Are you serious?

pareidolia face in iceAmong the many reasons why my photography, and thus my posting, has slowed down so much is the temperature, which like most of the rest of the country has dropped significantly. The triops tank on the porch, which was no longer showing any activity anyway, had formed several thin sheets of exploratory ice crystals extending down into the depths – cool enough (a ha ha) when viewed within the water, but much more distinct when removed. Yet the real reason I’m commenting is that, unless you’re a rare individual, you will have no problem seeing a face in this image, at the very least now that I’ve mentioned it.

Just pause here for a moment and consider how ludicrous this is. About the only details that contribute to this idea are a round spot, hardly rare in nature, and a jagged gap underneath that we interpret as a mouth. But, c’mon, is there any species in the freaking world that even remotely resembles this? If we actually saw a person like this, wouldn’t we be struggling to suppress our instinct to spew obscenities (while, my instinct, anyway) for the sake of decency? While many people could spot the ‘face’ instantly, how hard would it be to program a computer to find it? Could we explain this human trait to the visiting extra-terrestrials? Maybe they’ve already seen this weird thing in us, and that’s why they’re staying away. That and some internet memes…

This tendency to see faces is very common, and called pareidolia. And it’s remarkably easy to provoke. While anyone might argue that this isn’t supposed to represent a true face, only a cartoonish caricature, that doesn’t actually explain anything – it’s likely that we can get anything out of cartoons because of precisely this trait, since if you look at most cartoons, the features that represent a face are often not much more detailed than this, certainly not anything close to human appearance by any measurement. The point is, it doesn’t take much to make us see a face, and we’re easily capable of ignoring numerous missing details, bad proportions, and extraneous spikes coming from the forehead.

It’s not just faces, as some of the examples at this page from the Skeptic’s Dictionary shows. We can spot similarities in shapes, contours, shadows, and contrast, for faces, whole bodies, and even positions. At some point, this all crosses the vague line into what we can call pattern recognition, and it’s not even clear we were ever outside of it in the first place. We are, as a species, quite adept at pattern recognition, which may provide a bit more understanding of some points on that page. They list Carl Sagan as saying that pareidolia is an evolutionary trait, but then pronounce some skepticism of this, saying that there’s no evolutionary advantage for “a hawk to be dive-bombing shadows on rocks.” This is perhaps taking a rather superficial view of evolution. A hawk attacking a shadow isn’t likely to produce anything detrimental to the hawk if it’s wrong, simultaneously being extremely beneficial if the shadow really is a prey animal – the benefits outweigh the hazards by a significant margin. And the same can be said for pattern recognition as a whole, throughout many different species. Because of the way genes dictate development, patterns in coloration are actually common, and spotting these can lead to a meal, or to determining the predatory species before they’re too close to avoid. Some species have even developed an advantage based on this trait, by showing eyespots or other traits of dangerous predators to ward off potential attackers. There is also aposematic coloration, the ‘keepaway’ warning of bright, contrasting colors, which present a distinct pattern coupled with a discouraging defense that together are firmly memorable; one bad experience being enough to merit an ongoing avoidance of the species. While patterns of behavior, and cause-and-effect, are also traits that can help a species predict an outcome, which can be useful for the fox capturing a mouse under leaves all the way up to humans planting crops for a later yield. In fact, a vast majority of our knowledge base can be attributed, at least in part, to pattern recognition, and even our scientific method emphasizes replication: ensuring there really is a pattern in the first place.

Pareidolia, then, might be considered an over-sensitivity to such patterns, recognizing a visual cue that really doesn’t exist. As indicated above, this is not necessarily detrimental, and it should be noted that no species is perfectly primed towards survival; while our upright stance provides a lot of benefits, it also leads to chronic back and knee issues in our species. The fact that our species, with very few exceptions, is so inordinately prone to finding faces and patterns is extremely strong evidence that it’s an evolved trait, even if it’s so vague as to produce a face from misshapen ice.

Having bad eyesight, I have another perspective that might have some bearing, one that we often don’t think about in our world of corrected vision. If our vision is bad, the finer details are often lost, and what we might see are vaguer shapes, defined more by contrast. There is nothing that defines perfect or optimal vision; it all depends on our environment, so everyone relies on pattern recognition in one circumstance or another, such as spotting a distant face in a crowd. Caricatures often rely upon the details we’re more likely to notice, exaggerating them far beyond reality while still sparking recognition in most people.

