The Casual Blog

Tag: Photoshop

Wildebeests in various states, querying MAGA, doubting Artemis, and getting curious about animal communication

Wildebeests in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Working through the big pile of my pictures from Tanzania has been absorbing, but also exhausting.  I’ve been trying to remember how things looked, and figuring out how to interpret the images.  In the process, I’ve been learning new things about my processing software – Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz AI products.

One of our prime objectives in Tanzania was to see some of the large herds of wildebeests that annually cross the Mara River.  It’s challenging to convey the power and raw beauty of these crossings, but I tried.  I also am sharing some photos of large predators.  Warning: there is a picture of lions on a recently killed zebra that might not be suitable for all readers. 

Artificial intelligence is once again a buzzword, but let me just say first, the new versions of Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are amazing.  There are clearly important advances going on in AI, which could soon surpass our ability to understand them, if they haven’t already.  It’s far from impossible that our intelligent software could go from helpful to dangerous, if it hasn’t already. 

It’s surprising that tech journalists ordinarily focus on the question of if AI can equal human intelligence.  It has already equaled or surpassed what humans can do in some domains (playing complex games, using correct grammar) and is rapidly moving into areas we’ve thought of as artistic (composing music, making paintings, writing fiction).  But people continue to believe there is some unique and valuable quality in human thinking that can never be equaled.   However that may be, we have no shortage of evidence that human thinking has some systematic glitches.

A prime example:  MAGA Republicans, who have decided to believe and/or promote a wild and enormous lie – that Trump was not defeated in the last election, but was rather the victim of a vast fraudulent conspiracy.  There are, of course, Republicans who understand that this is nonsense and continue to support American democracy.  But most of those traditional Republicans have become very quiet, and acquiesced in the takeover of the GOP by the Trump faction.

So what is wrong with MAGA folks?  Of course, there are many individual stories, but the big drivers seem to be fear of the Others (those with different skin tones, religions, languages, genders, etc.), loss of traditional status (relative to the Others and to the wealthy), bewilderment and frustration at changing social norms, and economic anxiety.  Whatever the causes, there are clearly strong feelings causing MAGA folks to detach themselves from ordinary reality and swear allegiance to a comical-but-dangerous charlatan.

Leopard in Serengeti

One thing that struck me recently which I’m trying to keep in mind:  almost no one thinks they are a bad person, or doing things for an evil reason.  Almost everyone thinks they are a good person, or at least, no worse than average.  MAGA believers are no exception.  They view their principles as well aligned with all that is right and good.  

In this sense, MAGA people mean well.  As individuals, they may have many good qualities, and like all sentient beings, they are entitled to affection and respect.  But as aggregated political actors, they have gone off the deep end, and threaten us with disaster.        

Cheetah in Serengeti

For quite a while after the election, I expected the MAGA fever to break and our normal far-from-perfect politics to resume.  But recently it’s gotten worse.  Republican leaders and candidates vie to stake out the most extreme positions favored by the MAGA element, and some are promoting violence against political enemies and even civil war.  This is definitely not American politics as usual.  

As President Biden recently pointed out, most Americans do not share this mindset, and it’s still possible we can avoid joining the league of repressive authoritarian nations.  The question is not whether MAGA Republicans will change:  they are, at least for now, fully committed to the end of fair elections, equal rights, and other key features of our democracy.  The question is whether those who thought they could safely be ignored will wake up and passionately oppose them in the coming elections.

Lion in Serengeti

As if that weren’t enough to worry about!  But, with apologies, I’m going to give one more timely example of what looks to me like a mass delusion.  My excuse is that since it recently became a big news story, I haven’t noticed anyone else raising the issue of its essential craziness.  I’m referring to the Artemis Project, which, we’re told, is a vital effort to put people back on the moon.  As of this writing, two much-hyped launch attempts have been canceled for technical reasons.

I’m a longtime fan of science and technology, including the amazing new Webb space telescope, and was as excited as anyone at the first moon landing in 1969.  But I felt no great sorrow after we discontinued the Apollo program in 1972.  We’d been there and done that.  Even then, it wasn’t clear whether anything of lasting value had been accomplished.

As the years passed without more moon missions, I thought perhaps the lesson had quietly sunk in that the billions of dollars spent on going to the moon (around $25B) could have been used better – perhaps on climate change mitigation, preventing species’ extinction,  improving health care, education etc. (the list of underfunded serious projects is long).  Then, out of the blue (at least to me), came Artemis – which has already cost $41 billion, and is expected to eventually cost $93 billion.

This is a lot of money, even by U.S. government budget standards.  You might suppose that it involves cutting edge technology employed for some vital purpose.  But no, not really.  The rocket technology is decades old, and not even close to state of the art.  And as best I can tell, no one is even trying to argue that it is likely to achieve important scientific advances.

