Just how stupid?

I admit it: all too often, I look at the generally low level of intelligence displayed in the entertainment, the political parties, the religious tendencies, and the blind consumerism in the US and harbor serious doubts about how many people in this country are capable of critical thought. It’s not exactly something to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy.

Yet, there’s a caveat in this. I also give more credit for intelligent thought than is shown by many within our society – there is a noticeable tendency to think or imply that everyone else (you know, them) is too stupid to make simple decisions. This appears in a wide variety of places, but I think it’s better illustrated with some examples.

Every time that youth in this country find something compelling and interesting, a plethora of moral crusaders manage to derive some impending doom from such interests, almost always with the idea that children are vapid and impressionable, to the point of being brainwashed. Most people are familiar with such claims about “rock n’ roll” back when it was first becoming popular, while in my youth it was the “satanic influences” of Dungeons & Dragons or backwards song lyrics. Recently, Harry Potter and the sexism of comic books have been targets of such crusades.

I hasten to add that this is hardly limited to youth, either; churches are notorious for promoting the idea that no one can make simple decisions without referring to their own particular rulebook, and we routinely see attempts to pass legislature aimed at controlling free expression and even established science. When the nice young men come to your door to ask if you’re saved, there isn’t the faintest recognition that you’ve not only heard all of their horseshit before, you’re far more aware of the rampant flaws therein (and perhaps even the bits about humility.) But that’s a milder example, compared to the crusading evangelicals that push for marriage restriction laws and block access to abortion clinics, who somehow believe that safe sex education is inadequate but their message of abstinence, elucidated within comic pamphlets, is far superior.

It also takes no effort to find politicians who act to save people from themselves, most often in close connection with some religious hotbutton, but not always – witness the ban on the sale of very large soft drinks in New York City. To be sure, there might be ulterior motives in many such efforts, yet this doesn’t change the fact that the professed motivation infers the inability of the general public to make smart decisions – that’s what they consider the selling point. And then there are the bizarre aspects of tribalism, where any one sports team, any state, or even the actions of this country are undeniably superior to all others, able to be found in the comments section of nearly any forum.

The attitude that underlies all of this is that other people do not possess the sense of those championing such causes. In essence, the general public needs the guidance of these brilliant minds. Egotism plays a large role in many of these, naturally enough, and might underlie all manifestations, but curiously, it does not often act to motivate people towards making themselves well-informed and objective, only to believe that this is self-evident and requires no special efforts.

Yes, the irony of this is appreciable, especially when we look back at the past examples. The country did not dissolve into chaos when the Beatles became popular, and role-playing gamers did not unleash satan upon the world by saying, “I cast a summoning spell” – even with the assistance of arcane dice rolls, as hard as that may be to believe. Much of such attitudes relies on absurdly feeble armchair psychology, and the belief that children, for instance, cannot recognize the unreality of cartoons. The very ignorance that underlies such assumptions is intriguing: someone that cannot recognize absurd premises is assuming the responsibility of protecting others from ignorance.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts now that tackled the idea of sexism in comic books and video games – but the underlying problem with addressing this is, there’s no evidence to establish that anyone is influenced in the slightest by such depictions. Such media are fantasy; they’re well known to be unrealistic, because that’s the whole point of fantasy. One could just as easily claim that video games promote epic quests, and that comic books cause children to believe that criminals wear funny suits. Yet we are continually bombarded with the idea that violence in media is a bad influence, despite the facts that crime stats have been dropping as media gets more violent. And even that isn’t a pertinent correlation; crime has much more involved influences than what someone sees on TV.

There’s also a huge problem with people that do not understand what sexism is, and believe that every manifestation of sexuality, most especially of females, counts as sexism – you will hear the word “exploitation” in such circumstances at least three times as often as in all others combined. It’s unfortunate that so many choose to champion a cause that they fail to understand, much like those that felt the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole (or a strangelet) that would devour the world. But behavior studies have aptly demonstrated that a) men and women view sex differently, and b) this does not mean men are wrong. Yes, men respond to, and in fact seek, certain body shapes in women, much more so than women seek in men. Homo sapiens is actually on the subtler side of sexual dimorphism, compared to the differences in size and behavior often found in arthropods and fish. We do not consider the peacock to be exploited by the peahen who selects her mate based on the flamboyancy of his tail, but accept this as a curious manifestation of selection pressures. And the comic book editors and artists, as well as the movie producers and so on, are not exploiting anybody by featuring voluptuous women – well, this might not be true; they could be exploiting men by using such simplistic methods to gain their attention.

I have no doubts that last bit could send a lot of people over the edge – men are never exploited! How could they be? They run everything, they’re bigger and stronger and more capable… and so on. If you’re quick, you picked up on the real sexism that underlies so many responses in our culture, in the assumption that women become victims so easily. And that men cannot differentiate between a comic book and real-world interactions.

Sexism is the belief that gender is responsible for an irrational, unsupportable deficit, or requires a special response not justified by physical differences. Women and men receiving different pay for the exact same job duties? Yes, that’s sexism (and kindly note that I did not specify which gender received lower pay – this distinction is again lost on too many people.) Women depicted in any form of media with emphasis on their figure? Sorry, that doesn’t count – it’s simply recognizing the difference men and women have in their standards of desirability, and is not different from men being depicted as square-jawed and children as cute or precocious; stereotypes abound in media, because the point is to garner a reaction without the amount of time it takes to establish a personality, attitude, whatever. It could just as easily be pointed out that men are always depicted as the stupid ones in the relationship, driving the plot of nearly every sitcom since The Honeymooners. And if you want to see stereotypes, watch how overweight people are depicted…

The ‘chicken or egg’ issue also arises here, in that many people think that stereotypes and media depictions have fostered particular attitudes within cultures, never realizing that it most likely is the other way around – media that isn’t popular doesn’t receive attention, so the goal is to appeal to as many people as possible, which means media more often follows culture, rather than influencing it. But this doesn’t explain why so many people seem to find themselves on a higher plain than everyone else, able to enlighten and direct those not gifted with their own special breed of intelligence.

As mentioned above, it’s probably ego, the aspect of our behavior that makes us compete against others virtually all of the time. Being seen as smarter than other people is a point in our favor, and this may mean we’re likely to seize onto any factor, however weak, that could be used to indicate this. I originally thought that this idea didn’t contrast well against the typical insecurity we have over appearance – that’s almost the opposite of ego – but appearance is immediately evident, while intelligence needs to be demonstrated, so it’s open for any examples that can be found. Then there may be two parental traits that pop in for an appearance as well: teaching/mentoring and protecting children, with ‘children’ occasionally just meaning those younger than us. It’s not hard to find examples of adults that feel everyone younger is more naïve than they, even when they fully believed they had everything under control when that age themselves.

But, lest I fall victim to gross hypocrisy in regards to Armchair Psych 101, this is only speculation. To determine the accuracy of this, and any other idea about the influence of media or pastimes on our behavior, it’s going to take a lot more than someone believing it’s a logical progression – it requires detailed studies with large efforts made to eliminate the thousands of other influences we have in our daily lives. But almost certainly, the belief that any crusading individual is more capable of perceiving the influences or problems that will victimize the ‘general public’ is a significant bias all its own, and largely unwarranted. While we might decry the abysmal lack of intellectuality in much of our media, and the subterranean level of discourse in politics and such, this isn’t any indication that Homo sapiens, with a few exceptions, is functionally incompetent and needs protection from itself. And unsurprisingly, such an attitude is likely to be perceived not as benevolent guidance, but as pompous arrogance.

