So real

Don't aske me, I don't know either
I don’t know how often this happens to other photographers, but every once in a while, as I’m sorting photos, I spot something that I didn’t see when I was taking them. Now, I don’t think I can really be blamed for this one, since this is a tight crop of only a small portion of the frame, which would have appeared much smaller than this in the viewfinder. But you have to admit it’s an interesting effect.

I’m biased, since I know what the subject is, so have a go and see if you can figure it out before proceeding below – I’m pretty sure there are enough details to eventually figure it out. Maybe very quickly – who knows?

So, at the botanical garden, an enterprising frog had deposited a collection of eggs, which were trapped between a partially submerged lily pad and the surface, actually protruding from the water a little bit. The water surface, curved across the tops of the eggs, was reflecting the surroundings, which mostly included the various arching stems of the water plants, in a distorted funhouse-mirror way. The deeply hazy skies produced more reflections from the water than bright sunlight would have, a common trait that can seriously alter how the water appears in photographs (if you’re after aquatic subjects, go for the brilliantly sunny days,) while thew dark circular background of the eggs highlighted specific portions of the reflections. The shapes that aren’t lines or curves are me, looming overhead – I’m sure you recognized my dashing profile.

Underlying

As you may have been told in high school, many great works of literature and filmmaking are actually metaphors, using familiar characters and situations to represent deeper, more nuanced abstract ideas. The reasoning behind this is obvious: even small stories, seemingly inconsequential events, are part of an overriding narrative and purpose, reflecting in their nature that everything we experience is a moral lesson intended for our interpretation. To demonstrate this, I’d like to show how one of the modern film classics, Raising Arizona, uses its elements to communicate an important ethical lesson.

The overall plot is simple. A former petty criminal named H.I., and his police officer wife Ed (short for Edwina – let’s not get confused over the moral lesson of this film) find themselves unable to bear children, despite their fervent desire to have a family. They soon discover than an affluent businessman of the area, Nathan Arizona, has recently (with the apparent help of his wife) had quintuplets. H.I. and Ed’s reasoning is, five children is more than any couple can be expected to handle, and it isn’t fair that they themselves cannot have any, and thus they conspire to kidnap one of the quintuplets to raise as their own. All of this is explained before the opening credits, and the remaining movie involves their desperate attempts to retain the child.

They face three obstacles to this goal: Gale and Evelle, two of H.I.’s former inmates (both male – see above); H.I.’s boss Glen and his wife Dot, no longer able to bear children themselves; and a bounty hunter named Leonard Smalls. Notable here is that law enforcement, while appearing within the movie, is never a serious obstacle, and mostly serves as a comic foil to propel the plot.

H.I. and Ed represent America’s Welfare Class. Ed, disappointed over her inability to produce a child, resigns the police force, unwilling to work for her dreams if they are not immediately achievable. H.I., a supposedly reformed criminal, soon turns back to crime because his own employment does not keep him in the wealthy state he feels he deserves. They both take freely from those who have more than they, in this case represented by the baby, Nathan (“Nation”) Junior, depriving the Arizonas of the very family they worked hard to build. But as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that H.I and Ed are not responsible enough to handle even this small token. We cannot feel sympathy for their plight, since it exists solely through their own efforts.

Gale and Evelle, escaped convicts, represent the failed liberal expectations of our criminal justice system – instead of being reformed by their sentencing, they (notably of the same class as H.I. himself,) subvert it, leave the system, and return to criminal activity. They attempt to recruit H.I for their planned crimes, but note that H.I. is guilty of a much bigger one than they had planned, and soon escalate to the same level of criminal activity. Their plans, however, are to ransom a young “Nation” for the reward, holding our culture hostage to its idyllic “high road” approach, another liberal invention – return our nation and its postwar values to us, and we will reward you, no questions asked. The failures of this approach need no explanation. Note, too, that even as they hold the nation in their hands, Gale and Evelle cannot maintain the simplest of responsibilities, abandoning him/it in pursuit of their former goals – not even content with the impending reward. The message is clear: every inch permitted towards the criminal classes, in the guise of reform, understanding, or proffered respect, only brings us further astray.

H.I.’s boss Glen and his wife represent consumerism. While having a healthy family of their own, they have found themselves deprived of the ability to produce more, and all of their children are beyond the age of “cuddling,” or the immediate gratification of base emotions. Despite knowing the truth about Nathan/the nation, instead of making any efforts to put things right through the obvious, proper channels, they seek to exploit it for their own gain, short-lived as it has always proven to be. Their moral fiber is also demonstrated by the admission that they’re “swingers,” unwilling to settle for the proven stability of monogamous family life and pursing hedonism and sexually-transmitted disease. Glen displays a shallow, bigoted demeanor, while Dot exemplifies the emotional switchback of the dissatisfied suburban, both communicating how badly family values deteriorate in pursuit of short-term gratification.

Nathan Arizona Senior, the father of the child, is the only character in the movie that appears to make no bad decisions, and in fact is not visibly brimming with incompetence and self-absorption. He represents the concept of the blue-collar workers, the primary workforce of the country – competent to a useful degree but, as we are about to see, potentially dangerous when this competence is thought to extend farther than it should.

The bounty-hunter, Leonard Smalls, represents industrialism. Despite his outward ugliness, he is the only one who proves capable of locating the missing child. He approaches Nathan Arizona Senior with his services, but seeks fair-market compensation for his abilities – Arizona, however, does not feel obligated to conform to a free-market system and instead tries to have Smalls arrested, an attempt to use regulation (in the form of the police) to force his own advantage. Notably, Smalls still achieves his goal, locating the child and, through his efforts, seeing to it that Nathan/the nation gets back where it belongs. This occurs even as H.I. destroys Smalls with his own trade tools, showing that industrialization can achieve great things for this country despite the attempts of others to cripple it.

The message is plain: we have tried-and-true systems of prosperity and stability in this nation of ours, and they will see us through the chaos of short-sighted social programs and indulgent attitudes.

*    *     *     *     *

All right, all of that above was just so much horseshit, a superficial interpretation of story elements worthy only of a rank amateur. Industrialization and the blue-collar worker as antagonistic elements, indeed! Raising Arizona is obviously not a Tea-Party Conservative’s message against the lurking liberal demon, but an insightful commentary on gender expectations.

Gender names and roles are freely mixed among nearly all of the players. This is especially true of Edwina, the female protagonist, whose name is usually shortened to “Ed.” She is not only the primary breadwinner of the family, she is the decision-maker, even vetoing all of her husband’s decisions. This would gain little attention if it weren’t for the emphasis on the postwar-era family and household; the attitudes are remarkably old-fashioned, but the gender roles have reversed. This classic home sits in a barren desert, visibly distanced from the welcoming town that one would expect – there is no village of like-minded people. Even more telling, once Ed is convinced that she needs to assume the socially-dictated role of motherhood, the whole structure begins to fall apart.

