You telling me or asking me?

Over at Why Evolution Is True far too many days back (time really has been getting away from me,) Jerry Coyne ran a post on how he, as an atheist, found ‘meaning’ in life. Surprising few who have engaged in such discussions before, religious commenter ajmgw saw fit to correct everyone’s impression, which Dr. Coyne featured in another post. For the edification of all, it reads:

The question of meaning is valid, but must be understood in a different way. How can meaning come from a mindless process, no guidance just time and chance?1 In that kind of a world an atheist cannot give a justification for a difference between good and evil2. If we are simply pond scum, the result of mindless processes over millions and billions of years, who decides what is right and wrong?3 The atheist cannot explain the existence of mind and morality4. In order to do so they unwittingly must borrow from the Christian Worldview5. As Greg Bahnsen said, “Like a petulant child they sit on their father’s lap and they reach up and slap his face.” According to the atheistic worldview, right and wrong are the results of chemical processes in our brains, a by product of survival of the fittest inherited from our common ape-like ancestors6. In that case one doesn’t even have free will, but the chemical processes are in control7.

I apologize for all the little numbers in there, which I added myself – they are bookmarking the responses to come below. But first, the overall observation that, as happens so often in discussions with religious folk, this entire comment is nothing but assertion, and rather presumptuous and arrogant assertion at that:This… is what atheists believe.” A couple of them are largely true, in that a majority of atheists may hold some form of agreement with them, while others are completely false; you might find someone who makes such a particular claim, somewhere, but none of these – not one, not at all – has any association or relation to atheism, or even secular humanism. The practice of assertion is a common one, and will be tackled in detail in an upcoming ‘But how?’ post, so for now I’ll simply point out that assertion, without any facts or reasoning to back it up, is worthless. One might as well pronounce themselves King of the World for all the value that it provides, and anyone with any reasoning power whatsoever will generally treat them as equally infantile. It’s funny how few religious folk actually comprehend that.

Much worse, though, is the simple fact that all of these have been addressed, many times over, for quite a few years now. I myself have tackled most, if not all of them, primarily through the ‘But how?’ posts, and I want you to appreciate the irony here, because this happens very, very frequently: the religious folk that make such assertions have never actually bothered to ask. Never looked it up, never considered that there might be a different answer than what they want to believe (or perhaps were told by the gibbering religious leader of choice,) never embraced the humility that perhaps there was more than met the eye, never even fed the curiosity, should it have raised its ugly little head. There was a certain undercurrent of satire when I created the ‘But how?’ topic for posts, because a depressingly small number of religious folk can ever be found actually asking questions.

So while considering it a largely wasted effort, I’m going ahead and addressing these points anyway. I have skimmed a couple of the responses from WEIT’s readership, but stopped far short of finishing, because I wanted to put down my own thoughts without being too influenced by others. This might mean you will see a lot of similarity, or it might not (I’d say the former is much more likely.) As of this posting, I still have not read through the majority of the responses, though I’m confident that there are quite a few thought-provoking entries over there, well worth the time.

One more thing: biology is not a simple field, and understanding something from a biological standpoint isn’t likely to be intuitive or easy-to-absorb without some previous knowledge or a certain amount of dedication to the premise – in other words, it serves to explain things extremely well, but only if one tries to comprehend. Again, probably wasted effort – open minds are not something that religion encourages in the slightest.

Anyway, let’s dive in.

To begin with, “meaning” in this context is a philosophical term, poorly defined and even more poorly understood. It is apparently important to religious folk, despite the fact that very few seem to demonstrate any grasp of it. No “meaning” – as in, personal goals or expectations or even end results – is promised in biology or any of the sciences, nor is there anything that demonstrates any necessity of such. We have desires, certainly, and we find them of varying importance, yet all of them can be shown to have value in keeping our species alive. And that’s how it works: if some trait, which can easily include an emotional kick towards certain behaviors, provides a benefit to survival and reproduction, then it stands a higher chance of being passed along to offspring. That’s evolution.

Just to be perverse, I have to point out, yet again, a simple observation. Everyone who uses the meaning argument seems to assume that their own religion is the only one; they never, for instance, seem to consider that every other religion in the world promises its own meaning. Some of them find meaning in subjugating females, sacrificing animals, self-flagellation, magic underwear, and other such profound topics. Chances are, back in the history of anyone’s own religion sits the meaningful pursuits of slaughtering infidels and pillaging the neighbors – as long as it’s a meaning, it’s cool, right?

But let’s go back to understanding meaning in the first place. The religious want to believe that anyone’s existence must be defined by intent, and the intent of a creator at that; lacking this must result in an aimless and unrewarding existence. Funny, however, how many human traits hold the same throughout every religion and lack thereof, and appear without any prompting whatsoever from holy texts and careful instruction. We can argue that the creator imbued meaning automatically into every human, but that would include atheists too, so the argument falls flat; meaning, in this context, must be obtained through devotion at least, but probably also a knowledge of scripture. Animals, therefore, cannot have it, even though they seem to be doing just fine – only humans can be nihilistic and aimless, one supposes.

So we start with the basics. Take two individuals of any kind of organism that possesses enough of a nervous system to make simple decisions. One, through random mutation, gains a desire to avoid death, and the other lacks it. Which one is most likely to survive? Okay, that was easy enough, now let’s raise the stakes a little. One gains an interest in cooperative behavior, the other doesn’t. Now who is more likely to survive? One gains a desire to care for their offspring in the early stages, the other doesn’t. Since these are traits gained through genetic mutation, they can pass along to their offspring. I hope I’m not going too fast.