Catching a wave

Leaf litter under normal light

I’ve had these images in my folder for a while now, considering doing a post on them, and just realized that we were coming up on a year since they’d been taken, so I’m timing the post to appear on that anniversary, since humans do stupid pointless things like that…

These were from the trip we took to Savannah, Georgia, and for that trip I had a particular goal that never came to pass: I wanted photos of a scorpion, most especially one fluorescing in UV light. Scorpions are nocturnal and more than a little secretive, so spotting them takes luck or an edge, and mine was a recently-purchased UV flashlight. Several nights, I went out wandering around with the light, shining it in every location I thought likely to host a scorpion, but saw none at all. However, every once in a great while I saw something like this:
Leaf litter under ultraviolet light

Note the difference with the top image, and how a few leaves seem a whole lot brighter in the bottom image. To the best of my knowledge, these are playing host to some form of fungus, one which fluoresces under UV. This, by the way, was a 13-second exposure solely by the light of the UV flashlight.

Ultra-violet light, like infra-red, is a band of wavelengths that sits just outside of those we can see, what we typically call the “visible spectrum” – there are no exact demarcations, but generally, UV runs between 100 and 400 nanometers (nm) in wavelength, while what we can see (visible light) is roughly between 400 and 700 nm. This is a very narrow band in the electromagnetic spectrum, outside of which falls everything from X-rays to AM radio, cellphone signals to gamma-ray bursts from supernovae – they’re all just different wavelengths of the same form of energy, transmitted in photons. While our eyes detect this narrow band, coincidentally (or not) the region of the most energetic emissions from our sun that make it through the atmosphere, we can also detect a few other wavelengths with our organs: our skin reacts to both UV (tanning, skin cancer) and infra-red (heat.) But for the most part, we miss most of the remaining bandwidth.

The deep purple light seen above isn’t UV, but the portion of the flashlight’s output that impinged into the bandwidths we can see – regular strength violet, if you like. It’s very dim to our eyes, even though my light source is putting out as many photons as a normal flashlight, they’re just mostly ones we can’t see. Digital camera sensors, however, can usually pick up a range of wavelengths a little beyond what humans see, if they’re not filtered out (they usually are, because capturing them can alter the photo and make some images look different.) But there’s often a little overlap, so the image here is not exactly what I was seeing, though close.

glow in the dark ornamentNow we get to fluorescence. Fluorescence (and phosphorescence, a close relative) is a curious trait where a substance absorbs energy that it then re-emits as visible photons. In cases of UV fluorescence, possessed by some substances, some arthropods, and even some minerals, the UV photons are absorbed into the substance as greater activity in the atom, electrons jumping to a higher energy state. Almost immediately, they drop back down to their ‘normal’ state and re-emit this energy, but at a different level, thus producing a different wavelength, one that we can see. So it’s not like the normal situation we find ourselves in every day, where photons simply bounce off of an object and reach our eye, but a trade, where objects keep the photon energy and exchange it for photons that we can see – a chemical ‘currency exchange’ system.

(The same, by the way, often happens with IR, getting re-emitted as a lower wavelength still detectable to us as heat – think of a black object left sitting in the sun for a while – and often this energy is used in other manners by living organisms.)

Fluorescent lights rely on this principle (yeah, big surprise there,) though technically they’re phosphorescent, since there’s a minimal delay before the energy is re-emitted as visible photons. The tubes have high-energy electrodes at either end with a low-pressure inert gas down the length between them, while the insides are coated with a phosphorescent material. When the bulb is charged up, the gas permits electrons to scatter down the tube in all directions, which strike the material coating the tube – that material absorbs and re-emits the energy of the electrons as photons, causing the coating to glow. You might see on older bulbs a bare patch where the powder has come off the glass, and this appears darker even when the bulb is on – uncoated, the glass is only a window into the inside of the bulb, and the gas within doesn’t glow itself. If you could look down the length of an active fluorescent bulb, it would appear to be a tube lit from the outside.

The old-style cathode ray tubes used in TVs and computer monitors – you know, the ones as deep as they were wide – use this as well. The front viewing screens are coated in phosphorescent materials, and an electron gun within hurls electrons at select areas of the screen (what we usually call ‘pixels’ now, though that’s not exactly accurate,) which will glow momentarily. One gun, with electrons aimed by magnetic plates, will redraw the image one dot at a time, side-to-side, top-to-bottom, sixty times a second or so (that’s actually what the ‘refresh rate’ expressed in hertz, such as 60Hz, means.)

[Trivia from an old fart: the even older TVs which used vacuum tubes instead of transistors would not immediately lose their charges when you switched them off - instead they would discharge gradually. The TV image would shrink rapidly to a dot as the magnetic aiming plates zeroed out, but the dot might remain for quite a while as the electron gun kept firing off, exhausting the charges from the tubes - this might take several seconds to over a minute. Also, devices that used tubes always had a certain, 'hot' smell to them.]

A more noticeable delay is the re-emission of phosphorescence is most easily seen in glow-in-the-dark toys and such, which work just as well with UV light as with visible. I will swear that while watching the ornament seen above in the dark one (slow) night, I saw the light output suddenly ‘step’ downwards a fraction as if switched to a dimmer setting – how this could take place, and whether it was more an artifact of my eyes, is something I have yet to determine.

something small fluorescing under ultravioletAnyway, as I was typing all this I realized that I hadn’t tried out the UV light around the new yard yet. I had done a little exploring in different areas around the old place, finding very little of interest, but so far hadn’t checked out this area. I knew there were no scorpions to find, but what about other arthropods? Some macro photographers, like Nicky Bay, have discovered a lot of arthropods that fluoresce under UV, but these are mostly exotic (meaning, not found in North Carolina.) But I went out looking anyway.

I found a few bits of odd fabric, like an old tennis ball and a patch of threads in the garden – who knows where it came from? I was convinced that I had found a small patch of fluorescent fungus until I saw the details after downloading the images. But at left, a minuscule sphere of something that fluoresced as strongly as many synthetic materials, perched on a fencepost, a fraction of a millimeter across. I haven’t the faintest idea what this is, but the color in visible light put me in mind of tree resin, though I suppose it could also be an egg, or perhaps an alien artifact.

[Another short, nonsense diversion: I got into a discussion on a UFO blog once with someone who was using UV light to find evidence of alien visitation on people's skin - four-fingered handprints, "ancient symbols," and so on. It got especially entertaining when I challenged him to explain how, exactly, he considered these "alien" when we have countless substances that fluoresce under UV light, including things as benign and easy to obtain as highlighting fluid. He tried blathering about spectra to disguise the fact that he had no controls at all, and I was circumspect enough not to accuse him of planting the 'evidence' himself. But yeah, that's how it goes in UFO and paranormal circles - we haven't any evidence whatsoever of alien species, much less any traits we could be confident in, but glowing stuff magically appearing on someone's skin under a black light must be aliens. Is it any wonder that I promote critical thinking?]

Apheloria virginiensis montana nymph in visble lightAt one point, I found the juvenile form of an Apheloria virginiensis montana, a large black & yellow centipede that’s not hard to find around here – see the adult here. About 3cm long and the color of dirt, I would easily have missed it without the UV light, and even then it didn’t fluoresce too strongly, but enough to notice, anyway. It was next to impossible to convince to hold still, so I had a bit of fun finding the exposure time that would halt its motion enough to be reasonably sharp, and then setting the ISO to maintain it and still get enough light from the UV flashlight to render a decent image. The image below is 1/50 second at f4, ISO 800, and took numerous attempts, also including bad focus and the little bugger sticking to the edges of the storage container I used as a restraint, not providing the best of backgrounds.

