Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie Reviews (no spoilers)

I don't spend a lot of time in movie theaters. It's just too expensive a pastime. So Kathy and I watch a lot of movies from Netflix. I did, however, make it to see three movies in the theater in the past two weeks.

First, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I've read the books, now I have watched the movies. This installment was not very deep, but it was entertaining. I wan't sure the actor playing Eustace could pull it off, but by the end I was a fan. He played both brat and friend with such vigor that I am looking forward to his appearance in the next installment. Recommended for entertainment value, and though my 8 year old nephew ended up with brief nightmares about the green mist, I think it is suitable for older children.

Second, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Again, I've read the books, now I have watched the movies. I wasn't sure how they would pull off the slow sections of the book, or whether they would be as true to the book with regard to injuries and deaths of significant characters. I was not let down in any way. The movie is well-paced, and there is time allotted for both action and introspection. I'm looking forward to the next installment. This movie is suitable only for teenagers and older, hence the PG-13 rating.

Third, Tron: Legacy. I watched the first movie and enjoyed it immensely. I knew then that computers did not work that way, but I liked the fictional approach. The sequel does not break from the fictional approach, and its visuals are far better than the original. The story for both movies is harder to appreciate if you are not somewhat nerdish, though the focus on games in both movies expands the movies' appeal considerably. (There is a reason that the Tron arcade games were so popular in the 80's. This new generation of gamers will have such a different experience, far closer to that offered by the latest movie. I hope that the Xbox Kinetic shines as a result of the new Tron games. Of all the current game technologies, it has the best chance to mimic the disc game most naturally.) Maybe they will make another installment, but this was a good end to the story. I especially like the soundtrack from Daft Punk, and picked it up from Target for $13.99 today. I recommend this movie for nerds like me and for older children and up. Oh, and if you can see it in chair-shaking Imax 3D like I did, you might enjoy this movie even more.

That's it for the in-theater movies. Here's a short list of movies I recommend from Netflix (either through DVD or Instant):

The Dish
What happened at the radio telescope in Parkes, Australia during the Apollo 11 mission. A fun movie, and doesn't require a degree in astrophysics to appreciate.

V: The Original Miniseries
The effects and acting are hokey, but the story is relevant. It's theme is largely based on European experience under Hitler and Mussolini, but there are some parallels to what the TSA is doing today in airports. (At least the TSA is not enslaving us.) Fears of totalitarianism will be stoked by this movie, and I think the Founding Fathers would approve of our healthy fear.

Happy New Year!

Settlers of Catan

After reading such positive reviews, especially by Harrison Brookie, I decided to look into Settlers of Catan. I started with the Wikipedia entry, then proceeded to the SoC website. There is an excellent interactive tutorial that shows the mechanics of play along with some of the consequences of different moves.

I moved on to an extensive online strategy guide, which confirmed my sense of resource scarcity and the inability to "do it all" as a viable strategy. It extended my understanding of game dynamics beyond what the tutorial provided.

Then I tried a couple of single-player online versions of the game. The one that I started with from SoC was a bit simplistic, and I didn't have time to play online against multiple real players. I finally settled on the download from MSN Games. (If you are a subscriber, then you will pay the least amount to register the game. I didn't, so I got stuck overpaying for the privilege.)

I played this version for several games, losing badly each time. Two nights ago, I played again. I went second, and was able to place settlements at the intersections of all of the required resources with 5, 6, 8, or 9 for the roll. I also had a clear shot at Longest Road, but I couldn't get the necessary resources until the end, when it proved critical to my first victory.

I trailed badly through the game, rolling a 7 on my turn *every* time I had more than 7 resource cards. (I think this is programmed into the game, as I have yet to see a deviation.) I managed to acquire three hidden victory point development cards along the way, being careful to not be robbed by the undefeatable 7. I got a lucky roll and ended up with the resources for three road segments. (Those cities make a difference!) When I pressed "End Turn", I was awarded Longest Road and the victory.

Now that I have won a game, I think I might like it. (It's awfully difficult to like something you always lose at. I won't play Rummy with only Kathy because in 9 years with her I have won only once.) Now, can I get my extended family to like it? To set aside time to play it?

We can't even find time to learn Mah Jong, despite my sister-in-law's plaintive invitations. I may just have to stick with the electronic version for a while.

The Conversation Game

We have a family that likes to discuss politics. There is one of us who is liberal/progressive. The rest of us are firmly conservative/libertarian. Recently at a dinner hosted by the liberal/progressive, I noted that she could not get many words in edgewise due to the passion of her guests. Being an old parliamentarian for church and other social groups, I naturally concluded that "rules of order" might be employed. But to use Robert's Rules for such an intimate family affair would be stifling! So I whittled down what Robert gave us, leaving just two broad rules:

1) Participants select a topic, the total amount of time to discuss the topic, the maximum length of time allocated to each participant to speak at any one time, and who will preside (if necessary) and keep time.

2) When it is a participant's turn to speak, they control the conversation for that slice of time. They may make statements and ask questions of (i.e., debate) other participants. During their turn, this person has the sole privilege to interrupt any other participant. When the participant is finished, regardless of how much time remains, control moves to the next participant.

Robert's Rules provide that no other person may speak again until all have had the opportunity; only then does the next round of speech begin. This is preserved implicitly in Rule 2, while still allowing for natural back-and-forth conversation.

The need to exercise Rule 1 is based on the tolerance of participants for a topic and for each other. The last sentence in Rule 2 might be called the "Forrest Gump Clause", as he often said "That's all I have to say about that," and then promptly moved on.

We have not all gathered yet again to try this game, but momentum has built towards wanting to try it. I'll post you on our results. If you should try these rules, let me know how your experience went. I suspect some groups may need the formality closer to Robert's Rules, while others will need less.

In all your political discussions, be courteous, and have fun learning!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Kathy and I had a date to the Virginia Historical Society and to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. They are side-by-side in downtown Richmond, Virginia.

While poking around the modern art exhibit, it occurred to us that a lot of the photos we were looking at could have been taken by us, but we could not have written the outlandish verbiage that accompanied each work. Is that verbiage what makes it art?

Then another thought occurred to me later over dinner. If I look at a piece, and I don't understand it without (or maybe even with) an explanation, is it still art? Like a joke that has to be explained, is it still funny?

I was far more impressed by the ancient art, up to 5000 years old. It is very difficult to fathom what 5000 years is. Human history has only been recorded for one or a couple additional millenia. It's 50 centuries.... 500 decades. I was born only about 4 decades ago, or about 8/10% of the time in question. I was surprised at how well the paintings on the Grecian urns had survived. The urns had clearly been carefully re-assembled from shards, and the paint work touched up on the seams, but this was only visible on close inspection.