This has already turned out to be a much longer post than originally intended (sorry,) and I keep finding more bits to speculate upon. For instance, the amount of pareidolia that relates to religious themes seems remarkably high, leading to some thoughts about whether religious people are far more prone to seeing such images, and why this should be. However, this is assuming that the pattern I thought I saw actually exists, which is not really supportable. People can see faces in soda cans and manhole covers, and may see several a week – they’re just not remarked upon very often. Religious images, however, are validation, often considered evidence of supernatural influence and ‘a sign’ of something. Thus, it isn’t necessarily that religious folk are more inclined to see it, they may simply be more inclined to find significance in it, and from my own experience, this is practically a defining trait of religious folk. There is a certain level of amusement to be found in these; no physical description of jesus or mary exists in scripture, so anyone’s impression is either imagination, or based on artwork that was the artist’s imagination, while no one ever finds the face of muhammad because any likeness is considered blasphemous…

I mentioned above about teaching a computer to find faces, yet it’s been done – not necessarily for any useful reason, but many cellphones now have facial recognition software, because I guess humans need the help? It couldn’t possibly be because smartphones are ridiculously expensive toys. But anyway, this article has a great composite image of random polygons that, at low resolution, look like portraits – mostly of Albert Einstein, which you’re welcome to make all the snide comparisons to the above paragraph that you can. There are two more articles that I found while poking around, here and here, that may also be entertaining. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on the ice…

Measuring sticks

I like perspective. Not just the kind used in photography, but the kind that changes the way we think about something. It’s very interesting sometimes, in that there are bare facts, and then there’s the way we feel about them, how we classify the information and relate to it. It comes up quite a bit in the spirited (read: vehement) discussions of free will which, whether it exists or not (it doesn’t,) still doesn’t change how our lives operate. A curious place for it to spring up, however, is in regards to Pluto.

This is perhaps the most contentious astronomical subject, at least to the general public, and a lot of it has to do with how we phrase things. As most people know, Pluto was one of the nine planets almost from the moment it was discovered, up until 2006, when its nomenclature was changed to dwarf planet. Invariably, this is referred to as being ‘demoted,’ and the qualifying term dwarf probably also contributes. A lot of people resent this change, even refusing to accept it, and get surprisingly emotional about it.

First off, there is no such thing as demoting a planet, since there is no status or prestige a planet can hold anyway, except in our own eyes. Pluto remains unchanged, and quite likely (barring a lot of our physics knowledge being dramatically overturned) completely unaware of its title, or indeed anything at all – it’s a frozen rock, and was long before we apes started jumping around and worrying about HBO series. The reason the classification was changed was to help distinguish various bodies found in our solar system. We make up all of these terms, including ‘planet,’ just to communicate, and any changes are intended to facilitate this (though perhaps not successful in this endeavor.) Yet they remain just abstract ideas in our heads.

Let’s go ahead and get dwarf planet out of the way. It’s defined by a solar system object a) orbiting the star, and not another body like a planet, b) large enough to shape itself through its own gravity, and c) incapable of clearing its orbit of any debris. That last bit is the clincher, since Pluto sits in the Kuiper Belt with a lot of other, smaller bits of rock and ice, while the eight major planets have gathered up the majority of loose matter and absorbed it. Another dwarf planet, Ceres, sits within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, while most of the others are out there in Kuiper territory with Pluto, some even beyond that.

We have millions of bits of stuff in our system. The asteroid belt contains lots of rocky bodies with highly irregular shapes, lacking enough mass to pull themselves into a sphere, the most gravitationally stable of shapes. Many satellites (‘moons’) of the planets are large enough to have done this, but of course orbit their planets and not the sun, thus that distinction – this is notable, since a lot of them, including Earth’s moon, are larger than Pluto.

One of the potential new classifications, back in 2006, was that a planet must be substantially larger than its moons, which would also have ruled out Pluto. Every moon exerts its own gravitational influence on the host it orbits, tugging it around in proportion to its mass, causing a wobble in the host’s orbital path around the sun. Pluto’s largest moon Charon is large enough that they pretty much orbit each other; the common center of gravity between them lies outside of Pluto’s diameter, so it doesn’t just wobble, it circles, like two skaters spinning with joined hands.

Now for fun, let’s look at some other qualifications that we could use:

A planet should be able to support an atmosphere. Pluto would make it, Mercury would not.

A planet must have a moon. Pluto wins out again over Mercury, and Venus as well. It has, in fact, five moons, so it ranks well above Earth (one moon) and Mars (two minuscule moons) in that respect as well.

A planet should have an axial tilt relative to the orbital plane. In other words, it should spin ‘upright’ in relation to its path around the sun. This depends on how sloppy you want to get, since none fit this bill, but Mercury is closest with 2°, Venus and Jupiter close behind with 3°; the rest, including Pluto, are tilted significantly, Uranus being totally screwed. And Venus rotates the opposite direction from all the rest.

A planet should be a rocky body. As opposed to being gaseous like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

We could go on, but basically, one can create any sort of criteria one wants and pin this label on anything at all. Pluto is unique in a lot of ways, and can be appreciated for those. It is probably far older than the Earth, if you count being in a solid shape or stable orbit; Earth’s moon was likely formed by a collision with another Mars-sized object early on, and both had to restabilize. Earth may only exist, at least where it is now, because of the gravitational influence of Jupiter, which both prevented it from being drawn closer to the sun and helped clear away other bodies that would have caused catastrophic impacts. Pluto may also harbor the oldest molecules in the solar system, or very close; it is too far out for heat from the sun to cause many affects in its atmosphere, and too small to produce gravitational pressure that would catalyze any elements it possesses, which cannot be said for any of the major planets, and a few of the dwarves.