Apheloria virginiensis montana nymph under ultraviolet light

More interesting was the spined micrathena (Micrathena gracilis,) a common spider in the woods around here, notorious for spinning webs at face height between trees. It displayed some nice, distinctive fluorescing portions, notable in that they appear glossy black under visible light (yes, the spider was shifting position between the two images, and I just tried to match them as best I could for comparison – note the inverted branch.) The purpose of this fluorescence is unclear – I have yet to find any source that even admits it’s a property of the species – so to go the wild speculation route, it is possible that the peculiar shape and selective fluorescence mimics some plant species, luring insects to their doom. Several flowers have been found to have distinctive patterns in UV, and many species of pollinators can see this and use it to home in on good food sources. That’s about the best I can come up with, also helping to explain the elaborate shape of the abdomen, but it would be a lot more plausible if I had the faintest knowledge of any plant that appeared like this.

Micrathena gracilis in visible and ultraviolet light

The sun, as we know, puts out plenty of UV itself, and everything that fluoresces under my little flashlight is also fluorescing in full daylight. But as may be guessed from looking at these images, the amount of light emitted by fluorescence isn’t very much at all, requiring much longer exposure times than daylight or even deep shade (and of course, trying to convince a spider to hold absolutely still for that time.) In most cases the reflected portion of the visible spectrum simply overwhelms the fluoresced photons, with rare exceptions like ‘day-glow’ materials, which give the faintest hint of their properties in a peculiarly bright appearance – also highlighting fluid, as mentioned.

Perhaps the coolest effect was discovered by accident, when I forgot to shut the flash off after I set the long shutter speed necessary for the UV versions. The mixed lighting produced a nice contrast, so I experimented until I had the best ratio down, then combined them in an alternating gif (pronounced “gnaw”.) It makes it easier to compare the fluorescent regions.

Micrathena gracilis in visible and ultraviolet light

Online course review: How to Reason and Argue

Not quite two years ago, I took a couple of online courses from the new program/organization/school/site Coursera, which were quite interesting. The idea of open-access college-level courses is tricky; while it reduces the costs of education and makes it accessible to loads more people, the ability to accurately test participants and eliminate cheating is problematic right now. One of the courses that I took was on genetics and evolution, and was immensely informative. I scored lower than I wanted (or thought I would,) and it appears this might have been an issue with a lot of people, since they changed the grading structure almost immediately upon seeing the results of the class, making it a little more lenient. These are, after all, the first, experimental versions of these courses, so there are some teething pains. Curiously, though, that particular class is now available as a legitimate, college-credit course, meaning you can apply it towards a degree.

I’m going to talk about the other one, though, titled, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. I figured this would be right up my alley, but ended up dropping the course after only a couple of weeks, and it was entirely due to the structure. In fact, I tried again, thinking that I should give it another chance, and re-enrolled for the class as it started again on August 25th of this year (it’s still going on as I type this) – I didn’t even make it that far, getting supremely fed up by the middle of week two. Seriously.

First off, it was interesting how different the class structures were. While both operated as online video lectures and presented weekly quiz questions, the genetics course was quite detail-oriented and required no small amount of problem-solving – it was clear you were expected to work hard on the class. The reasoning class, on the other hand, proceeded much slower and reiterated things, as far as I was concerned, way too much – I got the impression the students were expected to be a lot slower to grasp the concepts, and the presentation is actually condescending in its delivery.

Even if this could be ignored, there was the approach. For some reason, instructors of language courses seem to believe that diagramming sentences – preposition, verb, active noun, and all that horseshit – leads to a greater understanding of language, and it was this structure that the professors of the reasoning class adopted. From my standpoint, this is the way you teach a computer how to ‘understand’ language, but it’s an inherent part of how people learn to talk and write and doesn’t gain anything from being diagrammed – I couldn’t tell you what a predicate verb is and have never in my life had the faintest reason to determine one. When learning another language, it may be useful insofar as sentence structure is different from what someone learned in their youth, but that’s a translation thing.

But let’s be real. No one who is trying to learn how to reason and argue is going to sit down and diagram a fucking sentence – there’s no point to knowing how the premise relates to the conclusion (especially not in labeling the goddamned thing,) and this is especially pointless and unwieldy in conversation. There is the barest value in being able to construct a viable argument yourself, but most people have already learned sentence structure in grade school, and it certainly does not require repeated exercises, even just demonstrated within the lecture, of partitioning off sentences. Because the solid, useful part of reasoning and arguing (I lean towards words like “discussion” and “debate” myself) is presenting a solid, unflawed line of reasoning for ourselves, while spotting the flaws in other people’s points. So one doesn’t need to know whether an argument is inductive, deductive, or conductive – they need to know how to spot the subtly misleading aspects, the flawed premises, the assumptions, and the logical leaps.

Let me give an example. I recently came across the statement, on a forum, where someone argued that finding mundane explanations for the various Loch Ness Monster sightings (logs, lake sturgeons) does not mean a monster doesn’t exist. Someone else called that illogical, but that’s incorrect; it’s perfectly logical. But it sucks as an argument all the same. The flaw is in treating ‘Loch Ness Monster’ as an entity, rather than as a cultural artifact that requires much more extensive evidence (like a carcass) to establish as something beyond folklore. Worrying about the logic in the sentence does nothing to reveal the error in the approach, which lies with attitudes, assumptions, and ignoring the weight of probability. Another demonstration of how useless logical structure is within arguments is in an example that I used previously: “We have no evidence for gnomes, therefore gnomes do not exist.” This is an illogical statement – the conclusion does not follow from the premise – but it tells us nothing about the existence of gnomes either way. The functional way of dealing with the topic is to simply ask what evidence we have to demonstrate that gnomes exist in the first place.

[I have to insert a brief elaboration on this aspect. Logic and reasoning cannot ever be considered proof, of anything - sorry, philosophy majors, but it's true. Our history is loaded with examples of logical arguments and even mathematical equations that, quite simply, fell flat when they encountered the raw facts. Logic is only as good as the information it predicates upon, and that's always imperfect. That's why we look for hard evidence, everywhere.]

Moreover, the course contained no mention of the kind of things that I would have thought would come first, right out in front, such as the difference between persuasion and competition. Many, many discussions, debates, and arguments are only forms of competition, and to be blunt, such an attitude is unlikely to produce anything positive – even if your case is overwhelmingly compelling, your ‘opponent’ isn’t going to concede the point, because that’s admitting defeat. Good discussions have to be free of animosity and competition to the greatest extent possible (which is often not very far, but that’s mankind for you,) and this takes a very specific, very deliberate approach. Carl Sagan was marvelously accomplished at this, in that he almost never tried to prove a point, but instead asked pertinent questions, leading down a path that demonstrated the flaws without ever accusing someone of missing them.

Another contribution by Sagan, now adopted quite widely among skeptics, is a list of debating fallacies often called the Baloney Detection Kit. While I have rarely ever broken down an argument by structure, I have constantly used portions of this list – I certainly wouldn’t consider it all that someone would need, but the points therein are encountered so frequently that not using it is putting anyone at a distinct disadvantage in a debate. Feel free to put this down to a difference in opinion, but rather than spending weeks studying basic structure, I’d bring up common debating fallacies on day one, and revisit it constantly.

Yet another key aspect of debate is being able to find the emotional triggers that cause people to have such strong opinions in the first place. Most arguments have an emotional bias – that’s the way humans are, we attach feelings to ideas. But we very often fail to recognize this for what it is, and believe every opinion that we hold is the result of rational consideration. If we arrive at a decision by thinking it is the best conclusion given the information we had at hand, we (by all rights) should have little difficulty changing that decision given further pertinent factors – yet this is rarely seen, is it? However, decisions based on how they fulfill some emotional need are incredibly hard to change, and standpoints arrived at without rational process are very unlikely to be changed by rational process – think about such topics as vegetarianism, abortion, and religion. Addressing these usually requires the ability to demonstrate the lack of a rational process, or to locate the incorrect assumption that was built upon. Vegetarians may insist that it’s wrong to harm animals, but who determined this, and why? Everything dies, and in ‘the wild,’ this is very frequently not pretty. Moreover, humans are not an introduced species, anywhere on the planet, so there is nothing unnatural about our actions, regardless. Such points reveal a few of the assumptions that formed much of the bedrock of the arguments – once dismissed, the arguments are inherently weaker.