I don't feel as old now that I have been among 5 millenia of art. That wasn't the artists' intention, I'm certain, but it is a nice by-product.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More Views from a Hot Air Balloon

Our sister balloon descending over a pond. Dropping down near ponds revealed a colder layer of air. We used these to our advantage to get closer views. We spooked a lot of livestock doing this. (Sorry, farmers!)

We followed US Highway 29 for many miles, as it paralleled our course northward on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A very eager driver pulled over to wave and to take pictures of us as we transited. (I hope his pictures come out, as he is shooting into the sun!) Our chase vehicle can be seen in the lower right corner.

Looking northward on US 29, the road loops through a rural community. I wonder if there was a church near this cemetary, or if this is a community cemetary. It is a very simple site, compared to many that I have seen, but it is no less dear to God than any of the others.

My nephew Nicholas needed to sit down near the end of the trip. It is hard for a child to stand in one place for an hour, and he was a real trooper. I am very happy that Nicholas was in our basket, because it makes it easier to see the ride through the proverbial eyes of a child. He made it more fun, because he thought differently than us adults about many of the things he saw. The pilot loaned him a small pair of binoculars so that he could explore better. I might have gotten nauseous doing that, but he didn't. And so he was able to point out many things that we did not see at first.
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Views from a Hot Air Balloon

Floating low over farm ponds made it possible to capture our reflection. The water is a little filthy on the surface, but the reflection is unmistakable.

The expression of natural beauty in the farms and forests of Virginia provides a real contrast. In summer, this is all green. In winter, it is void of leaves and gray. This day, however, the leaves were at their autumn peak. They are alight with reds and oranges.

The bright morning sun on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains illuminates the many farms that dominate this part of the countryside.

What happened to these cows? They look different! Not really--that is only their shadows, lengthened by the early morning sun. The many dark specks surrounding them would smell good to Kathy if we were low enough to sniff. I'm very glad that we did not land in a cattle field. (We landed in a hayfield instead!) I did not have the correct shoes for being in a manure-strewn field.
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Hot Air Balloon Landing & Packing Up

I have this in two parts. First the landing. This is actually the second landing of this ballon, in which I was a passenger. We were denied our intended landing site by a rather perturbed homeowner, so we disembarked at our next landing site. The pilot proceeded onto the next landing site, which was accessible to the chase vehicles. We were in time to record the landing.

This was followed by the deflation and packing of the balloon. If you remember how it came out so easily when it was filled for launch, then this video will make clear why the packing is so important. It reminded me of packing a spinnaker for a yacht, which I did many many times in a many years ago. The trick is to make sure your connectors are on the outside, and everything else can generally be stuffed without much additional concern.

You can clearly see that the parachute vent has been removed completely to allow the balloon to empty quickly. The process goes quickly when the ground crew squeezes the balloon like a tube of toothpaste in order to dump the air out the top hole.

The neighbors and residents all came out to celebrate the landing. It's not every day that perfect strangers drop onto your acreage asking permission for a peremptory landing. We're very thankful to these good people who turned a bright, brisk morning into a beautiful, warm morning with their hospitality.

Hot Air Balloon Liftoff

Here is a photo sequence of takeoff. We have a video of this as well, but until it is edited this will serve as a rough cut:

This lovely community of Rochelle is located in Madison County, Virginia, near the Orange County border. The bed and breakfast from which we launched is Ridge View Bed & Breakfast, and we are very thankful to the innkeepers for allowing us to have such a wonderful time at their home.

One of the interesting features of the launch is that the balloon has defrosted the ground under the basket. You should be able to make out a greener circular patch at the basket's launch site. We were heavily bundled against the cold weather, but I was not prepared for the warmth coming from the burner and from the gradual escape of the warmed air from the balloon. It made for a very pleasant trip--no shivering!

Hot Air Balloon Inflation

Seems so simple in hindsight, putting up a hot air balloon. Here is a sequence of photographs, each about 5 to 10 seconds apart, showing the inflation process.

Here is a similar, though shorter, sequence for the second balloon.

The balloon is packed with the basket-end connectors at the top of the bag. Once the connectors are attached to the basket, two people hold the bottom open while a gas-powered fan blows quickly into the balloon and while a third person pulls the bag away. The balloon naturally unpacks and fills at the same time.

Once the balloon is fully unpacked, the person at the far end puts in the parachute vent, which will enable the pilot to release hot air in order to control when and how much to descend. This completes the top seal on the balloon, which then completes the air fill.

The final step is to heat the air to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it rises to the familiar vertical position. Once all the passengers and the pilot are added, about the temperature must be raised about 50 more degrees to lift off.

Way cool.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Becoming an Aeronaut

We went ballooning this weekend, courtesy of Kathy's brother and his wife. They made it a family affair, beginning with an overnight stay at the wonderful Ridge View Bed & Breakfast, taking off the next day from the B&B's back yard. There were 8 of us, so we required two balloons. Kathy and I, our sister-in-law and our nephew were in the foreground balloon (with the yellow lightning bolts).

We took off around 7am and landed around 9am 20-minutes drive to the north of Madison, Virginia. The weather was cold at first, so we bundled up heavily. But by the time we landed, our coats, scarves, hats, and gloves were off and laid in the backseat of the chase vehicle.

We were denied landing permission once, could not get the trucks through a gate at the second landing place (where us passengers in our balloon disembarked), but found a welcoming crowd (including one experienced ballooning enthusiast who followed us from his farm) at the final landing location.

Perhaps the funniest landing story comes from when the first balloon set down (we were in the second). A very nice lady stepped onto her back porch wearing her nightgown, was hailed from above by the balloonist asking permission to land in her yard. She gasped in awe and surprise, spilled her coffee, then fully embraced the moment and enthusiastically said yes! Then she went in calling to her family to come out and see, emerging just a minute later fully clothed in jeans and a shirt.

Ridge View is located in the center left, with the balloon support trucks in the center at our takeoff site.

This picturesque location is also great for astronomy. Jupiter and his moons were wonderfully visible through my telescope (sorry, no pictures), which delighted my 8 year old nephew considerably.

The balloonists returned us afterward to Ridge View for champagne and a splendid breakfast.

The autumn foliage was in its peak as we skimmed the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge mountains. Drifting north and looking northeast, we passed this remarkable ridge.

If you are interested in a delightful adventure, contact Mandy Rossano at Monticello Country Ballooning. They will work with any B&B in the area to take off locally, but do consider the delicious coffee and frittata at Ridge View (not to mention the excellent hosts and rooms) plus the excellent backyard launch site.

