” that Rice would document the meeting, and suggested that Comey hadn’t proceeded “by the book.” Hmmm. Suspicious. They were also suspicious of Obama’s comment that he wasn’t providing Comey with any instructions from a “law enforcement perspective.” What about other perspectives? Hmmm. And what about the Steele dossier? And why the question to Comey about whether there was any reason not to fully share information about Russia with the incoming Trump team? Hmmm. Hmmm.

    Today Rice answered. She didn’t quite call G&G grandstanding boneheads, but the tone of the letter is pretty acerbic:

    How about that? Apparently President Obama was reluctant to share information with Michael Flynn in light of “concerning communications” held “before and after the election.” I wonder why G&G didn’t think of that?

    As for why Rice memorialized the conversation, I’d say that’s pretty obvious. It’s because she knew full well that the Republican Party is full of people like Grassley and Graham. She may know that better than almost anybody, in fact.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 23 February 2018

    Hilbert is not amused.

  • Quote of the Day: Next Time, Health Care Reform Will Be a Real War

    From Harold Pollack, mild-mannered professor at the University of Chicago, on the strategy for health care reform when Democrats return to power:

    Democrats will be much more ruthless the next time around.

    Pollack explains this further in more academic tones, but I’m not sure he needs to. Basically, Republicans waged a relentless 7-year war against a program even as moderate and market-friendly as Obamacare. It’s obvious that being moderate and market-friendly buys you nothing these days, so what’s the point? Why not just give the public what it really wants: a simple, universal health care system funded by taxes? How much worse can the war be?

    This is all in response to a new proposal from the Center for American Progress called Medicare Extra for All. This is not the most euphonious name ever invented, but I suppose it gets the point across. MEFA basically does this:

    • Makes Medicare better.
    • Provides it to anyone who needs it.
    • Allows private plans to stay around as long as they provide care pretty similar to MEFA.

    The cost of enrolling in MEFA would be zero for families under 150 percent of the poverty level (currently $25,000 for a family of four), and on a sliding scale ranging from 1-10 percent of income for everyone above that level. Employers could continue to offer private insurance or could pay to enroll their workers in MEFA. There would be cost controls and various funding sources. Here is CAP’s summary:

    Roughly speaking, this is national health care (everyone is insured) but with premium payments for some people instead of just funding the whole thing through taxes. It’s still more complicated than it needs to be, and I assume this is because the CAP authors want to keep the cost down and the extra taxes minimal. In other words, perhaps Democrats still aren’t being ruthless enough. But I suppose that’s easy for me to say.

  • Hooray for Alina Zagitova!

    Russian figure skaters Evgenia Medvedeva (left) and gold medal winner Alina Zagitova.Jon Olav Nesvold/Bildbyran via ZUMA

    Alex Abad-Santos is a huge fan of Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva, who lost last night by a single point to her teammate Alina Zagitova. According to the score sheets, Medvedeva executed her program better (she got lots of perfect tens in her component scores), but Zagitova won anyway. Abad-Santos explains:

    The best explanation of Zagitova’s win lies in the current figure skating scoring system — which favors jumps — and Zagitova’s ability to hit the most difficult jumping combination in the women’s field: a triple lutz–triple loop….Zagitova had another advantage in the free skate: taking full advantage of the point system. Zagitova stacks all her jumps in the second half of the program. By doing this, she takes advantage of a detail of the scoring system that awards a 10 percent bonus to the base value of jumps that are performed during the second half of a skater’s program

    ….Because the scoring system favors strong jumpers and Zagitova tailored her routine and her strengths to maximize the number of points she could earn, she ultimately came out on top….Both women skated spectacularly, with Zagitova taking gold and Medvedeva taking silver. But even though the numbers can explain why that outcome wasn’t reversed, something about the system still feels imperfect.

    Well, now, I don’t know about that. It sounds like Zagitova demonstrated more skill, better endurance, and a more aggressive use of the scoring system. That doesn’t sound imperfect. If Medvedeva can’t pull off the 3Lz+3Lo¹ and doesn’t have the strength to do her jumps in the second half of the program, it sounds like Zagitova is just the better athlete—last night, anyway. Even accounting for the fact that I have the soul of an engineer, surely I’m not the only one who tires of ice skating commentary that blathers on about how one skater “surrenders herself to the music” and another “skates with her heart, not her brain”? Like it or not, this is exactly the kind of quirky nonsense that the current scoring system was designed to eliminate.²

    Any time you win a sporting event by half a percentage point, it’s basically a tie. In some sense, the actual winner is basically a coin flip. Still, Abad-Santos has convinced me that this time it wasn’t really a coin flip. Zagitova deserved to win.

    ¹Note my use of the abbreviation to make it look like I’m an expert. Don’t try this at home, though. I’m a professional.

    ²Along with corrupt judging, of course.

  • We’re Headed For a Showdown Over Emotional Support Animals

    Shelly Yang/TNS via ZUMA

    Over at Vox, Brian Resnick interviews Molly Crossman, an expert on emotional support animals. She confirms what an awful lot of people only mutter under their breath:

    Resnick: Overall, what are the strongest claims we can make about animals and mental distress?

    Crossman: Well, I’ll qualify it first by saying that most of the research in this area is on dogs. There is some on horses as well, and a few studies on other species. But in terms of the dog studies, we can say that, probably, interactions with animals don’t make stress-related symptoms worse. So that’s good. It also seems they convey sort of small to medium reductions in stress and stress-related symptoms. That’s the strongest thing I’m willing to say….We actually don’t know that it’s the animals specifically that are producing these small to medium reductions in stress. It might be other components of the interventions in which they’re evaluated.

    So: they don’t make things worse. They might make things slightly better, but we can’t even say that with any clarity.

    Then there’s stuff like this, which happened last night. There’s a backlash brewing against emotional support animals, and their supporters better figure out how to address it before state legislatures start doing it for them.

  • Who Approved the Russian Mercenary Attack on American Forces?

    Samer Bouidani/DPA via ZUMA

    The Washington Post reports on the source of an attack by Russian mercenaries on US troops a few weeks ago in Syria:

    A Russian oligarch believed to control the Russian mercenaries who attacked U.S. troops and their allies in Syria this month was in close touch with Kremlin and ­Syrian officials in the days and weeks before and after the assault, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

    A Russian oligarch? A businessman is commanding mercenary troops in Syria?

    In intercepted communications in late January, the oligarch, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, told a senior Syrian official that he had “secured permission” from an unspecified Russian minister to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative that would take place in early February….Among his various enterprises, U.S. intelligence believes that Prigozhin also “almost certainly” controls Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

    ….The attack marked the biggest direct challenge to the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria since U.S. Special Operations forces began deploying there in 2015….A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue, described the episode as “worrisome.” The official added that “it’s striking how the Russians themselves have been quick to distance themselves” from what he described as an operation “under Syrian command and in response to Syrian directive.”

    Very strange. The betting money, of course, says that Prigozhin would never have attacked US troops without a green light from Vladimir Putin himself. But why would Putin approve something that’s both so reckless and so pointless? In the end, all he got were a lot of dead mercenaries.