Not according to plan

autumn leaves in water reflecting blue sky
forest trail stepsSo, okay. I went out yesterday to check out the nature trails behind UNC’s botanical garden, for the first time in over a decade. You’d like to think that nature photographers are always in touch with every natural area nearby – and they probably are… it’s just that I’m not. Actually, I have several other areas that I prefer, mostly well away from people, also able to produce more interesting critters, but yeah, I probably should have been back sooner than this.

Anyway, since this was intended just as a scouting session, with no real goals in getting any images, it makes perfect sense that I shot close to 400 frames – which is more than I’ve taken many times when specifically going out to produce usable photos. This is one of the reasons I encourage taking your camera (a real one) with you as often as possible. The fall colors have not ‘peaked’ yet, but the trees tend not to coordinate amongst themselves very well and all peak at different times, so creating autumn compositions can be done for weeks. Meanwhile, there’s this little layout rule that images alongside text should be oriented so that they pull attention into the text – if there’s an implied direction or natural emphasis, it should be towards the printing and not off the page. The only thing is, with this forest steps shot, I’m not sure which way that actually is…

tiny saplings among autumn leaves

It somehow doesn’t seem right that a sapling that’s only achieved ankle height should be turning, about to lose its leaves, but then again, why wouldn’t it? I liked the variety of leaves that could be seen in such a small area, as well as the pleasantly contrasting pink and green of the little sprout.

giant magnolia autumn fall leaves backlitThe sky was perfectly clear after the previous day’s rain storms, and the low angle of the wintering sun produced not only very high contrast conditions, but a significant amount of glare when facing anywhere remotely eastward, so some compositions, that might have been quite compelling in other conditions, were simply out of the question. There are ways, however, of using such light angles. Magnolia trees tend to lose their leaves early, and the bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) wasn’t far from dropping these like so many of the others already littering the ground beneath, so within a few days this opportunity would have been gone. Some trees are already bare and many in the process of changing colors, while quite a few, as seen in the steps shot, are still quite green.

I have to note, with pleasant surprise, that the number of longneedle pines to be seen in these woods is quite low – they’re an ugly tree, and quite a pain in the ass in that their needles get everywhere, all year long, and the ground cover they produce tends to prevent many other plants and trees from getting started. It’s nice to see a greater variety, and of course the deciduous trees make for better photo subjects, even when dead.

shelf fungus detail
Part of the reason these details can be seen so distinctly is because of that bright, low sun, and with the forest canopy, the opportunity for the light to shine through is sporadic – thus, this was as much a matter of opportunistic timing as any ability to spot something interesting. It might also have been interesting still dripping with rain – it helps to think of variations that might occur, so you can plan and seek out certain shots when the conditions are right.

backlit damaged green leaf with blue skyBackground is an important factor, and one that is amazingly easy to change at this time of year. A very small adjustment of shooting position – left or right, higher or lower – can drastically affect just what is going to appear in the background, and the ability to enhance your subject can make the difference between a basic shot and an interesting one. Is there a color or shape that will work with the subject better? Is there something clashing that needs to be eliminated? Thinking in terms of the entire frame, and being aware of what’s beyond the subject, can help a lot. While this one was relatively simple to achieve, I’ve gone flat on the ground or stood on fences and rocks to change the appearance of the background (and affect the light angle as well) – minor efforts to create major differences. And yes, this has often meant getting dirty, damp, or worse, and sometimes I bring along kneepads and a ground cloth (a small section of waterproof tarp) when I expect to be doing a lot of it, but I’m also not too concerned with how I look to others, or how uncomfortable I might be afterwards, if I get a shot that I like.

dead cricket consumed by fungus
I wasn’t loaded for doing elaborate macro work, but I kind of wish I’d tackled this one in greater detail. While any insect that dies might serve as food for opportunistic fungi, there are varieties that actually infect living species and provoke them towards certain behaviors that will promote the spread of their spores – the same can be said for many parasitic microbes, and I’ve had such images on my mental shooting list for years. From, really, not very far away, this just appeared to be a whitish cricket perched on a leaf, but up close it gets supremely creepy (okay, even creepier than many of my images.) So, yeah, Happy Halloween again.

wasp portrait on pitcher plantI decided, since i was in the immediate vicinity, to hit the garden proper once more. North Carolina is one of the few states where predatory plants are native, so the botanical garden, dedicated to native species, features a variety of Venus flytraps, sundews, and pitcher plants. The pitcher plants always host some resident wasps, and I’m in the process of determining what these are and how they live. The reason being, I’ve seen more than a few pitcher plants that are plugged with grass or leaves, and some that feature a hole chewed into the trumpet well down the body. Pitcher plants have slippery insides, an attractive smell, and a pool of sticky nectar at the bottom that attracts the insects that will nourish the plant with their death, but it appears some arthropod has circumvented this trait for their own purposes, probably in protecting the larvae. Right now I’m just not sure if it’s actually the wasp species seen here, or of the wasp preys on the species that attacks the pitcher plant. So I’ll just leave this image here while I work on the details.

I just want to point out: dark green, behind the wasp. A slight shift in either direction would have changed the background color, and thus how well the wasp stood out.

I kept my eyes open when I approached the small pond which held my subject from an earlier visit, and the attention paid off – this is quite likely the same green frog (Rana clamitans,) though I spotted no tadpole this time.

green frog Rana clamitans portrait

Moving slowly, I was able to actually prop my elbows on the rim of the pond for a tight portrait, a much more personable angle than the previous images of this amphibian – and one that produced a subtle but interesting addition. It’s not hard to make out the reflections of the foreground reeds in the frog’s eye, but there’s something else too, which we’ll go a little closer to make out.

photographer's reflection in green frog's eye Rana clamitans

This is slightly better than twice full resolution. To the right, you can actually see the barest reflection of me getting this shot; my sidelit forehead is showing near the top under the blue sky, while my right hand can be made out on the shutter, and the faint curve of my left hand under the lens. The camera, black and facing away from the light, is only visible as a dark space. Now I’m going to have to try for a better version of this…

bumblebees on purple flowersI also got another image of the same flowering plant that appeared in that earlier post, though not the same blossoms of course. This time I was thoughtful enough to look for the identifying plaque, but there was none, so I still cannot tell you what species this actually is. But the light was at a more useful angle this time, so the interiors were better illuminated, meaning that one of the bumblebees had to burrow in quite deeply to stay in the shadows – that dark spot in the lower blossom is a bee, while the other scampered around on the outside of the petals, knowing there was nectar to be had but not terribly sure how to reach it. C’mon, their brains are the size of a booger, they have to screw up from time to time…

[Notice, however, how the dark background masks the definition of the bumblebee's head; this is an example where I failed to use the background to best advantage. I still make the mistakes I warn others about, now and then, but there really wasn't an angle that would have worked and still shown the interiors of the blooms anyway. While many different compositions and approaches can produce a nice image, there often remains some way it could be better - not necessarily that it can be done with those particular conditions, but that some set of conditions will serve. It means you keep trying, still watching for improved image.]

Now, quite often when I’m out shooting, I will find some subject or composition that I feel essentially justifies the time; if nothing else comes out at all, this one will make it all worthwhile, and I can go home now. This usually doesn’t actually make me go home, and I will often keep going just to see if I can top it, which has occasionally happened, but there remains the feeling that one frame (or set thereof) beats the rest.

mantis silhouette on broad backlit leafSo when I spotted the shadow on the large leaf in passing, you know I was chuffed. Not an hour earlier I had been thinking that the mantids had been scarce in the garden that year, and I lost my opportunities for those shots at home back in July; it was very cooperative of this one to pose so distinctly in the center of the leaf, probably still warming herself after the crisp night. While my framing here makes it quite prominent, this was actually found in a crowded, complicated stand of various plants and was not obvious; I almost missed it entirely in passing. Interestingly, the light angle is not as it seems, as is indicated by by looking at the top right of the leaf, above the crossing brown frond; that thread sticking out up there is her antenna, the same one throwing the fine shadow across the leaf.