Is this ‘meaning?’ Well, define that term in a useful way, and let’s see how it fits. Humans have a lot of basic desires, impulses within their lives – food, sex, cooperation, and so on. We find such things important through, yes indeed, the makeup of the brain and the actions of the chemicals within; we know this because we’ve found a lot of them, and have seen the results when the system doesn’t work as usual. We don’t rationally choose the precise time to become aroused for sex, and in fact, the sex drive is so poorly regulated that this routinely causes problems – even for the religious. A crying baby sets us on edge, regardless of whose it is, and we’re motivated to try and halt the crying – usually through meeting the infant’s own immediate desires like food or a clean diaper. Works pretty damn well, doesn’t it? Find me the scripture that says, “Thou shalt not tolerate the caterwauling of the moppet.”

“But those aren’t meanings!” protest the indignant religious folk, and it’s true enough – neither is anything that they offer as such themselves. In their usage, living without a meaning would make life pointless and desolate – which must logically be applied to the vast majority of the world that does not share their particular religion. Not to mention, such a thing should be responsible for making people flock to religion to suddenly gain this wonderful purpose in life, rather than simply satisfying inherent urges and instincts. Funny how the number of religious folk is actually dropping worldwide.

So, to get around to number 1, what does arise through “time and chance?” Well, take a look at all the things that people claim as meaningful in the first place (again, you have to ask, rather than assume you know what it must be.) The answers are as diverse as, “raising my children right,” “being successful,” “making a difference,” ” traveling the world,” “perfecting my art,” and, “climbing Mt Everest,” while the day-to-day goals can get as trivial as “making ends meet,” “finishing this project,” “getting a raise,” “affording a better car,” and, “going someplace interesting on vacation,” to say nothing at all about the unvoiced meanings that a lot of people nevertheless pour a lot of effort into, such as, “getting laid this weekend,” “making obscene amounts of money at anyone else’s expense,” “having my team win some pointless championship,” and even “getting back at my coworker for what she said” – not to mention, “getting all the spics and niggers out of the country,” and “finding any way that I can to demean as many others as possible because it’s too much effort to improve myself.” I shouldn’t have to point out how many of these goals are held by religious folk who supposedly already have a meaning to their lives.

All of them, quite simply, are extensions of survival behavior – improvement and competition are obvious factors, and so are social cohesion and raising offspring. By itself, ego is more properly defined as trying to remain competitive. As a species we have a strong drive to explore, which is a great antidote to a changing environment, and even racism has roots in kin selection, the promotion of the most closely related genes. And the reason we see such a wide variety of ‘meanings’ throughout our species is that these drives are unspecific, and easy to appease in a variety of ways. Evolution produces a net average gain, but not a constant one and without any need to be specific. On the other hand, if we were designed to be this way, how can we even have a sex drive for anyone other than our spouse, or fall prey to drug addiction? What kind of a shit design is that?

Number 2, the conflation of ‘meaning’ and ‘ethics/morality.’ First off, note how many religious behaviors, now and especially in the past, are considered unethical and even reprehensible – things like class consciousness and gender discrimination, beating children and taking slaves, slaughtering the neighboring tribes and avoiding shellfish. It’s in scripture! How can one possibly be ignoring or avoiding this guidance?! Yet, ethics isn’t actually about following rules; it’s about social cohesion and cooperation, a pretty simple instinct possessed by a ridiculous number of species – amazingly, the ones that gain the greatest benefits from being that way (funny how that works.) Religious guidance obviously wasn’t enough to prevent witch hunts and genocides, and in fact, was directly linked to many such occurrences in our species’ history. Culture defines ethics – as long as it fits in with the instincts and desires we already have. And since we also have ego and competitive desires as well, there’s often a clash – again, something that a designed species shouldn’t fall prey to, wouldn’t you think? But also noteworthy in here is how often churches have exploited these tendencies and clashes, rather than raising us above them.

Number 3, how can pond scum make ethical decisions? Well, we’re not pond scum – a millisecond of acute observation would have revealed that, but yes, I know the question is asked in a manipulative and hyperbolic way, courtesy of the ethics that religious meaning has provoked. Every species above the bacterial level can take action based on external stimuli, and the more complex the species is, the greater the variety of responses – astounding how those relate, isn’t it? But even plants can turn to face the sun. Ethics/morality is fostered by the instinct to get along, to maintain a strong cooperative ‘tribe.’ It can easily be seen where the demarcations of ‘tribe’ lie, as well, and the radical difference in behavior towards those outside of this tribe. But even if we disregard this entirely, it’s not like ethical decisions require some outside guidance of any kind. “If I hit him, he won’t like me, and may try to hit me back, or not share his food, or otherwise become a competitive factor. But if I’m nice to him, he may share food when it’s scarce, or protect me from others.” I mean, holy shit, are we supposed to be so vapid and aimless that we could not figure such things out on our own? What kind of fools does this question even assume us to be?

[I have to point out that the only fools assumed to be here are the ones without the religious guidance – it’s that ego thing again. Coming from those who cannot form a simple chain of logical thought. Seriously. Atheists are often accused of being nasty and demeaning, but it’s a wonder that this kind of religious condescension doesn’t result in a lot stronger kickback; can anyone claim that it isn’t deserved?]

Number 4, atheists not explaining mind and morality. Well, we’ve already tackled the latter, and the former isn’t an aspect of faith, but of philosophy; it’s not exactly in the purview of atheism any more than it is geology, nor is it related to morality in any way. However, it’s still been addressed thousands of times, mostly pointing out that it’s horseshit – seriously, can’t anyone that uses this hoary old argument type words into a fucking search engine? Either way, let’s start with having a firm definition of ‘mind’ in the first place and see if that even exists; the religious want to equate it with ‘soul’ and thus claim that it’s independent of the brain and the rest of the body, but that has obvious (one would have thought, anyway) issues with brain damage affecting the ‘mind.’ Philosophers and occasionally sociologists define mind as ‘self-awareness,’ which is pretty easy to explain without supernatural influence – indeed, a ridiculous number of species have it to one degree or another, because it’s what a nervous system is there to foster; what else would anyone think this is for? Why have a sense of touch and pain if nothing could be done with the info?