H.I.’s adoption of the caregiver role repeatedly comes under fire, literally, from just about everyone he meets. Pressured to provide for his child, he encounters a pimply-faced adolescent in a convenience store, reading a “Juggs” magazine and brandishing an enormously phallic pistol – I hope I do not have to point out that this is intended to represent Common Society. Common Society and Authority (in the guise of law enforcement) are soon pursuing H.I. and using deadly force, all out of proportion for H.I.’s ‘crimes’ – diapers are even shot from his hands, hammering home the attitude of loathing for the househusband. Later on, as Ed tells H.I. that this just isn’t normal family life, H.I. replies, “Well, it ain’t Ozzie and Harriet,” as he retrieves the same diapers; we’re made aware that the impression of the idyllic 1950s suburban family contrasts sharply with the dedicated caregiver who perseveres in the face of social expectations.

Gale and Evelle represent the concept of the closeted homosexual, ‘imprisoned’ by society’s expectations. Their jailbreak is an act of frustration and defiance, and the heist of the farmers’ bank represents their desires to undermine the ancient, rural attitudes towards sexuality – in fact, everyone they encounter is stereotypically ‘country.’ Much of what they do is colored by dramatic displays of masculinity, including a clumsy and unconvincing reference to Ed’s breasts, but in a revealing scene, their attention to personal grooming proves to be their downfall, as the bounty hunter ‘tracks’ them by their styling gel; no façade is foolproof.

Also notable is their care of the infant, which is tender and thoughtful as long as they do not fulfill their dictated gender roles. Whenever they are called upon to act more masculine, however, the child is literally forgotten, a bleak commentary on how our society views child care as only a feminine pursuit. It is no coincidence that, immediately upon recognizing how damaging it is to accept this social stigma, the dye packet paints them a brilliant baby blue, a color both masculine and feminine, and thereafter they openly admit their mistakes and accept their true nature.

Of special note is Leonard Smalls, and one is forced to imagine the teasing such a name would garner in a typical school brimming with ill-handled gender issues. The first thing we discover about him is the “Momma didn’t love me” tattoo, giving us the cause of his ungroomed, antisocial appearance. Among his first words are the claim that he has no friends, an undisguised cry for help that falls on Nathan Arizona Sr’s unsympathetic ears. Arizona represents the American Father Figure here, unable to tell his sons apart nor even what they were wearing, dedicated more to the welfare of his business than his children. Smalls naturally comes to a gruesome end in a secondary moral lesson, telling us where poor parenting will lead, immediately after we discover a connection between Smalls and H.I. in the form of an identical tattoo (this one of a roadrunner.) Smalls had earlier hinted that he was sold on the black market as an infant, and we learn nothing at all of H.I.’s parents – I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

There are several other curious elements waiting to be grasped. H.I. takes over dealing with Smalls from Ed, despite her law enforcement training and parental dedication, an act that batters him mercilessly. The dogs that are unleashed against H.I., obviously another representative of the displeasure of authority, do not actually harm or even hamper H.I., instead terrorizing the suburban housewife doing her shopping, telling us where unbridled protectionism can lead. And we witness the transformation of Dr. Spock’s child care book, obtained to guide the new parents, returned battered, burned, and discolored by blue dye yet still intact; the core values of parenting lasting through whatever drama unfolds.

Thus we find Raising Arizona to be a prescient tale about gender roles and social upheaval, telling us that the turmoil over issues such as same-sex marriage and parenting (that we are seeing right now in this country) will still resolve effectively in the end.

*     *     *     *     *

Okay, hopefully you didn’t take that too seriously, since Raising Arizona does not actually deal with cultural expectations of gender, but rather serves as pointed commentary over literature in the late 20th century.

Note that the young parents (new authors,) determined to follow in the footsteps of others, are unable to produce a baby of their own; the child, of course, represents fresh, original ideas, and so we see them stealing one from those who have, as it’s rationalized, “more than they need.” Nathan Arizona Sr represents popular, established authors, cranking out near-identical plotlines in response to mass-audience approval, and so spurring new authors to try and mimic the success.

Glen and Dot stand in for unscrupulous publishing companies, producing unremarkable ‘children’ without any concerns over quality or originality. They offer the new authors a contract of questionable ethics, and when rejected, attempt to pressure them into selling out or giving up their story idea. Dot’s enthusiasm over the ‘child,’ closely followed by rattling off all of the supposedly necessary facets of new parents/authors, is a mantra many aspiring writers are all too familiar with.

Gale and Evelle represent the independent publishing methods such as vanity publishing and e-books, ‘breaking out’ of the established procedures and promising quick returns with little investment. In pursuit of these returns, the ‘child’ is forgotten, showing how shortsightedness damages the quality of literature by linking it to capital gains; the goal is the money, rather than producing a lasting piece of art.

Smalls, it should come as no surprise, represents the legal system. Claiming to be motivated with recovering the popular author’s intellectual property, Smalls is concerned instead with how much profit he can produce for himself. The story is not considered a product of the author’s efforts, but only a commodity that can be traded and sold by whoever possesses it at the time; the race to publish, and thus be considered the source of a new original story idea, is a common one in publishing circles, as it is in the motion picture industry.

In the end, the system holds up. The stolen intellectual property is returned, and both the independent publishing methods and the unwieldy legal system are thwarted; the new authors, defeated by the specter of easy rewards, are still encouraged to produce their own original works, as it should be. There’s a level of forgiveness that is typically not found in other fields, a tale of honest rehabilitation rather than the base vindictiveness that so often passes for justice in our society. It’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.

*     *     *     *     *

All right, I doubt anyone was taken in by any of that, or at least not for very long, but was there a point? Yes, and it’s this: you can find any element you like and create a ‘real’ metaphorical rationale behind it, especially by being selective over which elements contribute and which are ignored wholesale. But this doesn’t mean that it’s accurate in the slightest, or was intended by the originator.

The pursuit of deeper meaning is a common one in literary circles, and it might even be considered how literature is even defined. And it’s true, some writers actually intend such things to be in place; far fewer than are claimed by any number of literati, however. While Raising Arizona may have its own collection of metaphorical intentions – whether Smalls is a figment of H.I.’s guilty imagination, for instance, and if so, what effect this has on the entire storyline – without the admission of the writers, such claims are only speculative.

It’s an interesting game of ego. Discovering the real meaning, finding the little secret that eludes everyone else, is of course an indication of superior intellect – provided that it’s accurate. In each of the cases above, all I did was decide on an underlying meaning based on just one potential match, and the rest were made (albeit with varying degrees of force) to fit this meaning. You might have caught that I praised Nathan Arizona for his lack of self-absorption in the first interpretation, and lambasted him as oblivious in the second; both of these interpretations have supporting details within the movie, so it all depends on which variation you select for (much like how most people use scripture.) Open interpretations might actually provide some greater enjoyment to the viewer, believing that some work has a more profound meaning than its apparent surface appearance, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if it extends to making the viewer feel like they’ve surpassed most others with their perspicacity, it probably should be determined, in some way, whether this is even remotely warranted or not. Only the original writer can tell us if the metaphor is present or intended – all else is unprovable supposition.