And what this is demonstrating is that all of the bodies in our system are unique. We can apply any labels to them as desired, when we think broad classifications are useful, but this in no way makes anything either unremarkable, or part of a prestigious group. In a way, this starts to sound like the misguided validation trend of the ’90s, where every child was special, but this doesn’t exactly apply; humans have a desire for recognition and improvement, and moreover very good reasons for pursuing these, so thwarting them by lowering the bar denies their usefulness. In contrast, all of the bodies in our system have something they can teach us, and no benefit to be accrued from either improvement (whatever arbitrary definition one uses) or change of any kind. Worry about the label only when the label has some application.

But this brings us to New Horizons. New Horizons is a probe currently on its way to visit Pluto, having begun its journey in January of 2006. On December 6th of this year, it will awaken from hibernation for the last time to begin its primary mission, while in January it will start actively collecting data about Pluto and its various moons. On July 14th of 2015, it will make its closest pass of Pluto before it trundles on towards even further reaches.

This might seem odd, but it’s a flyby mission, unlike many others that we know of, such as Cassini and the Mars Global Surveyor. As mentioned in an earlier post, it took quite a bit of maneuvering to get New Horizons on a path to intercept Pluto in the first place, because it’s so damn far out there; it used Jupiter’s gravity as a slingshot boost to be able to reach Pluto without relying on rocket thrust. Basic premise: thrust requires fuel, which is mass/weight. Mass/weight requires fuel to move. The more fuel you boost into space, the more fuel is needed just for the fuel’s own mass. The goal is to need as little fuel as possible so the mass being boosted is something more productive, like instrumentation.

Now, to reach Pluto in the nine years it’s currently taking, New Horizons has to be booking right along; presently it’s clocking 52,704 kph (32,749 mph) in relation to the sun, mostly ‘straight out.’ So in order for it to orbit, it would not only have to turn, it would also have to slow down to orbital velocity, somewhere below Pluto’s escape velocity of 4,320 kph. That’s a lot of fuel, that it would have had to carry the entire way. Long story short: it doesn’t, and is only going to whiz past Pluto and further into the Kuiper Belt, but not before gathering as much info as possible.

Which should be significant, since nearly all of the information we have has been gathered from Earth’s immediate vicinity. There have certainly been probes that have been much farther from Earth than, say, the Hubble Space Telescope, but that doesn’t mean that they were any closer to Pluto. We tend to think in terms of the concentric circles of the orbital plots that we always see illustrated, lining up the planets (and dwarf planets and non-planets) nicely, but they all orbit; while Cassini is hanging out at Saturn, this still might be on the other side of the sun from Pluto, even farther away than Earth. The New Horizons mission had some pretty crucial timing, in that using Jupiter for velocity assistance required Earth, Jupiter, and Pluto to reach appropriate positions in their orbits, something that wasn’t going to happen again for 300 years.

So most of what we know has been obtained from a great distance – always at least 4.28 billion kilometers (2.66 billion miles,) which is the point where Earth’s and Pluto’s positions come closest together. Hubble has been responsible for the best looks of Pluto to date, which haven’t been all that detailed.

Hubble Maps Pluto

That’s it; that’s all the detail we have. Are those blobs clouds? Craters? The missing Martian canals? A Monolith stockpile? We don’t know yet. You’ve seen some of the detail that Hubble is capable of, so this illustrates just how small and distant Pluto is, but if that’s not enough, how about an animation of Pluto and Charon, taken by New Horizons in August of this year?

Wait – they’re not round? No, they are, they’re just too dim for all of the surface features to show in the exposures used, not to mention they’re shaped by the pixel dimensions of the camera sensor, so they get irregular outlines; again, check the distances listed in the image itself. New Horizons traveled from 429 million kilometers away to only 422 million during this animation – in comparison, Earth’s closest approach to Mars is 54.6 million kilometers, and you know what that looks like in the sky.

Also note, as explained on the page that the image links to, that both Pluto and Charon are wobbling. This is not from bad camera aiming, but because the image is pinned on the common gravitational center of the two, the barycenter. Discussing this illustrates the difficulty and relativity of orbital mechanics. If you’re on Pluto, it would seem rock-steady and Charon would be orbiting, but the same in reverse would be seen from Charon, just as we sit here on Earth orbiting the sun and think the sun ‘rises’ and ‘sets.’ But if you took Pluto’s time and distance to orbit the sun to obtain an average orbital speed, that’s the barycenter, and Pluto advances and retreats routinely around this due to Charon’s gravitational influence.

Another interesting note is that New Horizons’ mission is still being planned, with the Hubble Space Telescope still scouting targets of potential interest after the probe passes Pluto. Part of this is because the timing of the probe’s launch was crucial; part of this is because there’s a huge demand on Hubble’s time, from astronomers all over the world – anyone can apply to use the scope, but they have to petition for it and make their case for how important their research is (so you’re welcome to try, but don’t hold your breath.) As yet, while there are some potential targets in range of New Horizons‘ path and limited fuel, to the best of my knowledge nothing has been confirmed yet. Suffice to say that the folks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the ones that control New Horizons, don’t consider the mission over once the probe passes out of effective range of Pluto, even though the flyby is the only confirmed mission; everything else will be gravy.