More pictures in later posts. Good night!
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tax Reform Idea

Why is income tax reform so difficult? The modern tax code is an attempt to incentivize certain (many) behaviors without disincentivizing certain (many) others.

The classic division between taxpayers is those who work for income and those who live off financial income. The current income tax code allows lower rates for qualified dividends as a nod to seniors who need this kind of income to survive.

It's simple to make this work similarly to our current tax code:

1) Establish one progressive rate structure for earned income. Use a standard exemption, perhaps based on the minimum wage. Compute the "earned income tax" solely from income in this category. Save the number for later.

2) Establish a second progressive rate structure for financial income (i.e., dividends, capital gains, interest, etc.). Use a standard exemption, perhaps based on the social security benefit. Compute the "financial income tax" solely from income in this category. Save the number for later.

3) Establish a third, inverted progressive rate structure for deductions. (The idea is to weight the first quantiles of the deductions more than the last. Use the sum of the earned income and financial income when designing the rate structure, but apply it uniformly regardless of the breakdown in the two incomes.) Use a standard deduction if deductions are not itemized. Compute the "deduction tax credit" and save the number for later.

4) Add the "earned income tax" and "financial income tax" and subtract the "deduction tax credit". Pay the resulting tax.

This structure is easy to implement: Use the existing withholding mechanisms for earned income, and add withholding mechanisms to financial institutions. Taxpayers would use withholding allowances based on the expected "deduction tax credit" and total income in each category.

Why is this better than what we have now? It comes down to marginal incentives.

Case 1: A retiree who is living on financial income might like to take a job for supplemental income. Under today's income tax code, that extra income will be taxed at the (higher-than-average) marginal rate, even if the work is at minimum wage. Under the proposed tax reform, that extra income would be subject to a low tax rate (if it is larger than the exemption).

Case 2: A worker early in their career is living off earned income and is saving for large future expenses (e.g., home down payment, car replacement, college, etc.). The amount of savings (and resulting income) is small at first but grows. Under today's income tax code, that extra income will be taxed at the (higher-than-average) marginal rate if it is interest, or at one of two lower rates if it is dividends or capital gains. Under the proposed tax reform, that extra income would be subject to a low tax rate (if it is larger than the exemption).

Case 3: Mr. Rich lives richly on financial income. Under today's income tax code, that income is taxed under the cumulative progressive rate structure if it is interest, or (up to a point) at one of two lower rates if it is dividends or capital gains. Above that point, higher taxes might kick in. Under the proposed tax reform, that income would be subject to a progressive rate structure of its own, which would be less advantageous as a percentage of total income to Mr. Rich than to lower- and middle-class workers.

The earning rate on financial income is usually at or above the rate of inflation, so up to a certain point there is no tax for nominal-only growth. (This reform idea does not directly address taxation of nominal-only growth, despite doing so indirectly here.) This can help save-and-spend types if the exemption is set high enough to allow tax-free growth up to an amount useful enough to make a down-payment on a house or vehicle.

There is still a place for qualified retirement accounts (e.g., 401(k), IRA, 403(b), etc.). Rather than supplant them, the proposed reform seeks to increase non-retirement, short- and medium-term savings by protecting part or all of that savings from the bite of taxes.

By encouraging non-retirement savings, more taxpayers could have savings that could be tapped for emergencies, unexpected larger expenses, and planned expenses, and these savings could be replenished with little to no tax impact. Fewer taxpayers could be laden with consumer debt (the most expensive type) if they could save more in advance.

Savings whose income is reasonably exempted from income is heritable wealth for lower- and middle-class workers, which can improve the prospects of their offspring (e.g., education, home ownership, liberation from poverty) without reliance on government or third parties.

The common complaint about "the rich" paying lower tax rates would similarly be addressed. "Excess savings" would generate "excess financial income" which would be taxed progressively. Similarly, by inverting a progressive rate for deductions, "excess deductions" would be given little or no tax credit, essentially tapering down as the total deduction increases. If the financial tax rates are similar to those for earned income, then the complaint is resolved.

By changing the broad incentives in the individual income tax, it is possible to incentivise labor and savings simultaneously without disincentivizing one over the other. This can lead to positive effects in the economy at the individual level, including greater resilience during downturns, fewer bankruptcies, greater long-term thinking about major expenses (including retirement), fewer complaints about the divide between "rich" and "poor", and lower reliance on government for assistance in current and successive generations of lower- and middle-class workers.

I am not a fan of progressive rates. I instead advocate a tax on property (assets or wealth--I am undecided), since part of what the government defends is the integrity of property and the right of citizens to use that property in the way they see fit (subject to reasonable constraints). In place of income taxes, I would use a flat-rate consumption tax (exempting basic necessities) combined with a property tax. This reform idea is solely a way of improving our tax code in a small, simple-to-understand, incremental way, yet with significant positive consequences. I fully expect (and would demand) further reform.

I also make the assumption that rates would be set in such a way as to be revenue neutral overall from the old system to the new system. I don't have IRS data, so I am not making specific numeric recommendations.

Finally, any time I hear about the "poor", it is usually in a relative sense. I believe that we should have an absolute definition of poverty that is independent of the distribution of wealth or income, a definition that can be applied globally. For example, to what extent does one have food, water, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, etc.? Once we agree on what "poverty" is, then we can argue about who bears responsibility for assisting. But now that is a spending discussion, not a tax discussion.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In Memoriam: Angus, 27 August 2010

He was a feisty kitty, born in rural Kansas amid tornadoes and thunderstorms. He travelled more than his peers, by road and air to California and finally to Virginia. He owned our local neighborhood, asserting dominance over all who walked in front of our house (including one of our clients and her two medium-sized dogs).

He was Kathy’s “deck buddy”, spending evenings and cooler days with her on the back deck, or on the lawn when she worked outside. Like other cats, he would lay upon us and assert his dining schedule over our sleep. He was (and we in return were) a source of warmth in the winter. He was Kathy’s companion of the past thirteen years and a founding member of our family. (I would not have been welcome had he not tolerated me from the beginning.)

He lived longer than most cats, thanks to the diligence and loving care Kathy gave. She once said that he had gotten her through veterinary school, and so it was proper that she get him through the struggles (and three near-death experiences) in his life. She did, and he did. God sent them to each other at a perfect time, and in His perfect time He took Angus back.

We are thankful for the time that we spent with him, and we are thankful for the luxury of sending him on from his comfortable home, surrounded by his loving family. We will miss him, and God willing we will see him again.

Rest in peace, little Angus. We send our love.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Restoring Honor Rally

Went to the Restoring Honor rally in D.C. yesterday with family. Much has been said in the news about it, much of which leaves out the details and focuses only on the reaction of Al Sharpton and others who claim the traditional mantle of "civil rights activist." Additionally, there were many protestors holding derogatory, even vulgar signs about Glenn Beck or others who attended, and included one Boy Scout dishonoring his uniform in an unkind political protest.