It’s all good for something

Local pond and wetlandsI mentioned in the previous post that I went someplace that I was going to feature here shortly; this is not the time. Since then, I did a short side trip and got a bunch of shots that I’m bumping ahead of those, because I want to, so there.

[Actually, I've been trying to sort through stacks of images, because I'm way behind on cataloging and have been trying to be conscientious or businesslike or something of that nature, but these deserved a post, so...]

The past few days have been very wet here, with rain appearing sporadically throughout the days and nights without any clearing, turning much of the area downright boggy but at least keeping the sweltering temperatures away. Knowing how these conditions tended to be favored by frogs, I popped down to the pond nearby and checked out the wetlands end of it. I can find no mention of any name for this, so I’ve taken to calling it Ederia Pond – you’ll see why if you’re alert.

The photo here was taken on an earlier visit when the light was a bit better – this day, it was solid overcast but not raining at the time. While they make various rain covers and splash guards for cameras, and some of the professional models advertise weather sealing, I have to recommend against using any camera (save for dedicated underwater models) in the rain; the humidity is just too pervasive, the electronics in any camera manufactured in the last thirty years too susceptible, not to mention the lenses. I carry disposable rain ponchos in the camera bags, big enough to cover me and the bags when a sudden downpour hits, but even then, I empty out everything when I get back to dry conditions and make sure no humidity has a chance to be retained. A wet bag can drive moisture into the equipment within easily, and that can be an expensive repair.

There was a patch of pickerelweed that was my prime target, and I waded in slowly, looking carefully for photo opportunities. It didn’t take a lot of effort. As suspected, the green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) were enjoying the dripping, cooler, overcast conditions. Their skin must remain moist, so they typically find deep shade during the day, often near something that retains water, and maintain their primary activity at night, but in the right conditions they’ll remain visible during daylight.

pickerelweed pontederia green treefrog Hyla cinerea bumblebeeNone of them were calling, and there was practically no activity until they deemed I was too close, but they were pretty easy to spot, and I saw dozens. Most were quite small, about half adult size or smaller, and a few sported the last vestiges of their tadpole tails, obviously this spring’s brood. While adults can get up to 5 or 6 centimeters, the average size is about 3, and the ones I was seeing typically ran 1 to 2 cm in body length. The longitudinal white stripe is a distinctive identifier, but in the right light, they gain a faint iridescence and a hint of gold in the white. As treefrogs, they have excellent adhesion to just about any surface and prefer to be vertical, usually selecting something as close to their body color as possible to perch upon – this means, when you’re out looking for them, you aim for the plants with the brightest green, preferably big leaves in or around water – pickerelweed (Pontederia) is thus ideal.

You’re going to see two different kinds of light quality in these images, as I switched back and forth between natural light and flash. I preferred natural light for the hue and the way the backgrounds remained lit the same as my subjects, but under heavy overcast and shooting handheld, I could only use maximum aperture lest the shutter speed drop too low to keep anything sharp. A tripod was out of the question – I was knee-deep in water most of the time over a silty bottom that had a tendency to try and steal my sandals, and the water plants were thick enough that I had enough trouble even finding a decent angle to shoot from without anything in the way.
Green treefrog Hyla cinerea contemplating a jump
This is natural light, and you can see how short the effective focus is. The colors are pleasant and soft, and the background indicates accurate conditions, but if you want more body details you’re out of luck.

Closeup eye reflection selfieNow I’m going to pause here for a bit of interesting trivia before moving on. This is the same image cropped down to see the eye detail. You can’t quite make out the camera and I, due to the light being at my back as I aimed downwards, but you can see the flash on the bracket arm to the left, as well as plenty of other leaves surrounding me. These were typical conditions, and even leaning close for many of these shots meant I was disturbing stems and leaves which could send warning signals to the frogs. Progress was glacially slow, but that was okay, since I was surrounded by subjects.

Using the flash typically increased contrast and, while bringing out the rich colors that green treefrogs have, often caused the background to drop into darkness and make many images appear to be taken at night. Since these are primarily nocturnal species anyway, this wasn’t as big a deal as if I was chasing dragonflies, for instance, so I didn’t worry about it too much. A softbox and/or an additional flash would have produced better results, but it was difficult enough preventing the one strobe from being blocked by leaves nearby. Here’s a good example of the difference – different subject, same pose (which you’re going to see again since it is the position treefrogs adopt when thinking the photographer is getting too close and they should probably find an avenue of escape.)
green treefrog Hyla cinerea choosing an escape route
While the body details are much sharper at f16 (as compared to f4 in the natural light frame above) and the colors really glow now, the contrast is a bit unnatural-looking and the background becomes darker. Like I said, another strobe would have been useful, but unwieldy and likely blocked by leaves too often, throwing odd shadows across the subject or background. Sometimes obtaining the best results can require a lot of fiddling around – remember that every time you see a perfect nature photo. Looking natural or vivid often isn’t as effortless as it might seem.

six-spotted fishing spider dolomedes triton
Eastern pondhawk Erythemis simplicicollis dragonflyNaturally, the treefrogs weren’t the only subject I chased while down there, and if you think I can go three days without photographing a spider, you haven’t read very far into this blog. The six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton) above wasn’t quite big enough to spread across my palm, but close. He’d seen me coming and sought refuge under the leaf, but I poked a finger underneath and flushed him back on top again. This might seem like I was inviting a bite, but I’ll say it again: spiders are shy, and typically avoid any kind of contact. The Eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) at right, meanwhile, not only didn’t care much about my presence, it almost seemed to follow me around – likely, I was seeing multiple dragonflies instead of the same one. I also shot a few tiny little damselflies and a remarkably colorful grasshopper of some sort, which I may feature a little later on.

And if you noticed the difference in pronouns above, yes, I know the spider is a male, while I don’t know what gender the dragonfly is. The spider’s club-ended pedipalps are just barely visible, but the abdomen being much smaller than the cephalothroax is also a clue, especially in an adult this size. Note, too, the shadow falling across the leaf behind the spider – this was caused by a stem blocking the flash unit where it sat to the left of the camera body on a bracket arm. On-camera flash is boring and flat looking, but in tight conditions, brackets come with their own problems.

Back to the frogs.
green treefrog Hyla cinerea with parasitic fly
This minuscule specimen held still for quite a while, not only allowing me to keep creeping closer but also playing host to the fly on its head, likely some kind of parasite – it’s about the size of a mosquito but the wrong body shape. What I like most about it, though, is the single toe from the hind leg peeking past the stem near its back. If you think the color here is cool, just wait.

treefrog shadow on pickerelweed leafHad the sun peeked out suddenly, I might have been able to spot more examples like this, but it would have chased all of the frogs under cover quickly, so my window of opportunity would have been brief. Maybe I can capture some more examples of this right at sunrise some day – the last time I tried to catch sunrise at this pond, the day broke overcast for the first time in weeks – this was during the drought before the latest patch of downpours came along.

