In The Service of Canadian Wildlife

For the last few months I have been holding down the Landscape Analysis desk at the pacific regional branch of the Canadian Wildlife Service, while the regular guy was off doing emergency planning. This was the last week of the contract and I’m once again a private citizen. Most of my time was given to a particular project: an upcoming study of the impacts of salmon gillnet fishing on diving seabirds. I wanted to take the job because the project has some really interesting research challenges. I was also curious to get an inside view of how conservation science is done in government.

Many of the projects I’ve been involved with in academia share similar themes to the work being done by the CWS: landscape-scale, data-driven assessment of trends and interactions in environmental systems. But doing research at CWS had a different feel than the academic labs I’ve known. Government research answers to different criteria and has a different audience. The primary motivation is not to satisfy your personal sense of cosmic wonder, and share what you learn with the peers who might read your journal submission. Nor are you hoping that some government conservation type might eventually take note of your theory, and embed it somehow in conservation regulation. In government you’re supposed to be doing the right thing, right now, on behalf of everybody. And not only do you have to do the right thing, you might have to demonstrate that the thing you’ve chosen to do is, in some plausibly objective sense, right. In practice that seems to mean being able to tie your choices back to previously identified criteria, which in turn link back to pre-existing directives, which are all presumably grounded on specific bullet points in legislation. It’s meant to be science as a service, not as an interest. The result might be a more conservative approach to research. You can take more risks when it’s only your own thesis goals on the line.

I don’t mean that as a criticism. Transparency and accountability are necessary to good governance, and if the business of the day has to move a little more slowly to ensure a documented lineage of decision making, so be it. But I was struck by a comment made by a poster on an internal forum, who suggested that space for innovation be deliberately built into the CWS’s work practices. If you have to be able to prove that you can answer a question before you’re allowed to expend resources asking it, then there are a class of complex questions which will just get left alone. And a lot of those types of questions tend to show up in conservation. I wasn’t in the Service very long, but my impression was that many people there are very aware of the benefits of asking difficult questions, and are finding ways to do so. I also got the impression that that objective is turning out to be, not surprisingly, tricky.

More concretely, I think I was seeing an institution in the midst of a protracted shift from keeper-of-records to having a more actively analytical capacity. Which would certainly be a good thing. In a changing biosphere it isn’t enough to know what the trajectory is. If your mandate is to intervene beneficially, you have to know what is causing the trends. Those two goals of memory and interpretation are not mutually exclusive, and a history of record keeping could be a key foundation for a great research agency.

This transition will not be helped by the legacy of Stéphane Dion’s time as environment minister. I gather (from occasional passing references, so maybe this narrative is inaccurate) that Dion was responsible for deliberately splitting the Service into two halves, one charged with the traditional duties of counting things, and one given the tasks of “science and technology”. There must have been some compelling  reasons to do so, but in the absence of those arguments I can’t fathom how anyone would think that severing the two hemispheres of the brain would yield good results. For starters, it’s impossible to do biological survey work without doing science. Sampling the world is not as simple as going into it, jabbing an index finger at things, and counting off. I could write an entire blog post about that, so I won’t.

Not surprisingly, data is a topic of ongoing planning and debate at the CWS. The Service has an extraordinary institutional memory. Their internal records for some species include decades of repeated censuses and surveys (in some cases repeated by the same person — imagine that!). They have stacks of tech reports with beautiful typewriter-printed tables, and gorgeously hand-drafted survey maps depicting the state of bird-colonized pacific atolls in the 1970s, tucked into their back-flap pockets. The people of the CWS hold a collective image of the historic trends of distribution and movement of bird species on the coast and across the country. And they are very actively in the process of transcribing that tech-report and spreadsheet data into a living digital resource but hoo-boy, doing so leads to some thorny posers around process and infrastructure.

Whilst chipping away at my own corner of that issue, I was struck by just how screwed up the state of GIS data storage is in general. How does any institution store spatial data in a truly cross-platform, future-proof way that protects it for posterity whilst simultaneously exposing it for analysis? Particularly if that data has any kind of significant relational structure to it? There are some beautiful ideas for the future, but the current options aren’t very satisfying. I had somehow always assumed that problem was solved somewhere, but now I’m confused how anybody does it.

The study I was contributing to will ramp up this summer, and depending on the results of that field season (and on the future of the salmon gillnet fishery, which is hardly clear) could be ongoing for years. I hope I’ve helped set up that program for success. Another difference between government work and working in academia or private industry is that little voice in your head, constantly wondering if what you’re doing would be judged a reasonable expenditure of the taxpayer’s dollars, if they could watch you doing it. For my own sake it was a definite win. The challenges were interesting — I was especially pleased to enhance my experience with database wrangling — and that inside-government perspective did indeed yield plenty to think about.