If anything else is intended with this badly abused term, I’ll simply say this: define it. Define it rigorously enough to fit how it is used, such as how humans have it and nothing else, or whatever. The very act of doing so should, if anyone is intelligent enough (and honest enough) to even be posing the question in the first place, demonstrate that the concept has way too many issues to be a factor in anyone’s argument.

Number 5, copying christians. Heh! This comment is so ridiculously implausible that it deserves more than minor rebuke, which I’m being kind enough not to take advantage of. Putting it quite simply, secular humanism even exists because the religious worldview (not just the christian one) is corrupt enough to be hugely detrimental to ethics and, for that matter, any kind of guidance. I’m not even sure what the commenter is thinking with this, but I suspect it’s a couple of the commandment-style guidelines such as, “Don’t kill,” and, “Don’t steal.” That these are common facets of every culture, including those far removed from christianity and even the abrahamic religions, seems to have escaped critical notice. And as pointed out above, there are a hell of a lot of things permitted and condoned in scripture that we have now, thankfully, considered unpalatable and even wildly immoral – shame we didn’t get to it sooner, before so much strife was caused directly in the name of so many religions. I am being far too kind, really – this kind of utter fucking bullshit needs to be highlighted, again and again, because far too many of the religious like sweeping all the horrendous portions under the rug and then immediately saying that scripture is an ultimate guide to behavior.

A small observation about the quote that falls at this point in the comment. Religious folk are inordinately fond of quotes, and this one serves double duty: quotes are a form of appeal from authority, in essence pointing out how this learnéd person has a view that everyone should hold, and the quote directly addresses ultimate authority itself. Except, this authority cannot be shown to exist in any form, and is remarkably absent from any actions that can be ascribed to it – which is the whole point of atheism. There is no face to be slapped here. While trying to paint atheists as petulant (and themselves, by extension, as humble,) those that use such quotes never tumble to the fact that their entire worldview is one of remarkable self-importance based on assertions, at best, and excuses for the complete lack of evidence. Yeah, humble as shit.

On to number 6, right and wrong are chemical processes in the brain. Yep, got it in one – I told you that the commenter got a couple of them right. To be more specific, the evidence that we have about the structure and function of the brain is pretty damn overwhelming, while the evidence to the contrary is… nonexistent. Bear in mind that not even scripture lays any claim to a mind/brain duality, and the concept of ‘soul’ is quite loosely defined; a ridiculous number of people, atheists among them, don’t realize how many concepts are not outlined in scripture in any way, being only interpretations that have been fostered by churches and theologians in the time since.

Note, though, that the commenter has contradicted themself. While maintaining that right and wrong are unknown to atheists (and, presumably, those of the wrong religions as well,) now we see that right and wrong are properties of being human – those silly atheists maintain that it’s a property of the development of the species rather than being endowed by the creator because humanity is too stupid to figure out consequences on its own. This kind of double-dealing happens a lot, but at least it’s a bit closer to recognizing the reality that our prisons are not full of atheists…

And finally number 7, we don’t have free will, just chemicals. Close, really – we have laws of physics, and no demonstration that the body or mind or whatever can thwart these. Once again this is philosophical, and in fact the entire concept of ‘free will’ was created that way, likely from religious roots because the structure of omniscient/omnipotent creator, one that has a master plan to boot, quickly makes the actions of mankind utterly pointless – and of course, we are supposed to be pushing meaning here. You have to sit here and wonder what, exactly, religious folk are trying to convey. On the one hand, we are supposed to follow every precept outlined by this creator, on punishment of everlasting punishment in most cases, but ‘free will’ is an important facet of not being an automaton or puppet – I suppose slavery or, at best, coercion is so much better (and worthy of praise somehow.) From a religious standpoint, atheism is the ultimate expression of free will – and thus reprehensible. Do I pretend to understand how this works? I do not.

Much worse is the part that no religious person, ever, responds to, which is the alternative that is being proposed by secular humanism in the first place: do what can be rationally determined to be best, for us and everyone else. If anyone wants to maintain that we have minds and we have free will, fine, no problem – use them, in the best manner possible. This does not mean holding up a strangely absent authority to buttress one’s standpoint only when it’s personally convenient, and it does not mean finding some self-importance or ego-stroking from the practice. The whole point of ethics and morality is that they define how we treat others, not our own status – that, by extension, will be defined by others based on how much they respect us. That’s how it works, and what that word actually means in the first place. Which is the funny thing about all of this: atheism and humanism have nothing to do with eradicating morality or what-have you – just with eradicating meaningless and unsupportable authority, which is usually wielded in a remarkably selfish manner.

Now, if that’s not long enough, we’ll examine a couple of the many aspects that are missed within the attitudes often displayed by religious folk. The overriding one is that meaning, however you want to define it, is personal; I don’t expect anyone else to see the importance in what I find to be meaningful, and I don’t look to others to provide any back to me. Nor is meaning something that has to be beneficial, progressive, or in any way socially acceptable – even though our evolved traits often guide things along these lines anyway. The idea that meaning should be something on which we can pass judgment is just another manifestation of ego, and a useless one at that.

While we’re talking about passing judgment, let’s take a peek at the difference between words and actions. While expressing the idea that meaning is what makes life worthwhile, far too many religious folk don’t seem to grasp the concept. Scripture was used to condone slavery for a very long time, and still gets wielded to support all kinds of bigotry. Only recently, and not in near enough countries yet, women have stopped being treated like second-class citizens; we’ve still got a long ways to go with sexuality and gender identification. The overall message coming through is that these people don’t count; despite the fact that anyone was born that way (and thus, presumably, intended as such by god and all part of that master plan,) they don’t deserve the chance to pursue this all-important meaning. And as I shouldn’t have to point out, it’s not just an expressed opinion, as religious fuckheads continually, and with great effort, try to push through legislation to maintain this second-class status for those of whom they do not approve. Yeah, that’s a meaning we can all do without quite readily.

