Darwin should have been born later

No, not later in the century or anything – just later in the year, since mid-February is a tough time to illustrate Darwinism and natural selection, especially when it’s too damn cold to be out looking for photo subjects.

Cooper's demo site
But yes, it’s Darwin Day again, and to honor it, I have just a couple of half-hearted images (until I decide to arbitrarily reassign Charles’ birthday to May or something.) In late January, in the sunny aftermath of the big east coast storm that caused only moderate weather in my area, I went out around the pond looking for items of interest. At too great a distance, I spotted what I suspected was a hawk sitting on the ground, and began switching lenses – not that it would have done much good, because the decent telephoto zoom was still sitting back at the house, but the wide-angle lens I had fitted certainly wasn’t going to work. Despite pausing some fifteen or so meters away, the hawk spotted me and decided discretion was better, and took to the trees, closely followed by another. From the size I suspected either red-tailed (Buteo jamaicensis) or red-shouldered (Buteo lineatus) hawks, but I didn’t have a good enough view to distinguish markings. Even as I crept closer, correctly surmising that they had only gone into nearby branches, I found that they had stayed in deep shade and didn’t present any better view, nor did they hang around as I got closer – this time, they took off across the pond while shielded from my view by evergreen trees, though I confirmed that the first one was carrying prey. I backtracked to where I had first spotted it and found the evidence, but not a rabbit or a vole as I had expected; instead, the feathers of what was likely a northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) provided the story. They also provided a probable identification of the raptors, since Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are the bird-hunters around here, only slightly smaller than the red-shouldered. Other hawks may snag birds as the opportunity arises, but more often as nestlings or fledglings, while the accipiters like the Coopers’ and sharpshin hawks can catch birds in flight. I’ve watched them in action, and they are blindingly fast and agile.

unidentified winter wildflowerA week later the last traces of the snow/sleet had vanished, and I was out with a student. We were both startled to find a local unidentified wildflower blooming vigorously despite the still-chilly temperatures and the constant mottled-shade that the location provided. The reds were so subtle they almost disappeared against the carpet of dead leaves, and it was the only example of that species seen in the area (or, to my personal recollection, at all.) Feel free to enlighten me if you can identify this.

early crab spider Mecaphesa on struggling mint plantAs is typical for NC, the temperatures bounced back into the high teens (or low sixties if you still use Fahrenheit) for a short while before plummeting again, which brought a couple of frogs out of my ornamental pond where I thought they’d be waiting out the winter. It also immediately flushed out the spiders, since I spotted three different species in one ten-minute session at night, including this little crab spider (genus Mecaphesa) alertly awaiting prey on a valiant mint plant – no, that’s not a species name, just the reflection of this particular plant which was still trying to remain green long after all of the spearmint plants had given up for the winter – hardy little cuss. As to how much food spiders can snag this early in the year, I can’t even speculate, but I do know that the compost bin had already started being raided by some minuscule insects, so they all appear to know what they’re doing.

This image, by the way, was shot by flashlight, my bright little Cree jobbie – I already had it out mounted on a mini-tripod for use in silhouetting another spider under a leaf, and simply set it up aimed at the crab for a casual couple of frames before I went back in. Naturally, the crab shot came out much better than the images that I’d planned with the flashlight, but those were admittedly taken in a much more awkward position. Most of the frames from both subjects were tossed due to motion blur and being slightly off focus, the faint breeze and inability to stabilize myself contributing to no small degree. However, this image made it through the selection process, which brings us full circle to Darwin, so there.

On composition, part 25: Critical sharpness

green anole Anolis caroliensis casting a critical eye
This is a very slight departure from the topic of composition, because it really doesn’t have anything to do with composition itself, instead being a set of techniques. However, they’re important techniques that apply to all forms of photography, and I don’t have a technique category, so…

As a photographer begins to consider making money from their work and/or entering into the competitive realm, the concept of being critically sharp becomes much more important. There are certainly many types of images that do not need perfect sharpness, but many more that do, and our eyes tend to jump to the sharpest and most well-defined portions of an image by nature; given two images with everything else being equal, people will favor the sharpest by a wide margin. For any photographer then, it’s worth knowing what can be done to produce this as much as possible, and there are several facets.