Why I Love the Tea Party

“It has no single issue around which people rally. It has no clear leader who drives the organization’s message, motivates followers and raises money. Indeed, the hundreds of tea party chapters and tens of thousands of its activists cannot agree on the most basic strategic goal: whether to influence the current political system or dismantle it.”

Analysis: Is the tea party brewing a revolution? Ron Fournier, Associated Press

And yet that anarchic aggregation is driving the political climate in the USA almost as effectively as their celebrity president, and more effectively than either political party. They’re a bunch of moonbats of course, but I love the medium of their crazy message.

Legal Seed-Saving for the 2014 Crop?

From Rapid Rise in Seed Prices Draws U.S. ScrutinyWilliam Neuman, New York Times:

“The company’s patent on the Roundup Ready trait in soybeans expires before the 2014 planting season, meaning that, just as in the pharmaceutical business, rivals would be free to sell a cheaper version. Farmers would also be free to save seed from one year to the next, a money-saving step they are now barred from taking”

So far the fallout from GMO crops has had more to do with forcing farmers into expensive, option-limiting relationships with monopolistic suppliers, and less to do with the human-health problems or ecological contamination that franken-food campaigners warned about. (So far, the nature of those problems is such that they could be real and we wouldn’t know about it yet.) I’m pleased and surprised by the suggestion that we may already have outlasted some of the legal aspects of the GMO agricultural era. Legal seed-saving, and relatively cheap Roundup-Ready-esque crops are not solutions to the majors failings of the western agricultural system, but they sound like major improvements in their own right.

Hawth’s Tools Becomes the “Geospatial Modelling Environment”

Whenever I have run into a more-than-usually knotty GIS analysis step, one which the tools bundled with ArcGIS just don’t seem to be able to unravel, I look first to Hawth’s Tools. Hawth’s Tools is a free package of add-ons for ArcGIS, capable of all manner of tricks, like “for each polygon, create a new attribute which records the range of values of the points which fall into it“. Handy stuff like that. When asked about a GIS problem, I have a bad habit of saying “oh sure, I can do that” and then discovering it’s not so easy, and as such I’ve often thanked Hawthorne L. Beyer under my breath for his freely given antidote to my hubris.

Having just such a task on my hands today, I look to spatialecology.com and discover that the Hawth has made good on his long-standing threat of re-writing the whole H-Tools package in a new and ambitious form, currently in beta distribution and very handsomely titled “The Geospatial Modelling Environment“.

“GME provides you with a suite of analysis and modelling tools, ranging from small ‘building blocks’ that you can use to construct a sophisticated work-flow, to completely self-contained analysis programs. It also uses the extraordinarily powerful open source software R as the statistical engine to drive some of the analysis tools. One of the many strengths of R is that it is open source, completely transparent and well documented: important characteristics for any scientific analytical software.”

Excellent.

update: I’ve now used GME for some basic processing, and the enhanced-command-line-interface it employs might be a little unfriendly for some users, but on the whole it looks like an excellent system with real promise. And given that it’s built on open libraries for geo-statistics and visualization, the tools can presumably be ported into other GIS packages, including open source packages, relatively easily.

The Decline of Pro Photography?

The New York Times has an interesting article up on the diminishing prospects of professional photographers. They suggest that the downturn in newspaper and magazines has combined with a rise in semi-pro stock photography to thwart those who make a daily living taking photographs.

“Mr. Eich and Ms. Pruitt illustrate the huge shake-up in photography during the last decade. Amateurs, happy to accept small checks for snapshots of children and sunsets, have increasing opportunities to make money on photos but are underpricing professional photographers and leaving them with limited career options. Professionals are also being hurt because magazines and newspapers are cutting pages or shutting altogether.”

For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path
Stephanie Clifford, New York Times

If that’s the case then it’s okay and not okay. It’s okay because this change is coming from a general expansion in quality and quantity of photography. Omelettes and eggs, as they say. It’s not okay because losing a career is a nasty thing. I suspect that career turnover is going to be something that people are increasingly going to have to deal with as both business innovation and environmental change speeds up. We probably need to get better in general at losing jobs and transitioning to new ones without so much stigma or financial distress, especially for the 40+ crowd. For now, professional photographers may have some real angst.