So keep watching the astronomy news. In a few months, New Horizons will be pumping out images and information about this little dwarf and its moons, providing a hell of a lot more information than we’ve been able to determine since its discovery in 1930. Meanwhile, you can go to the mission site for details and what we’ve accumulated so far.

Now for a little bonus. The change of Pluto’s status wrecked the mnemonic that untold people recited to recall the order of the planets in their distance from the sun, such as “Mother very eagerly makes jelly sandwiches using no peanutbutter,” or, “Mary’s Violet Eyes Make Johnny Stand Up Now Period” (a ridiculous number of them use “very” in a stunning lack of originality.) It’s easy enough to change them to leave off the final P, but what about all of the other dwarf planets? Shouldn’t we be reciting them too?

And so, I took it upon myself to create one that includes them all:Missing velvet earmuffs mean cold January storms unleash numbing pain on helpless quaking men’s red ears since breakfast.

Got that?

It’s simple: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Orcus, Hauma, Quaoar, Makemake, 2007 OR10, Eris, Sedna, 2012 VP113.

Now, I know you’re questioning a couple of them, but bear with me. 2007 OR10 was originally nicknamed “Snow White” due to its supposed albedo, the reflectance it possessed; later on, it was determined to be red in color instead, and the original Snow White stories (before Disney) sometimes featured her sister, Rose Red – I am not making this up – so this was the obvious choice. And 2012 VP113 is occasionally nicknamed “Veep” or “Biden,” so I went with the latter, mostly because ending a sentence with “very” is awkward.

You’re welcome.

But of course

autumn trees against clear skyThis autumn has proven to be one that I’ve rarely had the chance to take advantage of: a fairly good display of colors, peaking during clear weather, with no storms or even high winds to strip the leaves from the trees. So while this area has few vantages that provide the best display of colors – generally something that overlooks rolling hills with a wide variety of deciduous trees – I have to say I bagged a decent selection of images, from several different locales.

Once again, though, bright sunny days are not always the best to pursue certain subjects, and vivid colors are among them – contrast can go too high and details can get washed out. Sometimes, it’s better to be in the muted light of heavy haze or even overcast, or in the deeper shadows of a full forest canopy – it all depends on what’s in front of you. For reference, see a couple of the closer leaf shots from a year ago. The colors aren’t quite as vivid yet they have a richer tonal range, more subtleties and a bit more variety.

Many areas that anyone might find themselves within aren’t ideal for nice scenic landscape images – there isn’t a good selection of differing tree species (and thus colors,) there are too many distracting elements or ugly bits of urbanization or industrialization, and so on. So sometimes creative framing can save the shot, finding a position that maximizes the impact of the good elements you do have and eliminates anything that doesn’t work.

autumn colors on reflecting pond
For instance, this image was taken within a housing development, at an angle that eliminated all houses, poles and wires, and bright blue recycling bins. The few colorful trees, spread out along the lakeshore, were grouped together into the frame by my shooting position, and the uglier longneedle pines between were captured in a way that their sparse, lopsided branches helped fill out the composition – if you look at the far lakeshore, that’s actually more representative of how the trees were laid out and how much color was to be found. On occasion, I’ve seen a single tree that I like and wandered about, crouching and dodging, to try and use it with some other element to the advantage of both. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but you never know without trying.

yellow floating leaves against bare branches and blue sky reflectionI am probably a little too hooked on using reflections and floating leaves, but hey, I like ‘em. The idea of ‘peak’ colors is a little misleading; there is often a point where you can see the maximum amount of colors, but usually a number of species have hit their most colorful much earlier, while most others are still green, and these early bloomers greet ‘peak’ with empty branches. Sometimes this can be worked into the composition, sometimes it’s a patch of distracting, somewhat anachronistic bare trunks. For this one, I decided to use those branches as a backdrop for the leaves passing by, and the blue sky and yellow leaves set off one another nicely.

I mentioned this before in the compositional post about water, but an awful lot of the time people just never notice the reflections at all, which is a shame, because they can be a really potent element. Always, always look to see what water is reflecting, because it might give you some great ideas, but also know that the two-dimensionality of images, the same thing that can make layers of foliage blend together into an indistinct mess, can make the reflections much stronger and more obvious than they seem when observing them in person. Depth-of-field has a lot to say too, because when we focus the lens onto reflections, it’s not at the distance to the water itself, but bouncing off the water and all the way up to the subject being reflected, which is usually a whole lot farther away. This means that you can choose to have either the reflections in focus, or the leaves on the surface (or the reeds growing within the water) in focus, but not both, even with the smallest aperture your lens can achieve. The selective focus can draw attention easily to one or the other, but it might also trash your plans to have them appear together. Also note that with a wide-angle lens, the depth-of-field characteristics might make the difference in focus trivial and virtually unnoticeable, so now the reflections may just make for more clutter in the composition. Observe carefully and experiment.