Equipment. The old saw was to spend much more on lenses than on camera bodies, and this still holds true, even though there’s been a surge in chasing megapixels, video capabilities, and all that stuff with the digital bodies now. It’s still the lens that will affect sharpness the most, and it pays to try and get the most worthwhile lenses you can. This usually means more expensive, but there’s a huge caveat within this: it’s not always the most expensive lenses that produce the best results, and shopping carefully might save you a bundle. Manufacturers aim for two brackets anymore: the ‘consumer’ buyer, with lenses that are light and inexpensive, and are often mediocre performers; and the ‘professional’ buyer, with lenses that have wider maximum apertures, lots of esoteric glass additives, and are almost always sharper than equivalent focal lengths in the consumer category. The markup on these professional lenses is ridiculous, however, usually costing many times the consumer equivalent while performing only 10-20% better. How you spend your money is up to you, but I tend to look at the investment and returns, as well as two simple facts: it is never the equipment that produces the stunning photo, but the skill and creativity of the photographer; and there are a lot of simple things that will significantly improve sharpness in any lens. There is one aspect of many more expensive lenses that can help a lot, however, and that’s a wider or larger maximum aperture (often called ‘faster’ lenses because they can allow faster/briefer shutter speeds.)

The wider the maximum aperture, the more light comes in through the lens, regardless of the aperture setting you’ve chosen for a particular image. This is because the aperture stays wide open until the shutter trips, whereupon it snaps closed in a fraction of a second right before the shutter itself opens. This allows for the brightest image in the viewfinder and getting to the autofocus, and in lower light conditions, this can make the difference between nailing focus exactly where you wanted it and missing that crucial point because it couldn’t quite be discerned, either by eye or by the AF mechanism. A lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8 will permit better focus, all other things being equal – which they often aren’t, so this isn’t a firm guideline – but it also means a larger lens with more glass, so more weight and bulk.

But spending a lot of money on lenses won’t always improve the results, while there are a lot of things that can be done which will help regardless. Let’s take a look at what other factors affect the sharpness of the image.

Stopping down. While a large maximum aperture helps with focusing, in many situations you won’t want to keep that maximum for the image, but instead use a setting a few stops smaller than that, for instance shooting at f8 instead of f2.8. There are two reasons for this.

The first is, nearly every lens performs better when stopped down. A smaller aperture reduces edge effects, chromatic aberration (color fringing) and improves focus. It varies from lens to lens, but the wide majority of them perform the best at f8 to f16. A little research or some careful tests will tell you where the ‘sweet spot’ is for each of your lenses.

The second reason is naturally depth of field. With a higher depth of field, the focus drops off less for subjects not quite at the point of sharpest focus. In other words, when aiming at a bird 20 meters away, the lens might actually be focused at 19.6 meters, not quite bang on, and with a higher depth of field the bird will still be in sharp-enough focus. Conditions vary widely of course, but the general rule is, stop down as far as you reasonably can to still get the shot – this also means rendering the focus on the background as desired (perhaps you want it very soft) and of course maintaining the shutter speed that’s necessary. Which leads to the next factor that affects sharpness:

Camera motion. Far and away, this is what produces blurry images, and more so in some situations. If the camera moves at all while the shutter is open, then some kind of motion blur is going to occur. So there are two things that we can do to reduce this as much as possible: keep the camera steady, and have the shutter open as briefly as possible.

Steadiness can be simple – a good tripod is a sound investment, many times cheaper than more expensive lenses. It’s best to get in the habit of carrying one and using it for as much as possible, despite how inconvenient this might seem. Most especially, when you have one shot at a particular image and will not be able to duplicate those conditions again, why chance trashing the photo because you didn’t want to fuss with the tripod? Remember that a tripod works by being immobile, so while a light tripod is easier to lug around, it also works less well than a heavier counterpart, especially for long exposures where wind or bumping can be an issue. Also, use the tripod with as little extension as possible, especially the center column, which is the weakest link – it’s most prone to shake and settling. For most nature offerings, I recommend legs that spread independently and have variable spread settings – many can get right down near the ground. You’ll also want a sturdy head that locks tight and doesn’t settle – when you lock it and let go of the camera, there should be no change of view, and it might need to remain exactly that way for minutes.

When you can’t use a tripod, a monopod may still work, and sometimes even a ground-level beanbag to settle the camera within. Failing that, bracing yourself or the camera against an immovable object can be sufficient. But sometimes all it takes is thinking about being steady in the first place. Feet should be planted and body upright. Both hands on camera, elbows tucked to sides. What I often tell my students is to think of ourselves as observers, the fly on the wall, when everything is happening – it’s a mindset that removes us from being ‘involved’ and tends to make us try to be unobtrusive, which means we slow down and keep still more often. Anticipating the action ahead of time and being in place for the best angle means we’re not running around. And even how we press the shutter is important; the camera doesn’t take a photo any faster by slamming the shutter release down, and it only takes a tiny press to trip it.