Even if we just fall back to the meaning that is usually intended in such circumstances, there’s not a whole lot to be derived from it. “Glory to god,” and all such variations isn’t really inspiring to a lot of people, I’m sorry to say – some even find this mindless obsequiousness to be demeaning, especially in the face of having some progressive goals for those living right here on earth instead. Let’s face it – any form of higher power doesn’t need our help at all, and if we feel so bad about ourselves that we think sucking up is the most important aspect in our lives, well, therapy might help with that. But not everyone is that pathetic, and not everyone is going to fall for the arrogant assertion that such a state is somehow superior – especially not when the very concept of a god, any god, is so devoid of evidence, laden with issues and contradictions, and completely unnecessary to either explain the world or live a fulfilling life. The religious answers to these points have always been sophistry at best, but rarely ever get beyond making excuses and simply repeating assertions, which makes it especially amusing when such folk want to offer up what must be important in life.

*     *     *     *

Further examinations on some of these topics (you know, that atheists have never tackled):

What does it mean?!
Like we mean it

Evolved traits
Friends with benefits
How to bake a human
But how? Part four: Religious belief

Morality/Secular humanism
You don’t look a day over eighty

But what if it is broke?

Free will
Free willy
Free if you can get it to work
Nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure
Buried at the crossroads
Isn’t that the real truth?

And just ‘in like vein’
How about a little fire?
I wonder why?

The fame keeps rolling in

Several weeks back, I was contacted out of the blue (rather than out of the yellow or the aubergine, which are much less abrupt) by Catherine Scott, a biologist/entomologist that specializes in spiders; she had seen some of my images on and wanted permission to use them in a post on her own blog, SpiderBytes. After a lengthy and heated discussion on terms (me: “Sure!”) I sent her over some copies, and then just checked occasionally to see what new posts were appearing because, you know, spiders. Now, I never intended to concentrate on arachnids with my photographic pursuits, but they’re what I’m finding the most of, and they’re admittedly pretty interesting on their own.

Her post featuring my images snuck in between checks, so I’m a little late, but it can be seen right here. And she had a similar experience to my own with her first encounter. Mine was several years back on the dog fennel plants, which had provided tons of photo subjects; I first thought I’d spotted a thin-bodied variety of assassin bug such as the Metapterini, for which I think I can be excused. Upon realizing that my tiny subject was an arachnid, I also suspected the long-jawed orb weavers (Tetragnathids,) but BugGuide wasn’t providing any matches, plus the chelicerae that prompted the name weren’t actually long (what you’re seeing here are the pedipalps, not the chelicerae/fangs.) After a lot of searching, I finally uploaded the photos to BugGuide and received an answer almost immediately. My photo subject was a Rhomphaea fictilium, but that’s probably obvious once you see the image below.

Rhomphaea fictilium profile
Now for the part that I think I noticed, but never really put together, which she makes clear in her own post. Unlike every other arachnid I’ve seen, Rhomphaea have the ability to alter the shape of their abdomens, and I actually caught this in two of my images; I think I suspected I had two different individuals, since the images were shot on consecutive days, even though they were both in the same area and have never been seen since – both were also males. If you look at the image above, you can see that the abdomen extends just beyond the first joint of the hind legs, though in other images it seems to stop just shy of that point. Contrast that, however, with the next image:

Rhomphaea fictilium closer, showing reshaped abdomen
Obviously, a lot longer here, and bent to match the joints of the hind legs. According to Catherine, this flexibility could be to help them camouflage themselves. Also note the location of the spinnerets producing the webbing, not at the end of the abdomen as expected, but well up towards the base and protruding noticeably – a fine line of web can just barely be seen extending from it off towards the right.

She pointed out another trait, one that I sort-of captured in my images, seen in her post and on BugGuide. Rhomphaea prey on other spiders, and apparently can find the web of another species and mimic the vibrations of tangled prey with their forelegs, bringing the other spider racing out to snag their ‘capture,’ only to be captured by Rhomphaea instead.

[Knock knock]

“Who’s there?”

[Trying to disguise voice] “Um, a mosquito.”

“Be right out, don’t go away!”

I’ll let you dwell on that mental image as I plow on.

Now, I’d love to capture more images of behavior such as this, and have tried, really, without much luck. Part of the problem might be that my looming presence is enough to alter the behavior of any arthropods within visible range, and I have seen supporting evidence for this. Another reason might be that such encounters are few and far between, and I would have to stalk one particular subject for hours or days on end to see such drama. I have, on occasion, spent quite a bit of time on observing one form of behavior or another, but this tends to be when I already see it happening; I don’t recall ever capturing behavior from just following a subject around to see what happened, and often when I’ve tried, nothing has come of it. Perhaps I’m just not trying hard enough.

The reveal

I told you yesterday that I’d reveal the secret tomorrow, meaning today, and it’s still May 1st as this posts…

What you saw in the last month-end abstract was simply a dragonfly, one that was doing a good job of hovering in one spot, and so I snagged a photo of it in midair. At 1/50 second shutter speed, the wings blurred, and with the sun behind it, the reflections from the wing veins as they hit certain angles caused bright lines to be described. The dragonfly was facing away for this shot, so that’s the abdomen sitting in the center, while the outlines of the wings can be seen with little trouble – at least, now that one knows what they’re looking at. Possibly before, too – I didn’t quiz anybody on what they thought they saw, and of course I knew what I’d been taking photos of.

Here’s another frame, a tight crop from the original, but showing a significant amount of detail for the conditions. I’d like to think that I could do better if I tried, but I imagine that the attempts could drive my frustration level to an unhealthy point. So for now, just note how the legs are held, and how the wingbeat pattern (remember, dragonflies have four wings) isn’t as simple for a hover as we might imagine.

hovering dragonfly

This is just wrong

What not to do on a roller coaster
There are no words to express how flawed this whole idea is.

If you’re on a roller coaster and there is anyone at all in front of you, you have no business being on a coaster.