To be sure, perhaps at some point later on in the course, the instructors manage to address these, and other factors such as manipulative phrasing, appealing to emotion or ego, circular arguments, confirmation bias, and so on. But, I’m skeptical. In two other courses that I’ve taken, (genetics and cosmology, both from Coursera,) the instructors were able to cover fundamentals very quickly, and were involved in fine details within a few videos – less than an hour of class time. There was no condescension, no pointless reiteration, and no time wasted on establishing extremely basic information. I find it hard to believe that something as simple as debating effectively could possibly require far more setup than these very specific, elaborate sciences. I have my suspicions as to why the difference is so marked, but they remain only suspicions; regardless, the poor approach and the painfully long time to get past certain simple points make this course a complete miss for me. There are far better, more efficient ways to learn how to debate, persuade, and produce cogent arguments.

*     *     *     *

I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to link to this review in the course forum, or perhaps send it to the instructors. I imagine that if I do either, there may be some challenge over whether I know more about the topic, or could do a better job or whatever. I’ll let anyone decide that one for themselves – here are links to several previous posts, any of which could be read in about the same time as the average video lecture provided within Coursera.

Proverbial thinking

The exception proves to rule

Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”

Fear of the knowable

For a given value


There are skeptics, and then there are skeptics

And, for giggles, a couple of examples that I’m particularly pleased with:

Dealing with the real world

Too smart to be intelligent

Just lizard things

Contemplative green anole

“Whatcha thinking about?”

“Oh – nothing…”

I know better

So, I’ve always had this thing about capturing images of lightning, perhaps even before I had a decent camera to do so. But it’s an exceptionally tricky thing; storms may not provide great displays, and when they do, it is often not at a viewing angle that works with the surroundings – blocked by trees or buildings, or over something not too photogenic. For the past few years, I’ve been nowhere near a nice, open area where approaching or receding storms can be seen clearly, and the few times I’ve tried to get someplace, I found the storm moved off or never even came close in the first place.

With the recent move, there’s this pond not two kilometers away, with nice open viewing areas on both ends and several narrower choices surrounding. I noticed that evening thunderstorms looked pretty likely this week, so I started plotting.

This evening, I looked out the front door and saw one of those dramatic scenes: a towering thunderhead lit by the lowering sun, flanked by lower clouds already in shadow, a nice juxtaposition of brilliant yellow cottony folds and blue-grey framing. It was in a position that might have been ideally situated over the pond, so I grabbed the gear and scampered over.

Unfortunately, the lower clouds shifted and obscured the sunlit cumulonimbus, not at all surprising – this is how shooting weather patterns tends to be. I waited it out, hoping for a break in the clouds or something else interesting to happen, and noticed that another, more distant cloud was producing some internal flashes. This was right at sunset, and the darkening skies would allow for some long exposure times, the best method of capturing lightning strikes. In short, pick an area of activity and lock the shutter open for several seconds, or even shoot on Bulb, where the shutter stays open as long as you want it to. With luck, you’ll capture a distinct lightning strike someplace in the frame. With a lot more luck, you’ll get something well-composed, well-lit, and able to be cropped into a great composition.

Far too distant lightningI stress this a lot: lightning isn’t cooperative and may strike in a broad area. Go with a wide angle lens, and while you might capture the bolt, it may have been reduced so small in the frame that it appears feeble and not terribly imposing. Too narrow, or course, and the strike occurs just outside of your frame. And then there’s the timing. Just like the breezes kick up the moment you go in close to some fragile plant, making it impossible to focus, lightning is notorious for striking dramatically while your shutter is closed in between frames (the same can be said for meteors, by the way.) There is, however, one small trait that can increase your odds just a little. For some reason, lightning is somewhat periodic; start counting the moment you see a bolt, and note when the next one occurs in the same general area. Use this as a pattern, and open your shutter a little before the next one is ‘due.’ It’s far from perfect, but I’ve seen it so often that I’m convinced it’s true. Note that another strike may occur from a different portion of the thunderhead in the meantime, which is why I stress that ‘same area’ thing above – the flashes can alternate.

So this evening, I’m watching the activity, and seeing mostly intercloud flashes without visible bolts. Sometimes this can work really well in full darkness, because it illuminates and shapes the cloud, but while there’s still light in the sky shining on the clouds, this will often obscure any internal lighting. I captured a few tiny bolts, but nothing interesting – mostly what I have are enough shots to demonstrate the cloud movements.

Then I noticed that the quiet cloud almost directly overhead was starting to get active. This was a much better view, but there’s a problem with this, one that anyone trying out lightning photography needs to know: lightning is unpredictable (the observation above notwithstanding,) and can strike well outside of what we might think is an ‘active’ region. Here I was, standing in an open field on the edge of a retaining wall well above the level of the pond, with no tall trees nearby, and right alongside an aluminum tripod. Looking up at an active cloud nearly overhead. This is not ideal.

Here’s a little trait of lightning, by the way. People tend to think that, if the bolt misses you, you’re fine – nuh uh. The bolt is the most visible, strongest portion of a whole region of air that is highly charged – it has to be, because that’s how lightning even occurs, leapfrogging from charged area to charged area. Anything that conducts electricity can serve as a conduit for this charge, so while a bolt might strike a tree nearby and ‘totally miss’ you, something metallic can still gather enough electricity to be dangerous – it is estimated that most of the non-lethal lightning injuries to humans occur this way.

Inter-cloud lightning

The cloud above was putting on a nice show, and the pattern thing was holding very well – I was getting a strike about every twenty seconds, but all of it cloud activity, stretching across the sky while barely even producing any thunder. There was nothing to place in the foreground, nothing even remotely tall enough. I could have crouched under a tree and framed against some branches, but I’m not that stupid.

Inter-cloud lightning

By now, the sky was almost completely dark, and even the strikes within the clouds were illuminating them nicely, providing a brilliant three-dimensional effect. But there were plenty of bolts outside as well, often stretching across clear sky – this wasn’t a storm front, but isolated thunderheads or ‘cells’ produced by high humidity and sweltering daytime temperatures, the kind of thing that makes Florida ideal for storm photography.

And then,

Very close ground strike lightning


From the very brief delay between the light show and the explosion of thunder, I’m sure the strike was close – within a few hundred meters. This was the first, and only, ground strike that I’d seen, and it was way too goddamn close for comfort. It occurred right at the tail end of a ten-second exposure, and a quick glance at the LCD told me I’d captured it more than adequately. “That’s it,” I said out loud, shut the camera off, and grabbed the tripod to head for the car, not even removing the camera first. This in itself is an indication of how jumpy I was, since I consider this a serious no-no – it’s just asking for damage to the camera. Always remove the camera first before picking up the tripod to walk anyplace, and stow it safely in your bag. Unless you’re considering just how lucky you are to be alive, much less capture such a dramatic shot.

This, by the way, is the entire frame, unlike the tighter crops above, and I was shooting at 19mm focal length, so it’s a wide angle of view. Maybe I’m imagining it, but it seems to me you can even see the angle of the main bolt – at the very least you gotta appreciate the lens flare along it, making it almost sparkle. I’m very pleased with it, but I realize I was taking a chance I knew not to take, and the storm demonstrated how unpredictable they can be – things could have been much different. So let me repeat the warnings: stay safe!

*     *     *     *     *

I have several observations to make, outside of the main narrative. First off, you realize that, on the same day that I posted (again) a rather defiant view of religion, I was standing in an open field next to a heavy aluminum tripod in a thunderstorm (well, okay, not far from one,) and still emerged unscathed. Answer that one, religious folk!

Moving on.

