Save yourselves!

That’s the punchline they should have used. I mean, how could you miss it?
© Cyanide & HappinessThe question, naturally, is where the chocolate bunnies fit into this.

Cyanide & Happiness is, as one might guess from the title (or the episode here,) a rather warped daily webcomic created by three artists – Kris Wilson, Dave McElfatrick, and Rob DenBleyker (or so they claim.) They do rotations on the artwork, which is why it changes every day, and they now feature an animated short every Thursday. Let’s not forget the book, Punching Zoo.


Sorry, any jokes about a zombie jesus eating brains are obvious and redundant…

Lest we forget

I’m not very big on tradition – in fact, I find it pointless, likely a peculiar artifact of our evolutionary past – but I savor the opportunity to repost this, so consider me a hypocrite if you like. Either way, take this little quiz yourself, or past it along to all those you know who want to pompously remind you of the True™ meaning of Easter. Or is it Eostre?

8. When/Where did Jesus ascend back to heaven?

a. Jesus returns to heaven on the same day he arose, right after dinner, from a room in Jerusalem.
b. We don’t know exactly, but it’s at least 8 days after the resurrection, when the despondent apostles have gone back to being fishermen on the sea of Tiberias.
c. After his resurrection, Jesus spends at least 40 days of teaching his disciples in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven from the Mt. of Olives.
d. Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven; he met his disciples in the mountains of Galilee and told them he would be with them always.
e. We don’t really know; Luke is the only gospel writer who actually mentions the ascension.

The amusing undertone to this, as a supercilious wine-taster might declare, is that these questions refer to the number one guy in christianity; these should be the most familiar passages of their scripture. If the testimony of all the witnesses in a court case was of this nature, the case would be thrown out immediately. Triumphant creationists think a “missing link” is sufficient to refute evolution in its entirety. But this kind of babble is completely ignored, by people who still expect to be taken seriously.

Thanks to David Fitzgerald for the quiz, and Phil Ferguson at SkepticMoney for hosting it.

Enjoying the weather

wet mayapple leaves
I got out to poke around down at the park a few times in the past couple of weeks, the same park that produced the great chorus frog recording last month. There was a primary reason for this, as I’ll get to shortly.

The image above I included mostly for the counterpoint to the tulip plant I featured previously. The leaves of those had been so water-repellent it was freaky, but this plant was just the opposite – I’m pretty sure this is a mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum. It had rained sometime before sunrise, hours before this image was taken, and most plants had shed the raindrops long before, but this one was displaying them proudly, despite the drooping angle of the leaves. This load of raindrops made them conspicuously different from everything else around.

bold new bloom What I have been mostly after was more detail shots of praying mantids hatching, and the park hosts several egg cases in locations I’ve memorized now. So far, no luck – one definitely displayed the debris that told me I was too late, and a couple of others seem to indicate likewise, but I’m still holding out hope I can add some nice images this year. But while there, I grabbed some other frames as I explored.

I tried to determine what this tree was, with no luck at all, but I’m not too concerned – I just liked the shape of the lone blossom, as well as the position of the branches against the sky. This is typical of many trees right now, which are starting to bud out in earnest – the ones I captured close to two months ago are the earliest starters, appearing well ahead of anything else in the area. The leaves are breaking out on most of the deciduous trees now, finally making wider, landscape-style shots possible, and not as stark and bare as the background visible here. The area also hosts a serious population of loblolly pines, but these are longneedle trees, the kind that are used for telephone poles, and they tend to lose all branches and needles down low as they grow, leaving only a green crown at the top. I’ve said it before: they’re ugly trees, hardly qualifying as ‘evergreens,’ and even a dense stand of them won’t appear healthy and vibrant. If you live in an area with firs and spruce, be grateful – at least you have something to photograph in the colder months.

I have no idea what these areI’ll provide a couple more images of those blossoms, taken only a few days apart – if you know what these are, feel free to comment. I tried numerous different search terms for the color of the latter stages seen here and couldn’t turn up anything at all. Of course, I’m a guy, so my color vocabulary is limited – I resisted the urge to call these “beef-colored.” The leaves haven’t developed far enough yet to use as a guide, and even searching under “inverted flowers” turned up nothing that looked close. Trees have never been my thing.

The small pond in the park is now populated, and I use that word with reckless understatement, by tadpoles right now. Last year I had visited during the frenzy of mating season, and this year we can see the result of such unbridled passion.

waayyy too many tadpoles

The pond is maybe six by twenty meters and very shallow, really just a stormwater catch basin, but it meets with amphibian approval. Then again, so does a deep puddle, so this accolade is of limited use. I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of tadpoles within, but it easily numbers in the tens of thousands. While it would be nice to provide some development shots as they transition into toads or frogs, I may be competing against the herons who do not appear to have discovered this bounty yet. The numbers will dwindle drastically in the coming weeks, so we’ll see what happens.