I had actually planned a little bonus for this post, in that I returned to the pond after nightfall and recorded some of the frogs’ calls – they’re pretty bizarre sounding, and I got within a meter of one while calling. The problem is, my digital recorder doesn’t pick up ambient sound very well so I have to use the ancient tape recorder, and at present I can’t locate the adapter cords I need to patch it into the computer’s sound recorder and reproduce it digitally. From time to time I think I should get a decent wildlife audio recording system (as well as branching into video,) but right now the nonexistent demand isn’t justifying the expense. I’ll put it up here eventually, but wasted too much time searching and got fed up.

I’ll close with perhaps the cutest image, where the strobe had the best effect…
tiny juvenile green treefrog Hyla cinerea
This little spud is about a centimeter long and still sports a nubby little tail. I had initially thought it looked similar to images I’d captured a few years before, but on examination, they don’t appear to be the same species.

Just remember, when chasing nature images, every set of conditions is ideal for something. If you’re worried about keeping clean, dry, or at a comfortable temperature, you’re liable to miss out on a lot. I came back dripping sweat, with damp, filthy shorts and a sandal that the mud had nearly sucked the sole clean off of, and a large collection of images to add to my stock. That’s more than a fair trade, I think.

UPDATE: I found the adapter cord I needed, and have created a sound file of the calls of the green treefrog. I give fair warning: this is still not an ideal recording unit, and the cacophony of background noise may be unsettling. For the latter call, I was within a meter of the treefrog.

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Unseen benefits

Great egret in distanceFirst off, I’m going to mention my long absence and the faintly amusing bit about it. I was traveling, one of the few chances I’ve gotten recently, which would be enough to explain the period without posts – except that, I’d prepared a bunch ahead of time and scheduled them to appear while I was away. The dry period occurred after I came back, when I wasn’t motivated by any topic to get something new up. The trip didn’t involve much postable stuff either, and you’re looking at the sum total of images I took that fit into my typical stock (well, that’s not true, since I have several variations of this, but nothing of other subjects.)

Then, before I could get this post where I wanted it, we had a friend over for a few days, resulting in going somewhere else that will be featured shortly – I’m trying to be good and finish this one. Also add a lot of rain into the mix, so photography has been very haphazard.

Getting back to regular content, however, this is going to be a follow-up to the earlier post about structured skepticism, or applied critical thinking if you like. I actually shifted approach and tone from the original draft so as to (I like to think) address the topic better.

To begin with, it’s not like anyone needs encouragement to engage in critical thinking; the alternative is, what? Ambiguous thinking? Emotional reactions? Random acts? Most people believe the majority of their cognitive processes are involved in rational, critical decision-making – the ‘thinking brain’ controls the ‘emotional brain,’ and most of what we do is reasoned. Moreover, that the interpretations of the input from our senses is accurate and dependable. Unfortunately, neither of these hold true all that often. So the key question isn’t, “Should I engage in critical thinking?” but, “Am I using critical thinking often enough?” And for that matter, even asking the question is a start that it seems too few people reach.

It’s not hard to look around ourselves and see plenty of people who don’t seem to have applied enough rational thought to their actions, beliefs, or worldviews – in politics, for instance. Or relationships. The critical first step is recognizing that we are no different; such displays are not anomalies, instances of mental illness or abnormal behavior, but fundamental traits of being human. Our ‘rational’ thought processes are tied directly into our emotional reactions; they have to be, since it is the emotions that provoke us into optimal behavior anyway. Everything we do, everything we see or hear, gets tagged immediately with something along the lines of, “This is bad,” or, “I trust this person.” Often enough, however, this process occurs without much if any input from the ‘rational brain,’ providing an emotional tag to something without an appropriate reason. We all respond favorably to more attractive people; we all have prejudices. Millions of years of our species’ past history shaped us for certain things, many of which have no application to our present society.

And then there are the shortcuts, like trying to relegate decisions down to simple choices, or slotting people into distinct groups. Labels make everything easier, or so we tend to believe. And riding along for giggles is conditioning, the bias in thinking that comes from our environment, how we were raised and how our community feels about certain topics – in fact, we’re ridiculously concerned with what other people think, so much so that it often stops our own thinking. Ever wear something uncomfortable because it was ‘expected?’ Is this rational in any way?

[You may note that I have put quotes around 'rational' a few times above. This is not sarcasm, but recognition that there's no firm distinction - the brain's functions are not separate or distinguishable, and the definition of the word itself is pretty ratty, even though we've considered both as far more precise for a long time. See what I mean about conditioning?]

But even ignoring all the foibles of the mind, there are all the ways our senses fall short. Optical illusions demonstrate routinely that what we see and what we think we see can be two different things. Expectations count for a lot – we never see a sports ball in enough detail to positively identify it, but know what it is from the context; there’s a reason why every game contains rules against foreign objects. Motorcycles are hazardous, in part, because they’re not the automobile we expect to see, and thus are ignored (the trend for cars to have headlights on constantly, by the way, might have improved things for car drivers, but increased the risk to motorcyclists since that was the manner they could be differentiated from cars.) There’s even a noticeable trend for people to feel phantom vibrations from their cell phone, and we can feel something ‘walking on us’ for hours after finding a parasite. Our senses are not always trustworthy.

So with all that, the key facet of critical thinking isn’t whether or not we use it, but how often it goes unused without our realizing it. I said it in the earlier post: there is no such thing as a perfect skeptic, no one who is totally critical or rational in their approach. But there are certainly quite a few circumstances where it could be used a hell of a lot more. Further, it’s hard to find any detriment to this, on a personal level anyway; about the worst that might happen is being so concerned about making the right move that it hampers or outright halts the decision-making process.

Beyond the personal level, however, there are other effects, and these are factors in the next questions, which is Should I encourage and promote critical thinking? On the face of it, the answer is yes, but with a few caveats. We’ll start with, what do you expect to get out of it?

Discussions and debates, very very often, are a form of competition – one party attempting to best the other with a more convincing standpoint, more inarguable point, or more intelligent response. It’s funny how often we as a species engage in such pursuits, because they rarely ever come to the imagined outcome. Humans, quite simply, don’t like to admit we were wrong, especially not in a situation where it is synonymous with admitting defeat. If, at any point in time, we’re hoping to score a victory, we’re not really engaging in critical thinking anymore, since the point of this is to be convincing, not to improve our ranking.

This means that if we’re expecting to actually see change, forget about it – it’s not going to happen. But don’t take this to mean that we’re not actually accomplishing anything. The value of a solid argument is how well it sticks with someone, makes them think, causes them to re-examine their ideas or information. The change is never abrupt – it takes time, often enough so that the change is considered one’s own, and not provoked by anyone else, sorry to say. Bear in mind, too, that some standpoints have been built up over time, often in a reinforcing atmosphere (like a family or a church) – we won’t ever shift these in a single discussion. My go-to phrase is “plant the seed and move on.”

This does make it hard to know if we’re actually reaching anyone, and I honestly can’t offer a lot of solid advice here, since I have little evidence how often my own efforts have achieved anything at all – what follows is just my understanding of human nature. The most telling thing I’ve seen is when the topic is abruptly changed, and most especially when the other person goes on the offensive – this is potential indication that our point really did hit home, unable to be rebutted or reconciled with their previous standpoint. That’s about the largest reward we’re likely to see.