There was an extensive elementary school group visiting both the garden and the trails the entire time I was there, rather obvious from the noise levels, screams of discoveries echoing off the hills. One small cluster wasn’t too far away when I found the mantis, and I debated about pointing it out to them, but I’m always a bit wary of such things, since younger kids are notoriously bad about observing within disturbing or interfering – sometimes I think it’s better when they haven’t spotted such things on their own, because it tells me they’re not in the appropriate frame of mind for them anyway. This all sounds rather dismissive of children, I know, which isn’t entirely accurate, since I do presentations to kids and enjoy the opportunities to share information and discoveries. But to me, there’s a certain level of focus and respect I’d like to see in place before introducing them to something delicate, just as much as anyone would want to see before letting the kids carry the good china out to the table, you know? Regardless, the group moved on before I had decided which way I was leaning.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis portraitNo, I did not get multiple frames of the mantis shadow and neglect getting the mantis herself (I just had some space to fill up alongside.) This is, most likely, a Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis,) the most common species around here, and the largest – this one is not quite as long as my hand, and I’m guessing female from the size and girth. Yes, she’s got some kind of injury to her right eye cluster, and in a less-than-ideal location too, since it quite possibly affects her depth-perception right up front where it’s most useful in nabbing prey. Yet she’s more than big enough, so either it’s recent or it didn’t have too detrimental an affect on her. Unless I miss my guess she’ll be producing an egg sac soon, which will overwinter and hatch out the young somewhere around early April; she will die off soon afterward. While it might seem odd to us, many species live long enough to reproduce, and not much beyond that – that’s really all that was necessary to pass on the genes, so that’s all that was selected for. We (well, not all of us) give birth to these helpless, floppy little blobs, so we have to stick around long enough to ensure that the genes make it past weaning at least. Yeah, I know, there I go off on the kids again…

I have a few more images from the day that may make it to another post, and of course the autumn colors will be progressing, so something more will be along soon enough. You know where to find me.

I can still do a bug update

Jumpng spider Phidippus in rose blossom
While the weather has produced a few cold snaps and the trees are progressing into their autumn colors, the arthropods have gotten harder to spot, but can yet be found. Above, a jumping spider (genus Phidippus) saw me coming and took refuge in a shelter it had created within a rose blossom, presenting a significant photographic challenge – this is the best I could manage, since only one angle allowed light either in or out, and I had the choice of firing a flash into the crevice or actually allowing the lens a clear field of view. Still, it gives an abstract impression of the conditions for shooting bugs.

On the side of the house I found a very large wheel bug (Arilus cristatus,) a form of assassin bug, so named for that weird projection on the sholders – this one measured about 35mm in length, perhaps the largest I’ve seen and, if the girth was any indication, a female seeking a place for her eggs. I could be wrong – this is the south after all. I collected her and a branch as a setting, rather than work on the side of the house, but made a mistake visible here: I used a photo print as a background, and the pattern of the box turtle (that was the main subject of the print) remains visible to the right. Perhaps not everyone will notice this, but the pattern is distinctive and it jumps right out at me.

Wheel bug Arilus cristatus with fake background

At the same time, I also found a species I’ve never seen before; judging from the legs, wings, and the shape of the head and mouth, I am pegging this as an Orthopteran of some kind, the order that includes grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets. [Note: as I type this, I decided to check BugGuide.net for a further detail, and right smack on the homepage was another example of the species, posted just seventeen minutes ago - it is a narrow-winged tree cricket, Oecanthus niveus. Or, was. But I'm getting ahead of myself.]

narrow-winged tree cricket Oecanthus niveus

I have been working on a couple of school presentations, and the wheel bug was a nice model to do some anatomical detail images from; few insects (around here) get to be this size, so it was a prime opportunity. Also helpful was the sluggish nature of wheel bugs, which tend to be rather dainty in manner – if they don’t fly away first. While this one tended to try and switch to the underside of the leaves, I was still able to go in for some significant closeups, close enough to see the sand grains adhering to its head.

macro close up of wheel bug Arilus cristatus head

Looking at the eyes, you can see the curious shape of the flat-planel flash rig I use, but also a blue spot; that’s the LED flashlight I use as a focusing aid with the fixed-aperture reversed 28-105, all explained in this post. One of the benefits of working in a macro ‘studio’ indoors is that I can use an AC power source for the flash unit, providing a recharge time of 4-5 seconds and indefinite use, which batteries definitely can not maintain. Plus if my subject tries to fly away (which this one did not,) I can usually recapture it again.

After a productive session with the wheel bug, I dropped the tree cricket onto the same branch without removing the wheel bug. I was mostly after detail pics like the one further up, but I also knew that assassin bugs prey on other insects, and I was curious as to whether my subject might do this as I watched, or if it would be too wary of my presence to engage in such behavior. The tree cricket, in less than a minute, blundered directly into the wheel bug and effectively answered this question for me, since the assassin wasted no time with a potential meal so blithe.

Wheel bug Arilus cristatus with captured narrow-winged tree cricket Oecanthus niveus

I have been told that the proboscis of an assassin bug, shown so clearly here, can deal a nasty bite to anyone handling one incautiously, though I have yet to experience this for myself, despite having handled an untold number of them – basically, don’t grab them, but scoop them up gently if you have to use your hands at all. Most times, however, I simply nudge them onto an index card or into a film can (ask your parents what that is.)

Wheel bug Arilus cristatus with captured narrow-winged tree cricket Oecanthus niveus

I could not tell from this image whether the wheel bug was actually penetrating the chitin of the tree cricket, or if it was simply waiting for me to move on before it finished its meal, but the position of the cricket’s forelegs reminds me strongly of the classic villain-ingenue poses from pulp novels and movie posters many decades ago. I don’t think I could have planned so dramatic a pose, so yeah, Happy Halloween.

I did eventually leave the wheel bug in peace to finish her meal, but in checking back later on, I found a few strands of web practically over top of the bug, and along some of the other leaves. Apparently, when I had cut the short twig I brought along another resident, a minuscule spider that would appear to be genus Wulfila, perhaps Wulfila albens, a type of sac spider. BugGuide.net’s handy little spider eye chart has been inordinately useful many times over in my search for proper species, though it does require that you have a very clear view of the eyes, which is not always easy to accomplish.

white sac spider, probably Wulfile, perhaps Wulfila albens

Despite the rather menacing appearance in this image, the spider was tiny, able to sit with legs fully spread on a fingernail without overlapping, and would not have posed a hazard even to the tree cricket. I later released both the spider and the wheel bug, though I would have liked to have seen where, if anyplace, the eggs were eventually laid.

harvestman daddy longlegs Opiliones on dead leafLooking out the window the other day, I saw the curious spectacle of a harvestman spinning on a bit of pine bark dangling from a stray web strand – this is mildly notable in that harvestmen do not spin webs nor climb them, so I’m not actually sure how this one got there, and it didn’t seem to know what to do itself. Most people I’ve met seem to refer to these by the marvelously technical-sounding name of “daddy longlegs,” though that same nomenclature is applied to species of crane flies as well – “harvestman” is the more appropriate common name, but like all common names, it’s better to go with the scientific names for accuracy. In this case Opiliones is the overall Order, an arachnid but not a spider – and no, they’re not the most venomous arthropod in North America, they have no venom at all. Urban legends are ridiculously hard to get rid of. According to one source I found, it’s not even clear if they hunt or only scavenge, feeding on insects already dead. My own experience hasn’t contradicted the scavenge idea, and in fact I have photographed them carrying long-dead caterpillars. I have also only seen them feeding at night, so that’s the time to look if you’re interested yourself (what am I saying, “if” – of course you are.)

I went down to Ederia Pond to collect some water samples, spurred on by the Triops failures to see what kind of native aquatic subjects I could find, which so far hasn’t been much (lots and lots of daphnia.) But with the water sample I collected no small number of floating aquatic plants which I’m not going to bother trying to identify, and with those came along a few riders.

With their coloration and diminutive size (roughly a millimeter in length) they were hard to spot, but the plants were quite laden with aphids, dozens collected within a patch of plants perhaps 7 cm across that came into the jar with the water sample. There’s not a lot to be said about aphids, and less to photograph, really, but while I had them in front of me…

aphids aphididae on duckweed

Now, let me correct myself: I know they’re perched on duckweed here, but I choose this image for the clarity, and it does not represent the bulk of the aquatic plants I collected, which you’ll see in the next image – something vaguely fernlike.

Along with the aphids came a weevil of some kind, larger than the largest aphid at a whopping (and confirmed) 1.8mm in length – I just happened to like its appearance. The spherical droplet seen here was actually produced by the weevil, though how and why I cannot say, seeing that it was only visible in the viewfinder because it produced a curious reflection of the light.

unknown weevil Curculionidae with aphid aphididae

Judging from the variety of images that I obtained, the weevil was milking the aphids for their ‘nectar’ the same way that ants do, but I cannot be absolutely sure of that – all I know is that nearly every image has an aphid very close by or actually under the feet of the weevil. I tried identifying this one, but there are a million varieties and the only identifiers I can use – “orange,” “rust,” “tiny” – haven’t turned up anything. Think hard about this if you want to go into arthropod photography: cataloging the little bastards can be seriously time-consuming.

The slow season for insects is almost nigh, which means you won’t see many posts like this for a while (you’re greatly saddened by that, I can tell.) This does mean I’ll be switching to more landscape, abstract, and fartsy stuff, and in fact, there’s another post largely of that nature in the works…

In it for the thrill

Every once in a while, I start thinking about this topic again, and so I finally sat down to do some research and post about it – be warned, this is a long one. And so far, it seems that less research has been done on the topic than I suspected.