While there is no rule that can be applied to how low is too low of a shutter speed when the camera is held freehand, especially with stabilized lenses and such, the basic guideline is that your shutter speed should be at least 1/[focal length] – in other words, if you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, your shutter speed should not be below 1/100 second; with a 500mm lens, that goal is 1/500 second, because greater magnification means any camera motion is magnified too. So the idea is to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible. The fast lenses mentioned above can help, but only when they’re used at maximum aperture – setting the controls at f8 won’t help at all with the shutter speed. What helps much more is going with a higher ISO setting, which makes the camera more sensitive to light, so less is needed for a good exposure and the shutter speed can be faster. There’s a limit to this of course, because higher ISOs cause image degradation – you can easily end up trading motion blur for blotchy, noisy images. Get familiar with your camera and know how high an ISO setting is too high, where the quality has dropped so low that the image is unusable. When we’re talking critical sharpness and competing with other photographers, you want the images as nice-looking as possible, so you aim for the lowest ISO that can work in that situation.

Some notes about ISO and its effects. Gradient areas, like the gentle changes in the hue of the sky, will show the bad effects of ISO quickly, while detailed images show it far less. Because we’re so used to older B&W images being grainy due to the film quality many years ago, if you’re going to convert to monochrome, you can often get away with quite high ISO settings. Also, the truly horrendous nature of smutphone images have lowered the bar on what’s acceptable. And finally, if it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime image, something rare or really compelling, a lapse in quality is preferred over blurring the shot (or not getting it at all.) So generally, use the lowest ISO setting necessary to get the shot, but get the shot.

More light. A flash or strobe, of course, can help keep the shutter speed up by adding light to the scene, but there are a lot of mitigating factors. The first is how much additional light is needed; flash units can only put out so much light. This ties in with what kind of subject matter is being photographed, since the farther it is from the camera, the less light is reaching it and making it back to the camera – subjects with a significant difference in distances, such as a group of people throughout a room, will be illuminated differently unless some elaborate systems have been worked out to keep the light balanced.

Several of the newer camera/flash systems operate to help this along, such as Canon’s E-TTL and Nikon’s i-TTL; both operate by measuring the ambient light levels, before the flash has gone off, and producing enough light to illuminate the focused subject adequately while allowing the ambient light to expose the entire scene. These can produce a nicely balanced lighting effect in the final image, but if the ambient light is too low, the shutter speed will still have to be slower to allow that light to expose for the scene, and motion blur can still occur.

Mecaphesa crab spider in defensive posture
In some shooting situations, motion blur can be eradicated by using the flash as the sole illumination, disregarding (or even eliminating) ambient light altogether. The duration of the light burst from a flash/strobe can be very short, 1/1,000 second down to 1/10,000 second, so even a rapidly-moving subject such as splashing water can be frozen in midair. With such techniques, it really doesn’t matter what shutter speed is set, because the light only lasts for the fraction of a second, so no exposure is taking place outside of that brief duration. However, achieving this usually requires a ‘tabletop’ subject, something small and close that doesn’t require a lot of light in the first place. In macro work, this is what’s responsible for the appearance of being shot at night, because the background or scene receives almost no illumination from the flash – this is often exacerbated by the fact that macro work may be using shutter speeds of 1/125 second or faster to prevent motion blur, and apertures of f16 or smaller to produce the highest depth of field for the subject. However, such techniques can be sufficient to prevent motion blur even if the subject is moving and the photographer is not in a perfectly steady position (which can easily happen with macro) – the ability to trip the shutter exactly when the subject is in sharpest focus is crucial here.

Knowing the limits of autofocus. While autofocus is a wonderful achievement in cameras, it’s not perfect, and can be fooled. Subjects with a variety of distances within the focus zone, such as a bird within tree branches, can cause the autofocus to lock onto something other than the chosen subject, especially when the subject is small. This is worsened with modes that can track a moving subject, because a slight twitch of the camera away from the subject can cause the AF to refocus onto something else, often just as we trip the shutter.

But much more pertinent is that autofocus needs sharp contrast to lock effectively. Subjects with only subtle variations in contrast or color, or low light, can cause AF to ‘search’ without obtaining a lock, or even lock on without actually being in sharpest focus. In such situations, the photographer should switch off the autofocus and do it manually – you’d be surprised at the number of students of mine that had no clue how to do this: which switch to trip, which ring on the lens to use. A good photographer should be able to do two things as soon as autofocus starts to get balky:

1. Find a spot in the scene, the same distance as the chosen focal point, that has better contrast to lock focus onto before recomposing and tripping the shutter – this might be as simple as re-aiming down to the subject’s shirt for a moment;

2. Immediately switch off autofocus when this fails and manually focus the lens for optimum sharpness – which still might benefit from finding that spot of higher contrast.

red ants with egg clusters in jaws
Position yourself to use depth of field wisely. When depth of field is going to be short, it can help a lot to position the camera to have as much of the subject at the correct focal distance as possible; this basically means flat to the camera (or parallel with the camera back and thus the sensor.) It can be very easy to make the subject boring in this manner, so a little judgment is in order – as you can see from the images illustrating this post, the entirety of the subject does not have to be in focus for every situation, but for some subjects, it works much better to see everything sharply rather than only a portion. Often all this takes is a trivial shift in position, without needing any other techniques mentioned here, but it can improve on some of them as well.

magenta morning glory flower showing white pollen

Where does your eye go, and why?