The argument Beck made superbly is this: Good government starts in the home, with ourselves as individuals, with our families and local communities; and from this personal form of self-government arises leaders who exemplify the qualities needed for self-government at all levels, namely faith, hope and charity. If we would have good self-government at the state and federal levels, then we must begin with ourselves. John Adams would have approved: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Also, "Because power corrupts, society's demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases."

The weather was perfect for the occasion. The metro was so heavily used that I could not get into the train with Kathy's dad; I ended up walking the 600 yards or so to the station exit where he later emerged. The aerial photos of the event show the area immediately around the reflecting pond full of people, and the parks to the left and right where jumbotrons were also set up. The World War 2 memorial had a speaker set in place which enabled more people at that far end and across the street leading up the hill to the Washington Monument to participate. I have not seen any pictures showing how large the crowd below the Washington Monument was, so I cannot say how many were there. The crowd everywhere we went was calm and polite, helpful whenever anyone had to cross through to get to family, and exceptionally generous--one family behind us furnished a chair for Kathy's dad to sit on, to avoid the pains of getting up and down from the ground. (Thanks again for your kindness!)

We believe that we participated in something that will be remembered in the history books as a positive force for basic moral and political strength. I hope that people put down their protests until they have read or listened to what was said and done, and judge the event by what happened and not by who produced it. I think Martin Luther King would have urged the same.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Milton Friedman on Donohue: Socialism vs. Capitalism

Found this after looking at a recommended interview with Ayn Rand. I used to watch Donohue, and as much as he is pushing in this interview to get Friedman to admit a flaw in capitalism, he shows respect for the answers. I also noticed that Friedman was comfortable enough to smile--that is good hosting by Donohue.

EDIT: See also the other parts of the interview. Here is part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

See also a year later. Donohue is more aggressive and openly liberal (see his personal frustration in places). Friedman is unflappable and polite (see use of "Excuse me" many times in both interviews.) Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

I would like to have seen Friedman debate Paul Krugman, a more recent (and unabashedly liberal) Nobel Prize winner in Economics.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thinking Dispositions

While recently reading a review of Keith E. Stanovich's book What Intelligence Tests Miss: The psychology of rational thought called “A Taxonomy of Bias: The Cognitive Miser”, I was struck by this section:

[T]he reflective mind embodies various higher-level goals as well as thinking dispositions. Various psychological tests of thinking dispositions measure things such as the tendency to collect information before making up one's mind, the tendency to seek various points of view before coming to a conclusion, the disposition to think extensively about a problem before responding, the tendency to calibrate the degree of strength of one's opinion to the degree of evidence available, the tendency to think about future consequences before taking action, the tendency to explicitly weigh pluses and minuses of situations before making a decision, and the tendency to seek nuance and avoid absolutism.

There are seven tendencies discussed.  I’ll call them out to make them explicit, rephrasing them as “best practices”:

  1. Collect information before making up one's mind
  2. Seek various points of view before coming to a conclusion
  3. Think extensively about a problem before responding
  4. Calibrate the degree of strength of one's opinion to the degree of evidence available
  5. Think about future consequences before taking action
  6. Explicitly weigh pluses and minuses of situations before making a decision
  7. Seek nuance and avoid absolutism

Ben Casnocha wrote about the type of people who make breakthroughs when they are young.  Jonah Lehrer covered the subject from another angle.  Tyler Cowen covered the subject here.

All of these made me question what type of person I am.  I believe that I am a conceptual innovator.  I generally do not like the tedium of being an experimental innovator, although I will do so for certain specific subjects (like games that require one to build and defend over time and then deploy to achieve game-winning goals).

Here is my evidence.

On the seven tendencies mentioned above, I am very weak.  I frequently “rush in where angels fear to tread”, trusting to my courage and God’s grace to carry me through.  (I learned at a young age that “God takes care of fools and little children.”  At age 36, I now distinctly fall into the former category)  I have been a “know-it-all” for decades, rarely questioning what I say for truth.  I believe that I have a better way of doing things, and I can never seem to explain exactly how I know it—it is intuitive.  In reality, I am making a lot of simplifying assumptions, and holding as axioms a lot of ideas that aren’t really axioms.

My recent and most vivid memory of my fearless/stupid tendency came during a trip to Jamaica a few years ago.  Kathy and I decided to take a zipline canopy tour with Chukka Caribbean Adventures.  Somehow, we ended up nearest the first zipline while listening to the safety instructions, and I was chosen to cross the river first.

Now, a person strong in the above tendencies might think the following in that moment: I paid for this and am going to do it; I don’t want to look silly in front of my wife or all of these strangers; I don’t want to look like a wuss in front of the two guys leading us through this adventure; there are two ziplines I am connected to for safety; the other guy is on the other end and will make sure I land safely; and so on.

I didn’t do any of that.  I stepped forward, said to myself, “What the hell”, and jumped forward.  As I zipped across, I managed to look around for a couple of seconds at the people on inner tubes floating by below me before I diverted my attention back to the problem of stopping (which ended up being trivial).

How did I end up like this?  Am I a genius to whom things come easily, or am I intellectually lazy?  My opinion is that that I am some of both.

When I was in the sixth and seventh grades, my IQ was tested twice.  The results were imbalanced:  I scored around 140 for left-brain activities, and around 120 for right-brain activities.  The doctor conducting the test described it approximately thus: “His left-brain is a Cadillac, and his right-brain is a Volkswagen.”  (I drive a Volkswagen Jetta at the moment, so I’m not sure whether this is complimentary or not.)  The imbalance, however, was not the problem.  My reaction to this information was the problem, and it would impair my long-term development.

You see, I believed that I was a genius, like Mozart.  I believed that it was enough that I would simply absorb and use knowledge.  If something didn’t appeal to me, then I didn’t care about it, as I was probably smart enough already to handle it.  Result:  I didn’t do a lot of homework until I got to college and realized I wasn’t going to go anywhere unless I really learned the material.  So much of education and learning is about repetition, the kinds of things that experimental innovators do well at.

The truth is that I cultivated my intellectual laziness for more than a decade.  It cost me my grades, nearly cost me a chance to go to a good college and to qualify for an engineering major.  I learned a lot in my first years in college and on the job, but most importantly I learned that I do usually have to work hard to learn.  As a result, I have learned to blend conceptual innovation with experimental innovation:  I grind through daily work, but I still let my mind wander whenever I get a chance hoping to spark my creativity and leap ahead; I teach myself statistics and modeling, higher-order economics, business and accounting, and law, and put all of these into practice.