That said, my guess is that we won’t see professional photography decline in profile, even if the ranks are thinned. There may be more weddings shot by family friends, newspapers (or whatever replaces them) may rely more on bystander-cell-phone photography, and regional nature and travel magazines might include more submission from readers. But aspirant semi-pros are going to find that really eye-buggingly good photography still requires a depth of technical know-how that goes beyond artistic sensibilities, as well as a methodically induced luck that requires 40 hours a week to acquire. Just because you buy a sweet DSLR with a wicked Auto setting doesn’t mean that a giant leopard seal is going to try and feed you, nor that you will have the reflexes to compose, meter and shoot should it do so.

As more amateur and semi-pro photographers get their hands on the means of quality photo production, the standards for great photography will increase. But if you as a high-end photographer can consistently meet those rising standards on demand, some rich entity is likely going to be willing to pay you for that. What’s more, I’ve heard photographers liken their condition post-wedding-shoot to “being kicked to death in a pub brawl”. So there’s probably still going to be some non-zero demand for pro wedding photography, which is the bread and butter of the industry.

I’m guessing we’re going to see the long-tail of photography get longer, but I bet the head will get taller, even if there is a painful down-curving of the middle.

Why I Love Nate Silver

The following two sentences, regarding the passage of the U.S. healthcare bill:

‘Was the “will of the electorate” breached? I think any such framing has to contend with the following 14 arguments’

The 14 arguments that follow (apparently posted at 6:30 in the morning) are pretty good too.

Coastal First Nations Versus Tar Sands Tankers

Via Dogwood, an announcement from a coalition of coastal First Nations that they won’t allow tankers “carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands” through their territory.

“Therefore in upholding our ancestral laws, rights and responsibilities, we declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters”

I have no idea how the law plays out on this one — to what degree First Nations have authority over navigable waters, and how that might vary depending which bands have or have not entered into treaty negotiations — but I’m surely sure that this isn’t good news for Enbridge‘s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Enbridge doesn’t want to go to court to prove that they can push oil-filled tankers past unanimously hostile communities. Even if they won they would lose, and who knows if they would win? Imagine newspaper photography of those tankers floating through protest flotillas.

I’ve heard Enbridge described as a relative do-gooder amongst Canadian petroleum companies, and that they might turn gun-shy if the Northern Gateway project faces too much local resistance. This could be just that resistance.

My understanding is that the tar sands projects won’t need the extra transport capacity for years to come, as long as the US keeps accepting that kind of ugly oil. But there’s every reason to think that American states may increasingly tariff tar-derived petroleum because it’s comes with an environmental subsidy that lower carbon fuels — which the US wants to specialize in — don’t. If Syncrude and Suncor and the lot can’t get their oil out the side door to Asia because the First Nations won’t let them, they could have trouble finding markets, maybe within the decade.

Assuming we don’t taper them off on climate and environment and health grounds first.

Declaration .pdf here, video of the press release below. It starts with Eric Swanson of the Dogwood Initiative, some footage of the First Nations reps afterwards. You won’t have trouble telling the difference.

Deploy Deploy Deploy

I’ve just switched hughstimson.org over to a brand spankin new design. There’s still some loose ends and missing parts, which should get tied up and filled in over the next days and weeks. Web design nerd-rant to follow. Please to report any major bugs.

The Market Wisdom Was Wrong on U.S. Healthcare?

Intrade is a “prediction marketplace“, which is a sort of alternate stock exchange attempting to leverage the ability of markets to rationalize information held by distributed individuals. The idea is to concentrate common sense and/or insider information into an emergent prediction, by letting people put money behind their guesses. There’s an assumption that people will bet money relative to their degree of certainty in a given prediction, thus correcting for haphazard speculation and (maybe) ideology. People argue back and forth about the effectiveness of prediction marketplaces, but it’s certainly a plausible sounding idea, for some kinds of predictions.

Intrade had a running trade on the U.S. health care bill passing by June.

The wisdom of the crowd was against the bill passing for the majority of the run, and as recently as three weeks ago. There wasn’t a clear consensus for passage until practically last week.

So what was it about the U.S. healthcare politics that confounded the prediction marketplace? Was it in fact wishful thinking from the sorts of people who are likely to participate in prediction markets? Were they wrong for the right reasons, and today’s bill-signing was actually a freak event? Was there something fundamentally abnormal about the political dynamics of this bill such that established heuristics failed people who thought they had a money-good grasp of what was going on?

I guess all of those hypotheses presume that the Intrade market has some track record of getting things more or less right. Has anyone checked? Paging Dr. Tetlock?

It’s Medical

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