Know what needs to be sharp. This is often a matter of preference, but there are a few things to know. The first is that our eyes are automatically drawn to the sharpest portion of an image, so the focal point we select is what we want to highlight to the viewer – this may very often not be the closest part of the subject, or even the most colorful or contrasting. When we do this, however, it should be worth our attention: healthy, unblemished and undamaged, geometrically balanced, aesthetically pleasing. I have often picked through a cluster of flowers to find the one that looked the best, and had the best lighting angle, to select as the focal point. In such cases, others nearby might not have been as easy on the eyes but it really didn’t matter; even though they were not out-of-focus enough to eradicate their imperfections, attention was drawn away from them by the sharper blossom.

Also know that, as a species, we tend to look to the eyes first – keeping these sharp is automatically more pleasing to the viewer, even if it’s an insect with compound eyes. In situations where there are a variety of eyes to choose from, such as a small group of people, pick the set with the best lighting, expression, and ability to draw the viewer in; definitely the one facing more towards the camera, all other things being equal. Remember that a lot of photography is emotional, so providing a subject that the viewer relates to easiest makes the image stronger.

When in doubt, try again. There’s nothing worse than snapping a once-in-a-lifetime frame and getting home to discover that focus wasn’t perfect. If the conditions give any opportunity at all for focus to be off, get several frames, and if need be, vary the techniques. Twitch the camera away from the subject for a moment, letting it refocus elsewhere, before aiming back and locking focus on the subject again; sometimes this is enough to tweak focus just a tad sharper (some lenses lock on better when focusing out rather than in, i.e. tracking out from being focused much closer than the subject really is… or vice versa.) Close the aperture down a little to allow some leeway with depth of field. Shoot a few frames to try and capture when you’re holding the steadiest. Switch to manual focus and shoot a few frames with tiny adjustments of the ring. As long as you get one image that works…

And of course, combine techniques. There’s no such thing as being too sharp… well, okay, not in the vast majority of photographic situations, anyway. Naturally every technique above cannot be applied in every situation, but most times more than one is easy enough to pull off, and none of them will interfere with another to make things worse. If I had to pick two that would work in the largest number of scenarios, I’d say “stop down” and “use a tripod,” but all of them are tools in the photographer’s repertoire, some able to be applied in certain situations much easier than others (relying on a tripod during a wedding might be more hassle than benefit, for example.) Use what works, but never settle for lower sharpness than you can achieve.

sweat bee on flower cluster
A couple of examples to further illustrate the items in this post. Above, the full-frame shot, while below is a full-resolution inset from the same frame. Shot handheld in natural light at 1/800 second, ISO 250, the aperture was left wide-open at f4 to help prevent both my own movement and the breeze-driven flowers from blurring in the shot; naturally timing had a lot to say in the matter. Autofocus wasn’t an option in such conditions, but also because I wasn’t using an AF lens; this is actually a macro lens made for Mamiya 645 medium-format cameras, adapted to use on a Canon SLR. Fairly inexpensive, and sharp as hell. However, I also shot a lot of frames to get one that nailed focus in this manner.

detail inset of sweat bee on flower cluster
Meanwhile, go back up and look at the spider photo again. There, you can see the “night shot” effect of using a flash unit with a fast shutter speed and a small aperture, and how it makes the background drop into darkness (even though the image was done in bright daylight.) There, timing was important solely because of my own minor twitching, since magnification was very high and focus, even at f16, noticeably short – the spider measures 6mm across, so effective depth can be considered about 2mm, which is a pretty narrow margin to try and remain within no matter what. Shutter speed 1/250 second, f16, ISO 250, but of special note is the lens, which is a damaged and supposedly worthless Sigma 28-105 used in reverse – not an expensive lens when new, and certainly not a dedicated macro lens. Used in this manner, however, it performs almost as good as lenses costing a thousand dollars. A little experimentation can pay off handsomely.

So did, uh… did jesus really exist?

If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you might think it’s curious (or completely out-of-character) for me to even be asking this question, especially since I’ve been pretty clear about its relative worth. From a strictly historical standpoint, however, it retains a certain mystique, and I’m going to present my own perspective on it. Does it actually make any difference at all? No, because of several factors that will be enumerated below, but… well, let’s go into the details.