The accounts I’ve heard refer vaguely to the possibility that Artemis is a step towards setting up colonies on the moon, which would be a step towards colonies on Mars.  Perhaps there’s hope that a few corporations can make good money extracting valuable minerals, and a  worry that Earth will become uninhabitable.  Thanks to Artemis, a few ultrawealthy folks might try to mount rockets and flee the planet, as in the underappreciated dark comedy Don’t Look Up.  

Anyhow, the whole idea is ridiculous.  No matter how badly we spoil the Earth, it’s unlikely to ever get more desolate than the moon, or Mars.  

Is there any other possible justification for this bizarre project?  It could well be driven by corporate welfare for big military contractors and the legalized corruption of our political funding process.  And of course, there is always the combination of nationalism and chauvinism that wants to be or at least seem superior to other peoples and nations. 

Anyhow, Artemis looks to be yet another example of how our minds’ reasoning powers can fail on a mass basis – thinking we’re creating something to be proud of when we’re actually wasting precious resources, money, and time.  At this point, despite the huge costs and repeated failures to launch, junking the project is not on the table for political discussion.  

Still, this fiasco could do one positive thing: make us feel a little more conscious and humble about the flaws in our reasoning powers.  Even our smartest rocket scientists, physicists, and philosophers can lose their bearings.  As our teachers used to say, we need to double check our work.

On a more cheerful tech note, the NY Times’s Emily Anthes reports that scientists are using deep learning and other technologies to start decoding the communications of various non-human animals.    Various programs are looking at creatures like rodents, lemurs, and whales, and discovering that social groups even have different dialects.  

Some of us have long suspected that there’s a lot of communication going on among non-human animals, and wondered why more humans haven’t been more curious about those interchanges.  The received wisdom has been that only humans have language, which was one of the questionable ideas used to justify  domination and cruel exploitation of all other animals.  Maybe the latest AI will help us understand animals differently.

Impala family In Tarangire National Park

New bird views, meditating for health, and the Trumpian take on liberals

 

With the chilly and rainy weather this week, I didn’t get out for any nature photography.  I missed seeing the birds, but was glad to have some extra time to experiment with photo processing. I’ve been improving my Lightroom and Photoshop skills, and learning how to use Nik, Topaz, and Luminar software.  Along with various failures and frustrations, I’ve discovered some new possibilities.  

These images are revisions of recent shots.  When I first made them, I was excited to be able to see details that were generally invisible to the human eye.  Looking at them again reminded me of the joy of just looking at the birds and sharing their world.  Trying out new software tools to the images made me look at the animals in new ways.  

Like most everyone, I generally think of reality as fixed and solid, though I also try to keep in mind that there are other ways to think about it.  Along that line, I’m currently reading Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. Carroll is a research professor of theoretical physics at CalTech.  He gives a lively account of the main ideas of quantum theory, including the mind-bending oddities, such as entanglement (particles affecting the behavior of distant particles).  

For all its remarkable theoretical and practical achievements, Carroll admits that quantum physics is incomplete, lacking in a broadly accepted paradigm.  He is supportive of the Many Worlds theory, which holds that the best explanation of quantum phenomena is that our universe is only one of a great many. I’d thought that Many Worlds was some sort of game for deep science nerds, but he convinced me that it’s more than that. 

More research is required.  Anyway, along with our enormous universe, there could be many others, some with beings like us that we can never communicate with.  That seems less farfetched after experiencing the polarization of US politics, and most recently the Trump impeachment hearings.

 

Watching Republican legislators last week was, for me, surreal.  Asked to address hard evidence that Trump had acted in direct opposition to US policy on Ukraine in order to benefit himself, they tried various maneuvers, including objecting to procedures, talking about conspiracies, and babbling and shouting incoherently — seemingly anything to avoid the issue.

I couldn’t watch for long — it was just too painful.  But I saw enough to conclude that these Republicans had very strong feelings.  They were very emotional. I had been assuming that they were cynical hypocrites, with little regard for the public interest or much of anything other than their own selfish interests.  

But their anger seemed sincere.  So I decided to work with the assumption that they sincerely believed that Trump had done nothing wrong and was the victim of an evil witch hunt by liberals.  I wondered how, in spite of a mountain of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such a belief could arise.

Part of the story is surely Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press.  By calling every report that is unfavorable to him “fake news,” Trump seems to have thought that he could create doubt and confusion about facts that were otherwise uncontested.  And, amazingly, he may have been right.