Now I look at the seven tendencies, and I realize how much farther I still have to go.  Kathy is a very good example, though, so I have a role model to observe.

I think the lesson for others is to not let innovative tendencies overwhelm experimental tendencies.  The super-geniuses at extreme poles of these tendencies might disagree, and perhaps be hindered by not treating these mutually exclusively.  But for the rest of us, I’m willing to bet that we need both tendencies to survive and thrive.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Role of the Supreme Court

Words of wisdom from a man who knows his history and the inner workings of the halls of government:

The entire supreme court idea has turned into a joke. The notion of a body dedicated to a more or less objective determination of certain things has been manifestly out the window for many decades. (If it ever really existed in fact rather than just the jurists' sense of self-importance). If it were really that kind of body, the ideological orientation of [a] new member of the court would not be as crucial as it is. But in fact the court has become the supreme legislative body of this country, from the decision of which there is no appeal. Thus, along with this role of the court, the notion of three coequal branches of gvt and a "separation of powers" has become a myth. The court is somewhat like the board of directors of a large company that makes all the major policy decisions, and then there is the executive (in this case congress and/or the presidency) which sort of more or less takes care of the implementing measures.

It is in fact almost the quintessential tyranny: Nine unelected people, serving for life, unremovable and unaccountable, have the unappealable power to decree whatever they wish to decree. The only requirement on them is that they must muster a majority among themselves and must cloth[e] their edicts in legal language and mumbo jumbo, pretending to a nonexistent degree of objectivity and "science".

So we have the spectacle of a 5-4 vote on gun control. Here is one person (One!) whose vote defines what is to be the "eternal verity of the constitution". If that one person would have been another person or if he/she had felt different that morning, "eternal verity" would have been the opposite of what was decided. So why bother with elections and other ways of counting what the people want?

There are so many problems confronting this country. But perhaps one of the most fundamental ones is a lack of realism. Its people pretend that they are governed by one system, when in fact they are governed by one in many ways closer to its opposite. How can things be set right if we are lying to ourselves?

My conclusion: The only saving grace, then, is that the courts are limited in practice to deciding cases put before them. (Although they can and sometimes do make a bigger issue--and make a bigger ruling--than the case calls for.) And perhaps they want the fiction of impartiality to survive, which deters open dictatorship.

I will dig up more from this excellent philosopher with whom I correspond and post more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Carbon Taxation

Last year, I explained to a co-worker that the way to incentivize solar and other forms of clean energy was to disincentivize carbon-based, dirty energy. Sounds simple. In fact, it's as simple as raising taxes on all forms of energy until the cost per unit is equalized.

For those who are not economists (like me early on), these are called Pigovian Taxes. The idea is to internalize (into the price of energy) the externalities of pollution and other negative factors of energy production and use.

The Economist ran a great article that reminded me of the downsides to a Carbon Tax: The politicians will use them as just another source of revenue. It's not enough to say that the tax revenue will be used to remediate the externalities. It just never seems to happen that way. Politicians are addicited to spending tax money the same way as a spendaholic with a millionaire's credit card. It's just too much for them to have self-control.

Too bad. A Carbon Tax gradually put into place over twenty or so years would give investments in clean energy a positive return on investment without necessitating massive government subsidies.

Immigration into the United States

One of the blogs I like to read is by Harrison Brookie (Bottlenecked: slowing down to move forward). Earlier this month he wrote a candid post about why he supports immigration, and also shares his concerns. He posted again on the topic almost two weeks later.

I commented on each:
On your point (1) Wages may be driven down only so far, due to minimum wage laws. Greater demand for jobs will lead to greater unemployment. Combined with your point (5) would mean government ruin.

On your point (2) There is a good lecture video from NumbersUSA (part 1, part 2) that applies queueing theory non-mathematically to the immigration problem (uses gumballs and jars). There is significant investment required to provide infrastructure (roads, schools, utilities, etc.) for new population (indigenous and migrant), and so total growth rates must be affordable (using savings--which there is little of municipally--and debt issuance--of which there is already a lot and which must be repaid through tax revenue). Hence the need to control the rate of migration (unless you are China and can also control indigenous population growth).

On your point (3) If migrants find enclaves (like Hispanics in the Southwest) large enough to avoid assimilation altogether, your point (4) kicks in. Are we really a nation at that point? Can we prevent this forseeable possibility through robust immigration policy?

On your conclusion: Would you want to be one of the ones bearing the cost of the transition? Would you want government policy to ease your pain by spreading it around?

My father-in-law legally migrated to the U.S. after WW2. Immigration policy that rewards law-abiders and punishes law-breakers creates the incentives and disincentives migrants need to succeed in our country. Letting illegal immigrants off scot free is an insult to the law-abiding migrants who worked with the system we put up to control the process. Immigration policy should also consider national security concerns. Both of these aspects are not embodied in the basic theory of immigration espoused by economics. It's an incomplete model, though, not a flaw.

And again:

I'll repeat one of my concerns from the earlier post: The government (at all levels) today has provided a regulatory and social welfare environment that did not exist in 1905. It is inconceivable that the immigrant today would assimilate the same way as a century ago. The level of investment required to provide infrastructure, and the level of taxation required to provide transitional welfare benefits, and the barriers to entry into small business, are all stacked against unlimited migration, for moral reasons or otherwise.

This morning, Steve Chapman posted in his column Citizenship Should Remain a Birthright on He writes in favor of "soil citizenship", but the comments ultimately proved more interesting.

There were four models posited in the comments for citizenship: 1) Soil citizenship, 2) Citizenship by choice at the age of majority, 3) Citizenship by parentage, and 4) Immediate Citizenship. (A fifth was alluded to, via a Gattaca reference: 5) Citizenship following service to the State.)

Some of the commenters raised my points concerning our social safety net. (Being a libertarian site, the commenters welcomed the cost as hastening the end of the welfare system.) This is I think the chief impediment to unlimited legal immigration (and by extension, unchecked illegal immigration). It all comes down to queueing theory, the mathematics of which are well established: The net intake rate cannot exceed the nation's ability to afford the transition period from net-tax drain to net-tax provider.

All very good reads. I lean to (3) Citizenship by parentage.

Subsidizing Rights

I noted today the decision by the Supreme Court to extend the Heller v D.C. Second Amendment protections to the states and municipalities. We have the right to bear arms!

I note that the decision was 5-4, and that Justice Thomas preferred a different route to the same end (i.e., the Privileges and Immunities Clause instead of the Due Process Clause). As I mentioned to friends following the Heller decision, given so much 18th and 19th century evidence in favor of the Heller interpretation (read the Scalia opinion (PDF) in the case), how did four justices get it so differently?