We’ll get a couple of things straight right up front. I’m no biblical scholar, not even close; if you’re looking for a detailed and dependable treatment, you’re looking in the wrong place. Second, there are a lot of distinctions to be made, but the foremost among them is that even the proven existence of jesus has no actual bearing on whether he was divine in any way, or any actions or events claimed to be associated; those are all separate factors, and mostly ones that I’m not even going to try to tackle – partially because it would be impossible without huge inferences, but mostly because of the flaws in the entire narrative. And finally, this particular aspect has certainly been approached numerous times by others, but I haven’t bothered to see what they have to say; I’m only vaguely interested in scriptural history, and basically believe that anything derived from it will be trivial and largely worthless. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with a lot of issues these days concerning economy and ethics and cultural interactions, and nothing from any scripture is capable of addressing these in any meaningful way – as demonstrated by the still-significant numbers of religious folk in the world and the very existence of such problems after all these centuries. It’s been the same messages all this time, so something should have worked by now if there was any value whatsoever to be found in them.

But hard as it may be to believe, I think there’s some compelling evidence that the scriptural accounts of jesus were at least based on a real figure, and the evidence that I’ll present for this also argues that he wasn’t terribly divine.

There is little question that, at the time of the events recounted in the gospels, the basic books of the abrahamic religions were at least partially known; the Dead Sea scrolls date from that period and match (with varying degrees of inaccuracy) many of the chapters that would later be adopted into the hebrew bible, the christian bible, and the qur’an. However, at that point they were still scattered and not ‘canonical’ – the decisions as to what books were official scripture for each religion would come later on, and hashed about countless times even after that; there is no rational way to say, “These are official,” if one knows anything at all about scriptural history. What was known at the time, though, would be considered most closely related to judaism, though the emphasis on moses as the key prophet was almost certainly widely varied. Which means that the chroniclers of the gospels could easily have been aware of the various prophesies of the hebrew bible/old testament.

It should also be known that christianity did not arise soon after the gospels appeared. Even as they began to be adopted as a prime influence in religions, there were a lot of splinter factions, including a major schism between a) those that believed that every man had the ‘spark’ or potential pathway to divinity, and b) those that maintained that mortals could not in any way demonstrate divine powers. These would make jesus either a) a true mortal that realized his full potential, or b) an actual resident of the supernatural planes that only appeared on Earth, without any real connections to mortality. You will notice that either can can be supported by the gospels, depending on your interpretation, so no help there (surprise surprise.) It would not be until Constantine I adopted christianity as his state religion that it gained enough momentum to become prominent, and this occurred around 300 CE.

Well known, too, is that none of the gospels were contemporary to the events portrayed therein, the earliest (mark) referring to events several decades afterward and thus preventing it from being written any earlier, while two of the others (matthew and luke) are largely considered to be cribbed from the first, and the fourth (john) has numerous watermarks of being much later, including little resemblance to the earlier books. The evidence indicates that we have no eyewitness accounts of the events, instead being retellings at best; this doesn’t mean the events must be inaccurate, but it greatly increases the probability of such. Many of the details of jesus’ life were presented by later gospels, far removed from when they were supposed to occur, and with this distance comes an even greater probability that they are inaccurate; who was bothering to note the circumstances of his birth, and why did the earlier gospels not have access to these writings? Scholars tend to treat the later gospels as being embellished to a large degree, and I can easily see their point.

So let’s get down to the main narrative. Regardless of being either a chosen mortal, semi-, or completely divine, jesus is presented as the catalyst, the sacrifice for all mankind to ‘save’ us; this aspect is undeniable, and what christianity is based upon, differentiating it from all other religions that emerged from the same initial stories. The death of jesus was prophesized, intended, and completely according to plan – with all of the variations that can be found now (much less throughout history,) this is one aspect upon which there is no disagreement. The value of jesus is almost entirely in the sacrifice, with only an occasional nod towards any bits of wisdom he is said to have voiced.

Curiously, however, most of the narrative fails to reflect this foreknowledge. Instead of reaching a central location in the Roman Empire with a horde of followers and witnesses, he makes his way to an outlying province with a mere handful of disciples. Capable of demonstrating his credentials with supernatural powers regarding healing and wine and fig trees, he somehow remains an insignificant and even secretive figure. Even as his fate is playing out, he is sought after for being abusive to people in the temple, but has to be ‘sold out’ to the Roman soldiers, somehow not even producing enough of a spectacle at the time to warrant his public arrest. For an event that would affect all mankind, it’s remarkably low-key.

[A sideline here to touch on one of the more confusing aspects of the story. Nearly every account, for centuries, has judas betraying jesus by delivering him to the guards for his trial and execution, despite this being the intention all along and, in fact, the event that creates salvation. Jews were persecuted for fucking centuries over the condemnation of jesus by the sanhedrin trial, despite this supposedly fulfilling scriptural prophecy – there isn’t a lot of sense to be found within this. However, the recently rediscovered gospel of judas presents the story in a different light: judas was not a betrayer, but selected by jesus to be the one to deliver him to the guards and fulfill his destiny, making judas the most-favored disciple. This, at least, fits the events and even the dialogue within the gospels a lot closer, though not without other contradictions.]