I couldn’t pass up another image, but can you blame me?

tadpoles swimming atop lily pad

And I’ll throw in a couple of frames grabbed while out with a student; immediately below are the dogwood blossoms that North Carolina is so proud of, but I have no idea what’s below that, except to say that the pink coloration in the background comes from a redbud tree.

dogwood blossoms and pollinator

unknown blooms

Speaking of redbuds, I was pleased to see the eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis,) which I’d had to transplant last fall from alongside the porch right next to the azaleas, has taken the move without difficulty and is now leafing out, also producing its namesake flowers for the first year – not a lot, but since this was a spontaneous sapling that appeared on its own a couple of years ago, I can’t expect much.

redbud leafing out

A lot of the roots had spread out into areas I couldn’t dig them from and thus got left behind (which probably means the tree will reappear back in the original location too,) so I’m pleased that this one seems to have taken hold. It had served as host for a lot of critters last year, and hopefully will provide more photo opportunities again this year. I might also plant some morning glories at the base and see if I can convince them to climb the tree – maybe this time the hummingbirds will start visiting and I can get some natural-looking shots, instead of mostly at feeders.

Speaking of that, early last week I had filled a hummingbird feeder and set it out, figuring I might be a little early for this area but may as well be welcoming when they arrive. It was gratifying to see it in use within a day – I guess I wasn’t too soon after all. Since I likely beat any of the neighbors in getting a feeder up, perhaps I convinced them to build their nest close by. I witnessed a few mating display flights, and it didn’t take long before at least three were squabbling over feeding rights, as they tend to do, so I quickly put up two more feeders. I have yet to see a nest, even though I know they’ve been within a few dozen meters, but I don’t find this surprising; the nests are ridiculously small and usually buried well in the tree canopy for protection. One day I intend to find one I can watch. No pics of these yet – I haven’t staked out a feeder for long enough, and they’re still a bit spooky, but give me a little more time.

I’ll close with yet another image of one of the green lynx spiderlings (Peucetia viridans,) this time with the first observed meal of the year – which may well be its first meal since late fall. It appears to be the same species of filmy dome spider (Neriene radiata) from earlier, but I don’t think that same one seen in those photos, despite this being taken not 15 cm away – I believe that one was bigger. Either way, it’s been interesting watching these tiny green hunters weather out the fiercer-than-average winter on largely the same perch seen here, which was at times covered in ice (I have no idea where they scampered off to when that happened.) It might be cool if I found a way to tell individuals apart, just to chart their progress, but that might be understandably difficult. Still, get used to seeing them, because I’m sure more images are coming.
green lynx spider eating filmy dome spider

Oh, now he sends it!

lunar eclipse progression
One (or perhaps eight) more from Jim, showing the progression of the eclipse, with two curious traits.

These were taken with a fixed camera, shooting with a wider field of view than the images from the earlier post. An intervalometer was used to snap a frame every 150 seconds, and the resulting eight frames were stacked together into this one image. The camera didn’t move, the frames were not shifted – the moon actually moved this far between each image. As I have said before, the moon and sun move their own width across the sky in 150 seconds, just two and a half minutes. Actually, it’s the rotation of the Earth that’s (mostly) responsible, but you get the gist.

Then they should all be contacting one another, like beads on a string, right? Certainly – the only reason they do not appear so is because of the shadow hiding one of the contact edges. If we were to take one of the images and rotate so its non-shadowed side faced its neighbor, we’d see them touching.

Don’t bother trying, because I already did, and it doesn’t work – there really is a gap between them. Turns out, the whole “150 second” thing is not entirely accurate. The moon’s orbit is elliptical, which means at times it’s farther away from the Earth than at others, and of course this makes it appear smaller in size. Apogee, the time when the moon was farthest, occurred April 8th, while perigee (the closest) will be April 23rd. Thus it was roughly one-third of the way up from its smallest size. Note also that the moon is not perfectly fixed in the sky, only showing apparent movement because of the rotation of the Earth. It’s moving too, otherwise the phases wouldn’t change, but this movement is tiny compared to the rotation of the Earth.

I played around with angular size and time and all that, always a risky thing for someone who’s pretty bad at math, then got smart and booted Stellarium again, which will show the sky’s motion at any speed you like. A sticky note attached to the monitor confirmed that 150 seconds takes the moon more than its own width, producing a pretty good match for this image. In fact, using Stellarium to plot the time needed for an exact ‘beaded line’ is probably a pretty easy way to plan a cool photo sequence.

That was all trait one. Trait two is, the shadows are going the opposite way than what you’d expect. The moon is moving right, but the shadow is overtaking it from the left.

Most of what you are seeing is the moon’s own orbital motion as it revolves around the Earth in a little over 27 days. But a very small part of it is Earth’s orbit around the sun, which shifts the shadow it throws. This doesn’t account for much, since the whole orbit takes a year to accomplish, but it affects the speed and duration of the eclipse nonetheless.

The video found here illustrates this to a certain extent, but the scale for all bodies and distances are way off; the sun is loads bigger than that but much, much further off, while the moon is also significantly more distant. Thus the shadows thrown by the Earth and the moon are much smaller, and coupled with the inclination of the moon’s orbit, this means it only catches the shadow sporadically, thus the rarity of both lunar and solar eclipses (rather than occurring every new and full moon.) If you want to see the actual shadow cast by the moon during a solar eclipse, well, thank the Mir 27 crewmembers.