I have this peculiar thing that occurs with my hands – maybe it happens to a lot of people, but I’ve never gotten the impression that it’s common – but if I close my hand in a pinching position and put leverage on the wrist in the wrong way, I can pinch a nerve; this feels exactly like an electric shock, a serious one that can go up the forearm, and it’s produced more than a few cusses over the years. I just have to note that, as I walked quickly back to the car tonight breaking down the tripod as I went, I did it again. I can only consider this less than optimal timing, because I was already jumpy and this didn’t help.

Switching topics again, I still feel a little dissatisfied with the ‘CRACK‘ above (no, not the dig at religious folk – I’m more than happy with those.) There just isn’t any good way of communicating the sudden, very sharp, abusively loud noise of a nearby lightning strike in writing, and even if I were relating this orally, I couldn’t produce any sound that would do it justice – I’d probably sound a bit goofy even trying. This isn’t right; we’re a storytelling species, we should be able to produce some kind of sound, without breaking a cedar plank, that can convey the drama. Intelligent design my ass…

But what if the third time is the charm?

This is, actually, the third time I’ve approached this subject, and it will be another variation apart from the first time, and the second. The subject is the old “But what if you’re wrong?” challenge that the religious dearly love to use against atheists, never realizing this is not even a fraction as destructive as they imagine it. Pascal’s Wager is a variation of this challenge, an extremely simplified one that allows the faithful to reach the answer that they like, because an honest examination of probability, with all the variables therein, doesn’t produce an encouraging answer. What if god was really serious about the humility thing, and considers even passing grades in school as too much ego? Or maybe it’s the pursuit of wealth bit. What if it really is ba’al all along?

But as much fun as that can be, I’m aiming a little higher than that, and even going to consider (just for the sake of argument) the lame “what if?” scenario. Let’s take a moment and realize that the question is really, “What if everything that I believe is correct, and you’re wrong?” – because it’s abundantly clear that nobody posing this question is actually considering how many different ways anyone could be wrong, especially themselves, nor any other religion but their own, nor any facet therein that they don’t follow very faithfully, like trimming facial hair or avoiding shellfish. And they never appear to consider what it is that we do to avoid being wrong, like examining evidence and testing hypotheses and all that jazz. I addressed that the first time around.

But let’s say that any god you care to name really exists, and is now facing me, the unapologetic unbeliever. The imagined response is either that I’ll crash to the ground and beg forgiveness, or be defiant and continue not to believe or something, whereupon I’ll be cast into hell to the great delight of far too many religious folk, those who really do have a sadistic streak. Either way, ha ha, the religious person can feel all warm and cuddly inside I guess.

Still, there are a few things to consider here. First off, a god standing in front of me is exactly the kind of evidence that I require to be convinced. Because, let’s face it, religious folk have offered (for centuries) nothing but word games and wishy-washy interpretations, mostly in their own defense. And for the sake of continuing this line, I’m going to ignore the inherent skepticism I would have over this sudden manifestation, all the possibilities of misinterpretation, hallucination, and hoaxing that I’d consider (just like any other truly incredible event,) and assume we’ve established this god pretty convincingly… somehow. Now what?

The first thing that comes to mind is how often every god I’ve ever heard of is a petulant, emotional, often tyrannical being – I honestly couldn’t believe that there would be any likely way to appease this entity. Total crap shoot. While any believer might have a firm idea of what their god really is (or at least claims to,) I’ve personally never seen a dependable trend from any account given anywhere, and so could trust no particular approach nor determine any likely expectation. I’m not being frivolous. Take the abrahamic god, who wiped out every last species on the planet in a worldwide flood, for… what reason, exactly? Wasn’t this its own creation? Wasn’t it supposed to know everything that could happen? What about the bhagavad gita and its numerous interpretations over whether violence is condemned or condoned – shouldn’t a god be able to make this important message perfectly clear? Not one scriptural or oral account that I’ve come across is free from such displays of petty behavior or gross inconsistencies; there is a radical difference between reading scripture in search of supportive quotes for a pre-existing mindset, and reading it to actually obtain guidance or useful, perhaps even transcendent, information. Those who have pursued the latter have usually not been very enlightened.

But okay, so let’s assume, somehow, that the whole petty wrath, schizo thing is unlikely to happen – god is seeming pretty cool about it all and nominally coherent. So what answer do I have regarding why I lack faith?

Well, faith is actually a pretty stupid thing to have, from all of our experience. Faith in our fellow human beings is shattered so frequently that only an abject moron would continue to extend it – we rely on past experience, and covering our asses, and having some recourse if our expectations are somehow not met. We have contracts, and health inspectors, and banks that guarantee the presence of money, and we watch what other drivers do carefully, because faith is a ridiculous concept that has repeatedly proven its total lack of value.

I’ve pointed out before, even the religious look for something other than faith, constantly. We have everything from religious artifacts to expeditions into holy lands, creative interpretations of scripture to the frantic quest for things that can be called miracles – these are not aspects of faith, but the desperate search for evidence. That’s what human beings look for – we want the proof.

In this situation, there are two possibilities for why this should be. The first is that it is an evolved trait of an evolved species, and it’s not really hard to see how such a thing could come about from natural selection; individuals that ensure themselves of certain information (such as whether a tree is benign or dangerous) by observation and past experience can obviously fare much better than those who believe in some property for no reason.

The second possibility is that, as intended beings of some god, we were designed to be this way. I would like to think that I shouldn’t have to point out the contradiction in here, but I often do: a god that expects/demands faith but makes its creation rely on proof is not exactly working with an efficient model. Even if this being had some pat explanation as to why this should be, it doesn’t change anything until it’s been communicated to us – barring that, of course, I’m going to stick with what works best, which is requiring some kind of proof for extraordinary claims. You see, even without any built-in desire for evidence, it remains a useful process.

It also should be abundantly easy for some hyperpotent being to make itself known, obviating any need for faith in the first place. Throughout every culture, throughout history, every god has taken pains (if we are to believe the folklore) to remain hidden; this has progressed to the point of most folk declaring that their god exists in a realm not detectable or even fathomable by any form of physics, while theologians blather about abstract forms of existence such as a “ground of being” (I’m not making this up.) UFO enthusiasts, by the way, explain their utter lack of substantial, unquestionable evidence by claiming that the government is suppressing it all; they’ve learned something from religion. Because neither is an explanation – they’re excuses to avoid producing any positive evidence in the first place, the exact details that would differentiate a god (or extra-terrestrial visitations) from mere imagination. When illustrating a point, Carl Sagan used the invisible dragon in his garage; I’ll just tell you about the utcru, a peculiar extra-dimensional critter I just made up by slapping my fingers on the keyboard (it originally had a 6 and a Y in there, but it’s easier to pronounce this way.) I can tell you all the properties that it has that you can never detect, but none of these make it even remotely possible to exist – what we need for that is something positive and unmistakeable, the same kind of stuff that’s missing for any and all gods.

It’s missing, by the way, throughout every realm of our examination, from the sub-atomic level all the way out to millions of light years away among the stars. Physics works amazingly well with just a few simple laws, and this shows everywhere – we could never have achieved the advances that we have without them. The very fact that you’re reading these words means that every facet, from my pressing on plastic buttons on my keyboard through their interpretation by my computer, subsequent transmission by wire and storage into a database, then retrieval from the database because of the request from your computer or toy phone or whatever and the eventual display on your screen, means that all of it went without a glicth – we’re going well beyond dependable here.