Even as he is fulfilling his entire purpose and dying on the cross, jesus wails about being forsaken by his father. Witnesses? Barely a handful. His followers prepare him for burial without any recognition that this is not a lasting state, and are openly shocked when he reappears, even requiring proof that it was really him that died. And the gospels vary widely on what he did during his brief return to the mortal sphere before ascending to heaven, but again, eyewitnesses to this singularly most important event in the history of mankind somehow did not make a single mark in the records, even though we have pages of stuff from the empire itself. The gospels, in fact, are the only writings that indicate that this figure even existed, much less performed miracles, and again, they were written decades later and remained obscure long after that. It’s hard to reconcile this with the literally Earth-shaking nature of the event. It is much easier to see their stories as completely fabricated.

However, this has its own issues. A fabricated narrative shouldn’t have as many inconsistencies, but most importantly, it’s a lame story for being an epic, the epic. If it was written long after the time period it portrays, long after anyone ‘who was there’ could still be alive, then the author could play freely with the events without fear of contradiction or reprisal, and the events could be truly astounding, the miracles magnificent in scope instead of just making wedding guests merrier. A contemporary fabrication, however, is open to the damning possibility that no one alive remembers anything of the sort occurring, nor even heard it passed down by relatives – accounts of astounding miracles that supposedly occurred only a few decades back are pretty easy to dismiss. And the story itself is peculiar, and quite disturbing when it comes down to it. We are constantly told that god sent his son to Earth to sacrifice himself, thus saving all of mankind, but from what, exactly? There is no consensus on what this accomplished or changed, and the idea that a being that could create the entire physical world wouldn’t have any reason whatsoever to play games seems to be openly ignored. This god created the planets and mankind, not to mention all of the rules regarding the afterlife, but has to put on a torture-porn martyr play to change them? We can’t ignore the omniscience angle, where knowledge of how and when this would have to take place (as well as the disobedience in eden, as well as the flood, and on and on,) was there right from the beginning, before creation even began. In what way can this even remotely be considered ‘salvation?’ And as a curious side note, abraham was tested by being asked to sacrifice his son, but god went through with it – there are some really odd messages being put forth in here, and more than a little sadistic.

Or, are there? Let’s imagine someone rolling into town and claiming to be divine, charismatically gaining a bunch of followers convinced of this state; this is hardly a stretch even today in the age of reason and science. Eventually he runs afoul of the authorities, who have rather specific rules about religion: believe what you want, but don’t mess with what other people believe, and don’t defy the empire. Given the chance to recant, he defers, and joins the other common criminals in execution. Abruptly, his followers find that he’s just an insignificant mortal after all. They shrug, realize they were wrong and had been played, and move on, wiser for the experience.

Yes, I’m being snide now – we’re all familiar with how denial works. No no, jesus was supposed to die, yeah, that’s the ticket, and by dying, he proved his value and divinity! In fact, one could only be truly devout by believing in him, rather than the large collection of books that preceded him. It is next to impossible to find a religious person who is not absolutely sure that their particular version of religion is correct, regardless of how many splinters there might be – being wrong is simply out of the realm of possibility. The son of god could not die, unless he was supposed to! And if he was supposed to, then it must have accomplished something important.

Bear in mind that this was a tumultuous time for judaism; emperors would occasionally declare themselves a god, which didn’t play well with moses’ decrees and the commandments, and several jewish uprisings took place around that time. The message of jesus could easily be taken to mean that jews did not have to die for their faith, because jesus already had. Historically, judaism had grown to possess much power and authority in the region – until it ran up against the expanding Roman Empire. Over time, it became clear that being the ‘chosen people’ wasn’t enough to win out over Roman rule. And abruptly, we have the sudden change in message from the new testament, which emphasizes peacefulness and judgment in the afterlife, as well as faith being the only thing that was necessary – all qualities that work a lot better against a strong government than the idea of being backed by god. Or evenly openly assisted by god, as many portions of the old testament portray at length.

The later gospels made it a point to tie jesus in with the previous scriptural stories, providing him with a direct-only-not-exactly lineage with david and fitting in with various prophesies; it’s hard not to see these as opportunistic attempts to woo the jews that viewed moses as the last of the prophets because, you know, that’s what was written. Without this legitimacy, jesus was just another street preacher that could not compete against the established religion of the time.