The Founding Fathers were very clear that they wanted an armed populace that could defend itself, not only from invasion or crime, but also from the tyranny of government.

So let me now be satirical: Since health care is a right that the government must subsidize for moral reasons, let's fund subsidies so that everyone can exercise their basic right to bear arms! Those that cannot afford arms should be provided a subsidy to purchase and train to use arms. Those who can afford in plenty should be taxed to provide the subsidy. After all, it is not fair if only the rich have arms. Not only that, but everyone should be able to afford the same minimum standard of arms, so that their right is not impaired by poor quality.

Arms for America Now! Nothing less than your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is at stake!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Joint Forces Air Show: Blue Angels (Closeups)

This is my best shot! Color, composition, focus--everything came together in this shot. I picked this out of a sequence of a dozen photos of them passing in front of us. I have another like this where they are in a tight diagonal, but this one illustrates the precision of their flying best.

The detail photos below show the sharpness I was able to achieve digitally zooming into the photo. The second photo demonstrates my evolving skill as a photographer.

The third photo demonstrates best just how close they are flying. I am willing to guess that the top of the canopy is about a foot from the bottom of the wingtip. These are the best pilots in the Navy/Marine Corps. The showed their stuff at this air show and wowed the crowd (Kathy and me included).

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Joint Forces Air Show: Blue Angels (Crossing Shots)

It is very hard to get crossing shots. Last year, I was able to get some of the Thunderbirds perfectly crossing, but I had not yet learned how to focus correctly, nor set the shutter correctly, so they were unacceptably blurry!

Kathy helped me by keeping a lookout and counting down to when the crossing was going to occur. I eventually figured out that the planes were crossing in front of us more or less over a precise point (show center, which is astonishing for the consistency with which they repeated this feat), and that helped me prepare nearly well enough.

This year, as many as I tried, only three came out close. I'm either a moment too early, or a moment too late, or I have pointed the camera too far off-center and cutoff the subject somehow. See these three examples: The first two are taken just a moment apart. The third is taken a little later.

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Joint Forces Air Show: Blue Angels Pictures

Kathy and I went to the Joint Forces Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base on May 16. I took a lot of photographs! In this and the succeeding two posts, I'll show some pictures I took of the Blue Angels in flight.

These are hard shots to get right, and I screwed up by setting the ISO (sensitivity) to 1600. The result is slightly noisy (grainy) photos. I did get the shutter speed in the correct zone (~1/2000 to 1/3200 sec), and I learned how to first manually focus on a distant object on ground, so the photos are sharp and in focus.

Getting the composition correct involves some luck, especially when the aircraft are approaching from different directions and maneuvering simultaneously. (More photos of this nature later.)

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bully Pulpit

"Everyone who favors repeal is welcome to come talk to these people and tell them why we should go back to . . . the way things were. But you're going to need to explain why they and tens of millions of Americans should have their rights taken away." --President Obama

The Washington Post reports today that President Obama met with Health Insurance CEOs on the 90th day since passage of the health care reform law. He warned them not to increase rates simply because of the new law. Is this an appropriate use of the bully pulpit?

Fact: The law removes co-pays for preventive care.

Fact: The law removes annual and lifetime caps for care.

Fact: The law removes exclusions for pre-existing conditions.

Fact: The law mandates coverage for adult children through the age of 26.

There are more facts, but these are sufficient to support the claim that regulatory requirements will increase health insurance premiums.

The quotation is also telling: Health insurance is a right. If you want to repeal the law, you want to take away the right to health insurance that the government just granted.

This is nothing more than emotionalism substituting for rationalism. Just what does an emotional government do when it can't afford to do it all? Tax people it thinks are bad for society? Borrow indefinitely from anyone who will loan the money? An emotional government cannot say "no"; it knows no constraint. A rational government says "no" in response to priorities and constraints; it's not personal.

It's not personal, President Obama. We want to repeal the health care reform law because it's bad regulation (as written) and poor fiscal policy.

One more thing: A right never imposes a duty on another citizen. You've made health insurance a privilege, not a right. Get your vocabulary straight, please.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Day 2: Luray

This is the view from the back deck of our cabin in Rileyville. This particular porch is entirely enclosed (no access to ground), so it is safe to let Merlin (left) and Scarlett (right) off leash.
We spent this morning in Luray, again catching the weather just right. The National Weather Service forecast rain after 12 PM. It hit Luray around 12:15 PM as we were finishing our lunch at the Luray Hawksbill Greenway.
We hiked the Greenway earlier from end to end with the dogs. We met many friendly and pleasant people along the way who were also enjoying the beautiful weather in this magnificent park. At one point near the rail trestle, Merlin sniffed closely at something on the grass by the walkway. I walked over and realized that it was a snake's tail. I quickly backed him away, and we warned several passersby. One confirmed that it was a copperhead, a common poisonous snake in Virginia. Another later confirmed that just last week two copperheads had been curled up together near the same spot. We came very close to ending our vacation if Merlin had been bitten.
We stopped in the visitor's center located in the old train station. They have not completed filling the building with historical displays, but the older gentleman who was at the visitor desk was very kind and helpful. I did receive directions to Lake Arrowhead in the country format (a string of "go right at the intersection past the" ...), which mostly confused me, but such is what you will find in a historic and still small town like Luray. Folks like me need a map. I can do it without the GPS, thank my Boy Scout training.
We'll have more rain this evening, but we have another, harder puzzle to put together and other games to play. That should keep us vacated and yet not bored.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rain in the Shenandoah Valley

The rain is lightly falling this afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley near Rileyville, Virginia. We interpreted the weather forecast hopefully this morning and got out early to Shenandoah State Park. We were prepared to pay the $4 entrance fee at the gate when we were handed a bundle of papers and told "Welcome to Parkfest!" and "No charge today."

We spent nearly three hours hiking trails west of the park. We ended up out of our reckoning two hours in, before "correctly" orienting ourselves to return to the parking lot. I quote "correctly" because the trail map was not in synch with the trails. One could argue that we were not in synch with the maps and the trails, but this would run counter to the best efforts of two intelligent and experienced hikers. We normally go to the YMCA for exercise, but this hike covered us nicely.

Did I mention ticks? After we exited the grasslands, with twenty minutes to go in the hike, we pulled aside and examined our dogs and selves for ticks. Nearly a dozen each were on the dogs--the strangest location was on Merlin's lower lip--and nearly a dozen more were clinging to Kathy and myself. Upon our return to the car, we went through this again, pulling off a dozen more from the dogs. Running through the tall grass is a great pleasure for the dogs, but just walking through it is sufficient to become infested. Ticks are very good at hiding, so it is difficult to detect them. Kathy has the most experience, being a veterinarian, so she did the second, more thorough examination, while I did the first, more cursory examination.