The fact that skeptical viewpoints are often unwelcome is also something to consider – if we’re in it for popularity, this is not the right approach. Especially in forums or groups which reinforce some questionable topic (such as ghost stories, UFOs, or alternative medicine,) the skeptic is unlikely to be greeted warmly. There, it’s an uphill battle, and usually not against a single person either – the phrase “thankless task” comes to mind. Just remember that in any public discussion, it’s not just the people responding that we’re engaging with, but everyone reading – this is usually far more than it appears. It’s the determined, immovable ones that so often choose to be vocal about it, while the ones who are on the fence are silent – just the opposite of what we’d like if we needed to see results, but so it goes. All we can do is lay out our best arguments in the belief that we’re reaching someone, and not count on any positive feedback in that area. At times, a little bonus is how we can sometimes show that those arguing against us are more emotional than rational, which only hurts their arguments; anyone listening in might just start to lean away from those who appear too obsessive or reactive, not wanting to associate closely with that apparent mindset.

This brings up contentiousness, and what approach works best. It’s extremely easy to rub someone the wrong way, come off as pretentious or condescending, to lecture, to get annoyed, and so on. I probably don’t have to tell anyone that this is unlikely to win others over, and can easily go just the opposite way, making them firmer in their beliefs just because they don’t like the way the argument has been presented. There are a lot of things that help here. Stating things as matter-of-factly (is that a phrase? You know what I mean) always helps, as does reminding oneself that there are no sides, just an exchange of information. Perhaps not thinking about trying to convince anyone, but only supporting our own views – a defensive, not offensive approach. This is often enough to be convincing anyway, especially without any competitive atmosphere. And the bare recognition that whoever we’re dealing with isn’t an idiot, might even be quite intelligent in many areas, with blind spot in this topic. Or maybe we’re the ones with the blind spot – this is, of course, the full immersion skepticism we’re talking about, and that includes the possibility of being wrong.

Yet, even one-on-one we can find skepticism to be unpopular. It helps to know that many of the topics that benefit the most from the critical approach fill some emotional niche in people – this is exactly why they continue to exist, and why promoting skepticism is useful. It’s not that they make sense and are so convincing, but that they provoke a desired reaction within. Counter this and we’re taking something away from someone, usually with nothing to replace it. It’s like taking away someone’s dessert. And so often in such cases, the defensive response is, “Why would you want to do that? It’s not hurting anybody!”

Well, perhaps, but this isn’t as supportable a statement as it seems on the face of it. Someone who believes in ghosts, as innocuous as it may seem, still has very distinct views on death and what happens afterward, which affects how they treat the death of a family member, and how they handle memorials and bequests. It might provide a bias over right-to-life and euthanasia legislation, and almost certainly will impinge on the lives of their children in some way. They might feel unnecessarily anxious over dark places or odd sounds, and with a deep faith in the topic, might even fork over significant amounts of money to some doofus waving around an electronic device he has no understanding of (not to mention promoting such TV programming over anything with useful content.) On a larger scale, the lack of critical thinking, and the acceptance thereof, can have serious impact on an entire society, or further. Not to go all Godwin, but the Nazi party had the support of enough people that believed in a master race and birthright to varying degrees, or that simply failed to recognize that their dissatisfaction over the post-WWI sanctions wasn’t justification for invasion. Nationalism (and its ugly close cousin, jingoism) requires the belief that a country is in some way distinctly different from others on a larger scale than economics and trivial culture – even the belief that birth on a particular plot of land provides some fundamental difference from rest of the human race. Witch hunts and genocide throughout history could only come about because too few people demanded firm evidence for their beliefs. Even now in this country, we have a ridiculous number of people who forget that politics has nothing to do with religion, by both logic and our Constitution, as well as never tumbling to how badly they’re being played by the appearance of virtue rather than the function of it – all a politician has to do is claim devotion and that’s apparently enough. And yes, sorry to say, there are a lot of people elsewhere in the world that find us complete idiots because of this.

Hopefully, this has highlighted something: we can see skepticism from a personal standpoint, or a social one. On a personal level, skepticism is rarely rewarding and often contentious, even reviled in places. Socially, however, it serves a serious purpose with the potential of preventing major hardship – I’m trying not to sound melodramatic but it’s almost impossible to overstate the benefits. The difference lies only in what we desire to see from our efforts, the feedback we hope to garner.

Odd memories, part 13

I am a big fan of decent education, which is funny perhaps, because I don’t consider that I received one myself. I attended school in a rural farming community with fairly small populations, which many might tell you is much better than overcrowded city classrooms. But the tax base also plays a role, and the classrooms I was in hovered around 30 students, a number now considered more than optimal. Worse, however, was the poor budget for new materials, and the inadequate payroll to attract better teachers (a problem throughout most of the US,) and even the lack of a drive to find or follow the more productive methods of teaching. In short, the schools were stagnating, and some of the approaches to which I was exposed were old, and based more on what someone thought might be useful than on proven effectiveness. Nothing exemplified this more than their approach to teaching social skills, that we endured for two years within our phys ed curriculum. I’m talking about square dancing.

Yes, that’s right – clapping and stomping and banjos and some drawling idiot calling out the moves. If you haven’t had any exposure to this, you should probably cherish your ignorance – I’m here to tell you that’s the best course of action, as your friend – but if you want to know just how horrifying it really is, there are videos to be found. I refuse to provide any examples myself, and I’m picking at mental scabs even making this post.

I can’t quite remember what grades this occurred in, but it was elementary school – fourth and fifth, maybe? Suffice to say, we were less than twelve years old. It’s not exactly true that kids of that age all find the opposite sex icky; usually, anyone can find a few individuals that are rather intriguing – but all the rest are icky. Moreover, admitting to finding anyone intriguing is a recipe for rumors and teasing and graffiti. And even if you have the extremely rare opportunity to speak to the object of your interest in total privacy, there is always the good chance that they don’t requite, as it were, and you not only get crushed, or uncrushed or something, you also open up the same potential for rumors and teasing and graffiti – tact and decorum are something that develops much later in life, if it does at all.

Into this morass of social clumsiness we introduce (the version of that word that means ‘force’) dancing, close contact, exchanging partners constantly, and really shitass music, not to mention the attempt to keep time and not trip over one’s own feet. I extend the barest credit to the school faculty here, in that square dancing requires little agility and involves nothing too intricate, primarily skipping in time, and most kids have figured this out by that age. But it did involve synchronizing these actions with someone else – everyone else, actually. It also involves memorizing arcane terms and moves, like “do-si-do” and “allaman left” – these may not be the conventional spellings and I’m not going to introduce a web search for the correct ones into my browser history or through the NSA’s filters.