Seen from the standpoint of a created mythology, the tales of jesus are unimpressive, vague on details, and don’t make any sense – even as a moral fable the messages are not just hard to fathom, but remarkably weak in nature. Seen from the standpoint of being accurate accounts of true events – well, they can’t be, because they’re contradictory on far too many details, so something is wrong therein, and there is no way to determine what; it could be all of it. [Note that even if all accounts agreed, this wouldn’t bring them any closer to being true – they could all simply originate from the same source of fabrication.] Moreover, none of them have any outside corroboration or demonstrable evidence, the only things that could assist in authentication. They had remarkably little impact at the time – even the gospels themselves harp constantly about those who do not believe this figure is divine in any way – and the still-present problem that they just make no sense. But seen in the light that someone was trying to capitalize on existing folklore – that fits the evidence rather well, as I see it. There are several other known gospels that never got accepted into the christian canon, and more that were only hinted at, all differing on details; the only consistency seems to be the emphasis on jesus himself. Yet still in a very narrow way, since no outside historical accounts make any mention of him whatsoever. It has all the earmarks of legends built up around a cult following – one with little to show for itself, as well, since it wouldn’t have been hard for someone truly divine to have a hell of a lot more impact. Given, you know, that his dad stopped the entire planet from rotating and moses parted the waters and all that jazz. If we are to believe that the gospels still recount the legends of a divine miracle-worker, then why can’t they agree on the miracles, and why aren’t those miracles carrying their own weight in the legends outside of christianity? However, mythology is easily built around a single common figure – witness all of the emphasis on Christopher Columbus that made it into common knowledge without being true at all, or all of the quotes misattributed to Mark Twain, despite both of these being well within the era of meticulous recordkeeping.

Christians will tirelessly argue that the gospels are distinctive evidence of both existence and divinity, while completely dismissing very similar accounts regarding mohammed and buddha – double-standards are de rigueur among religious folk. There are entire books that try to excuse the countless issues in one way or another – often by claiming metaphorical meaning or by asserting that the message (whatever it is supposed to be) is true even if the gospels have problems. Yet even from an unbiased, objective standpoint, there are numerous other possibilities for how these stories arose, including a cult following of an entirely fabricated legend, including the shaping by unknown events and cultural influences of the time – there is likely no way that any theory regarding the gospels could be raised above a 2% probability. But to me, the explanation that seems to fit the best is the desperate attempt to glorify a rather mundane figure and event, and to do this, you first have to have a figure to build upon. The gospels are curious in that they each pretty distinctly describe their own versions of the myth, but rely on the same figure.

Some more fun reading:

Shredding the Gospels: Contradictions, Errors, Mistakes, Fictions

How accurate are the gospels? (This one recounts the extremely common christian response to debate, which is why there is little reason to even engage in such.)

January’s abstract

ice patterns on freezing pond
If you’re seeing this, it means I’ve failed.

I am committed to continuing the month-end abstract images that I kinda sorta started doing last year, but I really haven’t shot much this month. I did not neglect the winter storm that hit the east coast of the US, but also didn’t shoot a lot of it either, and while I am scheduled to go out on a session with a student today – obviously I am writing this before it occurs – if you see these words it means I didn’t get any abstract images that I liked better than this one.

At this latitude, the storm was in the form of sleet that later froze together into pack ice, but the nearby pond came close to freezing over – what you’re seeing here are the edge effects, waterlogged sleet at the top and spontaneous ice crystals making geometric patterns further down, with a hint of the pond bottom showing through to prevent the image from being monochromatic. You might think this is a tight closeup and those crystal patterns are small, but you’d be mistaken – this frame probably spans about a half-meter. It’s too bad I didn’t get it reflecting some cool sunrise colors…

By the way, this also marks my 1,000th post since I started the blog – not a great accomplishment compared to some people, but still worth noting. Right?

Tagged again

Last year at about this time, I featured the curious tags that not only appeared just once in the history of the blog (which is not significant,) but raised questions when seen alone – even by me, and I wrote them. Tags are normally intended to help search engines find content, and should indicate relevance… only I like to use them as additional commentary too, like snide little footnotes. So once again, we take a look at some of the weirder tags and what they lead to, which is all the warning you’re getting. For no good reason, they’re in chronological order, so you can see for yourself how much I’ve grown as a blogger.

Red Ant Slurpee – A lot of people are searching on this term, I’m sure.

Science saved my soul – Not mine actually, though it sounds like it could be, but the title of an excellent video that bears highlighting again.

shagged out after a long squawk – A Python reference for a video they would undoubtedly approve of, also featuring Stephen Fry, one of two such posts.

corn starch is made of souls! – I should have titled the post that just to make it clickbait, though it’s really about some photographic effect trivia.

Just don’t say “cunt” – We’re a weird species.