Afterwards, we drove across the park to where the South Warren County Fire & Rescue Company was selling food to raise money for a new pumper truck. We were pleasantly surprised by the prices, which were a quarter of what typical event vendors would charge back home. The people representing WCFR were extremely cordial, and it was a pleasure to be a part of their event. While we ate, a local group called "Loose Strings" played acoustic melodies that sounded as if from long, long ago.

As we drove back from Front Royal following a quick trip to the grocery store, the rain began falling in this picturesque valley. It is easy to see how the Blue Ridge Mountains got their name.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lawn Care for America Now

This weekend, I witnessed a modern American Tragedy. My neighbor, a single mom with two kids, was forced to send her son across the street to our Hispanic neighbors to borrow their lawn mower. She then spent nearly two hours drudging up and down her front lawn, suffering more each time she had to go into the front ditch to mow.

When all was finally done, dark had fallen. She shutdown the lawnmower, called to her son, and instructed him to return the mower to our Hispanic neighbors.

How, I ask you, do we allow someone of these tragic circumstances be forced to mow her own lawn and to beg the use of a mower from immigrants to our great country?

Clearly the free market is not functioning properly. This woman could not afford to pay for what is fundamentally a basic human right: she was unable to hire a professional lawn service, with their superior lawn care knowledge and equipment, to ease this strain on her existence.

That's why I am founding Lawn Care for America Now. Don't let this overburdened single mother suffer, nor the infirmed, nor the elderly, all for want of a few dollars to hire someone to mow their lawns!

The mission of Lawn Care for America Now is to lobby Congress to recognize the fundamental human right of every person to live with dignity by getting access to quality lawn care. Like the recently passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Congress should pass the Homeowner Protection and Affordable Lawn Care Act (HPALCA).

The HPALCA, like the model PPACA, would provide means-tested subsidies to low-income, disabled, and other disadvantaged citizens so that they can exercise their basic right to quality lawn care.

This bill is very important to the continued vitality of America. Many advantages immediately become obvious:

More Jobs: Lawn care jobs cannot be outsourced. This bill would directly reduce unemployment by increasing the number of lawn care specialists, and increase investment in lawn care capital equipment and durable goods and create related manufacturing jobs (in the U.S.A., naturally).

Improved Health: So many people suffer from lawn-related allergies that the cost of treatment and prevention is measured in the tens of billions. Expensive drugs from profit-seeking drug companies are regularly dispensed to suppress allergic reactions and to thwart asthmatic illness. By reducing the number of people regularly exposed to lawn allergens, this bill would reduce health-related expenditures related to unfortunately allergic people being forced to provide their own lawn care. Further, by shifting the labor to those who are more physically fit for the job, this bill will reduce the incidence rate of heat- and stress-related injuries and illness, which needlessly shorten the lives of those most at risk.

Increased Efficiency: Each year, Americans spend hundreds of millions of hours performing lawn care with inefficiently utilized equipment such as mowers, trimmers, edgers, and more. With low utilization rates, much of the maintenance of this equipment is forgotten, shortening the useful life of these assets. Additionally, ordinary Americans must individually bear the expense of purchasing this equipment, paying a relatively high cost for equipment of minimal effectiveness. Professional lawn care equipment does not suffer from this last penalty, as a little more outlay often brings significant benefits. Sadly these benefits are beyond the means of ordinary Americans. This bill will lower the cost of lawn care by efficiently allocating professional-level equipment to lawn care professionals who will achieve high utilization rates, thereby reducing the risk associated with investment, and will allow lawn care professionals to offer access to more services at more affordable prices.

This bill would necessarily require all homeowners to subscribe to lawn care services provided by licensed lawn care professionals. This requirement would benefit consumers in two ways. First, it would spread the cost of lawn care across a larger subscriber base, making it more affordable to lower income homeowners. Second, it would ensure that the lawn care received by homeowners meets minimal quality standards, providing a form of necessary consumer protection.

The bill would also create new and minor taxes on lawn care equipment and services in order to fund the subsidies for lower income homeowners. These taxes will be borne by the equipment manufacturers and lawn care professionals and their profit-seeking shareholders.

There are some who will say that they enjoy performing their own lawn care. There are others who will say that the subscription requirement will cost them more than their lawn care presently costs. Still more will say that they do not need the level of service anticipated by the bill, being willing to accept a lower standard of lawn care. These are half-truths spread by the opposition, who would leave single mothers like my neighbor to fend for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving world.

Remember my neighbor, your parents and grandparents, the wounded veteran, and those with special needs. Join our cause! Donate generously to our group, so that we can work to influence more with our common cause! Contact your elected officials, and make sure they understand how important the passage of this bill is to the welfare of millions of disadvantaged American homeowners.

Together, we can win!

[EDIT: Added heat- and stress-related injury and illness.]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Government Tilting the Playing Field

Got a postcard from the IRS to my small business today touting "the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act", saying that it "could earn you a new tax credit this year for providing health insurance for your employees."

On the reverse, it explains that "eligible small employers could qualify for a credit worth up to 35% of premiums paid in 2010 (for businesses) or 25% of premiums paid (for tax-exempt groups)."

In order to qualify, I must have fewer than 25 employees (more if I have part-time employees), and less than $50,000 in average wages.

Here's my complaint:

My small business (a veterinary hospital) will be open four years in September. We have around ten employees, split around 50-50 between full and part time. This is the minimum staffing for our business to provide the required standard of care, whether we see patients or not (i.e., whether we have revenue or not). Thanks to an unforseen and powerful recession, our profit is less than one week's revenue and incredibly unstable.

My wife is the chief doctor and receives no compensation yet. (No stable, significant profit means no compensation for the doctor-owner). Our second doctor is compensated according to industry standards (approximately 25% of gross production). Our staff is provided a steady number of hours each week at competitive wages to honor their need to keep on budget at home. We provide time off for full-time employees, and hospital discounts for all employees.

The thing is, not one of our employees wants a group health plan. Some are covered under spousal health insurance plans. At least one detests being in a group plan for the extra expense brought by other employees, and so has an individual plan of her own choosing. Our solution is to pay a cash benefit to full-time employees to help cover the costs of health care. There is a provision in the federal tax code that allows this to be tax-free to employees under specific circumstances, otherwise it is treated as additional wages.

Here's the problem: The tax credit offered by the Act does not apply to my business!

How does this tilt the playing field? My competitors who are larger and have group health insurance plans will have a major labor expense subsidized.