Square dance music is uptempo, certainly much more than a waltz or foxtrot, and it indicates just how badly your plans have gone awry when you see a gymful of kids attempting to maintain this tempo while every bit of body english they can emit is screaming rebellion and distaste. And despite the intentions of the teachers, the social outcasts got this stigma reinforced, even more than gym class always did. Instead of being the last picked for a team or never having the ball passed one’s way, you could now see the obvious reluctance of each partner to make contact, trashing both the timing and the rhythm of the moves, of which everyone else is depending as well. Need I say I was one of those outcasts? Hard as this may be to believe, it was true – I would not lie to you unless it made for a good story…

To this day, I cannot dance, nor do I have any desire to. I find all country and western music to be execrable, but square dance music makes my eye twitch and voices start in my head. Despite the clear benefits of forcing kids to do things they utterly despise and will never use later in life if the remainder of the educational process has had any effect at all, none of us showed any improvement in social skills for years afterward. There might have been some students who actually liked these sessions, only two weeks long if I remember correctly, but they never would have admitted it among the others, rumors and teasing and graffiti and all that.

I found myself, just once, with the opportunity to use any of those moves again after learning them in phys ed, but the barn mysteriously burned to the ground before the dance was over, sometime after I’d left. The only person injured was the guy who called out the moves; the hay in his teeth caught fire and set aflame his straw hat, which would have singed off his hair had he possessed any. So I was told, anyway – as I said, I wasn’t there.

Life is not all spiders and mantids

hazy day in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Something to remind yourself when things start to look bleak. Or maybe I’m the only one that suffers from this narrow focus…

Naaaahhh.

selective focus on raspberriesAnyway, a brief break for the fartsy stuff, since I don’t do art. Some are recent, some not so much – every once in a while I just have to post a string of images without a whole lot of oral background.

When I’m out with students, I don’t shoot a lot, and I generally work light – no macro strobe rig or bracket, and no tripod. If the light is reduced, this means shooting wide open with a large aperture fairly often, so I pick subjects where the short depth-of-field can work the best. Here, two contrasting berries in the same focal plane stand out among the others, but this is a slightly misleading photograph – this was only a small cluster of berries remaining on a bush that had been harvested by birds. As I’ve often said, whatever goes to the edges of the frame goes on forever to the viewer, representing the whole scene – it’s an easy way to provoke a particular mood or idea that works better than the reality. As long as you don’t tell everyone…


pink sky and crescent moon
I confess: this image, taken from the old yard during a cool sunset, had two electrical wires cutting across the bottom, the frustration of scenic photographers everywhere. Easy enough to edit out, though.

overlapping maple leaves with silhouetteI just liked the effect of the backlighting and shadows.

buttercups with short focus

Just a lily pad compositionSometimes it’s more how you take it than what you take. It’s easy enough to get photos of lily pads, but do they look better by taking advantage of the way the light and reflections provide contrast with a rich indigo color, and a little effort in framing? Subtle changes to position and shooting angle can change your images radically, communicating the setting while providing a little eye-catching abstraction. Or maybe not – that’s really up to you, and I’m on the edge of doing that ‘art’ thing where I overexplain what it is you’re seeing.

Way too much dew
The tip of the leaf almost touching the other gave the dew a chance to collect into a bigger drop than normal, bridging the gap. The things you find when you crawl around on damp mornings looking for something interesting.

crepe myrtle flower closeupI don’t recommend tackling high-contrast subjects in bright light conditions, which increase contrast even further – it’s too easy to go outside of the band the camera can capture effectively and start bleaching out the colors or making shadows too harsh. But sometimes it can work.

foggy morning comparison shot
I can’t decide which approach works the best; these were taken with a shift of a meter to so to the side to change the foreground elements, and a slightly different focal length. It doesn’t help that, put alongside one another here, they almost mirror each other.

a section of fallen leavesNot an autumn shot, but a summer one, only a few weeks ago after a heavy wind and rain storm deposited a selection of leaves into a stream. If you’re paying attention to how the light differs in these images, you can see how deep shade can make colors appear differently than in sunlight, and can hopefully use this to your advantage.

And in closing, a tight shot of dew (yes, again) on a dandelion blossom right before seed dispersal, short focus and a patch of direct sunlight from the rear, creating a seriously surreal image from the defocused effects.
surreal dandelion dew
I find it a curious anachronism, actually; one is supposed to keep the focus of attention sharp, because our eyes automatically go towards the sharpest portion of an image (as shown above,) but they also go towards contrast, and in this image, that’s the defocused highlights at lower left. I think our eyes go there first, then seek out the sharper details to try and make sense of what we’re seeing, putting it all in context. At least, that’s what I do…

Missing, presumed protein

katydid nymph under surveillanceSo, I commented not long ago about the almond tree we transplanted, which had been getting savaged by deer at the old place – they would come by every few weeks and strip half the leaves from it, returning when it had recovered. Here at the new house, it had escaped such attentions. For a while.

The Girlfriend opened the front door early one morning to come face-to-face with a young buck standing in the front yard about three meters from the door. By the time I got there it had moved on, so no pics yet, but an examination of the yard showed no damage to the almond tree, though some of the daylilies appeared to have been stripped of blooms.

A few days later, this was pretty much confirmed: something was taking off the blooms overnight, and we have to assume it’s the deer. However, after one such visit, the Chinese mantis that I’ve been following was nowhere to be found, and as of this writing, this remains the case. Deer aren’t really insectivorous in any way, but like any herbivore, whatever happens to be on the plants they seize is not filtered out in any way, and since the lilies were a favorite haunt of the mantis, we’re considering it a casualty of the visiting deer. Mantids are often pretty good about leaping away from danger, but they also count on their camouflage and remaining still, so we suspect this one simply didn’t register its peril in time.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about the mantis while showing a photo of a katydid nymph, it just means you didn’t note the background closely. I’m pleased with how this image came out, just the right amount of extremely subtle menace. The nymph, by the way, escaped – it jumped to a neighboring blossom without notice from the mantis, which continued to watch the same spot for a short while afterward. Here, I was hoping to capture a capture, but it was not to be this time, or perhaps, any time for my former photo subject.

Yet the other day, back on the nearby Japanese maple tree, I found a possible understudy.
Young suspicious mantis on Japanese maple
I consider this a little curious, because this one is less than a third the mass of my previous model. Mantids only create a single egg case per year to my knowledge, which hatches out in the early spring, so I would have presumed this one had hatched at the same time as the other. So, was a radical difference in obtaining food responsible for the size disparity? Or is this even another species, one that hatched later or is significantly smaller than the sizable Chinese mantises? I’m going to keep watching and see what happens.

deer-damaged almond saplingThe almond tree hasn’t fully escaped the attention of the deer. As seen here, it’s gotten cropped just a little in several places, even though the deer seems to greatly favor the lilies; you can still see new green leaves in the background. The tree’s only about a meter tall at this point and not terribly fast growing – we won’t be harvesting our own almonds anytime soon. I’m pretty laissez-faire about what animals get up to – this is how nature works, and I’m not going to improve on it – but the deer are starting to frustrate me. The almond tree was a bit of serendipity, having sprouted spontaneously in our compost pile, but messing with my photographic models is not cool.

Fish in a barrel

I barely have to write anything for this.