This next image I’m putting up fairly large (as far as the blog format goes) because I want some of the details to be clearer.
layers of colors
Here the water is half-reflective, half-transparent, giving an overlay of sky and foliage atop layers of leaves just beneath the surface. I also need to note that this is mixed lighting; the trees in the reflection are receiving full sunlight, but the water itself and the floating leaves are actually in shadow. This worked out rather well, since water always darkens reflections, so the exposure came out pretty well balanced.

A polarizing filter can be a handy tool in such cases. Light reflecting from non-metallic surfaces (which mostly means water and glass) will be polarized, so orienting a polarizing filter can reduce or even eliminate the reflections – you can adjust their strength in your compositions. It’s almost magical to watch what’s under the surface suddenly spring into view…

backlit red leaves against glittertrail starburstsSo while I’m on the subject of reflections, we’ll look at another variation. The reflection of sunlight near the horizon off of rippling water or wet sand is called a glittertrail, and naturally is a useful element in itself. A very small aperture (in this case f22) turns these little spots of intense light into starbursts. I liked the color intensity of the backlit leaves, but didn’t know what else to do with them until I shifted too far to the side and started blinding myself with the glittertrail – aha! I really wanted a stronger, more prominent leaf for this composition, but the wind was pretty stiff this day and whipping the leaves madly (which also contributed to the well-spaced sparkles off the water,) so this is what I got. If it motivates you to try a variation, fantastic – remember me when the royalties come rolling in.

I should also mention that sunlight coming into the lens in this manner is not only very prone to producing flare and ghosts, but very likely to trick the exposure meter as well. It’s not a bad idea to bracket widely to ensure you got the exposure that you like, or if you can determine what it should be (for instance by aiming off to the side just enough to eliminate the direct sunlight,) switch to full manual mode and override the meter entirely. The sun riding lower in the sky as we get close to winter means a lenshood should be almost constantly affixed to every lens, but that won’t do a damn thing for aiming right into the sun or its reflections.

We come to the point in the blog post where I ask, what’s wrong with this picture?
What's wrong with this picture?
If it helps, we still haven’t left the same topic I’ve been rambling on about for the past several images. If that’s not enough, look carefully at the bottom of the frame.

I did this on purpose, because it’s not often you get conditions this ideal, so if you’re still struggling, I’ll tell you: it’s upside-down. See? It’s obvious now, isn’t it?
Nothing wrong with this picture
slightly more obvious spillwayThat’s so much better, right? Uh, no? This is actually looking down from a small hill at the reflection of the trees and sky in the inordinately still water above a spillway, the lip of which forms the edge between the trees and the bright rocks, which are on the riverbed well beyond the reflection and the spillway itself. Here’s a variation that makes it a little more obvious, though I imagine it might still seem a bit mind-bending until the perspective falls into place.

In this image, it’s easy to see a particular trait that I mentioned earlier, that of the reflections being darker than the original – how pronounced it is depends on the sun angle (and to some extent the contrast settings of the camera.) Basic rule: if you want both to appear in the image, expose for the original, especially considering the sky. If you expose for the reflection (for instance, by aiming more at the water than the skyline itself when obtaining an exposure setting,) you will likely overexpose the sky and bleach a lot of the detail from it. I also have to reveal here that those who like doing that HDR stuff almost always miss this trait, and make the reflections too bright in comparison to the sky, a dead giveaway to any experienced photographer or editor.

I have one more scenic shot I’m going to put up in this post, but before I do, I have to give a shout-out. Most of these images were taken on an outing with a student, and I don’t talk about students much because I’m respecting their privacy – not everyone wants to have a web presence. But this one has said he doesn’t mind.

Al Denelsbeck by Albert BuggSo while out shooting during yesterday’s session, a large leaf dropped and perched atop my camera, and the indefatigable Al Bugg (yes, same first name, and yes, we’re often not sure which one of us we’re addressing in conversation) captured the portrait. That’s the ‘heavy kit’ I’m wearing, everything on belt packs with supportive suspenders – ready for just about anything. Go ahead and laugh.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with perhaps my favorite shot (so far) this fall – if I’d had a couple to perch onto that swing I’d have done so, but no one was around at the time. I’ll leave you to ponder the difference in mood with the swing being empty, but I’ll point out that only two trees are displaying good color, while the one that supports the swing has already passed peak. Did you notice either of these before I mentioned them?
empty swing under spreading branches against autumn colors

Gently, gently

I had a student yesterday (which I’ll talk about more in a later post,) which meant that I wasn’t glued to my computer watching what was going in with Philae. Philae, as you no doubt recall from an earlier post, is the lander portion of the Rosetta spacecraft, itself riding shotgun with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Despite my cavalier terminology, it is actually worth making some careful distinctions; Rosetta is not in orbit around 67P/C-G, as the comet is far too small to provide enough gravity to allow anything more than dust to orbit.