I cannot and will not force my employees into a group health plan in order to get this tax credit. They don't want it. It would be an affront to their individual liberty to do so, would be unethical on my part, and would likely be illegal under state and federal law.

Through no action or inaction of my own, my competitors will receive thousands of dollars in subsidies to provide a benefit they already provide out of revenues. In times of rising medical supply costs (even for veterinary hospitals), this subsidy will allow my competitors to consider passing on fewer of these cost increases in their prices. At best, it will provide additional income to the owners at taxpayer expense.

This hardly seems the object of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yet it is a foreseen (and foreseeable) consequence. The federal government wields blunt instruments.

Our situation is but one of many unintended consequences of governments of all levels intervening in the marketplace. Even local government is not immune to tilting the playing field.

Dan Telvock, writing in his blog on on March 24th and in later posts, details how yet another company is being offered multi-year tax rebates simply for locating in the county. What a slap in the face to the rest of us who have already located businesses in the county! Are the jobs we create less valuable than the jobs another company brings in?

Economists will call this creating incentives at the margin, but there are costs to these incentives. In this case, local government is taking a lot of "little bits" from me and many others to give "a lot of" preferential benefit to one private entity. Furthermore, it arouses ill-will in the existing business community. What assurance do we have that the deal is being considered solely on merit? There can be none!

In truth, the playing field has been crumpled and tilted in so many ways, that it is impossible to know whether the net benefit to my business is more or less than it would be if the field were level. The fact that the situation is so obscure makes possible rent-seeking by lobbyists and "good ole boys". In plain language, it is easier to hide gains from having the field tilted in your direction.

After all, what the public does not know cannot hurt them, right?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park

Known as the "Gibraltar of the West Indies", Brimstone Hill was built by the British to defend their "middle third" of St. Kitts. Eventually, they took the whole island, but until not after the French (who had the other two thirds) had taken Brimstone Hill at least once. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is worth the thirty minute drive.

Go early in the morning to avoid the rush from the tourists. (Ahem, we are "explorers" and "travelers" on our journeys; never call us tourists, no matter how much we stick out.)

As usual, get a taxi and ask lots of questions on the drive to and from. We had a taxi driver (Leo's Taxi Service, christopherom at, 869-764-3387) who knew more about his island than we could have dreamed of asking. He also knew a fair amount about American History. As it happened, when we told him we were from Virginia, he grew very excited and exclaimed that it was James Madison's birthday. He asked if we had been to Madison's home (Montpelier)--we have, as it is in neighboring Orange County. This is the kind of experience we treasure, and it is not often found on tour buses.

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Departing Basseterre, St. Kitts

Kathy has a very good sense of how to get night shots that bring out an artistic reaction. These two photos were taken as we awaited departure from St. Kitts. We were unexpectedly delayed by three hours as we took on fuel from a barge. This gave us time for astrophotography (didn't turn out too well) and these two samples.
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English Harbor, Antigua

This is a view of English Harbor and Falmouth Harbor (beyond the causeway) in Antigua. This photo is taken from one of the three outposts on Shirley's Heights.

In English Harbor proper is Nelson's Dockyard, so named because Admiral Nelson was commander here for some time. The dockyard is a well-preserved historical site that offers insight into the workings of a Caribbean British naval base in the Age of Sail. It is best to first go to Shirley's Heights to watch the worthwhile presentation prepared by the Antiguans.

Whether with a tour group or going independently with a taxi driver, ask lots of questions on the way to this side of the island. It takes about half an hour to get here from St. Johns (the capitol), and cuts through the heart of the island.
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A view of Signal Hill on Pigeon Island, St. Lucia

This photo was taken from just below Fort Rodney, on the lower of the two peaks on the island. The resort on the causeway to the island is a Sandals resort.

Part of what is interesting about this picture is the difference in vegetation on the saddle point between the two peaks. On the ocean side (left in photo), the vegetation is rough and scraggly. On the harbor side (right in photo), it is composed of more grasses and trees. I wonder if this is a salt spray effect?
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High Dynamic Range Photography: Inside the Cathedral in Old San Juan

This picture was taken inside the cathedral in Old San Juan. This is my first attempt at creating a high(er) dynamic range picture. This is a combination of three photos using "exposure blending." I shot three images, bracketed by 2EV each. In a normal exposure, the madonna in the alcove is washed out. Using this method, as semi-automated by a GIMP script, it was possible to have the full range of detail.

One lesson I learned from several attempts is to use a tripod. In many cases, I shifted or rotated the camera slightly, resulting in an imperfect alignment that is difficult to correct. I gave up on several of my hoped for HDR photos, but I will do better in the future!
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A view of the harbor in San Juan, Puerto Rico as it leads past Old San Juan to the sea. This is part of the walking tour of Old San Juan. We are standing right next to the Governor's Mansion (not pictured), one of the oldest dwellings in the New World.

We found that we could drop our luggage at a restaurant named Barrachina, home of the first Pina Colada, located just two blocks from where this picture was taken. Not only are they very nice to hold our luggage (for a nominal "tip", payable in advance), but the food is authentic and excellent. It was a nice way to end our cruise last month, as we waited to depart by plane later in the afternoon.
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Friday, March 26, 2010

The View from Signal Hill, Pigeon Island, Saint Lucia

This image is a panoramic that I put together using Panorama Factory and shots from the top of Signal Hill on Pigeon Island in Saint Lucia. It's quite a hike to get to the top of this hill, but the view is spectacular.

Many years ago, when the Rodney Bay marina was constructed, they removed the sand and used it to build a causeway linking the island to the mainland. Since then, Sandals resorts has built a lovely hotel on the causeway, which some of the locals resent encroaching on this even lovelier historic national park.

This island has a lot of history. It was fortified by the British as a defense (and implied threat) against the French on the nearby island of Martinique. Fort Rodney, on the lower peak of the island, was the primary walled defense, supported by gun emplacements in the saddle between the two peaks. Signal Hill was used to display large signal flags on a tall flagpole so that distant friendly ships could receive messages. Near the present causeway are the ruins of the extensive headquarters and support buildings built to support the island as a major naval base.

Regrettably, Saint Lucia is undergoing an extreme drought, so all the foliage and underbrush is dry and brown. This is most unusual for this island, which normally boasts extensive rainfall and lush vegetation. The situation is so dire that the government is rationing water, cutting off service to various areas for several days at a time, unannounced and for uncertain duration each time. The locals still use water barrels, and so are generally able to coast through each rationing period. Nevertheless, it puts an incredible strain on their ability to host tourists, which is by far their greatest export.

Kathy and I hope to return to Saint Lucia a third time, when there is more rain and more green. Until then, we pray for them to receive good rains.
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