There’s a website called LeastHelpful.com, which features product reviews that, uh, leave a bit to be desired. Far too frequently, the religious reviewer provides the strangest and most clueless entries, and many of those are laden with unintended irony. Case in point: this insight into Planet of the Apes by someone nicknamed, “Jesus First”:

This film was and still is a blatant piece of evolutionary propaganda made to push the unproven and unprovable theory of evolution.

In the movie, the apes have taken over and on an evolutionary timescale are just behind 20th century homo-sapiens. Their society has some differences of course, but the religious leaders of this ape-society are portrayed as medieval-like suppressors or scientific truth, with the young and humble seekers of truth only asking for honest answers. This then perpetuates the commonly held myth that the Church of the Medieval West was opposed to truth and would have kept people in the darkness of superstition if it had not been for the heroes of the renaissance and the enlightenment, such as Galileo.

While many comments have run through my head, I don’t need to add anything, do I? Yet there is something extra-special (choose your own definition of “special”) when religious folk try to inform everyone about brainwashing and propaganda. You have noticed that it’s always a ministry of propaganda, right? Even that’s not a big enough cluestick.

And he goes on:

In regards to the theory of evolution itself, if we had this sort of evidence that the movie portrays in support of the theory itself, that would be one thing. But we have no talking apes who build great empires, religious institions to worship their gods, and courts of law to administer justice. No, they just eat, defecate, sleep, fight, procreate and not much else. Well, on the other hand maybe they are signs of intelligence, because that’s all most of the human race seem to do… but I digress. The movie is pure science fiction, through and through.

Ah, look! Evidence is important, everyone! That explains why religion is so full of it…

One more thing I was pondering was the idea of the “Forbidden Zone”. The 60′s saw Western society cross over our own “Forbidden Zone” in regards to sexuality and other mores. Was it a good thing? Well a look at any graph showing anything from increases to STD’s, divorce rates, murder rates, abortion rates, theft rates and so on will show that we had a more religious and God-fearing society and so a safer and more stable society. Some “Forbidden Zones” perhaps did need to be crossed, and the established Church did do some things that were not right, but we have gone too far the other way in reaction against the wrongs of our forefathers. We will have as much (or perhaps more) to answer for to our descendants (but they won’t be apes, don’t worry!).

And a firm knowledge of history, too! Yes, those golden ages of theocracies, with witch hunts and inquisitions and trial-by-torture and regular use of the term, “infidel.” Such a shame we left those behind (except in various countries of the Middle East, where they maintain those core values and everything is milk-and-honey… or something sticky, anyway.) “Jesus First” here is from Ireland, so he knows firsthand how rosy religion makes things.

I wonder if this is that ‘sophisticated theology’ I keep hearing of?

But let’s leave behind the snark for a moment. Undoubtedly, most religious folk that read this post would gripe that I’m picking easy targets or unrepresentative examples, yet there really are a lot of examples like this out there, so many that I’ve been seriously considering starting a new website to highlight all of the ‘happy religious folk’ – since it is a frequent complaint that atheists are so mean, uptight, and strident, it’s important to demonstrate the difference, right? And this one is far from being the most ill-informed or indignant – seriously, some of them combine abysmal stupidity with arrogant self-righteousness to a much higher degree. And we know exactly where both of those traits originate, don’t we? The disinformation campaigns of so many churches are only outstripped by the efforts to emphasize elitism.

Rather than making excuses, maybe it’s a better idea to recognize just how rampant this is, and that, even if any particular church takes pains not to ever stoop to these levels (and I’d really love to see it if they did, believe me,) the impression that the above example fosters is damaging to all. Let’s not forget that one of the most frequented arguments in favor of religion is how many people practice it (as if a god is established by a democratic vote.) People constantly refer to themselves as, “christians,” and not, “first bible reformed pentecostals of the upper east side.” Theologians, of course, usually aim for arguments so vague that even “religion” is being too specific; “spiritual” or “supernatural” is about as far as they manage. And to be sure, it’s certainly not one sect or even one faith that spews stuff like these reviews. There’s no easy distinction to be made, or a sect that distinguishes itself by never producing such ignorance.

As an aside, you might even note that I have provided not just direct quotes, but links back to the source, which I would think is a damn sight better than the frequent blatant misrepresentations and straw man caricatures that appear in a vast number of complaints from the religious over atheism. But then again, I consider honesty to be a commendable trait…

An ignorant rant is an ignorant rant. That they’re so easy to find with religious themes is not something that I’m making up or taking out of context, and whining about the observer isn’t going to fix anything, is it?

And, there’s potentially an even worse effect. Anyone with even a modicum of scientific knowledge recognizes how many utterly wrong statements exist in such diatribes – it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that they’re fostered, promoted, and in most cases outright created by churches. I don’t know about you, but I’m not too keen on associating with such blatant bullshit tactics. And at the same time, these tactics are nearly impossible to find within the realm of science, certainly never producing ignorant rants, while the benefits and real, measurable advances are frequent and obvious. Any church that engages in propaganda tactics is only aiming for the lowest common denominator, and I’ll leave that to be interpreted as desired.

No you can’t

stag beetle Lucanus capreolus caught in webOut the other night in the yard looking for photo subjects, I found a curious bit of drama. A female reddish brown stag beetle (that’s the actual common name, scientifically named Lucanus capreolus) had gotten herself caught in a corner web and was dangling, unable to get a foothold on anything to draw herself free. Stag beetles are among the largest US beetles, certainly the most impressive in NC, this one running 35-40 mm I believe. A few days earlier I had handled one that was perched on our porch screens, attracted by the light at night – don’t pin them down and you won’t get acquainted with those lovely pincers. If you let them walk on your hand, however, those climbing hooks on their feet are hard to avoid, and she managed to get one of her feet hooked fast into my finger and couldn’t extricate herself for a minute – this isn’t exactly painful, but it’s noticeable, and you’re quite aware something is wrong. You’re also aware that grabbing it to help it get free is possibly not the best move. It is entirely possible that the one getting caught on my finger and the one seen here are the same individual; they were found only a few meters apart, a few days apart. You can’t blame it on the light attracting the beetle towards danger, however, because this is probably the darkest corner of the property, day or night, and I found this tableau by flashlight myself.

The owner of the web, probably a common house spider (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) so often found in dark corners, was making a valiant attempt to subdue the beetle, even though the size disparity was comical.

stag beetle with house spider captorThe beetle wasn’t in the mood to be cooperative, so the spider seemed able or confident only in dealing with the extremities; the effectiveness of this was pretty much as you imagine. In fact, the spider probably needed to sharpen her fangs after the attempts.

I was reminded irresistibly of going to a restaurant with a young child and allowing them to order for the first time – the conversation invariably involves something like, “Are you sure you can eat all that?” The answer is always yes; the result is no. I suppose when you have eight eyes that are all bigger than your belly, the effect is magnified.