Aha, hmmmm

mantis hatchling moltI decided to try and answer a couple of questions raised in the post about the newborn mantids, so I went out and collected the debris that was still hanging from the egg sac, that the newborns had been suspended from immediately after emergence. The first thing to become apparent was that it hung from a webbing or silk of some sort, something that adhered to both the forceps and my fingers as I tried to deposit it into a film can (my handy collection bins.) Bear in mind that this is at high magnification, and appears to be nothing more than chaff, slightly larger than dandruff flakes – 3mm at best (thus much smaller than the mantids themselves.) Up close, I have become fairly certain these are actually molted exoskeletons, especially from the uniformity of the fragments. The emerging mantids seem to hang from a thread and split out of their skin, performing their first molt immediately after hatching to allow their legs to emerge. The pics I have of the hatching support this to a small extent, especially when examining the ones emerging from the egg sac, but I did not capture enough detail to see if any of them really were molting at the time.

Intrigued, I went down to the local park where I knew a few more egg cases could be found, this time with the full macro rig. The temperature is supposed to drop tonight and I expect this might delay any more hatchings for a bit, but I was hoping to catch one in the process before this happened. Short answer: not so far. I now know of about eight different egg cases, and only one has hatched – I was too late to see anything with that one. I will have plenty of opportunity to see more detail, provided I get my timing right.

Looking at our own egg sac again this morning, after having done the shot above last night, I found a new, smaller attachment of debris hanging from it. Only a minute or so of examining the bush confirmed my suspicions: a few more had hatched out three days after the initial emergence last Saturday. There’s lots of them around so spotting them for photos isn’t all that hard, but they’re extremely spooky about anything looming overhead, so actually getting close pics is pretty tricky. I got very lucky with these two, possibly because they were occupied with each other.
newborn Chinese mantises chatting
Not the pale coloration, and the dark eyes – these are a few hours old at best. Once again, these are about 10mm long overall, and you can even make out the mouth parts and those delightful little spikes along the forelegs, striking fear into the heart of any aphid around. I might have to try collecting one gently and doing some detailed studio shots, if I can convince it to hold still halfway decently – that’s likely to be a challenge. Earlier today I had coaxed one onto my finger, but it clearly found this Terra incognita and soon hopped off back onto the bush before I could get off a shot (I had anticipated this kind of reaction and hadn’t moved my hand away from the bush.) Even in a controlled setting, I may have a hard time getting a decent portrait.

And no, no bebby black widows yet. I’ll keep you posted.

Had my back

I was aware of the total lunar eclipse scheduled to appear last night/this morning (there’s that stupid “it changed day in the middle of the night” thing again,) but after a week of clear and accommodating weather, the front pushed in yesterday and we received solid, low overcast skies, meaning the only thing I could see was how many places nearby waste electricity by throwing their lights up towards the clouds.

However, my inbox this morning told me that Jim, at the Kansas branch of the blog, had much better skies. This was unexpected – he’s never up at that time of night. Nevertheless, the images shown here are (almost) all thanks to him, because I negligently allowed the weather to turn sour in central NC. You could put this down to cleaner living if you want, but he’s more of an atheist than I am, if that’s even possible, so it’s up to you to jam that into your worldview somehow.
Lunar eclipse beginning

lunar eclipse 40%

lunar eclipse 65%

lunar eclipse with earthshine
As a lunar eclipse progresses to this point, the photographer has a choice to make. Normally, different phases of the moon require different exposure times; this is because the sunlight being reflected is coming at different angles, more oblique for the smaller phases like crescents, and the camera meter cannot often be trusted (which is why people trying to get moon pics with automatic settings usually end up with a glaring blob – the exposure meter is reading too much of the dark sky and trying to make that brighter.) With a lunar eclipse, however, the light remains as direct – it’s just getting partially blocked – so exposure times can remain the same… unless you want to capture that cool orange glow.
lunar eclipse just reaching totality
That glow is sunlight being filtered through the Earth’s atmosphere, exactly as it does at sunrise and sunset. Were we on the moon at this point, we’d be seeing that really cool corona effect of a total solar eclipse, except that it would mostly be orange in color – the Earth blocks the glare of the sun but some peeks through around the edges, going through the atmosphere as it does so. This glow shines on the surface of the moon and reflects back to us, and the moon becomes this rusty color. But quite dim.
total lunar eclipse with earthshine

The exposure details are as follows:

  • Image 1. 1/320 second, f9, ISO 160
  • Image 2. 1/320 second, f16, ISO 800
  • Image 3. 1/320 second, f11, ISO 800
  • Image 4. 1/30 second, f9, ISO 6400
  • Image 5. 1/8 second, f9, ISO 6400
  • Image 6. 1/3 second, f11, ISO 6400
  • The change in ISO, to gather as much light as possible, is responsible for the grainy appearance of the latter images. Without it, Jim would have had to use much longer shutter speeds, and the moon would have moved too much in the frame during exposure – the moon and the sun move their own width across the sky in 150 seconds, so exposure times of even a few seconds will produce a blur at this magnification.