I originally assumed that no thinking person would buy the fake news idea.  After all, Trump has such a long record of compulsive lying on matters large and small that the most reasonable assumption about his latest statement is that it is false.  He also reflexively resorts to the schoolkid move of flipping any attack, as in, “You can’t say I’m a bully — you’re the bully!” As his preferred “news” organ, Fox News, beams out praise for him and attacks on his opponents without regard to reality, it makes a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland sense that he’d call all other news “fake.”  

The traditional media has struggled to survive in an online world, with newspapers closing left and right.  But other than the Trumpian claims, there’s no reason to think that our long established and respected media organs, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, have switched from their traditional business of reporting on actual events in a relatively balanced way to just making things up.  The charge of fakeness generally comes with no back up evidence or proposed corrections.  But the claim of “fake news” seems to really resonate with Republicans.

Why?  I have some ideas.  First, there’s the information bubble.  Our online world has made it easy to surround oneself entirely with information sources that fit one’s own preferences and biases, and avoid any contrary information.  Fox News has been a trailblazer in the dark art of stylish disinformation, while Facebook, Twitter, and others have enabled the creation of alternative realities.

At the same time, human thought processes are far from reliable.  Our brains are generally subject to confirmation bias, which makes us tend to believe what fits with our prior beliefs.  We avoid cognitive dissonance, or information that calls into question those beliefs.  We are prone to mistakes based on our likes and dislikes.  We’re also inclined to think whatever the tribe says we should think.  Even with the calmest, most rational among us are subject to these tendencies. 

And Trumpism does not encourage calmness and rationality.  It encourages fear and anger. Trumpism sounds the alarm as to various non-existent threats that are declared to be dire:  hordes of brown-skinned people invading across the southern border so they can rape and pillage and take over jobs, minorities that are predominantly criminals, child molesting gays, secularists destroying traditional religion, Jews, etc.  

But the most dire, most hated threat in the Trumpian universe is liberals.  This is so bizarre that it took a long time for liberals to see it.  Liberals thought they were engaged in ordinary life and politics, in which having diverse views was normal.  That is, liberals thought of themselves as normal people, and of Trumpian Republicans as basically normal people who just disagreed with them.  Liberals assumed the feeling was mutual. 

That turned out to be wrong.  In the Trumpian world view, liberals are not just ordinary political opponents.  They are a threat to the social  order and basic values. They are subhuman animals. They are evil.  

As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in a good op ed piece, Trump treats liberals as “the enemy” and subjects them to a constant barrage of dehumanizing propaganda.  Liberals are “scum.” Repetition and amplification by Fox News and its allies fills the Trumpians’ information bubble.  

So the Republican legislators’ recent behavior — the lies, the insults, the shouting — probably seems to them well justified.  Fearful for their careers and their tribe, they feel that they’re under violent attack and must defend themselves.  For them, facts that implicate Trump are ipso facto just “fake news.” Those who say otherwise are evil liberals. 

When we get excited or scared, it’s much harder to think reasonably and to be our best selves.  This is one of the reasons I spend some time every day doing mindfulness meditation.  It settles me down emotionally. It also helps in understanding more about how the mind works, and recognizing that it is just the mind.  For a timer, I use a free app called Insight Timer,  which also has a collection of good instructive talks.  I’ve also benefited from the guided meditations from an app called Calm.  

 

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

Dodging the hurricane, music therapy, and photo processing

A tiny lizard last week at Durant Park

Hurricane Florence got our full attention in Raleigh this week.  I usually take storm warnings with a large grain of salt, since there’s usually a lot of media hype in a feedback loop with people’s tendency to exaggerate certain kinds of danger.  But early projections showed a storm big enough to cover North Carolina with powerful winds and massive amounts of water, with the eye headed right towards here. We got extra food, charged our batteries, and filled the bathtub with water.  Sally’s sister Ann, who lives in Wilmington, heeded the official calls to evacuate, and came to stay with us.

The storm hit Wilmington hard, but then turned south and west, dumping record amounts of rain and causing widespread flooding.  In Raleigh, we got rain, but not in dramatic quantities. We had time to talk and do indoorsy things.

Like playing the piano — some Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Bartok.  Why I enjoy this isn’t so clear.  There’s close to zero chance that making music will improve my economic or social status.  And there are negatives — periods of social isolation, time lost for other things, and possibly annoying the neighbors.

Part of the answer was suggested in a podcast I heard a while back about music therapy, which was being used in hospices to help dying people.  Most days just by playing I give myself some music therapy, relieving stress and anxiety, finding comfort and peace. But at the same time it’s challenging and energizing. Also, at times there are new discoveries, leaps across space and time, engaging with great musical minds of times past.  

Lately I’ve also been learning to play by ear.  This was not a part of my early musical training, and with so much else to learn about the written language of music and technique, I just didn’t get around to it.  But it turns out to be fun. There are large quantities of children’s songs, hymns, and assorted pop tunes rattling around in my head, and it’s entertaining to try them in different keys and styles.  I’m looking forward to sharing the songs of my childhood with my future grandchildren.