I’m talking about thrill rides, such as roller coasters and amusement park fare. Some people love them, some people hate them – count me among the former, and at nearly fifty years old, this hasn’t paled. Curiously, when I was younger, I didn’t like them much at all; my older brother was quite disgusted with the screaming fit I pitched on one ride at the New York State Fair, sometime in the late 70s (I would have been in my adolescence, about 13 or 14 I believe.) I suspect I would still be quite antsy on the same ride now, but this is largely because I have little trust of machinery that is routinely disassembled for transportation, run and maintained by a staff that has never seemed all that dedicated to their jobs. The ride, a kind of ferris-wheel structure where you sit in a car facing the direction of travel, which at times means straight down at the ground, is considerably less extreme than Millennium Force at Cedar Park in Ohio, but I trust that one far more.

But let’s get back to the question: why do some people love these things, and others despise them? Why are some people motivated to parachute from airplanes or bungee jump, while others get significantly stressed by a busy day on the interstate? What’s actually at work here?

I’m going to start with my guesses, of which there are several (with full recognition that any combination could be factors.) Danger and fear, as we well know, produce some distinct physiological responses from the body – increased cardio-pulmonary rates, adrenaline production, muscle tension, and so on, the point of these being to provide resources for us to cope with danger, such as running faster or whopping an alligator across the snout. Coupled with these is the subsequent release from tension, the eradication of danger, and to the best of my knowledge, this is intertwined with other physiological responses to counteract the adrenaline and such; the sudden release is like a temporary drug ‘high,’ a pleasant and rewarding effect. In ages long past, this might have been tied tightly to the process of the hunt, providing an edge in performance while facing off against the gazelle or saber-toothed mole, but also provoking a nice reward after a successful outcome. If you think about it, facing certain danger is hardly a survival strategy, and likely very hard to dismiss simply with the prospect of eating at the end; there may well be further motivations built into our bodies to help us face the hazards. Consider the machismo challenges our species engages in constantly, often as silly as who can eat the most or hottest peppers. Yet even without this, there still might be a pleasant-enough feeling in the release from tension, somewhat akin to stretching or even scratching; in and of themselves, they actually produce varying levels of discomfort or pain, but afterwards, we feel much better.

I’m going to continue with the evolutionary psychology, evolved-behavior bit. A long time ago we were tree-dwellers, and this required a certain amount of jumping around, and imminent danger of falling. Fear of falling is a common-enough thing, for obvious reasons, but a jump is at least half of a fall; for the latter portion, we are weightless, soon to be followed by a sudden increase in G-forces as we land – the longer the fall, the stronger the force of our landing. It’s safe to say our inner ears can detect these states readily, as well as differentiating control versus lack thereof – whether we intentionally jumped, or are falling unexpectedly. We all wake up suddenly at times with the feeling we’re falling out of bed, a ridiculously trivial thing compared to jumping across a ditch or even over a hurdle; we can cope with falling easily, as long as we know it’s supposed to happen. Most especially, falling backwards is a serious no-no according to our mental structure, able to provoke a distinct panic-response even with such trivial distances as falling backwards in our chair; contrast this feeling against that of stumbling forward while walking or running. The various motivational exercises that employ the “trust fall” are only exploiting the same panic-and-release trait that thrill rides do.

[A small side story: many years ago when insurance rates hadn't eradicated such attractions, I was at a lake park that featured a huge rope swing, where you could do your Tarzan thing out over the water, lots of fun. I watched one kid swing out and pitch backwards off the rope in a half-backflip to dive into the water, and figured I had to try this - I was managing varieties of dives and higher drops without any qualms, so piece of cake, right? However, as I swung out and that crucial instant came to release and arch over backwards, I had this wicked fight to overcome my body's intense desire to avoid the maneuver. The result of which was the most graceless 'dismount' and entry into the water that you can imagine, and a bit painful too, as I struck full on my side in a quarter-rotated belly flop. I was, of course, greeted upon surfacing by my brother-in-law's demand, "What the hell was that supposed to be?" but he failed to meet the challenge himself immediately afterward, so I had a modicum of gratification from that.]

We cannot forget the other G-forces we feel, side-to-side for instance, or spinning. These are the kind that provoke the worst responses from people, often in the form of motion sickness. Motion sickness is usually attributed to the disagreement between the eyes and the inner ears regarding what is actually happening; thus, sitting in a car or an enclosed boat, seeing the relative lack of motion of the immediate surroundings, doesn’t tie in with the rocking or shifting that the body feels (which is why you should never sit in the backseat, much less the back of a bus or RV, and never lose sight of the horizon if you’re prone to this.) For us to produce these kind of forces without external help requires significant activity: dodging and rolling, even banging into things. Does this, again, relate to the activities of the hunt?

And then there’s control, or lack thereof. We can handle a lot of violent forces as long as we’re doing it to ourselves, and at least reasonably aware of how strong they will be and when they might stop. This alone might spell the most noticeable difference between those who like thrill rides and those who don’t: the variable beliefs of how brief the feelings will be, and the perceived likelihood of bodily harm. It’s safe to say that even the most stalwart thrill-seeker, finding themselves in a crashing airplane, will not be screaming, “Yeeeaaahhhh!” on the way down, enjoying the feelings of weightlessness and fear. There is a very strong, important psychological aspect to it all.

By the way, ride designers are very much aware of the psychological aspect. Nearly every ride has a period of waiting to build tension, often that long slow climb of a roller coaster, and the cars themselves are continually minimized to emphasize how open and unprotected the rider is. Tracks are designed to provoke the impression of near-collisions, and usually have no more than a few seconds between intense portions to keep piling the thrills on, even while lasting about a minute overall to help forestall severe physical reactions among those less than delighted in the ride. The more elaborate, hidden and often unrecognized efforts of engineering exist in the bare fact that nearly all such rides run on the initial drop, gravity and momentum driving the riders through all of the following twists and loops, and the rides must do this for a variety of operating weights. There are also medical parameters to maintain, preventing sustained G-forces and cardio stresses. Not to mention surfaces that clean easily.

(Actually, from a long association with amusement parks, I can tell you that getting physically sick is very rare – I’ve seen vomit being cleaned once, in about 25 years, and that was from a relatively tame, but spinning, ride. I suspect many of the rides are designed to minimize these results as well.)

Now of course, I can’t talk about all this without doing at least something to give a better idea of what’s taking place. On-ride videos are extremely poor substitutes for actually being on the ride, feeling the forces and the wind whipping by, but they’re the best I can do, at least until HTML standards get upgraded. This is ‘Alpengeist,’ at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, what I consider (in my limited experience) to be the best of the ‘dynamic’ roller coasters. It is a suspended coaster, meaning the track is overhead and your feet dangle – in essence, there is no ‘car,’ only a seat, specifically to enhance the feeling of being exposed. Of special note, a very good touch in my opinion, is how the first drop is engineered to make it nearly impossible to see what’s about to happen. It is also built atop a hill and the first drop descends into a valley, making it even longer than the initial climb that the riders endured at the start of the ride. Pay attention (for a particular reason) to the wind noise coming through the microphone.

Now, in my opinion, Alpengeist is fun, pushing in a lot of different directions – a dogfight-style encounter, always turning. The next example is a little different. This is ‘Millennium Force,’ at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Cedar Point tries to break a few world records every time they produce a new ride, and Millennium Force nailed six when it debuted 14 years ago: tallest, fastest, biggest drop, steepest non-inverted turns… yeah, that last one seems kinda picky, doesn’t it? Basically, it means it turns over sideways the farthest (122°) of any coaster that does not actually roll the track completely over in a corkscrew – okay, whatever. But I can tell you from experience, the 80° first drop topping 145 kph (90 mph) is pretty damn intense, and in fact, that’s how I categorize the entire ride. While you sit in more-or-less classic ‘cars,’ the sides are very low, something that is eminently clear as you ride up the first hill, since there is nothing to either side – well, not exactly. There is nothing to the left as you climb 95 meters (310 feet) off the ground at a 45° angle, but a maintenance access track sits to the right. As you crest the hill, there is a distinctive impression that you do not simply turn and go straight down, but you actually over-rotate – we never encounter full-vertical experiences in anything we do, and when you think you’ve gone over the crest far enough you’re actually wrong, and keep going, even though it still remains 10° from vertical. Immediately after this sensation, of course, you hit top speed.

You noticed the difference in wind noise, I assume? While it does not seem quite as loud to your ears while on the ride, it is still significant. And there’s something I have to add. You see the bay? This means you shouldn’t ride this one at dusk, unless you really like bugs – lots and lots of bugs, encountered at 145 kph. Dan and I (front seat of course) were covered – all of them smashed too much to serve as photo subjects, of course…

As indicated above, I find the effect of these two rides entirely different. Millennium Force, even though it lacks loops, rolls, or inversions, runs at the proverbial breakneck speed, and the two latter hills are approached at a velocity that seems too high for them; it’s easy to believe the coaster will leave the track at the crest, and indeed, the rider makes the involuntary attempt, generating something called ‘air time’ among enthusiasts, a brief period of negative G-forces. Things happen almost too fast to absorb, challenging the rider to react fast enough. Alpengeist is like flying, but Millennium Force is hurtling.