[Okay, brief primer on orbital mechanics. Everything with mass has gravity, but gravity is actually a very weak force. It takes a lot of mass to provide the attractive force that we tend to think of as gravity. Orbit is essentially matching sideways velocity against the downward pull. Think of falling, but somehow getting shoved sideways while you’re falling. If you go sideways far enough, the mass pulling you downwards shifts out from under you, so the attraction starts coming from a different direction off to one side, and thus your motion shifts into a different direction. Go sideways fast enough, and you’re falling perpetually because the downward pull constantly reorients; one description I heard is, “falling towards the planet but missing.” Around Earth, spacecraft in low-Earth orbit move in the range of 29,000 kph, in relation to any given point on the surface – faster than that, and the orbit extends outward; slower, and gravity can start to draw the craft in. So when any craft reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, it does so not by ‘flying’ downward, but by slowing down enough so gravity reduces the orbital distance.

Gravity is often measured by “escape velocity” – how fast an object must be going (in any direction) to exceed gravity’s ability to draw it closer. For Earth, escape velocity is 11.2 kilometers per second, or about 40,000 kph. On comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, with its much smaller mass, escape velocity is estimated as 1 meter per second (not kilometer, note) – that’s the rate of a fast toddler, or if it helps, 3.6 kph.]

So in order for Rosetta (the mother ship, as it were) to ‘orbit’ the comet, it would need to keep directing itself with rockets, using fuel at an alarming rate – thus it doesn’t, but simply cruises alongside, matching the comet’s own orbital velocity around the sun. The comets spins, though, so Rosetta gets the benefits of orbiting anyway. There’s the old philosophical question: if a magnetic ball rolls around a compass in a circle, with the needle always pointing to the ball, the ball obviously circles the compass, but does it circle the needle? The answer: why the hell do you want to know? Which is the answer to most philosophical questions, which spend far too much time pondering supposedly deep shit with no purpose whatsoever. Sometimes the human mind is remarkably inefficient…

Anyway, Rosetta does not orbit in the sense of a gravitationally-determined action, but can see most of the comet anyway. And now the Philae lander has been launched down to the comet, and this is a serious challenge it itself. Described as the size of a washing machine, Philae weighs, on the surface of the comet, a mere gram (I overstated the case a bit in the previous post.) For most of us, this is better described as 1/4 of a teaspoon of sugar – it is safe to say that the European Space Agency did not spend a lot of money on the shock absorbers. But it also means that not only could Philae actually bounce off if it approached too quickly, it could also be shoved off, or toppled over, by the very things that make a comet a comet, the outgassing of material. So Philae has two items to assist in the function of getting down and staying down, which are a gas rocket on top to push it down to the body of the comet, and a pair of harpoons on the underside to lance the comet and draw the lander tight.

The interesting bit is, the lander is in place now, though neither of these actually operated, and according to the news sources available as of this writing, no one is sure why yet. So while it is there for the time being, it might not necessarily stay there if anything at all happens. The point, naturally, wasn’t just the bragging rights of getting there, but to perform ongoing scientific studies over the next several months, so efforts are underway to fire those harpoons and tie the lander down (sport.)

Philae was not equipped with any kind of video capabilities, just still cameras, and power is limited and carefully rationed, much of it intended for the various experiments. Thus, we have no video of its approach and landing, and only certain status indicators of its landing performance. It has been speculated, however, that the lander touched down twice, having been lifted off again briefly from the momentum of an internal flywheel winding down. The harpoons, designed for an almost-entirely unknown surface, are likely capable of penetrating dense ‘soil’ to perhaps even rock, deep enough to anchor firmly, and so may well have enough force to throw Philae off the surface again. Not to worry – that’s why they have cables to pull the lander down. But if you’re keeping up, this might mean that Philae will ‘land’ three separate times on the same comet, without any true capability of lifting off in the first place.

(I now have this irresistible mental image of Philae being blown away from the comet by the sublimation activity as the comet approaches the sun, tethered by its harpoons, flapping around in the comet’s wake like a balloon towed by a bicycle.)

I may be back with further info, but my best recommendation is to follow Universe Today, which is likely to be the most efficient method of getting updates – I say this after having watched a 40-minute podcast from ESA just over the successful separation of Philae from Rosetta, not really generating a lot of useful information. Universe Today also has a post of the ‘song’ that the comet is producing, fluctuations in the magnetic field that, as yet, have no determined cause. I suspect it’s probably someone else’s lander flapping around on the far side…

Grading on a curve

There are a lot of accusations of “islamophobia” in the media right now, springing up every time someone comments about ISIS and religiously-motivated violence, and it’s actually a good example of a frequent lament among all faiths; it is the inveterate defense of the religious whenever incontrovertible examples of bad religious influence are mentioned. In short, such examples are not representative of any faith as a whole; they are “not my religion.” And while this should be addressed in detail, it is also evidence of a much bigger, more subtle aspect that rarely gets recognized.