April abstracts bring May, um… abstracts I guess

I'm not telling you here either
For this month’s end abstract we have… something. I’ll let you try to figure out what. I’ll be back tomorrow to eradicate the mystery, should it still exist. All I will tell you now is that there is nothing at all tricky about it, no editing, no special techniques, just a grab shot yesterday.

Monday color, uh, 48?

pink azaleas or something against blue skyWow, I really dropped the ball on this one! Seems I simply forgot to post Monday color since, oh, the beginning of the year.

Okay, fine, it was an exercise begun in winter a year ago, that carried over throughout the rest of the year, and that I simply let slide in 2016. But I’ll still occasionally get some images that work almost entirely because of their palette (or at least I think so,) and then they’ll get posted here. Sometimes perhaps even on a Monday. Since I haven’t been posting as much and my time to work on such is more sporadic now, I should probably be making more use of images that don’t need a lot of additional text or research.

These azaleas (I think) were from a trip to the NC Botanical Garden, which provided more photos that will be along eventually. Be patient.

A closer look

Just a few pics from yesterday morning not long after sunrise, poking around in the yard looking for subjects. While I had initially modified a 80mm macro lens from my Mamiya medium format camera to work on Canon bodies when my Sigma lens failed, I have maintained the use of it because it’s one damn sharp lens, despite the fact that both focus and aperture must be manually controlled. I cut my teeth on fully manual cameras, and have even worked with external exposure meters and sometimes no meter at all, so the little bit of extra effort barely even registers.

Here, we have a tiny jumping spider perched on the newly-emerging day lilies, so small that I had to lean in close to even determine that it was a spider and not just a bit of chaff. I wasn’t bothering with the flash rig at the time (yeah, I know, I just got done boasting about making extra effort without batting an eye, and now I can’t be assed to affix the flash-and-softbox,) so in the weak dawn light I was shooting wide open at f4, demonstrating just how short the depth of field can be in macro work.

tiny jumping spider salticidae on day lily leaf
That’s full frame, and some of that gauzy effect in the middle comes from leaves very close to the lens and extremely far out of focus. But let’s instead take a close look at the spider itself, still sluggish from the overnight chill but well aware of my presence.

full resolution crop of same frame of jumping spider Salticidae
This is a full-resolution inset of the same frame, so it shows the level of detail captured. I didn’t get a measurement at the time, but checking just now, the leaf is about 10mm wide, making the spider somewhat less than 2mm across the cephalothorax (“head”) – the pale specks you see scattered on the leaf and spider are pine pollen. Overall, it’s a little oasis of sharpness in an otherwise misty frame – I’m trying to decide if the full-frame image would make a good art print. I mean, I like it, but we’ve established that I’m pretty weird and thus perhaps not representative of the art market as a whole.

The next one, however, I know not to bother with. It’s a bit too scattered and confusing, a clash of contrast and elements that don’t contribute to the effect in a positive manner; some frames just don’t work. But it’ll serve to illustrate the lens performance anyway. Here’s the full frame:

crane fly Tipulomorpha on rosemary bush
That’s a crane fly, infraorder Tipulomorpha, perched on one of the rosemary plants; not even a fraction as surreal as the day lily leaves. But we’ll ignore my failings for a moment and go for a full resolution inset again.

full resolution crane fly Tipulomorpha inset
Yep, a couple more pollen grains in there, and if you look really close, you might make out the faint feathery tendrils that branch out from the sides of the antennae. If I remember right, the light allowed me to stop down to f8 for this one, but the depth is still pretty short, as evidenced by the legs and rosemary leaves.

Now, a quick note. Autofocus, had it been available, would have been of little use here. Even if it was accurate enough to snag the precise portion of an arthropod that I wanted sharp, there’s the simple factor that I was shooting handheld in natural light, with a very short range of sharp focus available; to put it simply, infinitesimal body movements (my own) constantly shift such subjects into and out of critical sharpness. Add in that the view in the viewfinder is much smaller than seen here on your monitor; I can’t give a good impression since I don’t know how big your monitor is nor what resolution it produces, but I would say my viewfinder image is probably much less than half what you’re seeing here. This isn’t bragging – I have plenty of frames which missed, which is why I take a lot of them when doing macro work, trying to time my own movements carefully, getting as stable as possible, and usually while holding my breath. Seriously, my arms braced against my ribcage add in another factor of movement that I’d rather do without; on occasion when pursuing a difficult subject, I have to stop and take a few deep breaths to replenish my system. Moreover, the shooting angles and perspectives that I try for often require being in an awkward and uncomfortable position; leaning over sideways with your head twisted even further, trying not to go off-balance because the self-absorbed arthropods that you’re shooting can’t be bothered to pose near good footing and clear views, can make you aware of muscles that never get developed at the gym somehow. Believe me, as macro photographers shrug off the shackles of indifference and begin to be treated as norms, we’ll be seeing a lot more cultural emphasis on chiseled, well-sculpted neck muscles.

Until that glorious day, and perhaps even after it, I’ll be using my favorite lenses for close work, both of them non-standard lenses and both excellent performers. You can get by without spending a bundle on equipment if you experiment a bit, and do your research. And hold still.

Spiders, spiders, spiders, spiders, spam, and spiders

Is there a blog in existence that hasn’t gotten off at least one Monty Python reference? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

We’re still dealing with the lingering effects of the cold spell, meaning it gets chilly at night and well into the morning, so I haven’t expected much to be happening on the arthropod front and haven’t really been looking. Today, however, while getting some gardening done, I managed to spot a couple of token arachnids.

tiny red mesh web spider Dictynidae showing off male privilege
On a small potted tree I found a tiny red spider centered on a leaf, and going in for the extreme closeup displayed some serious pedipalps – not just a male of the species, but a proud one. This would appear, from the color and eye arrangement, to be a mesh web weaver, family Dictynidae.

Just in case you’re missing the significance of this from not having seen the times I’ve explained it before, the big black things in front of the spider are the pedipalps, mostly used to assist in manipulating food, but also used by the males to transfer sperm to the females; as such, they are typically much bigger in the males, club-ended rather than pointy, and serve as the most dependable way of telling gender in arachnids. You can check out this post and this one for more information if you dare.