But how does the theory of mine explained above fit into all of this, and how do other sources explain it? I suspected that a lot of the effect is related to ancient hunting behavior, traits developed to help our ancestors handle the hazards and demands of bringing down big game with hand weapons. Other aspects of our behavior have likely originated there, such as the larger physical size, higher aggression, and sheer competitiveness of the males of our species (the latter also has connections to sexual selection.) But this should mean that females have a markedly lesser response or desire to ride coasters, or visit haunted houses in this season, or watch horror movies, and none of these are true; if there is an inbalance among genders in any of these, it is trivial, not half as distinctive as the inbalance seen among fans of aggressive sports.

However, as reminded by one article that I found while attempting to research this, hunting was far from the only hazard facing our ancestors. Raids from large predators and, more recently in our history, antagonistic neighboring tribes, were something that both genders had to deal with, and even the classic ‘fight or flight’ decision would require much the same response for both options in the form of heightened reflexes, adrenaline, cardio-pulmonary rate, and so on.

In How the Mind Works, Pinker speaks of ‘benign masochism,’ the habit of seeing just how far someone can take things, as a potential method of proving one’s capability of handling hazards, and thus their dominance over the hazard. But while he speaks of measured, almost guaranteed safe experiences like roller coasters, he also speaks of test pilots and adrenaline junkies who “push the envelope” – it’s hard to compare these two aspects, as real danger is often involved in the latter examples. Test pilots, for example, often have a military background (which stresses the value of service to a country, even unto death,) and are usually deeply involved in the competitive, species fitness angle; there are only a few people in the world who can be called upon to do what they do. And the adrenaline junkie might be more closely related to the theories put forth in this article, and this one, where there is an atypical inbalance of normal brain chemicals unless provoked by extreme situations, whereupon the senses are heightened – a natural ‘high’ that most others might experience through food or music, though perhaps not as strongly. However, the articles seem to indicate that this hypothesis has not yet been tested.

So are thrill-riders and adrenaline junkies the same thing, to different degrees, or two separate causes? It’s hard to say without decent tests and better info. There are two factors that might have a lot of bearing. One is the idea, as mentioned, that the sensation of fear is fleeting, only momentary – this certainly comes into play with rides and haunted houses, as well as horror movies. Sustained fear doesn’t seem as likely to generate the same exhilaration in people.

startled cat animated gifThe other, as mentioned earlier, is the idea that the danger doesn’t really exist – there is a startle response, but not necessarily a fear one, just like jumping out at someone; this seems likely to involve two different portions of the brain, one that generates an immediate response, the other that says, “All right, just chill, you dope.” While you can certainly disguise yourself and hide in your friend’s house to chase them around with a fake knife for a minute or two, it seems highly unlikely that they’re going to laugh and enjoy the experience when you reveal it all to be a prank – there’s definitely a ‘too far’ element. Plus you’re going to get the shit kicked out of you. People who experience sustained fear may suffer the shakes afterward, or nausea, or even pass out; there seems to be no ‘release,’ no ‘high,’ and even the sense of relief is inadequate. It almost certainly has to be brief. This would seem to separate it from things like skydiving, and climbing very tall structures, so perhaps thrill riders and adrenaline junkies are two separate classes of behavior.

But then we come back to the other aspect demonstrated by the difference in the above-videoed rides. It’s not just a matter of fear; the departure from normal orientation and spatial references also has an effect, what I called “dynamic” when referring to Alpengeist. Twisting, corkscrewing, going inverted – these aren’t necessarily fear-inducing, but certainly impart sensations upon our bodies that we rarely ever feel. Perhaps my most memorable experience was receiving an aerobatics demonstration in an open-cockpit biplane, high over Jockey’s Ridge State Park at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We did both positive and negative g’s, spins and stalls, loops and rollovers, and while some people might have found the maneuvers at least a little scary, I found them exhilarating. The pilot started off slow and basic, instructing me to, for instance, look out at the left wingtip, which was the most boring view since it was ‘fixed’ at a point on the ground, and I tended to keep craning my head around despite orders. Between each maneuver, he asked me how I was feeling, and I finally determined he was trying to ensure that I was coping well – the instructions to watch in certain directions were to minimize disorienting perspectives. I quickly told him, via the helmet intercom, that I was a coaster enthusiast and that it was unlikely he could shake me loose, but I’d let him know if he started coming close. Thus reassured, he stopped pussyfooting around and kicked it in, and we had a grand time (hammerhead stalls are very cool.) Fear wasn’t an issue, so I have to assume that stirring up our spatial orientation also has some effect, though how this works I can only broadly speculate. It’s possible, I suppose, that just the departure from ‘level and steady’ is enough to produce a similar surge from the system, the preparation for landing or whatever that such a sensation might warrant, since it could typically only be achieved by tumbling through space.

Could this, again, be hidden someplace in our evolutionary past? It’s very hard to say. Such acrobatics might occur during either hunts or conflict, but not terribly often one would think. Swimming in a rough-water environment could mimic the sensations too, but this seems even less likely, since most of our recent history involved distinctly un-aquatic locales – our ancestors tended to stick to grasslands and forests, not noticeably following rivers or coastlines. If we go further back to the tree-dwelling stage, the idea of acrobatics becomes more likely, and if we can take our cue from species that currently inhabit such environments, our behavior might have been most closely related to the current practice of free-running or parkour. That’s a long time ago, however, and assuming that we still have instincts from back then is not entirely supportable. Plus, why would we have some kind of strong physiological response to that, and not to long-distance running, of which there is far more supporting evidence that we engaged in, and which is more directly related to hunting and thus survival?

Perhaps, as some theories have it, the disorientation produces a heightened sensory response, the attempt to quickly evaluate our position and vector to land safely – I don’t want to liken us to cats, which surely have a remarkable system in place to land on their feet, but something similar might activate in us to assist us in falls and tumbles. Again, it doesn’t seem to be linked to a fear response, or at least not for everybody.

An interesting sidenote to this is how utterly dependent it is on our visual system. As decades of research has shown, we’re only aware of initial g-forces, and once they subside we have a very hard time even telling orientation, much less continued motion. In the earlier days of flight, when night pilots were crashing far more often than anyone believed they should, experiments showed that we do not have the ability to tell, for instance, when we’re still spinning. Blindfold a volunteer and sit them in a chair, then set the chair spinning, and they detect the initial change in movement and compensate accordingly – but keep it moving at a steady rate, and they cannot differentiate the movement from stillness, to the point where stopping the motion is usually interpreted as a spin in the opposite direction. This quickly led to the development of flight instruments like the attitude indicator (what many know as the artificial horizon) and slip indicator; pilots are instructed to trust the instruments and not their instincts, since instincts are misleading and often fatal in such situations. Divers in dark environments know to observe the bubbles from their expelled breath to find the direction to the surface; we just don’t have the ability to ‘feel’ it dependably.

A shot of me (at top) from the mid-nineties, on the now-defunct Drachenfire at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, VA

A shot of me (at top) from the mid-nineties, on the now-defunct Drachenfire at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, VA

So where does all this lead? It should seem clear that I have no answer for that, and to the best of my web-fu skills, neither does anyone else. The response is so strong that it doesn’t seem like finding the answer should be hard, but then again, MRI machines are notoriously difficult to slip past the ride attendants, so perhaps research is harder than first imagined. I will, however, continue to do my part whenever I can. For science.

*     *

Various articles I found while doing research for this post:

Thrills & Chills

Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?

The Thrill Engineers

Why Do People Crave the Experience?

Thrill-Seekers Thrive on the Scary

Natural filters

Backlit forboding clouds
I was aware of the impending partial solar eclipse, and even dug out some materials that might potentially assist in getting images, but failed miserably, on two fronts. The first was, what I had to help cut the glaring light from the sun down a manageable level for photos would only work if the light was already reduced, for instance by thin clouds or late in the day with a heavy dose of atmospheric haze, neither of which came to pass in my area. The second was, I apparently misinterpreted the time that it would appear here, and every time I checked I saw a complete sun. I gotta pick better sources of info…

Jim over at the Kansas branch, however, got conditions much like I had for the transit of Venus a few years ago (another here,) and was able to snag a few images due to the thin clouds that filtered the light a bit. While a proper solar filter is able to produce a more detailed image, there’s something to be said about the mood and tempestuous nature of using the clouds in this manner.

2014 partial solar eclipse from Kansas
The reason these appear more like a lunar eclipse is that the sun, even through the clouds, is magnitudes brighter than the surrounding sky, able to overexpose itself by a ridiculous margin to become a featureless giant blob, should the sky be realistically rendered. So, despite these being taken in late afternoon, the exposure had to be reduced to near-darkness to keep the features of the solar disc.