    The uneven lighting is due to the relative sizes of the Earth and the sun. From our vantage, the sun and the moon are close to identical in size – they both vary slightly due to changes in distance, which produces different solar eclipses depending on what time of year they occur – sometimes the moon cannot fully block out the sun and there’s a ring of light always remaining, called an annular eclipse. This coincidence in apparent size has actually been touted by some desperate religious apologists as evidence of god, who made the bodies this size to put on a show for us graced humans. Seriously. Because, you know, ancient populaces thrown into terror and believing the end times are nigh is always good for a larf…

    But from the vantage point of the moon, the Earth is way bigger than the sun, and rarely lines up perfectly square. The uneven lighting is because the sun’s corona shines past more on one side than another. Lunar eclipses also last much longer than solar, partially because of this size disparity, but also because of orbital motion – the moon’s orbit actually travels with the shadow a bit.

    earthshine with crescentBy the way, there’s another form of light that can fall onto the moon, called earthshine, usually visible only with a thin crescent. At such times, the sun is almost behind the moon from our vantage, shining largely on Earth at the same time (meaning the Earth would be gibbous when seen from the moon.) This light is reflected off of the Earth and shines on the night side of the moon, reflected back to us here on the night side of Earth. It is, not surprisingly, quite dim, so exposure times to capture it will almost always result in blowing out the sunlit portions of the moon. The best time to capture this is with as thin a crescent as possible, and the only times to see the moon with a night sky in those phases is right after sunset, or right before sunrise, waxing or waning crescent respectively.

    Now, go back up and take a look at that last eclipse photo of Jim’s. See the little blue dot at lower right? Is this a star? Well, putting Jim’s location into Stellarium and rolling it back to the timestamp from the image, I would say yes, it is – HIP 65821, with a magnitude of only 8.35 (that’s typically dimmer than we can see by eye.) The only time we’d be able to make out a star like that this close to the moon is during a total eclipse – otherwise the light scattered through our atmosphere would have obscured it in haze.

    And yes, Stellarium even shows the eclipse. Download it and check it out – it’s a great free program.

    Fish and reptiles and monkeys, oh my!

    I have learned that part two of the aforementioned PBS series, this one titled Your Inner Reptile, will be airing Wednesday April 16 at 10 PM, on PBS of course. Local listings may vary, but it does seem like they’re running this weekly.

    You also haven’t missed out if you didn’t get the chance to see Your Inner Fish, the first part – it can be viewed directly on PBS’s site by clicking right here. My understanding is this is supposedly restricted to US viewers, but you can get around this by using a proxy service. Since I have not ever attempted this myself, I cannot guide you on it, but a websearch should reveal how this works.

    I will reiterate that I found part one excellent, one of the best science programs I’ve seen, and the book is pretty captivating itself. Gather the kids, nuke the popcorn, get out your giant foam tetrapod fin (well, for the TV program anyway – it might make turning the book’s pages a little tricky.) Go check out the interactive website, too. And if you’re a teacher, this is definitely a worthwhile series to get the class involved in.

    I’ll throw out a little quibble, though: the use of fish, reptile, and monkey should be considered popular usage for convenience, but not scientifically accurate. The ancestral stages that we passed through on our long journey to Homo sapiens may have borne a superficial resemblance to these modern classifications, but today’s fish and reptiles and monkeys are just as much evolved from these ancestors as we are. Evolution didn’t halt or stagnate for any of them, and no modern species has existed unchanged for thousands or millions of years. It’s simply that, in some cases, the environments that our ancestral and our modern species had adapted to were fairly similar. While a shark and a tuna are similar in many ways (and commonly classified as “fish,”) they actually diverged from a common ancestor before the tetrapods like Tiktaalik, which in turn led to all four-limbed species including us. Tiktaalik may or may not be our direct ancestor – we might never know for sure – but it is an example of the development of supporting fins. Tiktaalik might be one of several cousins that existed at the time, and it was another cousin that was really our ancestor, all descended from a species we have not discovered yet. Fossils are rare things, providing tiny spots in history rather than a chapter-by-chapter saga – but, the progression of traits and timelines that we’ve found have been exactly what we should expect from the theories of natural selection and common descent, so this sporadic sampling is not a weakness in the slightest, and no other plausible theory exists to explain why this progression is so plainly evident.

    That’s enough digression – go watch the program.

    Mixed blessings

    chinese mantises hatchingI had a post in draft form wherein I mentioned that I was keeping my eye on the egg case of the Chinese mantises (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis,) figuring it was due to erupt at any time. This morning, that post was ruined.

    I was just about to head off to meet with a student when I took a last look at the egg case, and found it almost literally dripping with newborn mantids. I quickly got the camera out of the car and did a quick, impromptu photo session, toying briefly with the idea of calling the student and postponing slightly. I decided to keep to schedule, so I shot in natural (brilliant) sunlight, trusting to the camera’s exposure meter, which was not the best of choices. I was using a different camera with, apparently, radically different base settings for contrast and exposure – believe it or not, this is at a setting with contrast and saturation intentionally lowered, specifically to use in bright conditions, and it was still off the scale. I tweaked the image a bit in Photoshop to make it more presentable, but this is far from what I would have liked to have captured.