Which brings us to two distinct possibilities. The first is that whatever proposed god(s) wanted it this way, desired to hide away and not take an active part in 99.9999999999999999999% of what occurs (at least – I’m being conservative.) Therefore, who am I to deny this, and what kind of blame should I accept for doing so? My answer is, “None at all” – if you, or anything else, has a problem with that, tough shit. A non-intervening god and no god at all are indistinguishable states. But the second possibility is that some extreme being laid the ground rules of physics and let it all play out through these functions, knowing how it would eventually go. That means, of course, that I could be no other way, and also means predestination and no free will and all that jazz. Worse, the non-intervening god of both of these options possesses none of the properties that religious folk want to believe in – it possesses no properties at all (just like the non-existent god and the utcru,) until and unless it decides to establish some solid evidence of its existence.

Sure, there still remains the half-ass possibility that some god still exists someplace, despite being completely illogical and rather inept at planning, that would still be mad at me for not believing; this could be a bad thing for me. But the same could be said for anyone I meet on the street being psychotic enough to kill me over some illogical concept; it is, in fact, infinitely more probable because we actually have examples of people like that (this is how probability works – without examples or known factors that could support a god, the probability of a god is zilch, sorry to say.) Despite the dire numbers seemingly implied in that statement, I’m still not going to walk around in fear of meeting this psychotic person, since it remains exceedingly rare and there’s nothing I could do about it anyway. And I sure as fuck wouldn’t worship anyone like that.

And that itself hints at another, more philosophical aspect. To many, I believe, there’s an underlying recognition that any such god will know exactly what’s going on in my mind – presumably, this should be worrisome. But what’s the alternative, then? Believing in gods through fear, or consequence? What about through insecurity, or ego over a perceived superiority? Are these any different, any more likely to convince this god that I am worthy? For some reason, a very large number of people seem to think that gods would be petty enough to be concerned about who’s kissing their ethereal asses, rather than what kind of improvements and beneficial acts mortals can perform in their brief existence that, so we’re often told, serves only as a (very) final exam.

I have been reminded quite often that we can’t possibly know the mind of god, and believe it or not, I’m totally on board with that – any kind of extra-dimensional intelligence is unlikely to have thought processes anything remotely like our own. This logically means that not one religious person knows either – not whether their god is beneficent, not whether they have the right one, not how their god feels about abortion or the proper way of preparing sausage or how they should react to infidels. Obviously, not very many of the devout actually believe this aspect, or have even bothered to stop and figure out what it actually means, which is one of the reasons why I don’t find much value in their arguments.

But what we can be sure about is our lives, right here, right now, and most especially, what kind of attitude is useful to our fellow humans. While religious folk may continue to argue some vapid point up there or another, not because they’ve established a high likelihood of their god, but because they get some emotional satisfaction, some validation, out of the entire idea, I’m going to argue that what we have incontrovertible evidence of is far more worthy of our attentions, our goals, and our emotional perspective. We have, perhaps unique among all species on this planet, the ability to think rationally, to weigh probabilities, to extrapolate effect and benefit and improvement. It seems a ridiculous shame to waste this on cultural artifacts that never made sense and have no supporting evidence.

*Yes, ‘glitch’ being misspelled was intentional – I do have a spellcheck on this machine, as well as a sense of humor.

Coughing up a lung

Once again courtesy of Not Exactly Rocket Science comes an article about a rather bizarre (to us at least) factor in the process of arthropod molting: apparently, they also shed the lining of their lungs while they’re at it.

Now, this is a little bit different from what we might imagine (yeah, like discarding your entire skin at once to emerge bigger is nothing odd.) Insects – and arachnids, and crustaceans, and so on, the whole class of Arthropoda – don’t have lungs anything like the mammals; instead, the vast majority of them have little holes along the sides of their thoraxes and abdomens, called spiracles, that feed air more directly into the tissues through tracheae (or tracheoles – I’m not sure which is proper,) as partially illustrated before. When molting, the entire lining of these passages is pulled out and discarded as well, interrupting their breathing for several minutes – according to the article, they increase their respiratory rate ahead of time, flooding their system with oxygen, then breathing halts during the molt, following which they start gulping air again. Not surprising, really. The respiratory rate on arthropods is typically pretty low anyway, which is why spiders can survive under water for extended periods solely on the air that clings to their bodies.

The image they used to illustrate this for the article wasn’t terribly enlightening, and I wondered if I had something more useful in my stock. I’d seen the little white threads left behind within the molted chitins, but always assumed they were tendons or something. I was in the process of checking out my arthropod stock images when I suddenly remembered: I did have access to a recently molted exoskeleton – one of the better types to use for such illustrative purposes, in fact.

Cicadas are a common insect at this time of year throughout the US, and as they emerge from a subterranean existence and molt into reproducing, flying adults, the wonderfully menacing brown skins left behind on treetrunks and fenceposts are often not hard to find. As molted exoskeletons go, they’re large, sturdy, and hardened into shape (one prolific year as I was growing up in central NY, I collected over a dozen in one session and perched them all on a styrofoam cooler on our porch, convincing my mother momentarily that we were being infested.) I had just spotted one the other day on our fence, so I trotted back outside and brought it in for a studio session.

molted cicada exoskeleton

I will pause here for moment to reflect on body shapes. The adult cicada doesn’t look very far removed from this, though the head is broader, but it’s easy to mistake it for something entirely different because of the wings, which stretch over twice the length of the body. The majestic clear membranes emerge entirely from those embarrassing little flaps seen here over the hindmost leg, unfolding and fleshing out in a matter of hours, making clown cars look feeble in comparison.

Despite the rigidity of the exoskeleton, it still took a bit of care to bifurcate it with a scalpel to reveal the interior. But once I had my cicada on the half-shell, the tracheoles were obvious white threads scattered within (the hematite stone in the background is just a bonus, what I had handy on my desk to prop up my subject.)

split cicada molt showing tracheoles

Curious to see if I could produce a better look, I soaked my subject in alcohol for a short while, knowing this is a good way to soften up chitin for a little flexibility. This kind of worked, but not as well as I’d hoped; while I could stand up the tracheoles for a little better detail, the alcohol turned them faintly translucent so the detail wasn’t as distinct as it could be.

cicada tracheoles up close

I had no luck in trying to manipulate them to be sure, but what I think you’re seeing here is several branches clustered together; within the body, they would be split apart at the base and spreading out throughout the tissues for better oxygen distribution. These were a few millimeters in overall length, so it was hard enough to visually separate them, much less do so with the tip of a scalpel, possibly made worse by the alcohol causing them to cling together.

This made me remember some images, and questions, from a decade ago in Florida, when my brother and I had discovered the newly-molted chitin of a blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) – we knew it was recent because we also found the former occupant, still soft and very shy. Crustaceans, as odd as it might seem, are still arthropods, more closely related to terrestrial insects than to any aquatic neighbor. So here’s a look at the discarded exoskeleton, split open to show the interior – you’re seeing it from the left side, head towards the left of the frame.

molted exoskeleton of blue crab Callinectes sapidus showing lungs

The triangular brown mass extending from the bottom edge is one of the ‘lungs’ – the other is just barely visible edge-on at the top. I was familiar with this anatomy from having eaten crabs, but it seemed extremely peculiar that the lungs would be left behind with the molted skin; however, we had the former occupant right nearby so we were pretty sure this was not just a dead specimen. Now I know that they really do discard the lungs with the rest.

As to why this should occur, I can only begin to speculate. When developing as a fetus, nearly all species develop from a cluster of cells into a donut shape; the hole in the middle is the alimentary canal, what will become a digestive system. This does indeed make us, damn near everything really, a glorified tube. While the development of limbs from little nubs that sprout from this tube is well known, the development of the breathing apparatus takes on many forms, from the gill arches of fish to the elaborate lung systems of mammals. Somewhere in there, arthropods seem to have gotten their respiratory system closely enough linked with their exoskeleton that both are shed and developed anew with each stage of development. Weirder things happen, like the metamorphosis of many insects from pupa through chrysalis to winged adult, pretty much becoming little more than liquid in the process, but still…

Nothing escapes!