2014 partial solar eclipse from Kansas
And even then, the light can easily swamp all of those fancy things camera manufacturers do to control unwanted optical effects in the image, and thus at times, glare and internal reflections can still come through. What I’m most curious about is the ‘keyhole’ nature of the glare around the points (what astronomers call “limbs”) of the sun. I would have thought that the glare would be pretty evenly distributed, so I can’t explain why there are distinct anti-crepuscular rays, like reverse spotlights, coming off of those points.

But Jim has a favorite, and I can’t fault his taste because it’s mine too:
2014 partial solar eclipse from Kansas showing sunspots
Yes, those are sunspots appearing towards the center of the sun, since there is some prominent activity* going on right now, and Jim managed to capture it during a cooperative pass of thicker clouds. The same activity is producing nice aurora borealis (and australis) shows at the higher latitudes, something I’m dying to capture someday but also quite reluctant about as well, since I don’t like bitter cold and that’s pretty much what you have to endure to see the best auroral displays. I saw some very restrained effects in central New York a couple of times, but nothing at all impressive; the colorful stuff happens much closer to the arctic and antarctic circles.

I need to point out something else, too. Go back up to the previous image with the glare and internal reflection, and look closely at that reflection – the sunspot is visible there as well, even though it’s blown out overexposed in the sun itself.

Be sure to check out Jim’s pics of the previous eclipse, too. And the lunar eclipse from earlier this year, with a follow-up sequence.

* You see what I did there? Sunspots are regions of intense magnetic activity that frequently result in solar prominences, those big arcs of fire seen in images from NASA, so “prominent activity” has a double meaning. I know you’re impressed even though you’ll never admit it…

Like custard

Purple flowers don't ask meI have a rather large, mostly speculative post coming soon, one that’s been in the works for a while now and has been something of a bear to finish, for a variety of reasons. But since I’m not going to finish it tonight either, I decided to span the gap with a handful of recent pics. Thus, this is filler, but quality filler, as the title implies. Or at least I think so. Hey, I could be doing some list of the ten most overused internet memes or something, so be grateful.

[I want to be grateless to someone, someday. Hell, I just want to see how one quantifies 'grate.']

Once again, there isn’t a lot of exposition that can go along with many of these images, like this one, and I’m not the kind of arteest that resorts to a lot of existential, grandiloquent prose (except right there) to try and make my photos seem deeper than they are. It’s a visual medium, and if the image doesn’t hit you right away in some manner, then no attempt at rescue with linguistic appeals is called for. So, these are some species of flower that I can’t be bothered to look up, still bearing the morning dew, momentarily, because they just emerged from the shade. You’re going to see a lot of flowers, since most of these came from a trip to the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, I tend to forget to search out the identification plates when they exist, and I know better too.

All right, all right, they’re some variety of aster, I think. Another variety is coming up shortly.

cloudless sulphur butterfly Phoebis sennae on cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalisI’m a little more sure about the identity of both the butterfly and the plant in this image: cloudless sulphur buttefly (Phoebis sennae) on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis.) While I have images that show the appearance of the butterfly much better, I liked this one for the angle and the visible feeding behavior.

I really try to avoid shooting subjects this colorful when the light is bright, because contrast gets hard to manage and subtleties are often lost, but when I have a student, they schedule the day and locale most times, and I just point out how to use the light to best advantage. Thus, this one has actually had the contrast lowered a little for web display, but I would have much preferred a hazy or semi-overcast day for colors of this nature.

high contrast backlit leaf grayscale in red channelSo what can you do with high contrast lighting? Well for one, you can produce some nice effects with backlighting, further enhanced with a minor editing trick. While the original version of this shot was in color, and a lovely brilliant green at that from the sun shining through the leaf, I tried a simple Photoshop trick and deleted the green and blue color channels from the image, leaving just the red, then converted that to grayscale. Since the image had been predominantly green, the red channel provided the greatest contrast range, making the details stand out even further. The same probably could have been done with converting the entire RGB image to grayscale and then tweaking contrast, at least for this image, but sometimes the selective channel thing produces effects which would be hard to duplicate in other manners. Definitely something to try out if you like monochrome images.

I want to point out that the sun produced a lot of the effect too, coming at a semi-oblique angle that threw some starker shadows from relatively gentle curves of the leaf. This is one way that autumn and spring can provide opportunities not always available in the summer, because the sun rides closer to the horizon and comes in more from the side rather than overhead.

hoverfly on asterAnother variety of aster, or perhaps the same one but having bloomed a little later so the centers are still vibrant yellow. Nothing much to say about this – just took advantage of the visiting hoverfly to provide a different point of focus. Had the hoverfly been on the lower blossom and thus in less-direct light, the effect would have been different, likely not as strong – something to consider while chasing pollinators on flowers. Pick a good position with the sun giving the best angle of light, and watch for the subjects that leap out at you because of the way the light plays across them.

Bog Garden artificial waterfallWe leave the botanical garden for a moment (or a single image – however you want to measure the time) to visit a place called the Bog Garden in Greensboro, which I checked out Tuesday while in the city. Interesting place, but we got there at a difficult time, too late after sunrise to have any soft, orange light to work with, but still too soon to prevent it from coming straight into the lens in too many situations, so my opportunities were greatly limited. This is a small man-made torrent within the park, recirculated from the nearby lake by pump, but otherwise pretty natural in appearance (though a geologist could probably spot the anachronisms easily, since I could see a few.) Deep in the forest canopy and having come without a tripod, I was pushing the limits by shooting handheld, and most frames show the effect of motion-blur from the camera shifting ever-so-slightly during the longish exposures, but this one didn’t come out too bad. On other compositions, I got down on the ground alongside the stream and braced the camera on the rocks and my stacked fingers to make a serviceable support, not to mention a more interesting low-angle viewpoint. I think it’s easy to imagine that, had I been shooting from a standing position looking down on this small torrent, it would have had a much less dramatic appearance.

leaf-footed bug and bumblebee on some orange flowerOkay, I tried finding out what flower this is, and had no luck whatsoever. The foreground insect is an Eastern leaf-footed bug (Leptoglossus phyllopus,) but there are too few details visible on the bumblebee to pin it down any further than that. The leaf-footed bug demonstrates why light angle and contrast can make such a difference, because it’s on the fine edge of throwing its own back completely into shadow – meanwhile, some of the flower petals came out with wonderful shaping (bottom center) while others almost lost all detail from the light (right.) So, now that I got you to look carefully at the image, did you notice the fence in the background? Because I always do, and fret about it, but I’m curious to know who else actually catches these, or whether I should stop worrying so much about them.

basking green frog Rana clamitans and tadpole
As the student and I approached this small pond, I vouchsafed that the conditions were right, and other visitors far enough away, that a cautious approach might allow us to spot a resident frog. True enough – we won’t talk about how much luck was actually involved – a green frog (Rana clamitans) was spotted basking in plain sight. As we leaned in for the detail shots, however, we spotted the tadpole posing alongside in a remarkably cooperative manner. I only regret that there was no other angle to work from, the little garden pond liner being blocked on all sides but one, so no other compositions could be managed. I’d much rather do a portrait shot than a top-down view.

Now, bright light usually helps with shooting aquatic and underwater subjects, because it penetrates well – hazy or cloudy skies reduce a lot of the light that can get beneath the surface, but much worse, the broad expanse of sky producing the same light level throughout only serves to reflect from the surface, making it near-impossible to see through it. But even with the nice penetration of clear days, reflections and contrast still play their own roles, especially when the pond denizen is sitting half out of the water like this one, and I reduced contrast on this image too, as well as darkening the exposure slightly, to make the frog a bit more natural-looking.

some purple flower and skipperOne last shot of purple, just to give your monitor a workout. I have no idea what this flower is either, though it’s very pleasant-looking, but the butterfly is some variety of skipper (Hesperiidae,) possibly a clouded skipper (Lerema accius.) It was intent on getting the most out of that blossom, so I was able to shoot a series of images while steadily leaning in closer.

This is, in fact, something that I have to tell my students fairly frequently. The best pics, naturally, are going to come from getting in as close as possible, but this should actually be done in stages, and quite slowly at that. Start farther out and fire off a frame or two where you stand, then start going in closer. At some point, you’re very likely to spook the subject away, and if you haven’t gotten any frames by that point, you’ve lost the opportunity. Also bear in mind that many species respond to more overt visual cues than subtle ones – not surprising I suppose, but it does require a moment to consider what this means. Raising the camera and/or closing in are overt, and doing both together far more likely to provoke a flee reflex. Raise the camera slowly to your eye while farther away, and then you’re making no other motions as you close in except growing in size, which is less likely to spark a response. And don’t check your LCD to see if you got the shot – that’s another unsubtle move.