    Still, this is the first time I’ve gotten the actual emergence, and by the time I returned the action was over, so at least I have these. In the center of the image, marking the top of the swarming babbies, three mantids can be seen emerging from the egg case, which has the consistency of styrofoam, or maybe that expanding foam insulation stuff. They would draw themselves out like worms, legs held tight against their bodies, and stretch the legs out once free to slowly crawl down and join the mass of siblings, where they would pause for a bit to allow their chitin to dry and harden. One earlier emergent can be seen at the top of the egg case, scampering around cockily, while the hind end of another appears behind the emerging three. The dark spots are their eyes, and this hatching gave me a little more of a baseline in using their coloration as a guide, as we’ll see shortly.

    Newborn Chinese mantids drying out
    Here’s another view, as one plays daredevil off to the side. Notice how the heads have swollen after hatching, with the eyes becoming prominent. The whole mass was writing slowly in an insectily creepy way, and every once in a while one of the firstborns would scamper up or down the column excitedly. I am not, at this point, sure of what exactly they’re hanging from; while it could be each other, right now there’s also a string of some kind of debris hanging from the egg case, so perhaps they were using that.

    When I’d returned about four hours later, the young’uns had dispersed throughout the bush, and it took a few moments of careful examination to even spot one – then, abruptly, there would be several visible. They measure 10mm long at this point, and their coloration has become more what we’d expect, though they still stand out against the darkness of the azalea leaves. Their eyes have now blended in with their bodies, giving an indication that if you’ve found any with dark eyes, they really are newly hatched.
    Tiny mantis
    ice-covered mantis egg caseConsidering that on March 7th, and again on the 18th, this egg case was coated in ice during the freezing rain storms, it’s somewhat weird that these guys are out now – not because they’ve weathered the cold, but because it doesn’t seem like winter’s actually past yet. I’m cool with all the signs of spring that are apparent now, including the first hummingbirds at the feeder, and it’s interesting to watch the ongoing family tree develop – this is the third generation of this genetic line that I’ve watched here. There are also the green lynx spiderlings still to be found, which I’ll be watching develop – most of these are a few meters away on the rosemary bush.

    And then, there’s another generation soon to appear, and I’m going to horrify a lot of people by saying I have no intention of interfering, and hope to see the hatching. This will be a lot harder though, since mama put her egg sac under a wooden box out of sight, so I have to overturn the box to check on progress, something that I don’t want to do too often because I’d prefer not to disturb them frequently. Still, now that the egg case has appeared, I suspect the black widow mother will stay put regardless, and the newborns should be along pretty soon themselves. And yes, I’m almost positive this is the same one photographed last year. I’ll be sure to post any images of those babbies when they appear too, so you have that to look forward to. And should, because they look quite a bit different from the adult phase. Keep watching this space…
    black widow and egg sac

    Blame it on the environment

    This is partially an extension of a previous post about the amount of lying that is found within religion, and partially thoughts sparked by a post elsewhere on cults. While a lot of people feel there is a distinctive dividing line between religion and cult (most especially, no one feels they are a member of a cult,) it’s actually fairly hard to define the difference, but within the examination we can find some telling traits.

    There is no firm definition of a cult, and it is usually up to individual interpretation; to put it as directly as possible, religions are socially acceptable, while cults are frowned upon, often even dangerous. That’s not really much to go on. The thing to take from this is that it’s backward: rather than using some set of criteria to determine if some organization/practice fits into the “bad” category, instead we should be considering how we feel about the practices themselves, and how justifiable they are.

    To illustrate, take a look at the comparison table here. Do things like, “People are free to speak out against the tenets of a religion,” “Clergy are expected to be responsible for their words and actions,” and, “Critical thinking is allowed and sometimes even encouraged” sound like many religions you know? Does this mean we can consider mainstream christianity in America a ‘cult’ every time someone whines about those pesky scientists not considering god, or how their rights are violated when they cannot exterminate gays? It would make it a lot easier, I’m sure. (In counterpoint, this site shows an approach that’s not quite so fatuous.)

    We have to back up to think about what a church (not a religion) even is in the first place. Generally, it is a common meeting place where specific views are expressed and encouraged – at the same time, other views are actively discouraged. The whole point of it all is to get a group of people together, because of one key factor: we’re a social species, which tends to ‘go with the flow’ and feels uncomfortable speaking out against a crowd. We can be accepted by simply repeating the party line. That’s it. That’s a church – that’s why they exist. Do you really think that it takes weekly sessions throughout one’s lifetime to absorb one book, one set of tenets, one approach to morality and behavior? Even surgeons eventually get to leave school and work on their own, and what they need to know is a hell of a lot more involved than any religion that exists.