Let me get the immediate snarky response out of the way first. A phobia is an irrational fear, bias, or prejudice. There can be no such thing as “islamophobia,” since it is perfectly rational to be prejudiced against violence and beheadings and even rampant sexism and idiotic standards. And if you want to get technical, from a psychological standpoint a phobia is a deep-seated, instinctual reaction, reflexive rather than considered, and does not even remotely apply to criticisms or diatribes of any kind. At best, such reactions might be a rationalization of a phobia, like those who opine that all spiders must be killed with fire, but these remain two separate concepts; the phobia is the ingrained fear of anything resembling a spider despite the knowledge that 99% are harmless. Still, we’ll let this slide as a ‘common usage’ thing, since it’s not really relevant to the issue anyway.

Because basically, what religious folk are protesting is the eradication of the label that proclaims their superiority; if islam is not a good thing, then I cannot call myself a muslim with pride anymore [adjust as necessary for every religion on earth.]

Is this being unfair? Overreaching, oversimplifying? Failing to take into account the vast majority of religious folk who never participate in violent, reprehensible acts? Well, let’s take a look at this closely.

First off, the whole fairness thing has been addressed in detail here, but to shorten it to the core essence: what, exactly, counts as balancing out murder, mutilation, abuse, bigotry, sexism, and all of the other distasteful things that draw our attention in the first place? Call me crazy, but I think the key aspect would be that these never occur in the first place. While I fully comprehend the concept that, for instance, a death may be justified if it protects the lives of many others, that’s miles away from what we’re talking about here, which is excusing the completely unacceptable actions because there are other actions that are acceptable, ignoring that the unacceptable actions are also completely unnecessary. I’m sure, if you look hard enough, that you can find a positive aspect of behavior in every mass murderer. Why should anyone give a fuck?

I’m also in complete agreement with judging individuals, and separate situations, as standing alone, rather than lumping a bunch together under a broad, overreaching label in order to pronounce judgment on something as a whole. But there are two related aspects to consider herein. The first, the trivial one, is that religious folk have absolutely no problem with using these labels themselves as it suits them; this is, in fact, why the term “muslim” (or “christian,” or “buddhist,” etc.) even exists. The reliance on labels is routinely reinforced – and the reason so many get upset when such labels no longer carry the prestige they once did.

More importantly, however, is that I, among many others, do not think it’s enough to observe that certain individuals are violent/abusive/etc., especially when they’re obviously not acting, or even identifying, as individuals. Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who would like to see the abuse stop, and that means identifying the root causes and motivations – treat the disease, not the symptoms. And yes, it is perfectly reasonable to ask if religion is really the cause or motivation behind any such occurrence. It’s important not to generalize, or rely on armchair psychology, when it comes to understanding violent acts.

Yet, it’s a pattern that keeps repeating. Not to mention that the perpetrators themselves claim religion as their motivation. Even if we can find myriad causes or deep-seated, unrecognized motivations, it’s obvious that religion is serving some purpose therein, whether it’s to provoke followers, claim an unimpeachable authority, hide behind religious exemptions within the law, or simply fool the general public. Does it actually matter what it is, if religion can so easily, and so often, be tied to irrational, abusive actions? Any terrorist that claimed diet as their motivation, or their musical tastes, wouldn’t garner many supporters or positive public opinion in any way, would they? Religion serves this purpose with its appeal towards righteousness and authority, as well as a certain degree of base tribalism that has a fundamental influence on our thinking processes.

Plus, this is a two-edged sword. The primary reason people speak out to protect the reputation of religion is its supposed value in promoting good, ethical behavior – so can we doubt this value as readily as we should doubt it promoting abuse? How can we be sure of one and not the other? Fair’s fair, of course.

And that exposes much of the real problem with all of this. In the vast majority of cases, it is remarkably simple to find the passages in scripture that condone and even provoke such abuse. This is one of the many problems with most organized religions, in that the pronouncements found within the holy books are very often contradictory – saying nothing, of course, of the ridiculously variable (and remarkably convenient) interpretations of vague passages. Religious folk really cannot make any supportable claim that violence is not a part of their True™ religion, because it’s all right there in black and white. Selecting only the peaceful aspects is no different, and no more ‘authentic,’ than selecting only the violent aspects – no one can make any holier-than-thou claim when following any religion.

This extends all the way to finding any value whatsoever in religion overall. It’s fine if anyone wants to select the good bits and ignore the bad, and can make a case for what “good” actually means – but this means that a rational decision is being made, one that does not require any reliance on a religious label or authority at all; the same process can be used for all such options, including the secular ones. However, if there is even the slightest reliance on any religion, any scripture, any pronouncement from a holy figure as being evidence of a True™ higher authority – which is the entire point of religion in the first place – then not one devout person can make any claim of authenticity or superiority over any other, no matter what the faith, no matter what the action. The very reliance on faith itself, this nonsensical abandonment of cognitive decision-making in favor of blind acceptance, is wide open for abuse. Once we accept the standard that people are free to act in accordance with whatever interpretation of scripture they prefer – once we even believe scripture has any use whatsoever in guiding decisions, or that there is a supernatural realm where the definition of “good” does not rely on interactions with other humans – then we have abandoned the application of rational thought, discarding the functionality of consequences and weighing benefits and seeking a structure that provides the best results for everyone. And this needs to be emphasized very distinctly, because it really is incredibly anti-social; my religion is special and what everyone should be respecting, regardless of how abusive it is to you. This always sounds good if you’re on the end that gets the benefits, not so much if you’re on the other end. Or if you’re not pathologically selfish…