Another interesting perspective was in evidence as well, since there was a male house spider in the web at the time, which means he was in the process of wooing the female. I know what you’re thinking, but no, the beetle was not a present from an overeager suitor, since the male spider was less than half the size of the female. He was also, chivalry be damned, not doing anything at all to assist her in subduing her statuesque meal. If emotions of any kind can be ascribed to spiders, beyond basic lust I mean, it would have been frustration over having to wait while she tried to figure out what to do about the beetle. There are all sorts of distasteful jokes that I’m avoiding right now, and if you’ve read the slug porn post, you know that this is saying something.
male and female common house spider
The next morning, the beetle was still there and still very much alive, not enveloped in webbing or anything, so I detached it from the web and set it free. The spider was given fair chance, but I saw no point in letting the beetle die from dehydration over a chance event. There are all sorts of ethical questions that can be asked about my actions, and have at it if you like; I don’t find it that important myself.

A few days before that, I’d also tackled another project that’s been in the back of my mind since we moved in. We have a raised porch, and the space underneath is a sheltered, bare earth area good for storing garden implements and such. While moving things in there, I spotted several telltale conical impressions that indicate ant lions, and resolved to do a photo set and post about them.
ant lion myrmeleon pit
Unfortunately, the pits are rather hard to photograph, especially in deep shade where additional light is needed, so this isn’t perhaps illustrating it as well as I’d like. The pits are small, a few centimeters across at best, and perfectly conical; they are also distinctive in that the interiors are all very fine grit or sand, regardless of what the ground surface is like. They are often found sheltered from direct rain and wind. These are the traps of ant lions, actually the larva of a lacewing fly in the genus Myrmeleon. And the way it all operates is fascinating.

First off, the pits are created by the larva digging around just under the surface of loose soil or sand, moving in a circle and using their head to flip the soil out of the way, slowly digging a pit in this manner. The sides are steep and coated with loose material, so that any insect wandering into it will find itself on an unstable slope carrying it down to the bottom of the pit; this is, naturally, where the ant lion waits. Should the insect be capable enough to maintain a footing and possibly even fight upwards, it will get pelted by debris from the same head-flips of the Myrmeleon, likely dislodging it to slide to the bottom. Once in range, the ant lion pokes its formidable chelicerae out and envenoms the victim, making it sluggish and unable to resist within a minute or two. The Myrmeleon larva then draws it underneath the soil and drains it of nutrients, discarding the corpse a few days later.
ant lion Myrmeleon exposed in palm
Here’s a sizable specimen that I unearthed a few years back; if I looked like that I’d stay buried too. They’re quite small, only a few millimeters in length, and harmless to humans. But what I was after was a capture. I waited patiently for some time crouched under the porch, but there were no potential victims to be seen in the area, so I went out looking for one. What I found was probably not the best choice.
assassin bug Pselliopus larva in ant lion Myrmeleon trap
This is an assassin bug larva, probably genus Pselliopus. It’s a little hard to make out, but let me build this a bit. Most times when you see insects with bright, contrasting colors, it’s a warning that they’re distasteful in some way; the coloration and some defensive mechanism work together to make the insect memorable to potential predators. So, the reason that you can’t make out the assassin bug too well is that its legs are largely coated with soil, which occurred soon after it reached the bottom of the pit after I dropped it in. Now I assumed, after examining the pics, that this was due to the defensive mechanism of the bug, some skin secretion that was bad-tasting or perhaps irritating, triggered by the attack of the ant lion. However, I can find no mention of this being a trait of the species.
assassin bug Pselliopus being rejected by ant lion Myrmeleon
Nevertheless, the ant lion seemed to respond appropriately. While the assassin bug struggled feebly, seeming to have already been injected by the ant lion, the ant lion was attempting to fling the victim back out of the pit. If you look closely at the above image, the head and pincers, well out of focus, can be seen underneath the assassin bug – the chelicerae are slightly paler than the surrounding soil, even though the head is a perfect match. I watched for some time, but the ant lion wanted nothing to do with the assassin bug, and I eventually removed it from the pit.
ant lion Myrmeleon reconstructing pit
Thereafter, the ant lion immediately set to work reconstructing the capture pit. Some larger bits of grit and soil had been dislodged, and instead of flipping these out of the way off the top of its head, it seized the ‘boulders’ in its pincers and hurled them away in that manner. Very often, these never cleared the pit rim and rolled right back down again to bounce off the ant lion’s head, and the performance would be repeated with stoic patience; I personally, after the third attempt, would have carried the offending fragment to the top of the pit and slammed it into position well out of the way, but that’s the difference between humans and arthropods. Whether this is a good or a bad thing should probably be judged by some other, neutral species.

Too cool, part 24: Ring species

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne talks about new research that shows that the we no longer have any examples of ring species (which actually means we never did in the first place.) What’s a ring species, you ask? Go ahead, I did myself. Coyne explains it best, and you need to go there to get the full understanding, but in a nutshell, it’s a peculiar classification where a species population may spread around a geographical barrier and meet when they complete the ring surrounding the barrier, but because of the distance covered and time it took for them to do so, the outlying ‘fingers’ that meet again have diverged enough genetically to fail to interbreed, one of the ways we classify speciation in the first place. However, the species can interbreed with the population behind it, and this trait extends back through the population and around the ring to the other ‘finger’ – while each individual can mate with its immediate neighbor, there remains some minor genetic variation between them, and the further the species has spread, the more variation can occur between distant sections of it, to the point where bringing the most distant portions together again may result in genetic incompatibility. In essence, it shows one of the problems with divergence and when to consider something a separate species.

It highlights something often missed: we make up words to help us communicate things, but sometimes the concept we want to communicate doesn’t have the clear distinctions that we want them to have. Many people believe that ‘species’ has a firm definition, and moreover, an easy way to tell one from another. This is not at all the case. After using the word/concept for centuries, we found that living things just cannot be separated so distinctly. Even with the working definition that we’ve adopted, the concept of a ring species defied it – it represented a continuum of reproduction with a speciation barrier at the far ends.

The fact that it is not shown to exist does not solve the problem, either; it demonstrates how we cannot have a definition that holds for all circumstances. It’s not much of a stumbling block – those in the field and many outside know the issues, and it only presents a problem in a few cases. Sometimes, this is when someone is trying to determine whether or not a new name is necessary.

It is a good example of correction, though, and Coyne puts it succinctly when he talks about the removal of the greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) from the examples of potential ring species – the last one on the list, by the way:

But nature is nature, and what happened is what happened.

That’s science, and moreover the practical frame of mind that it engenders – make the correction, accept the results, and move on. All of it is useful information and adds to our knowledge base, so the only thing lost is the emotional desire anyone might have had to know a species defined a particular trait – it’s strictly personal, in other words. From time to time, one hears arguments (I’ll let you guess from what subset of our population) that science changes all the time, as if this is a detriment. But science is actually very good at correcting itself, or to be more accurate, the structure serves to help us gain a more precise understanding of our world, realizing that we’ve never been perfect and neither is knowledge, and improvement is a good thing. Which would you rather have: a system that can correct its mistakes and improve constantly, or one that ignores all flaws and believes that never admitting to gross, blatant errors somehow means they don’t exist?