    We go back to those two sources linked above; one says that a cult “Exploits and manipulates its members with mind control techniques,” while the other says, “Cults are at risk of becoming exploitatively manipulative and abusive to members” – these same sentiments can be found from virtually any source that defines a cult. Yet the whole point of churches is to use exactly this methodology. As just one example, we are told incessantly that “faith is a virtue,” but why should we consider faith to be anything of the sort? Belief without evidence? Isn’t this glorifying gullibility? Do we really want to encourage people to listen uncritically to anything?

    But it’s through just such efforts that we have significant portions of cultures around the world that believe there are two different realms in existence: one that obeys physical laws and can be observed, and used with pinpoint precision; and one where souls live and miracles take place and anything at all can happen. And the only reason we even know about the latter is because someone else insists that it exists, and even that atypical events or strange feelings are manifestations of it. If we dare ask for proof, we get assertions that we should never ask, and should only just believe. It’s peer pressure, pure and simple; preying on the human traits of community and acceptance.

    Studies about altruism, about behavior and familial ties, about tribalism, and even just basic genetic theory, all support the concept that we have strong ties to family, weaker ones to our community or tribe, and exceptionally poor ones to ‘outsiders’ – this is remarkably apparent in organized sports, where the language of “we” and “they” is omnipresent. But long before we had these studies, churches (among many others) yet recognized the human tendency to lock into a community group, literally instinctively. While the Cult Hotline and Clinic site above states that cults destroy the family unit (and it’s not alone in this sentiment,) this isn’t exactly true – they redefine what the family unit is. Of course, so do churches, usually in the nature of extending the family unit to the whole congregation and their use of the term “father.” It’s not that one has different practices from the other, it’s simply the degree that either carries it to.

    A distinctive facet of every community, one that few people recognize, is that to have an ‘inside,’ there must be an ‘outside’ – much is made of the camaraderie “within our walls” without realizing what the walls are even for. The walls, of course, keep out the enemy; it’s the definition of ‘enemy’ that churches establish and reinforce. The whole idea that there is an evil being or force active in the world doesn’t come from observation or clinical trials; actually, it took these to prove to us that most of the things we interpreted as this evil force, mental illness and diseases and arguing with church leaders, were nothing of the sort. But again, it’s not that the practice has stopped, it’s simply changed in the degree in which it is promoted. Take it from someone who has watched the surprise and, yes, outright horror on the faces of some people when they discover I am an atheist: the dividing lines are not only very present, they’re strongly reinforced. Yet it isn’t just such big issues, as demonstrated by how many churches can be found in any area, even when they are all ostensibly christian in nature. Religion splinters precisely because people draw their dividing lines between “us good folk” and “those bad folk,” and it’s not the scripture that defines it, but in what way someone wishes to interpret that scripture. [As a quick aside, this is a small part of the reason why I find it so amusing whenever anyone says that their book provides "guidance."]

    Once groups of people get established, no matter what nature, they can easily become self-perpetuating. While a charismatic leader is often involved (this usually considered the mark of a cult as well,) it is only part of the equation; most of the reinforcement comes from the participants overall. The establishment of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors or attitudes is important. Most people envision ‘peer pressure’ as teenagers harassing one another over what’s cool, but in reality it’s the simple trait of taking one’s cue from others – seeking what everyone else deems acceptable and conforming to that under the internal compulsion to fit in. Thus it’s not that any particular attitude is compelling by itself, or that a leader is so convincing, it’s the concept of how many others hold this attitude, and how big the division is between it and ‘unacceptable’ behavior.

    It’s not shocking to anyone that like-minded people tend to get together – we don’t cherish our individuality, but our community instead. But within such communities, these tendencies can foster increasing gaps between those within and those without, because the reluctance to separate oneself from the perceived community means that any minor deviation, once initially accepted, can progress significantly in that direction. Often, this takes place in small steps. A minor variation is proposed, perhaps seeming odd but acceptable to the others, and so it becomes absorbed because it’s “not that big a deal.” After this becomes rote, then a further small variation is proposed, and the same thing happens again, eventually leading off in stages to a significant deviation from the ‘outside world’ and its standards of normal behavior. Political parties use this all the time.

    I’ll give an example of peer influence from my younger days. Someone I knew belonged to a church where some members could, so they claimed, ‘speak in tongues’ – for anyone unfamiliar with this, it refers to the special language that god speaks, and one must be truly faithful to display the ability; to everyone else it’s gibberish. [To all Europeans and anyone else reading this with incredulity: yes, we really do have people that bonzo fogus in the US. Not a lot, but they do exist.] Talking gibberish is, of course, trivially easy, so what makes anyone so fatuous as to believe such a thing? Quite simply, it’s because everyone else in the room is visibly buying into it, so even displaying a modicum of skepticism is considered rude and anti-community. Remove this gibberish-spewing person from their support environment and place them in a room of linguists to watch the change in attitude as their variable ‘word’ usage and the marked inability to actually produce godlike information is evaluated by those with an eye for detail.

    But wait! It’s magical! It won’t sound the same to nonbelievers, so of course linguists won’t be able to interpret it! And god certainly wouldn’t perform parlor tricks! Ha ha, so there! Once again, I am not making this up – these really are the explanations given for the gibberish. Is this a set of supernatural properties that serves some purpose, or a base attempt to conceal the scam? I’ll let you ponder that one.