Because of the rain this weekend, I did not get outside with my camera, but I spent some time looking at and refining recent images.  These last few weeks I’ve been getting help from D.A. Wagner, a/k/a The Lightroom Guy, in getting my digital photo files organized and improving my Lightroom and Photoshop processing skills.   My processing typically involves cropping and experimenting with small variations in exposure, tone, and color in different parts of the image.  D.A. recently gave me some helpful ways to approach spot removal and similar edits, some of which I used with these pictures.  

 

Ice, dark matter, Photoshop, AlphaGo, and Haydn

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The forecast on Friday called for major snow, but in downtown Raleigh we only got a couple of inches.  Still, the roads got very icy and temperatures went down into the teens.  We stayed home, cozy and warm, and caught up on backlogged magazines and Netflix.  

One of the New Year’s thoughts I saw recently was a tough one:  a wish for lots of failure in 2017.  The idea is, if you’re operating outside your comfort zone and trying new things, you’ll be doing some stumbling and falling.  Failure doesn’t usually feel good, but it can be a sign that you’re going somewhere.  On the other hand, if you aren’t having any failures, either you’re the luckiest human in history or you’re stuck.  

One way to assure a level of failure is to try keeping up with contemporary physics.  I’d thought it was reasonably well settled that a quarter or so of the universe was made up of so-far undetected dark matter.  But the BBC  reported last week that after recent failures of big experiments to verify the theory, some reputable scientists are reconsidering.    It sometimes seems that there is so much human knowledge you could never get to the bottom of it, but there is still so much we do not understand.  

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to plenty of failures in the coming year.  In photography, I’ve been struggling to get a thorough working knowledge of the relevant tools in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.  They’re wonderful, but far from intuitive, and at times intensely frustrating.

This week I made up my mind to get a level of competence at using Photoshop layers to combine images.  Being iced in gave me a chance to practice, and I discovered many methods that do not work before getting on the right path.

As one of my colleagues recently noted, if you need to know something, you should always try asking Google.  Whatever you need to know, there’s usually already a video or a blog post with an answer on the internet.  This is certainly generally true for Lightroom and Photoshop, though it took several tries to find the necessary guide post for my layers problem.

Speaking of Google, a word of congratulations to the AI researchers at its DeepMind unit for the latest advances of AlphaGo. Go, which is more complex than chess, was until recently well beyond the reach of artificial intelligence.  No more.  AlphaGo, which beat a famous Go master a few months ago, last week took on the world’s top player and other distinguished masters and beat them all, 60 games to nil.   

In the Wall Street Journal’s reportthe vanquished masters seemed stunned by the unconventional and varied style of AlphaGo.  It seemed to have absorbed all existing human Go experience and wisdom, and gone far beyond.  This is exciting, but also scary.  The singularity may be closer than we thought.  

To stay calm and balanced, I recommend listening to some Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).  Perhaps because of so many unsettling current events, I’ve been spending time with his piano trios and string quartets, of which there are many.  This is really charming classical music, which tends to get overshadowed by Mozart.  There are many fine recordings easily available on Spotify.

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In Antelope Canyon

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Each week for the Casual Blog I try to make some new photographs that I like well enough to share. This forces me to get outside and explore, which is fun. To avoid the obvious and keep from repeating myself, I have to keep experimenting and learning. It’s challenging, and also sort of a virtuous cycle. At any rate, I enjoy it, and feel like I'm getting better.
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But I’m departing from custom this week. I’ve been sorting through photos from my photo workshop trip to Utah and Arizona (described in my last post), and post processing some of them.
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The ones here are from lower Antelope Canyon. It’s a narrow slot canyon with red sandstone cliffs of flowing serpentine shapes. The location is in the Navaho Nation, near Page, Arizona. You may have seen a popular Windows screen saver that depicts one of the areas we passed. There were so many amazing spots.
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Our group was privileged to be led by local Navaho guys who knew the terrain well and understood the needs of photographers. We were working with tripods and taking long exposures, which required patience of both us and other visitors.
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In places the passage was only wide enough for one person. There were stairs that were almost ladders. Getting ourselves and gear along was challenging, particularly with other visitors coming in the opposite direction. But by golly, we did it!
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During the Southwestern workshop, leaders Scott and Phil helped me up the learning curve in photo processing with Lightroom and Photoshop. In Lightroom, my RAW images are getting more vivid and closer to my impressions and intentions. I still find Photoshop daunting in its complexity, but I’ve got a better understanding of the key photography tools, and am getting proficient in doing some kinds of repairs. I’m looking forward to learning more.