Now, while doing this, it’s good to already know just where to put your feet, and awareness of your surroundings is a good habit to develop. Is your footing secure, are you going to brush against any other branches which might move, can you work to the side for another angle while in close? And even, and this is a big one, are you going to throw your own shadow across the subject as you close in? This happens very frequently, and requires a bit of experience to know how to position yourself automatically so you won’t do this. But little things like this can greatly improve your chances of getting the shot you want.

The shadows in that image are still a little harsh, especially when the light is failing to reach the interiors of the blossoms. A better light angle would have been ideal, and even hazy skies can scatter some light from other directions and soften the difference between highlights and shadows. I also could have used a reflector to throw some light into the shadowed side, or fired off some fill-flash to illuminate from the camera’s viewpoint – the reflector would likely have scared off the butterfly, but the flash probably wouldn’t have, despite common beliefs. And the more I talk about this, the more annoyed I am that I didn’t make the image better. I think I better stop here…

Too cool, part 26: You’re getting warmer

On the Astronomy Picture of the Day site for October 16, we get to see a stunning image (cropped version above) that’s unique in many ways. The Rosetta spacecraft is a probe designed and launched by the European Space Agency (esa) to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and presently riding just 16 km (10 mi) away from said comet. It has another craft attached, called Philae, which will separate on November 12th to actually land on the surface of the comet. But while still attached, the cameras on Philae were used to get this image of the comet and the solar panels of the Rosetta craft in an excellent composition. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a curiously dumbell-shaped body, and is now close enough to the sun that it is starting to generate the jets of vapor that produce the coma and tail, the glowing (actually reflective) haze that we typically imagine comets to have – in truth, they only have this when close enough to the sun for the ice to sublimate into vapor. But seriously, don’t just look at my cropped version up there – go to the source page and click on the image for the much larger version.

A month ago, Rosetta sent back an even more dramatic photo, a wonderfully detailed look at the surface of the comet – click on that one, too, because it’s a wonderfully stark and forbidding image. For years, comets were believed to be “dirty snowballs,” made of mostly ice but with a generous helping of dust, grit, and rocks thrown in. Primarily this was because we could only get a halfway-decent look at them as they got very close, but this meant they were also close to the sun and thus active, spewing out an obscuring haze of vapor. Most meteor showers, however, come from the Earth passing through the orbit of comets and encountering their trail of expelled dust, the solid stuff they left behind on their long elliptical orbits of the sun. Vapor wouldn’t be able to produce meteors, so there had to be at least some solid material, but the extent of the coma and tail led us to believe that there was extensive ice. Recent probes (notably Giotto, Stardust, and Deep Impact) revised this concept, and this image from Rosetta helps confirm it: comets, or at least the ones we’ve managed close examinations of, are far more solid matter than originally theorized.

Will we be able to go out some night and spot comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the sky? Nope – not without a pretty decent telescope, since it estimated to, at best, only get to around magnitude 11. The limit of our vision in good viewing conditions is magnitude 6 or 7 (the smaller the number, the brighter the object – Sirius, the brightest star, achieves magnitude -1.46.) But that’s okay, because the Rosetta/Philae mission will provide plenty of detailed images – esa’s website on the mission is brimming with info already. And there are always a few comets that become faintly visible each year, though they often take some effort. Heavens-Above.com is a great resource for finding items of interest in the night sky, customized to your own location, and Stellarium is an excellent freeware program as well.

I will likely bring some updates in November as Philae drops down to the comet and tries not to bounce off (this is actually a serious consideration, since the comet measures only 4.5 km, or 2.8 mi, in length and thus has such feeble gravity that the lander will effectively weigh a few grams – it is equipped with augers in the feet to drill into the surface and hang on, and they’re designed so that they don’t push the lander away in the attempt.) Keep watching (this) space…

Never gets old

These are just some reflections on the curious concept of the paranormal hoax, partially spurred by the comments on this post at Bad UFOs, as well as an earlier post of mine about hoaxes and lying. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores, motivations of hoaxers and how often (or not) hoaxes appear; that’s a subject that’s far more complicated than it might seem, and being able to apply a simple label of ‘hoax’ does not in any way imply that everyone committing one falls within the same mindset, has the same motivations, gets the same satisfaction, and so on. I’ve met people who simply enjoy yanking people’s chains for a short while (I occasionally engage in this myself,) and pathological liars whose motivations are unclear, but likely quite deep-seated – to think these and many other attitudes can be considered comparable is ridiculously naïve.

Instead, this is a consideration of critical thinking, and the actions of the skeptic or ‘debunker’ when examining a hoax. While the ironclad determination that some incident is a true hoax is difficult to accomplish without an actual confession – we can only determine probability, even though in many cases the probability is ridiculously high (*cough* Billy Meier *cough*) – for now we’ll just consider the situations where the incident is actually a hoax, just not revealed. In other words, a fabricated event that remains a secret, known only to the originator.

A commenter on that Bad UFOs link questioned whether anyone would create a hoax that remains unrevealed for 64 years and counting, an Argument from Incredulity and apparently unaware of such incidents as the Cottingley Fairies and the Piltdown Man, to name two off the top of my head. The idea the commenter posits is that the joke is in the reveal, the ability to say, “Gotcha!” – but can we really consider this the sole, or even the prime, motivation?

I think we can all agree, a hoax relies on having a number of people fall for a premise, and the measure of its success is certainly how many people, and for how long. Assuming just for the sake of argument that it’s all building towards a reveal, at what point would the perpetrator decide that it was time? Most likely, when no further positive results seemed to be attainable, which begs the question of when anyone might conclude this to be – how little attention does a hoax have to receive before it’s considered ‘dead?’ Since this is entirely up to one person, the originator of the hoax, then this is going to be wildly subjective. However, if we were to consider that the delight lies completely in how successful it is, then the reveal only prevents further positive results, ending that game. Not to mention, it would probably make any future hoax endeavors difficult or impossible, since the perpetrator reveals him or herself along with the hoax.

Let’s consider the situation referred to in that post, a pair of photos taken by Paul Trent in 1950 purportedly showing a UFO over his farm. It has been posited, for actually most of their history, that the object seen in the images is really quite small, very close, and suspended from the visible electrical wires. If this were true, it would mean that, with about ten minutes or so of preparation, a bit of junk and string, and two frames of film, Trent created one of the longest-lasting and most referenced bits of UFO lore in existence – not a bad return on the investment. Well, no, that’s understating it just a tad – the success continues to this day, featured in an untold number of books, TV specials, websites, and discussions.

And Trent didn’t just snag the believers, but the skeptics as well. No small amount of effort has been expended in evaluating the images, doing enhancements, performing meticulous calculations, and on and on – both in the efforts to establish the images as ‘genuine’ and to establish them as not. Overall, these efforts have likely had little effect – believers are unconvinced by the points made by the skeptics, and the skeptics are unconvinced that a pair of grainy photographs can possibly be considered evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation. In fact, there’s extremely little that they could tell, even if we could definitively establish the images as genuine or hoax. Regardless, the hoaxer’s delight may not be so much from whether anyone believes the images show extra-terrestrial craft, but simply in who wastes their time even bothering with them in the first place. That would mean that the only people who aren’t part of the hoax’s success are the ones who couldn’t care less – and that the point where the positive results have petered out and any reveal seems best-timed has not yet been reached (and won’t, since Trent died in 1998.)

This does, of course, throw a certain consideration into the efforts of skeptics and debunkers, because any participation in the discussions (much less the extensive efforts to scientifically evaluate the photographs, or anything else given as evidence,) means that they’ve been snagged just as badly as any believer – perhaps even worse, if all their efforts cannot reveal a simple piece of junk dangling from a wire. What a joke science is! The commenter on the referenced post even tumbled to this idea, though curiously not mentioning that the believers were also snagged, and apparently unaware that this speculation completely trashed his/her original argument.

So should skeptics be self-conscious of being taken in by a hoax when even considering such cases in the first place? That’s really a personal thing, but overall, I’d have to say no; there are plenty of other reasons to evaluate any and all such claims, and useful information and perspectives to impart while doing so. The idea of a hoaxer ‘winning’ in a battle of wits is a petty and personal emotion, not having any effect outside of our minds, yet the methods of critical thought and examining what, for instance, any photo could really tell us – these remain useful and worth sharing. Not to mention that there may be a lot of personal satisfaction derived from the process, just like completing puzzles or figuring out murder mysteries; anyone’s choice of entertainment is their own.

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be more active in the discussions of UFOs and paranormal claims, but I never got too deeply involved for a number of reasons. Partially it was because virtually no case examined, even if somehow proven authentic in some way, could possibly tell us much of anything; without rigorous controls and quantifiable results, there are no scientific benefits to be had. Partially it was, indeed, the idea of wasting a lot of time on a near-effortless hoax. And partially, it was because very few involved in such topics can be bothered to hear anything that counters their beliefs, even while repeatedly calling for “open-mindedness,” if you enjoy the irony.