    Again, it’s not just churches – I’ve seen the same behavior in UFO circles, where anyone expressing a critical viewpoint is immediately branded a paid disinformant. No, seriously. While you might think this is pretty extreme, in comparison with speaking-in-tongues it has a hell of a lot more statistical support – we have actual examples of paid disinformants…

    What happens within any circles like this is that any bit of information, any concept or idea, is not considered on its own merits but only on how everyone else seems to feel about it. It’s not a lie if everyone else accepts it (and it is a lie if everyone else says it is.) You think I’m exaggerating, or being dramatic? Tell me how anyone has proven that a talking snake existed, and yet not a jackal-headed god. Go to any church you like, pick five people, and have them explain to you how christianity has more supporting evidence than hinduism (change as necessary.) Or just imagine, if you will, the reactions you would get if, during one of those speaking-in-tongues demonstrations, you stood up and said, “Okay, hang on, how do we know you’re actually talking to god?” You know as well as I do that such a demonstration of critical thinking is not going to be, as it says above, “allowed, and even encouraged.” You’re not, it’s safe to say, going to be asked back.

    And even when there’s internal doubt, as there may be for, really, a lot of people in the room, there’s the judgment thing going on. Any questioning at all of the tongue-speaker indicates, according to the lore, that the questioner obviously cannot understand the ‘language,’ and is thus not devout – better to keep your mouth shut than be revealed as unfaithful. The entire room could be filled with unbelievers, every one of them unwilling to admit it, thus forming a unified front of supposed belief, all appreciating the emperor’s fashion sense.

    This happens all the time, and churches are far from the only place. Classrooms are notorious for being full of people who don’t understand the material and won’t say so for fear of looking stupid to their classmates (as an occasional instructor I can say, always, always speak up – there are more of you than you think, all wanting to ask the same question. In fact, even if you understand it but suspect someone else doesn’t, go ahead and ask, just for them – be a Dude.) Meetings demonstrate this too – any largish group of people can, and often does. This is without any concerted efforts to make someone an outsider or a heretic.

    Let’s examine another aspect. How early does one introduce literature, such as Shakespeare or Fitzgerald, to a child? How soon are they allowed to vote in government elections? Should this be done at five or six years of age? Many churches don’t seem to think this is too early to get exposure to their religion, often taken out of context and rather freely editorialized. The claim is that this instills an early and lasting moral compass in people, but this is complete horseshit; the grasp of ethical questions isn’t going to come without a much more mature background. People are horrified when they hear of adolescents fighting in wars, but it’s de rigueur to immerse them in religion very early. Of course it isn’t to build that moral fiber – it’s to establish the entire concept of supernaturality and magic while their minds are still impressionable and rooted in fantasy. Note that this is the exact same argument used constantly when religious groups are horrified over Harry Potter and video games and rock music and learning evolution in school. It’s only brainwashing if you don’t approve of the message…

    We come back to the ‘cult’ concepts of exploitation and manipulation, and examine what kinds of attitudes are fostered with constant immersion and reinforcement, especially in a group situation. And we can stop to think that very, very few people ever treat claims critically, especially from a ‘trusted source’ – family, teacher, religious authority, favored politician, and so on. People have a wicked (and stupid) tendency to decide early on whether someone is to be trusted or not, and thereafter apply this label to everything that person says. It’s not that the argument against the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes sense, or is even understood at all, it’s simply that Preacher Joe-Bob told me and he’s never wrong.

    Is repeating Joe-Bob’s horseshit still lying? Many people would think not, or at least insert the caveat that anyone doing so is acting from misguided innocence and not malicious intent – it’s not their fault if they were given false information while acting in good faith. But of course, this doesn’t make the information any less false, does it? Judging on intent and ignorance is actually switching focus from the information to a personal, emotional reaction – a little slight-of-hand that is often counted upon. Because while the ‘innocent’ parishioner is let off the hook for not knowing any better, the misinformation is still being spread. Build the right structure around lies, and they’re permitted to slip through.

    Every organized religion in existence right now is built upon a long history of prevarication. Most of the current tenets of faith have no scriptural source or, at best, an extremely specific interpretation of a vague passage. No religion today, that has roots back a few hundred years or more, would be recognized at all by practitioners from two centuries ago, much less from the time periods where the first copies were transcribed. In a way this is a good thing, because some of the proscriptions and recommendations within most scripture are downright insipid – yet, no one can make any claim of being faithful to scripture, and many have very little idea what is even in there.

    But think about this for a second: the flood myth is one of the best known stories from the abrahamic scriptures, yet it is appalling in its very nature. This omnipotent being gets fed up with its creation and wipes it out in its entirety (by drowning, mind you, not a particularly humane way to go,) save for eight people and a core of animals to start population over again. We don’t even have a word for this; genocide is exponentially smaller than eradicating every species – and one must wonder what the fuck all the animals did to deserve this fate, since they don’t have free will and aren’t beholden to the commandments of man. And yet, people worship the idea of this psychotic bastard.