Lyssomanes viridis juvenile
The other day while doing some work on the deck I spotted a tiny spider, only a few millimeters long, and as I observed it for a moment I got this freaky focus problem while looking at its dark eyes. Having seen this before, I captured it for a quick photo session.

This is a very young magnolia green jumping spider (Lyssomanes viridis,) notable in that it is one of the few species where you can see the ocular anatomy of jumping spiders in action, real time. I’ve covered this before, but in short, the two main eyes (anterior median) are specialized for jumping and tracking prey; while outwardly immobile, inside the cephalothorax the eyes can move independently, and because of the translucent chitin of the magnolia green jumper, this can be seen. It’s definitely a weird (but extremely cool) effect, made more bizarre by the lens throwing the retina at a different apparent focal distance than the rest of the spider, seeming to float further off in the depths.
magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis with visible retina
My subject here is only half the size of the previous one and probably only a few weeks old. It was a struggle to try and get enough images, since the spider was (like most jumpers) a little hyperactive and somewhat shy, so either moving around enough to make focus difficult or dodging to the underside of the leaf. Not to mention that, at this magnification, the range of optimum focus is perhaps a millimeter in depth, so between my own body movement and that of the spider, the spider was out of focus more often than in, and I was endeavoring not to trip the shutter during those times. This may seem excessive, but I shot 86 frames, partially in trying to get a sequence of images as the eyes moved around. Many of them will be discarded, but I have enough to serve my purposes. I will, however, still be watching for a larger specimen, especially as we get towards egg laying time.
magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis with retina and eye reflection
This image is cool because the strobe was at the right angle to produce a reflection from the one eye while showing the retina in the other – you can also see how most of the legs were out of focus, despite this being shot at f16. These spiders are so cool I’m strongly considering setting up a few in a terrarium, maintaining them with fruit flies while they reach adulthood. I guess I probably shouldn’t have released this one…

magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis eye animationWhile I wanted a little more eye motion than I managed to capture, I still couldn’t resist making an animated gif from a rapid sequence that I’d fired off – the actual frames I got were spaced slightly farther apart in timing than what appears here, but not significantly. The slight change in perspective is strictly my own movement; I’m lucky to have kept focus while doing so. And yes, I’ve talked about the difficulties in using a tripod for stuff like this – it just ain’t gonna happen.

But hey, while we’re on the subject, I’ll tell you what I did in this case, which is what I often do. A leaf was set up in a small clamp attached to a stand, and placed on the tabletop on the porch. This brought the spider up to a decent working height, and I was able to brace my forearms against the table and limit the amount of twitching that might take place. When the spider wandered around, I was often able to just lean a little and re-obtain focus (maintaining it while the spider moved wasn’t likely to happen, but being able to lock back on when the spider paused wasn’t too difficult.) At times, I had to readjust the leaf angle and position, something the clamp rig assisted with significantly, and could flip the leaf over to chase the spider back on top as needed. It’s little things like this that can make the pursuit a bit less frustrating.

*     *     *     *

Okay, it’s almost certainly not true that nothing escapes my attention – there’s actually no way I could tally what does. But I feel safe in saying that, from doing this so long, I probably spot a few more things than the ‘average person’ would – whoever that is…

Who are we learning about?

Among the many, many reminisces following the recent death of actor-comedian Robin Williams – some in honest tribute, some in shameless opportunism – we can find the video of his meeting with Koko, the female lowland gorilla who is famous for communicating by sign language; we also have the reports from the Gorilla Foundation, her caretakers, that when told about his death, Koko was distinctly sad over the news. From a scientific standpoint, however, we really can’t be sure of this. Courtesy of Not Exactly Rocket Science, we have Jane C. Hu’s article on Slate that discusses a lot of the difficulty with the conclusions and even the research methods of the Foundation.

This isn’t a new finding, either – the skepticism over the claims of Koko’s abilities have been around for a long time, and far too much of the purported findings look like the same kind of uncritical enthusiasm once expressed over facilitated communication, a method of using a human go-between to help functionally impaired children to communicate effectively. In facilitated communication, an adult, often a parent, would interact with a paraplegic child – by holding hands, for example – and interpret the child’s infinitesimal motions as the attempt to type onto a special symbolic keyboard, thereby producing a coherent message from someone who otherwise had no recognizable forms of communication. The problem is not knowing whether there really are distinct motions that the children make towards certain keys, or whether the adults themselves are introducing their own bias and, in effect, answering ‘for’ the child, much like an Ouija board uses the ideomotor effect to produce a message, not from spirits, but from subconscious movements of the participants (you’d think the spirits could move the planchette pointer without human intervention, and of course, we have myriad ways of detecting even nerve impulses that never produce motor functions much better than having to have an adult ‘feel’ the efforts from a disabled child.) And from numerous reports, it seems the case with Koko is more creative interpretation than her ability to communicate in a near-human manner, much less actually master a ‘language.’

A lot of this requires dismissing the human bias and trying to see it all from an uncluttered perspective. There is a radical difference between using any form of language and performing a function of cause-and-effect conditioning. A rat that presses a button to receive food is generally considered to have learned this through trial and error, and many species have this kind of cognitive learning ability. Putting a symbol on the button is an added step, as is then putting that symbol among many others in a group of buttons and only rewarding the rat when it presses the correct symbol; this does not mean the rat is now using that symbol as meaning, “food,” even though at a base level the correlation is likely present. For it to be differentiated, the rat (or any other species) would have to be able to use the symbols in an abstract manner far outside of simple associations, perhaps communicating something along the lines of “today’s food bad; yesterday’s food good.” This is what we consider language, and it applies as well to stringing together a selection of sign language symbols. The Slate article points this out in a distinctive way: does Washoe the chimpanzee signing water bird when she saw a swan indicate that she has created a new term, differentiating a ‘water bird’ from a ‘tree bird’ or ‘land bird,’ or is it simply a stream-of-consciousness type of response, giving the sign for ‘water’ when she saw it, followed by the sign for ‘bird’ when she saw that, both stemming from conditioning to associate a subject with a hand motion?

[We do this too, more than we tend to think: very often, we say, "Bless you," when someone sneezes, never bothering to think about why someone with a nasal irritation deserves this special attention, nor whether we even have such power. But boy howdy, watch how some people get uptight when you fail to perform this pointless, conditioned response. And then there's The Oatmeal's take on it.]

There’s also the huge difference between language and communication, which can be performed with minor vocalizations, facial expression, body posture, or the erection of fur or feathers. Many species communicate in one way or another, from schools of fish reading the movements of their immediate neighbors to even plants releasing chemical responses to pests. So what studies are looking for is not that, but the distinction that separates language from communication, humans from all other species: the ability to express discrete, coherent abstracts. This would demonstrate that another species might even use such concepts, of which there is very little indication. And that naturally raises the question of why this might be – why us and no other species? What are the key differences?

One speculation is that the limiting factor is anatomy, specifically the larynx and tongues; this has some supporting evidence in that human children can master sign language much faster than speech. This indicates that infants’ delay in speaking is not entirely due to understanding abstracts or even assigning labels, but the difficulties of manipulating tongue and vocal cords. If apes possessed the mental ability to handle abstracts and used no language only because of the limits of anatomy, an alternate method of communication might demonstrate this readily. Yet, we’re well past the point where this could have been established firmly, without the results that we should expect if it were true.