But mostly, I found that the common denominator in all such topics, and many more besides, was the lack of critical thinking – of being able to compare situations, of applying perspective, of following a line of reasoning or seeing logical conclusions. I constantly saw, and see, people starting with a preferred premise and then finding only the supporting factors for it while ignoring all others; who insist on rigorous scientific evidence behind any disproof, but accept casual anecdotes as proof. Who argue that it cannot be a hoax if it remains unrevealed. This experience is, in part, why I started blogging, and why you don’t see posts dealing only with nature photography. It may or may not be working at all, but that’s my choice of entertainment.

Don’t let ‘em get you up

I toyed with posting this too late, like last year, just to get everyone into the spirit of things, but I figured the effect would be much better if people were forewarned and prepared to take full advantage of it. So be it known, tomorrow is National Grouch Day. That’s right, all those little shits who keep telling you to cheer up, stop considering the glass half-empty, turn that smile upside down, and all that, have to go fuck off. All day. Oh my dog, it’s going to be great!

Or, not. Probably not. Actually, we all know it’s gonna suck – why am I even bothering? I mean, who the hell scheduled this for October, anyway? Third week in January, that’s when it should occur. A Monday. It probably won’t even rain tomorrow. But we’re stuck with it this kind of inept planning, like always, so there’s nothing we can do but bitch about it.

And it’s not like it’s gonna do any good, or that anyone’s even reading anyhow, so this is just wasted effort, but here’s a list of things you can do to make the most out of the day, especially by ignoring them:

  • Hammer carelessly;
  • Let the air our of your spare tire, and those of everyone else you can get to as well;
  • Loosen the top of your own salt shaker;
  • Make sure your hands are wet when you shake out a pain reliever too vigorously;
  • Get paint on the bottom of your shoe, so the drop cloth sticks to your feet;
  • Forget to charge batteries;
  • Drink straight from the jug/carton in full view of everybody;
  • Eat spicy burritos tonight, especially if a long meeting is scheduled for tomorrow – bonus points for riding the elevator a lot;
  • Don’t replace toilet paper (see above);
  • Shave/groom in the dark;
  • Glue a stone into your shoe (and, like the spare tire, the shoe of anyone else that you can get your hands on);
  • Use a torn bag for the kitty litter, or when you walk the dog;
  • Soap everyone’s favorite coffee mugs – also, substitute decaf;
  • Keep screwing with the thermostat;
  • Hesitate at green lights;
  • Release the door you were holding for someone just before they reach it; if it’s a woman and she comments or glares, say, “Oh, you looked like a feminist,” in explanation.
  • National Grouch Day sucksThat should get you and everyone else started on making the most out of the day, and if they don’t work, you know what to do about it.

    But seriously, this one’s for us. Grouches are supremely marginalized in our society, suitable, it seems, only for talk radio. We have this unrealistic standard constantly being set for us, that we should be upbeat and cheerful all the damn time – we can’t let optimists dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not. Our voices need to be heard; we need to stand up, tiredly, and say, “No! Let’s look at the dark side! Tomorrow is another day, and it’s going to be miserable too!”

    Or not. Whatever. Fuck off.

    Scattershots

    grey gray treefrog Hyla versicolor Hyla chrysoscelis in bluebird house
    Just a handful of recent images, incorporating both ‘found’ and ‘planned’ photos – nothing deep to be found here. Above and below, a grey treefrog (either Hyla versicolor or Hyla chrysoscelis) was found squatting in one of the bluebird boxes one midday, to my surprise in a position that provided the full view of the autumn sun, now noticeably lower in the sky even at noonish. Though this is at least the third I’ve seen on the property, in my experience treefrogs don’t pick a particular ‘home,’ but will wander around and find shelters of opportunity – they may be seen a few times over in a particular sleeping spot, but have no qualms about switching it for another. In the next couple of days following these images, this one did not return to the bluebird box.

    grey gray treefrog Hyla versicolor Hyla chrysoscelis getting out of bluebird box
    Which brings up a good place to mention the aftermath of the post about the flying squirrel. The following day, I kept spot checking the box she had chosen for her nest, from a distance, but never saw the faintest signs of activity. Eventually, late at night, I chanced a quick look inside the box, to find that she had abandoned it, taking her choice nesting material with her. I can only guess that all her peeking out during the previous afternoon was her way of determining that this was an unsafe place to raise the kids (still unsure whether they had been born yet or not.) This is often the difficulty with photographing species in the wild, even the semi-urbanized ones: your presence can be noted and considered too much of a threat, and no matter how long a lens you might be using, it can only magnify so much. Though I remained in the yard about 8-10 meters away, often partially hidden on the porch steps, she wasn’t inclined to stick around. Because of this, I wasn’t as motivated to put up the other bluebird boxes right away, and in the interim, one of them got this temporary occupant.

    I was about to do some detail images of a triceratops beetle, and gathered some oak leaves to use as a backdrop. Riding along on one was what I believe to be a variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, um, caterpillar (Lochmaeus manteo) – the common name of some species comes from their larval form, so this is the larval (caterpillar) form of a species named the variable oakleaf caterpillar moth. I can’t help but think that they could have made this slightly more logical…

    variable oakleaf caterpillar moth Lochmaeus manteo
    I hadn’t planned on using the caterpillar as a photo subject, but while it was right in front of me with the lights all set up, I figured, why not? Upon unloading the images, however, I saw a strange detail that made me go back out to try and produce in better detail.

    translucent head of variable oakleaf caterpillar moth Lochmaeus manteo
    The flash angle was just right it seems, and some portion of the internal anatomy became visible through the head of the caterpillar. Much as it might look like a brain, I have my doubts, since the brains of caterpillars – most arthropods – are exceptionally small, but then again, so is this; the entire caterpillar measured 22mm in body length, and 2.5mm across the width of the head. I have enough images from other angles to show that this really is internal, and not a trick of external shape or coloration, but none of my additional attempts brought out any better detail. The eyes, by the way, are that handful of little domes at lower left.

    So, yeah, is anyone wants to tell me what I just got images of, I’d be delighted.

    One of my other projects with the new house is putting in a pond – mostly decorative, but of course it will serve double-duty as a habitat for aquatic denizens except mosquitoes. In going out yesterday to evaluate what still needed to be done (a lot,) I discovered a largish wolf spider had gotten trapped within the plastic pond liner, unable to scale the sides. I enlisted The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog’s help with the next two images, finally getting something that I’d tried to do earlier, not quite successfully:

    wolf spider Lycosidae on hand for scale
    Wolf spiders are very common throughout most of the US, and certainly around here, but very hard to pin down an exact species since it often takes a detailed look at the underside – we’ll stick with the family Lycosidae for now. This one was very reluctant to crawl onto my hand, given any other option, so I accomplished this by giving it none. I’ve seen them at least twice this size, but this was still a respectable specimen to try and overcome my lingering arachnophobia. Credit to The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog – her arachnophobia is much more significant, and she had to get fairly close with the camera for these shots, especially the next one (although this is a tighter crop of the full frame):

    wolf spider Lycosidae facial closeup on hand
    I feel obligated to point out here that the spider was very well behaved while she sat on my hand – once coerced into climbing aboard, she remained largely motionless for the two minutes we spent getting photos, and was restrained no more than you see here. Spiders really don’t deserve the reputation that they have. So when I point out that you can see her fang resting against my finger, right there underneath the long ‘mustache’ that most spiders have, you can rest assured that this was only casual contact and nothing at all ever came of it.

    In contrast, as I type this I am scratching at a couple of large weeping sores on my feet, the aftermath of an encounter with fire ants – it would appear that the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) can be found in this area now. I wasn’t absolutely sure about this until I caught one biting me the other day and examined its corpse, but the body color and style matches. One bite from these little fuckers, from just walking in their general vicinity in sandals, has done far more damage than every spider encounter I’ve had in my life, combined – yet I’m still not myrmecophobic in any way. And since a phobia is an irrational fear or distaste, it doesn’t really apply to fire ants anyway – they have earned the acrimony.

    What would prove evolution wrong?

    First off, a comment. Those who are typically most concerned about the title question are those who are trying to discredit evolution because it trashes their belief system: creationists. Thus the people who would most benefit from this topic and the underlying information are the people who will never read it, because their worldview requires that they remain defiantly uninformed – apparently god is vulnerable to a decent argument. So I know there’s no hope of reaching any of them, but as it says in the Welcome page, part of the purpose behind this blog is to organize thoughts and get some practice in writing; if at some point, I reach someone else with something they find interesting or useful, excellent. But I’m under no illusions that this is guaranteed, or even likely.