But we’re even going to go a step further on the selfish privilege line, because those that use the word “islamophobia” (and all the other variations of the theme like, “trying to destroy christianity”) are essentially saying, “Don’t you dare notice any of the bad aspects of my religion – you have to remain as selective and blind as I am!” And to go another step, they’re actually using a term that implies an irrational, kneejerk bigotry instead of a perfectly reasonable horror over fucking beheading people. This actually goes beyond offensive to the point of being reprehensible. And the only reason why we, as a culture, are so slow to recognize this is because we’ve been badgered into thinking that religion deserves respect automatically, rather than having to earn it as every other ideology and position does.

Let’s be blunt: if religion really was a force for good, then none of these points would make any sense, because there would be no religious violence or abuse in the first place. Not only would True™ adherents never resort to such tactics, but even the idea of using religion as a disguise would be ludicrous, like committing infanticide under the auspices of ‘motherhood.’ Religion shows up so frequently and repeatedly in violence and repression and abuse because its very structure is conducive to it, emphasizing privilege and authority and the abandonment of rational consideration, far beyond any beneficial acts. “Moral” and “ethical” are not hard words to comprehend, unless you believe the oft-repeated mantra that these must stem from ancient scriptural sources.

Yet too many of the faithful, loathe to recognize that their divine influence is completely incapable of regulating even those who fully accept it, don’t try to correct this on their own, don’t resort to a much more useful ideology, don’t even redouble their efforts to paint their religion in a positive light (which, as pointed out above, would be pretty damn hard to do anyway,) but instead try to blame those that are capable of recognizing the faults, that realize how ineffectual religion is as this ‘force for good.’ They attempt to maintain their special status by drawing circles around themselves, declaring that everyone outside does not represent their True™ Religion, which of course no one is allowed to badmouth. No no no, if bad things are happening, it must be something else, because by definition my religion cannot be bad. You’re bad if you believe that those bad people are motivated by my religion.

Interestingly, corporations and organizations have no problems dealing with those who depart from their standards, by firing employees, revoking memberships, publicly denying affiliations, and in extreme cases, actually taking perpetrators to court. Rest assured that if I started my own troop of Boy Scouts of America that permitted homosexual members and scoutmasters, the lawsuit would be immediate and any media I used would be blocked by legal force. Yet anyone can call themselves a sunni or baptist or buddhist, because there are no membership standards, no legal standing, no possible recourse. Which, when you come to think of it, makes any such title ultimately worthless. Most people don’t bother to think about it, though, and only accept the long-standing social idea that religion is good – god forbid anyone should have the slightest obligation to demonstrate this attribute.

But here’s the worst part. Every time someone defends their title, like “christian” or “muslim,” they perpetuate the idea that the title actually has meaning, and thus they enable the abuses in the first place. Every time someone defines themselves, not by what they do or even by their goals, but by their affiliation with some imagined ideal, they emphasize that this ideal has some kind of value. And let’s face it: we only have millions of people around the world believing in imaginary beings and realms and Master Plans because they keep hearing that others believe it, so it must make sense. Whining that this ludicrous state of affairs deserves respect is exactly why religion can be used as a recruiting tool for any batshit behavior imaginable. Insisting that there is some greater good or ultimate reward, in abject denial of the complete lack of evidence, legitimizes spirituality and mysticism and the justification of actions that result in very visible, measurable harm.

And thus, there are no ‘levels’ of religious belief, no divisions, no demarcations. Once anyone accepts the idea that some authority exists that is outside evidence, that any Greater Good exists apart from (and often in contradiction of) what is demonstrably beneficial, then the ground rules have been laid, and no one can then claim anyone else is bad for following the same damn rules. There’s really nothing to add to that.

No ideology should be about flaunting a title. It should only be about setting and maintaining goals. Nobody wears any symbol that denotes themselves as friendly, since it is immediately obvious to everyone interacting with them. We know someone is helpful when they help us. Imagine if everyone treated this as valuable, and the way they should earn respect?

Picture this

In doing the monthly maintenance for the blog yesterday, which includes some basic recordkeeping, I noticed that I had uploaded 62 photos for the month of October, which ties with the record set in December of last year. Despite being in the winter, December is explained by putting up a collection of images that I had prepared for the blog but not used throughout the year, kind of a year-end retrospective, but I have no event like that for this past month, so that’s not too shabby for the entry into the off-season.

Now it’s true, not all of the images were my own, which can be said for many months, including last December. Comparing them, December had three more original images than last month did, so if you want to tally it that way, it means I didn’t tie with the record after all. But if you count images shot within the month, October 2014 probably beats all others.

I just thought you should know. I’m avoiding the crass opportunism of including an image here just to get a start on November.

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 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.’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…