Lowland gorilla

Not Koko – just a gorilla pic I had

In the middle of all this sits the urge, all too often, to consider that using language makes humans ‘higher’ than other species, more evolved or more successful, which is unwarranted and mostly ego talking. Any species that survives is successful enough, and we ourselves remain in a constant battle with mere bacteria and viruses. Gorillas might have never developed the traits to use language because those traits, appearing spontaneously within individuals through mutation and genetic drift, never produced a significant advantage and thus never spread throughout the species. Language is clearly a social benefit, requiring a highly-interactive species to produce a significant advantage, and gorillas fall lower on that scale than, for instance, sardines. They are not predators which could gain an advantage from coordinating in packs to obtain their food, and the niche that they inhabit is largely free from serious hazards – except, ironically, for humans. In short, they don’t need language, and thus are highly unlikely to have either the necessary thinking structure, the desire to engage in it, nor any function to put it to. And the results have primarily supported this: despite decades of using the language, Koko (and others like her) have demonstrated no marked increase in abilities, understanding, or function, no exploitable advantages, and in fact, might arguably be said to be functioning less optimally, relying far too much on the environment of the research centers to indulge themselves while not even expressing their thoughts and desires to notable advantage. Even though we are told that Koko wants a baby and has even selected a mate through a form of video dating service, this event has not come to pass and, due to her advanced age, is now unlikely to.

Further indication of how untrustworthy the various claims of communication are is how loosely the research appears to be run. Instead of dispassionate observation, the caregivers, first among them Penny (Francine) Patterson, are deeply interactive and openly interpretive, accepting, rejecting, and translating the various sign language missives from their subjects. Unedited, the transcripts of signs from Koko bear little relation to what it is claimed she is saying, and in an especially questionable exchange, Patterson has claimed that Koko’s signing of nipple is actually intended to mean people (and this is not the first time I’ve heard this account.) Aside from the obvious problems with this, we have to remember that Koko is signing, which negates anything resembling rhyming entirely, and presumably the signs she’s been taught for these two concepts have no similarity in structure. Not to mention that if she knew this language and actually meant people, this would be a far more often used sign and one that she should easily be capable of using appropriately. Even if we allow for the possibility that Patterson intentionally mistranslated to hide Koko’s indelicate interest (at least to humans) in seeing nipples, as intimated by the article, this still indicates that Koko was not answering the inquiries at all. The resemblance to a solid research project is tenuous at best.

Slate‘s article goes deeper into the Gorilla Foundation’s activity and history, getting away from the initial subject and raising some serious questions about how well the program is being run. Admittedly, most of this is hearsay due to few former employees going on the record, denied permission through non-disclosure agreements, so drawing conclusions is unwarranted – though the numbers of disgruntled workers isn’t a very good sign at all. But what is apparent is how much effort is put into promotion and media attention, which raises some interesting questions on its own – ones that go much farther than the Gorilla Foundation or even the concept of teaching apes how to use language.

Funding for scientific endeavors is a tricky thing. It usually comes in the form of grants, which can be (and usually are) quite capricious in nature – most areas of potential research sit unexamined because of a lack of funding or patronage. So another avenue to obtain funding is through the public, and there are few topics that can spark enough interest to generate a significant, sustainable level of funding; animals are probably the most prominent (followed by, in no order, childhood diseases and cancer research.) So there is a significant incentive to make animal-related research studies very prominent, or to create a public appeal offshoot that brings in funding on its own; most zoos use this model, where the income from captive display animals is partially directed towards endangered species breeding programs and wildlife research. Others, like the Gorilla Foundation, expend a lot of effort into making their research as public-oriented as possible.

The ethics of this can be debated ad nauseum (and are,) partially because ethics isn’t defined well enough to get everyone onto the same page – I’m not going to get into that here, since that’s worth about 5,000 words in itself. More to the point, the danger of a public-funding model is that it requires constant interest, and thus a lot of effort put into wooing the media and providing fresh content. Now, most scientific studies don’t make for interesting articles, much less TV spots, and even less so when there’s little progress being made. The nature of science is that not every avenue of research is going to produce positive results, and many that do are in the future expansion, speculate-on-potential-impact variety – this isn’t ‘news.’ So the incentive to over-promote, hype, and even generate not-entirely-accurate reports of progress is also present, and where the dividing line sits in such situations is never particularly clear.

This appears to be where most of the ape language field falls: a tiny handful of test subjects yielding sporadic results wide open to interpretation, without any serious progress being made. While, “Koko wants a baby,” and, “She’s sad over the passing of Robin Williams,” generate a lot of public interest, from a scientific standpoint they have virtually no value, even if the efforts had been made to verify that these communiqués were accurate, which is far from apparent. Any study funded by the typical grant process would not have gone on for the decades that these have, partially because the controls are not in place to determine if the claimed results are solid, and mostly because the results, even as reported, are fairly thin. There remains a lot to be learned about the cognitive processes of apes, and indeed any species, but to do this accurately, the process must be rigorous, objective, and above all, independently confirmed.

*     *     *     *     *

I have just a minor annoyance to express here. Despite the ridiculous number of articles on Koko and the Gorilla Foundation that can be located, and the repetition that Koko is an endangered species, not one source that I found confirmed which species Koko actually is, among only four likely candidates – I was therefore unable to provide this myself. Such a simple detail, but apparently far beyond mass media’s capabilities.

I’m not the only one who’s weird

mantis with sphinx moth
Courtesy of Jim over at the Kansas branch of the blog comes this shot, taken while I have been trying to locate any resident mantis here for the last two weeks. I’m going to assume this is also a Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) having captured a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata.) Moth and butterflies are notorious for losing both wing scales and body ‘fur’ when captured, often liberally coating their predators as seen here. It’s easy to tell this was a night shot by the dark eyes of the mantis, and the fact that sphinx moths are largely nocturnal. What’s not easy to tell is how big both of these are – sphinx moths are among the largest in North America, and this is the final instar, or reproducing adult phase, of the mantis. That means the frame of this image probably spans more than 8 cm, with the mantis running somewhere in the vicinity of 10-13cm in body length, and the wingspan of the moth around 6-9 cm.

crab spider mecaphesa on pokeweed blossom Phytolacca americanaI, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction yesterday. On what I’m pretty sure is a pokeweed plant (Phytolacca americana, the subject of the dried berry images here,) I went in close to photograph the stage where the berries are starting to develop from the fertilized blossoms – which is encouraging, since I’ve been seeing too few pollinators in this yard. After unloading the memory card, I noticed something that wasn’t visible to me when I took the frames, so I had to go back out and do some more detail shots. In my defense, the entire flower is 7mm across petal to petal, about the diameter of a standard pencil, so you can judge the size of the occupant yourself.

This is a crab spider, family Thomisidae, likely genus Mecaphesa based on the guide found on this page – beyond that I can’t say, since this is likely a juvenile and the coloration of even adults can vary significantly. But let’s get a little bit closer look.

crab spider mecaphesa on pokeweed blossom Phytolacca americana
It was cooperative enough to give me a couple of different poses, I’m guessing to show off that lovely blue eye shadow – obviously trying to look older than it really is, so I’m guessing this is late adolescence, which would make it more mature than Republicans in this country. But that isn’t saying much.
crab spider mecaphesa on pokeweed blossom Phytolacca americana
I need to find a different flash bracket; it doesn’t matter which side I decide to mount the strobe on, it ends up being the wrong side for a particular subject soon after, and switching isn’t easy. I have the ability to mount two strobes simultaneously and could switch power between them, but that would be even bulkier (something I’d rather reduce right now) and considerably more difficult to handle. The ability to swap the strobe left for right in a pinch would be ideal. Stay tuned; I’ll work this out eventually.
crab spider mecaphesa on hand of North American nature photographer
When I tried to slip my finger behind the flower for a scale shot, the spider panicked and dropped off the petal, dangling beneath from a strand of web. I grabbed this and lifted the spider back over the flowers to try and redeposit it in place, and it scampered back up the web to run across my fingers. Here it paused in the foothills where my fingerprints gave way to the coastal plain of the back of my hand.

Soon afterward, I coaxed it back onto the flowers and will be watching for it later on. Maybe it’ll serve as the test subject for my new flash bracket setup soon.