While photographing that one, I spotted a jumping spider nearby that spooked as I tried to close in for the photo, but on returning a little later I found it back in place, quite close to the mesh web weaver. Notably, it was facing the red one and poised on ‘tiptoe,’ and suspected it had possibly sighted the smaller spider.

unidentified jumping spider sighting prey
I watched to see if a capture was imminent, but after a minute it turned away, and I switched position to capture them both in the frame. I think it’s obvious that we’re not talking ‘big’ here; the red one is perhaps 3-4mm in body length.

two competing spider species in close proximity
A few seconds after this image was taken, the jumper made a minor move which likely disturbed one of the mesh web weaver’s many little strands of web stretched along the leaves, because the red one leapt off the leaf and dangled from a webline, then quickly cast another strand into the breeze and clambered along it to a nearby twig, where it took up a hiding position. Whether the jumper was intending to eat the mesh web spider or not, the latter certainly believed it was likely.

Several years back, I observed two jumping spiders of mildly disparate size facing off on a railing, and quickly brought the camera to bear. In an instant they launched themselves at one another and ended up dangling several centimeters below the railing, spinning madly. Eventually they climbed back up the strand to regain their footing on the railing – or at least, one did. I was able to see them clearly, belly to belly, both facing the same way (and directly into the lens,) but the larger one was clearly in control, and had likely just killed the smaller one which was clasped upside down beneath it. Somehow, though, I lost that roll of film, one of only two that I’ve ever lost in my life (out of hundreds,) and it irked me no end.

Magnolia green jumping spider Lyssomanes viridis portrait
On the gardenia bushes nearby, I spotted my old friend the magnolia green jumping spider (Lyssomanes viridis) atop a leaf. They adore the gardenias, as do several other species, but the magnolia greens most like to sit underneath the leaves, lying in wait for all the insect species that take shelter on the undersides of leaves. Since this is a regular habit of mosquitoes, we’re more than happy to have the pale green spiders hanging out down there.

jumping spider Hentzia mitrata warily watching the photographerAnother denizen very close by was a jumping spider fairly common around here, though lists their range only as ‘Florida.’ This is a Hentzia mitrata, no apparent common name, so we will call them peachfuzz for obvious reasons. This one came very close to a magnolia green, but went past and tried to take shelter from my presence against a stem, before gaining the topmost leaf and viewing me alertly. Some jumpers are fearless, some are shy, and these seem to split the difference; after its attempts to disguise itself against the stem failed to work, it sat in plain view and intently watched me and the camera, in this image probably viewing the softbox reflector hanging out over the lens. More images of the same species from last year, including a fartistic one, can be found here.

By the way, in stepping out this evening to check something outside while writing this post, I missed an opportunity. A magnolia green was sitting underneath a leaf, while opposite it on the top sat a longlegged sac spider, both visible as I shone a flashlight up from underneath the leaf – the silhouette of the green spider almost looked like the shadow cast by the sac spider, but displaced too far to one side, nicely surreal. I went in to get the camera and tripod, but the sac spider failed to heed my admonition to remain where it was, and had wandered away to another leaf before I returned – probably an irreverent juvenile. You know what I’m talking about.

Also, while researching the species for this post, I believe I stumbled across the correct identification of an earlier shot, the near-microscopic spider seen in this post. While mine had no visible yellow spot on the abdomen, it certainly looks like it could be a Theridula emertoni, a type of cobweb spider.

It was one other find that I was most pleased about, though. Spotting some slender legs moving behind a potted plant, I carefully drew out the entire pot to get a view without disturbing the resident. Expecting to see another spider, I instead faced a newborn praying mantis. Between never having found an egg sac, and the inordinately cold weather, I wasn’t expecting any such appearances for at least another week or more. This one proved to be quite shy, and every time I managed to get it into the viewfinder it leapt away to another perch – I eventually couldn’t locate it again and I still hadn’t snagged a photo. Frustrated by this lack but still pleased to actually see evidence, I moved on to other tasks, only to find it (or a similar one) about a half-meter away in the opposite direction from what it was last seen moving. Ah, the old ‘fake and double-back’ trick – not a tactic I expected from one so young…

newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis offering a reluctant pose
Seen here on the same stump that the Copes grey treefrog was favoring earlier this year, this Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) was reluctant to provide me with a head-on shot, but my natural charm and charisma paid off (you should do something about that cough.) Only 10mm long and weighing – man, how would anyone even weigh one of these? It’s lighter than a sesame seed – this minuscule mantis marks the first of the season, at least for me, and could only be a couple of days old at the most. I actually have a pair of egg cases in the mail to me right now, specifically so I can try to photograph their emergence in excruciating detail. And speaking of excruciating detail…

extreme closeup of newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis
If you look close, you can actually make out the facets of the compound eyes. Bearing in mind that the eyes are 2mm across at the widest point, I’m pleased to capture that kind of detail. Also note that, at this magnification, the false pupil is quite vague, but that’s partially because it’s slightly out of focus.

So, yeah, I’m pleased with how the day came out. And I’ve gotten an appropriate start on the subjects that will undoubtedly appear here many more times throughout the year.

Like we meme it

"This is why we have obesity" - No, it's notIt’s safe to say that this blog is wordy, which is one of the more significant ways that it distances itself from social media; the quick memes and the sound bites are not really at home here. And this is largely because they’re far too simple to be of any use. Take this image here, lifted from The Meta Picture, a site that’s nothing but images with humor and occasionally ‘insightful’ messages.

Because, quite simply, it’s wrong. But that’s not enough, is it? We need to know how it’s wrong, and that takes a little time and effort. The causes of obesity are varied, and do not come down to the simple metric of, “cost per calorie,” or even calorie count overall. Both can be contributing factors, but are far from being the root cause. Aside from various medical issues that might alter the way the body manages intake and storage, there are the factors of availability of a balanced diet, physical activity, time to prepare meals, psychological aspects such as ‘comfort food,’ and even just the evolved trait of, “if it’s available and tastes good, eat it – you never know when the next meal is coming.”