    Now let’s look at some of the typical responses given when anyone is anti-social enough to point such things out:

    “It’s a metaphor.” For what? Seriously, even considering such passages as fables, the message is unchanged.

    “It’s all part of an ultimate plan.” Which no one seems to know. So, how effective is it to relate a story of petty retribution, and not the bit that explains how it’s actually good?

    “It’s the word of god.” No, it’s a scattered collection of writings, translated countless times, edited even more, and wrong many times over.

    “god is good.” Obviously not, if the actions are any indication at all – it’s really not hard to figure this out.

    The point is, we’re not supposed to, despite that ‘early start in moral behavior.’ All of the above, and many more besides, are examples of the kind of ‘answers’ religion provides – or to be more accurate, conditioning and manipulation. Hell, the biggest three are even referred to as the ‘abrahamic’ religions, in bold reference to the idiot who was going to slaughter his son at god’s command, until god said, “Ha, j/k!” There’s a message in there all right, and it’s “Good people don’t ask questions, even when doing stupid things” – and it’s thrown right in the face of the devout, daring them to recognize it for what it is.

    If anyone wants to know why religious folk are so capable of lying, it’s because they’re conditioned not to even know what the truth is, exploited by their own tendencies to take their cue from others. Which is perhaps putting it too nicely, making the devout seem like victims rather than unwilling to think critically, to recognize that humans are enormously capable of deceit, and no shortcut is going to work. Anyone who escapes from being examined judiciously is able to use that against us.

    Program review: Your Inner Fish

    I threatened to do this, and after watching I felt more than obligated, so let’s talk about Your Inner Fish, a video program from PBS.

    This one-hour program by Tangled Bank Studios is hosted by Neil Shubin, a self-described ‘fish anatomist’ from the University of Chicago, and based on the book of the same name. If you’ve read the book, the video will hold few surprises – but that isn’t why we watch videos, is it? And for the visual augmentation that is provided by such, PBS did an excellent job. CGI is present in a lot of things anymore, and ridiculously overdone in many cases, but here it was used judiciously and with great effect. Most of the program is straight video – interviews, set pieces, location shoots, and dramatizations – but mixed among them all, often overlaid on top, are graphics that illustrate the concepts and anatomy in a compelling and often dramatic way, but without going overboard at all. Fossils can be very hard things to merely spot, much less ascertain the details of, so the glowing outlines delineating their presence and shape are much appreciated, and manage never to get too obtrusive or distracting. Meanwhile, the virtual long-track across the curving tree of descent is both illustrative and expressive, taking a relatively simple subject and giving it a nice bit of flair.

    We travel to the road cut in Pennsylvania, where the first discovery was made, and thence to remote and forbidding Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, seeing firsthand the conditions that greet fossil-hunters (and many other scientists.) But we also see the lab work, watching skate embryos swimming within their egg cases and the beating hearts of unhatched chickens. Overall, the visualizations kept pace with the details, always giving us something to see along with the information imparted by the narrative.

    There were a few small exceptions. The actual developments spurred by the implantation of the sonic hedgehog genes were graphically portrayed, but not shown as real photos. There is an illustration of the tendons of the human hand, but not of the counterpart in Tiktaalik, despite indicating the broad attachment points for such. These are minor and largely up to personal preference; others might have wanted to see something else illustrated, or felt that what was included was more than adequate.

    Another minor point was the solitary perspective, only noticeable early in the program. Shubin announces that, as a scientist, he looks at people differently, and in a few other places he speaks of what “I” do, in circumstances where these are shared by not just the scientific community (whatever that is,) but everyone who even holds a strong interest in the topics. It was a slightly uncomfortable distinction, separating the scientist from the viewer, and served no purpose, but thankfully it was brief (and not noticeable in the book.) Shubin is an entertaining and enthusiastic speaker though, so this is a minor detraction in an otherwise positive presentation.

    The anti-evolutionist will not be convinced, unfortunately – a one-hour program covering a lot of territory isn’t going to provide the kind of rigor necessary, but then again, nothing would be adequate for a large percentage of creationists anyway; their desire is for self-indulgence, not real understanding. I’m not coming from a perspective that will allow me to judge, but overall, I got the impression that what was given in the program was a pretty enticing taste of what can be found, indeed in the book, but also with a greater study of the subject matter through other sources. It is one of the best ways I’ve seen science presented, beating out both incarnations of Cosmos, and appears well able to spur greater interest in pursuing some of these subjects. It also helps that PBS is marketing the book right alongside the DVD as a package.

    There are two more installments to come, Your Inner Reptile and Your Inner Monkey, and right at the moment it does not appear that PBS has scheduled these yet – I will try to keep an eye on them and throw out an alert when they’re due to air. I will do the same if this particular episode gets run again. If you’re not inclined to wait (and definitely shouldn’t trust little old unconnected me to catch the later episodes,) there’s always the DVD – it might seem a little pricey, but this is PBS, and part of that fee is going towards supporting such programs free of idiotic commercial interruptions. Whatever it takes, however, I urge you to check it out – I doubt you’ll be disappointed.