    So on to the question: what would prove evolution wrong? And by this I mean, since ‘evolve’ doesn’t have to refer to species, how could the theory of common descent and natural selection be shown to be false? But let’s get a little misunderstanding out of the way first. ‘Theory,’ in scientific usage, does not mean anything like ‘best guess’ or ‘pet project,’ and it is not part of the progression ‘hypothesis-theory-law’ – I was taught this in school too, and it’s dead wrong. A theory will never become law, since a law is the observation of physical properties, usually able to be expressed mathematically. A theory is an explanation for the observed physical facts; the facts are an overturned houseplant and marks that look like cat footprints in the spilled soil, the theory is that the cat did it. The more facts we find that fit with the theory, the stronger the theory is, yet there will never be a law of, “the cat did it.” With natural selection, the supporting facts number into the millions now. Not to mention, the theory also predicts, telling us what is likely to be found and how we might combat illnesses and such – this is hardly weak, or an example of dogmatism in science.

    [A quick side note: dogma, which religion relies on and would probably cease to exist without, is somehow considered by religious folk to be a bad thing if it crops up in science. Yeah, this kind of hypocrisy occurs constantly.]

    Now, disproving a theory does not make any other theory fair game for consideration (much less a ‘default’ conclusion) – it has to fit the exact same facts. So there’s really two different topics wrapped together. It is perfectly possible to discredit natural selection in its entirety, but this has no effect, positive or negative, on any other theory at all – nothing gains strength through the weakness of natural selection. Moreover, natural selection would not even have to be discredited for any other theory to be considered – for some reason, people seem to have this, “There can be only one” idea, but it’s possible to have multiple theories for the same conditions, and we do, in areas such as quantum physics and cosmology. So that means the second part is establishing the strength of any other theory – same facts, better predictions, better demonstrations of accuracy and understanding.

    So to compare facts against the theory, we know that genetic traits can be manipulated and selected, because we’ve been doing it for centuries; we would not have most or our current fruits and vegetables, most of the dog and horse breeds, most decorative flowers, and hundreds of other items, without this. So change of some kind is distinctly demonstrated. Natural selection is simply the idea that the environment can also serve to make these changes, only much slower – if a critter that develops more leaf-like appearance survives longer, those gene variants will probably gain greater numbers in subsequent generations. This hardly needs to be demonstrated because it’s simple probability, but nevertheless, it has been shown to fit by the careful study of genetic lines within species, and in fact, we have this down fine enough to actually produce genetically-modified organisms (GMOs,) which takes the whole selective breeding thing at the beginning of this paragraph to a whole new, very specific, level.

    Genes also provide a supporting statistic in their mutation rate. It is the mutations and ‘drift’ (along with recombination of male and female parental genes) that allow a descendent to be different from its parents, and by knowing the rate that this occurs on average, we can actually trace back a timeline, especially to a point where two species diverged from a common ancestor. The frequent claim, by the way, that there hasn’t been enough time for the changes to have occurred is nonsense – there’s been more than enough time given the demonstrated mutation rates.

    Supporting this method of generating a timescale is the fossil record, which fits tightly into the genetic timeline. When we look at chimpanzees and gorillas, comparing their genome to our own, we find a distinct number of differences, most of them in stretches of DNA that produce little or no affect in traits – the so-called ‘junk DNA.’ These stretches, untouched by environmental pressures because they produce nothing for the environment to act upon, serve as a genetic clock to count backwards to the point where all three species had a common ancestor. The fossil record matches this very well, as our predecessors and those of the other great apes converge in traits and appearance towards one another. The fossils, by the way, are dated through multiple means, including demonstrated sedimentary deposition, radio nucleotide decay, plate tectonics, and even ice core samples; again, the more facts that converge on the theory, the stronger the theory is, so we’re pretty solid on these dates all tying together quite well. If the entire theory is wrong, then which part of it is wrong, and why does this wrong portion still fit with all of the rest? If they’re all wrong, how do we know? What’s right instead, and how has that been proven?

    The fossil record also demonstrates natural selection throughout its range, which is 3.5 billion years. Everywhere we look, every fossil found, shows the progression of traits we should expect, from the simplest forms to the more complex, from the development of limbs to the migration according to climate, from the sudden loss of hundreds of species during an extinction event to the development of new ones from the survivors following. And I have to include a small side note for perspective: we did not have fossils when the theory of natural selection was developed by Darwin and Wallace. Only a handful of finds had been made and noted, but they were all considered anomalies. The plethora of extinct species that we have now were nearly all found after the theory predicted their existence – the theory was and is, in fact, the primary motivation towards searching for them in the first place. Their nonexistence would have weakened it remarkably.

    So, for natural selection (which is at heart a very simple function) to be falsified, we’d have to find something that was responsible for all of these data points and millions more on top, that explained viral mutations and antibiotic resistance and vestigial organs and similar skeletal structures among widely disparate species and DNA similarities and ontogeny and on and on and on – all data which we have at hand. We’d have to show that natural selection (with its underlying reliance on probability) was not responsible for the myriad forms we have today, and can even watch develop. In short, it would have to act exactly like natural selection without actually being it.

    The first salient point about this proposal is, who cares? If there really was a new theory that could take the place of natural selection and common descent, fine, so be it. It would still have to predict solid results, and that’s the whole point behind a theory in the first place. Second, as mentioned above, it does absolutely nothing to accommodate the efforts of those who want to dismiss evolution, because what they want in its place is special, directed creation – a god. And it is necessary to be perfectly blunt in here: there is no evidence for this idea. At all.

    Faced with all of the bits enumerated above and many more on top, the creationist response is to claim that none of them are interpreted correctly. That fossils are planted by god just to test our faith, or examples of species that all died in the flood. That at the same time, all of the dating methods we use, that interact and overlap, are all wrong. That genes don’t actually indicate common descent, or would have taken too long to produce changes. That the breeding that we’ve been doing for centuries, even recognized in many forms of scripture, produces changes in traits, but not species (the micro and macro evolution distinction, one that exists only semantically and not physically.) That all, or nearly all, of the fossil hominids that we’ve found count as apes and are thus not part of the human family tree. And on and on. The most salient fact of all this is that none of it is enumerated, at all, within their scriptural sources of information – it is, in plain fact, mere speculation. Which would still be all right if the facts bore it out, but they don’t.

    Then we come to the really damning bit, which is the necessity of a competing theory – it is not enough to call something into question (even if accuracy were present); for the alternate explanation, creationism, to be worthwhile, it must be able to explain at least all of the above facts, as well as having a coherent structure in the first place – fair’s fair, after all, and the same rigorous standards need to be applied everywhere. Ignoring, just for the sake of the broad posit, any and all scriptural accounts and going only with directed creation as a theory, we must define in what way this is differentiated from non-directed physical laws. The big difference is, of course, intent, so, what is the intent? Nobody has yet answered that. Add on, who or what possesses this intent, and you get a bunch of vague replies, all of which claim properties outside of evidence, tests, or even existence in this universe or set of dimensions. That this once again brings us to exactly the same result as natural selection is usually lost (or conveniently ignored) – it does not produce any different results, makes no predictions, and cannot be tested. This is not even a theory.

    Opening up the big box of scriptural sources for even proposing this concept in the first place, and we find so much incorrect information, so many failed predictions, so many inconsistencies, that now the only rational response is, “Oh fucking please.” Even the faithful adherents, heavily invested in this somehow being plausible, cannot reach any agreement on conditions or details; there is not one theory, but a million of them. Some posit a universe only a few thousand years old; some posit that their god created all the rules as we see them. Some posit direct intervention, as in, miracles; some posit a ‘ground of being’ and vague spirituality that cannot even be defined. None of them can offer a useful explanation as to why the recurrent pharyngeal nerve, going between the brain and the throat in mammals, loops down into the chest cavity and around the aorta, or why humans are sometimes born with tails, or why radiometric dating matches so well with sedimentary deposition.

    And then we return to the prediction part, and the predictions of the creation theory are, well, not much – judgment some day, though when this is to occur has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times that it’s laughable now. But as for biological predictions, or what we might expect to find, or how to use this to our benefit? Zilch, nada, nothing, bupkiss – while we can (and do) use natural selection to predict fossil finds and virus mutation, perform gene splicing and determine what kind of organs can be transplanted, and on and on. We use it because it works, better than anything else yet proposed, and still remains quite simple.

    [Another quick side note: while we knew that something carried information from a parent to offspring, the basic concept of genes, we had no idea what DNA was at the time common descent was proposed; when discovered, it fit with the predictions, but offered a few surprises on its own, including trashing the idea that the pressures an organism faced during its life could be passed on to the offspring, usually known as Lamarckism. What we found is that the genes are not altered during the life of the organism, and can only change by chance when they duplicate in reproduction.]

    So with all that, it really doesn’t matter what would prove evolution wrong, as demanding as that would have to be; we still have the bare traits of life, the fossil record, the predictions, the genetic compatibilities, and all those related facts, and nothing is going to make them go away. Meanwhile, it also wouldn’t make any form of creation more plausible in the slightest – that would take a whole lot more facts to support it on its own, even if we had no such concept as evolution at all. That search has been going on for a few thousand years now so, uh, best of luck with that. Thankfully humankind can keep moving forward without them.