Even more importantly, who cares? While we may see numbers of ‘obese’ people growing in the US (and the definition of this term is vague and not terribly useful,) there is hardly an ‘epidemic,’ as it is so often presented, but moreover isn’t really anyone’s fucking business, period. Ask anyone who complains about obesity, and they’ll be quick to tell you of the long-term effects on health, and especially the impact on our healthcare system, as if this is a serious factor in our economy or something. Shit, if we’re that worried about it, then we should eradicate alcohol entirely, as well as teen drivers. And for that matter, pregnancies – do you now how much of an impact those have on our healthcare costs? Yes, the “we all pay for those decisions” angle is nonsense, and hardly a rational approach.

Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in The Selfish Gene, as an idea that propagated among our species, evolving and spreading according to the appeal that it had to us. Some memes have a greater fitness than others, and by ‘fitness’ we are not talking about any kind of ideal situation, but whatever worked best to continue to be spread. I won’t say that the above meme is an especially fit one, no word play intended at all, but I’ve seen it, and the attitude that it expresses, quite a few times over the past decade or more; it’s more than a passing idea, and possesses enough traits to be repeated, to gain attention from those who find that it expresses their thoughts so simply.

Yet this fitness doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a beneficial thing. For instance, many of the foods that we find taste the best are not considered the best for us. How could that possibly have evolved? Well, in the conditions that prevailed throughout the vast majority of our existence, the tastebuds that we developed did indicate foods with a better effect on us – but conditions have changed now. Moreover, evolution works with what springs up through random mutation, and while this can accomplish some amazing things, it doesn’t always produce an ideal situation; natural selection means the most effective among the options, not the most effective that could be produced or designed. Humans evolved with a lot of desires and behavioral prods, but not necessarily specific ones, so we can still get involved in drug addiction and extra-marital affairs despite them being less than ideal.

And that’s where this particular meme comes in, and an awful lot of other things too. Because let’s face it: we don’t like seeing fat people. That’s it – that’s the whole thing. We have a preference for several traits that indicate a good choice for mating to produce healthy offspring, to propagate our genes; we’re also specific about odor, and age, and plenty of other factors. That these have no effect on the vast majority of our activities makes no difference; evolution did not produce an off switch, because such a thing wouldn’t provide enough of a benefit even if it did spring up through genetic drift and mutation. But while this distaste over excessive weight isn’t really applicable to most of our lives, it still exists, and when we find a meme that reinforces these subconscious feelings, we’re more than happy to justify the spread of the idea with claims of being relevant, important, and rational. If we find someone else who links or forwards the same meme, we get a reinforced sense of relevance despite no relevance being demonstrated – “if someone else does it too, it’s not stupid,” right? And that in itself is another trait talking, our desire for social cohesion and “fitting in.”

There’s even more at work. If we find a way to make ourselves seem better than someone else, then we are satisfying the competitive instincts we have – without actually having to compete; once again, many of our instincts and desires are easy to fool without fulfilling their evolved purposes. Our culture places a lot of emphasis on “being fit,” so this must be important, right? Well, it’s slightly more important than having tattoos or smutphones, anyway, but nowhere near as important as being intelligent or empathetic. And finally, we like simple answers. Simple answers mean quick decisions, and avoiding the oh-so-exhausting process of thinking. It’s a shame that thinking doesn’t actually take a lot of effort, because then maybe at least a few people would tackle it just because it burns calories…

Yet, simple answers are just that: too simple, ignoring or dismissing the multitudes of factors that have a real bearing on any issue. The meme, the sound bite, the proverb or quote or catchphrase, are often far more superficial than any situation warrants – and of course, to rebut or correct them in a short and sweet manner means to commit the same mistake. Our wonderfully evolved minds have the ability to handle multiple facets of any situation, even if it means recognizing that there are no quick answers – but this ability is entirely subverted if we fall for simple emotional stroking instead. We should be immediately suspicious of quick answers and trivial solutions, at the least, willing to examine anything carefully to see if it’s plausible – and not at all averse to going into detail when we address it. We could use the exercise.

Let’s all pretend

columbine Aquilegia canadensis shot from beneathI have an idea: let’s all pretend that we are not getting unseasonably cold weather after the spring rebirth has begun, and that the temperatures are remaining exactly where they should be. In fact, let’s insist on it, in ALL CAPS if need be – it seems to work for religious folk…

So naturally with such wonderful conditions, I got out a couple of times this weekend to do some shooting, not at all hampered by things like slow and interrupted blooming and frost warnings. And while the area surrounding this columbine flower (Aquilegia canadensis) was simply bursting with green undergrowth that would have made an excellent background, I chose instead to lay flat on the ground and shoot upwards into the blossom to gain a perspective that isn’t seen often, taking advantage of the blue sky and a vine-shrouded tree. Had I been thinking harder about it, I would have popped some fill flash or positioned something as a reflector to get a little more light up in there – it’s not bad as it is, but it might have made the colors shine just a bit better. I have to be careful about that with red flowers and this camera body (Canon 30D,) however – for some reason it tends to oversaturate reds and produce some unrealistic effects at times.

I ended up in three different locations over the course of two days. This columbine shot was done at the NC Botanical Gardens, same with the green treefrog two posts back, but earlier that same day I’d done a trip down to Jordan Lake to check on conditions and try to find some mantis egg cases to set up for their eventual hatching. No luck on the egg cases, and in fact I didn’t see much of anything, but a flooded area bordering some woods was playing host to a stunning number of water beetles, likely the same kind seen here (and thus probably Hydrophilidae.) I’d never noticed such behavior before, but a large number of the beetles had paused in their manic boating and were perched on twigs, looking remarkably like turtles sunning themselves on floating logs. I promise to capture a few at some point and do detailed closeups of them – it may be challenging, because like water striders, they’re very wary of close approaches and I will probably need a long-handled net, as well as quick reflexes, to snag them.

water beetles, possibly Hydrophilidae, basking on twigs
white rose against deep blue sky with complementary cloudThat was about it for Jordan Lake, at least the area that I checked out, save for a lot of wisteria that was still hanging on. Wisteria tends to peak and disappear quickly, and most of what I saw was just passing optimum appearance, starting to wilt and turn brownish in places, but it was still better than my immediate area where all such blooms have already disappeared. So for this shot, we return to the Botanical Garden and take another upward view, this time a white rose against a brilliantly deep blue sky. I did a couple of compositions, both with and without the cloud, but selected this one because the cloud seems to complement the blossom well. I tend to shoot different perspectives and approaches for many of my subjects, not just satisfying myself but also maintaining stock for potential clients who might have different tastes than I do. In the interests of space I usually only feature the one I like the best on the blog, but it’s rare that I only have one version of any given photo. This post, for instance, illustrates the subtle differences that I might try – so does this one.

This trip to the garden failed to net any images of the green anoles that frequent the locale, and even the frogs were pretty scarce – curiously, since (as we established above) the weather has been absolutely ideal for them. This session was with a student, and we both checked out one of the ponds for the resident common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina,) eventually finding one of the pair vaguely visible in the murky water. The pond is quite small, seemingly too small for two turtles of this size, but they appear to be perfectly happy with it. Let’s pause here and contemplate the thought of snapping turtles seeming in any way “happy.” Difficult to reconcile with their appearance, isn’t it?

What, you want a visual aid? Lucky for you that the other snapper was soon discovered basking on the walkway, drinking in the afternoon sunlight even though, you know, it was completely unnecessary given the marvelous temperatures.

common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina basking on walkway
common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina being harassed by paparazzi human Homo sapiensCertainly a carefree and chipper-looking species, isn’t it? You can almost picture it rolling onto its back and playing with a ball of yarn. The mud and algae on the carapace is typical of the species and its habits, only adding to the perky effect of its scaly skin and enormous claws – I think our concepts of how dinosaurs appeared have a lot to do with snapping turtles, since we have no fossil evidence of what dinosaur skin was actually like. Consider, too, how we can see images of Galápagos tortoises and find them mellow, perhaps even kindly in a geriatric way, while we cast a critical eye at snappers like this and only consider them irascible and bellicose, despite having virtually the same behavior.

I should say I am referring to the prone one in the photos, and not the crouching one, which is the Inculcated Al Bugg, this time maintaining a respectful distance from his photo subject. He appears here mostly for scale, and obtained much the same kind of photos of me from his own vantage, though he has yet to forward them to me so you’ll have to use your imagination. Perhaps it’s better that way…

The following day we ventured into Duke Forest while the pleasant weather continued unabated… I’m sorry, I just can’t keep it up. It had dipped to near-freezing overnight and was still freaking chilly, making me doubt the likelihood of seeing much of anything; the area is great for water snakes at least, but only when it’s warm, and I wasn’t holding out much hope. Instead, we stuck largely to scenics, and while Mr. Bugg was working on his long-exposure techniques with moving water the proper way, with a tripod and cable release, I shot a couple of experiments handheld to see how the optical stabilization built into the lens would hold up. This is at 1/5 of a second, and not too shabby for all that.

moving water handheld at 1/5 second, 18mm focal length
Fartistically, of course, it could be better, but I’ll wait until the foliage is much further along and I can wade into the water for an ideal vantage without inducing frostbite and gangrene.

While examining a small pool formed by higher stream levels, I discovered a newly-molted crayfish that was still soft, with its discarded exoskeleton nearby – you might see those images on Al Bugg’s blog. I also stirred up a pair of little salamanders, one of which I managed to perch in my left hand while the right handled the camera.

unidentified salamander in palm
There are too many salamanders in NC to try to identify this one, especially since it’s a juvenile and bears different coloration from an adult. Suffice to say it was no more than 5cm in overall length, and able to be captured only because the pool was small enough to limit its hiding places when I stirred it up by lifting the flat stones.

It was touch-and-go on the availability of sunlight for a while, starting out near-overcast and developing into scattered clouds that would change the lighting abruptly in either direction – this stopped me several times as I positioned myself for an interesting image in sunlight, only to watch it vanish in seconds as a cloud moved in, whereupon I would peer at the sky and judge which way the cloud was moving to determine whether it was worth the wait. Doing long-exposure water pics is better with the clouds, however, since the sunlight brings bright reflections off of the splashing water, little points of white that take away from the smooth and smokey appearance of the rapids. As the clouds finally cleared for good and the day began to get warmer, it stirred up the wind, at times none too gently – I had to start using the chin-strap on my hat to retain it, and was a little surprised not to hear more limbs dropping in the thicker forest that surrounded us, despite how deep the valley was.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon in protected basking areaImmediately before we had to wrap it up for the session, we finally found one of the subjects we’d come down to see, a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon.) They can often be observed right near the concrete apron where the gravel access road crosses the river – the jumble of rocks and frequent jams of dead trees brought by the currents make an ideal habitat, good hiding places while convenient to the water. This one had found a nice spot, fully exposed to the warming sunlight while sheltered from both the wind and casual observation. I actually compared the markings on this one against the one found last year not ten meters from the same location, trying to determine if they were the same individual. Answer: nope – see the markings immediately behind the heads. Not at all surprised, since plenty of them live in the area, but I’d hoped anyway. We’d spotted this one perhaps 20 minutes earlier with only its head poking from the water, so it had been basking long enough to dry out, and hopefully was warming up adequately – the temperature dropped to near-freezing once again that evening, so its window of activity was markedly brief.

It’s better than snow, but I still feel a bit cheated at the spastic nature of the spring right now. Nature photographers don’t like being put on hold.