Je peux avoir Royale? – It says something when I have to run my own tags through a translator (again,) and if you manage to successfully interpret this one, more power to you – it’s a little obscure.

pictures of an octopusses butt – Not gonna say anything. Okay, that’s not true, because you really need to see that video. Again.

just let your Soul Glow – Shame I misspelled it…

swag – Not a word I use a lot, and needs to be recognized in the context of the post (which is mean, I know, and the title you see when you hover over that link is no help at all. Just click – you know you have to.)

Oh Zuulie, you nut – Technically that’s two tags, because tags cannot have a comma within – when I do this I have to ensure that the alphabetical display of tags won’t corrupt the phrase I’m trying for. Blogging is a phenomenal effort that few appreciate.

expecting the unexpected – Also, “‘rabbit hootch’ oh my god this is too much.” Because.

why does this card have a jackhammer and a bearded rose? – Okay, it’s little more than a link to an outside source. Sue me.

who put the bomp – Random, but cute.

call me Mr Balance – Kinda the opposite of above.

Whaaashitjesusfuckdonttouchit – Also, “probably ate her husband too.”

it’s Ponda Baba in case you were wondering – I don’t like to leave my readers hanging. Plus I have to link to this again.

some damn flamboyant monks – Also, “elephant levitator” and “Queen of All Poisons.” Tag gold.

Big McLargeHuge – You can’t dislike such a name. Even if you have your own personal favorite.

when *I* do it it’s mystical – Closely followed by “when *you* do it it’s stupid.” Yes, it’s snark, but sometimes that’s the best way to get a point across.

You will see below that I have repeated all of the tags, which will make next year’s efforts much easier because now I won’t keep checking the same tags, all of these now appearing twice. Plus some additional commentary if you can dig through. Meanwhile, I have already used a tag this year which will appear next January. Probably.

Odd memories, part 15

It is sometime in the 1990s. No, I mean it’s 2016 right now, but the event I am relating takes place back then, and I am using a literary style called first-person chronologica dysplasia or some shit like that. Whatever; it’s creative – run with me here. I am touring Florida on my own, down in the Keys for the first time, and decide to do a coral reef snorkel trip. I had been fond of snorkeling in central NY when I lived there, despite the short season when this could take place without hypothermia, but upon moving to NC I had almost no opportunity to do so (snorkeling I mean,) because visibility in every available water source sucked. So among the many things I packed for this trip was my snorkeling gear – with one exception.

My eyes are terrible, so for years I’ve jammed an old pair of eyeglasses, earpieces removed, into my dive masks so I can actually see what’s going on. Before leaving NC, I had intended to grab one of my old pairs for specifically this purpose (it having been years since I’d done any diving,) but forgot about it, the one item on the entire trip that I missed. I did have the foresight to purchase a disposable underwater camera, though, one of those fixed-focus, fixed-exposure jobbies with which I could continue to pursue my photographic oeuvre.

Coral reefs are largely protected areas, especially so in US coastal waters, and thus there was only one patch where commercial dive trips were permitted; this became obvious as our boat drew near and the ring of other dive boats could be seen. While there were about six divers on our boat, there was at least seven other boats in the area. We received our instruction not to actually touch the coral at all, donned our safety flotation vests, and jumped in.

The water was clear and between two and three meters deep, and the coral reasonably colorful – a far cry from the waters of Cayuga and Skaneateles Lakes. I saw lots of different colored blobs, some moving, some not – that’s about the extent that my vision was going to discern, so I pointed the camera at anything that looked promising and fired away, intending to find out just what I’d been swimming among when the film was developed. I was later pleased to find that, even in this sorry state, I had positively identified a type of parrot fish and a barracuda.

At one point I was surrounded by a school of fish, perhaps palm-sized, which had gathered around looking for handouts – plenty of people brought along hotdogs and such to feed the residents of the reef. It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beaming down through the water fiercely, and so I had the idea of diving to the bottom in an area that was clear of coral, rolling over, and shooting a photo of the fish from below, framed against the sun. I took a deep breath and dove, reached the bottom in a second or two, rolled and aimed the camera.

No fish. The school I’d been right smack in the middle of had vanished. I was seriously puzzled, thinking that my descent was hardly violent enough to startle them away so completely. And then I looked around.

unidentified greedy fishI was still in the midst of the school; the greedy little shits had followed me down, not at all fooled by my attempts to dodge them. As I said, they weren’t very big, so this photo shows that they lacked any concern over personal space. What I like about this image is that they’re all looking at me, in a manner that might seem ominous if fish did not routinely possess such vapid expressions – I imagine this is what Cypress Hill used to see from stage. The quality of this photo nearly matches that of smutphones, and so you know I’m proud of it…

The dive operators had the presence of mind to equip each boat with a different colored flag, so I was able to make my way back to our own boat with little difficulty. This is not a minor thing; I’ve had lifeguards get quite peeved with me because I was leaving their approved swim area and I couldn’t tell that their frantic whistles and arm motions were intended for me. As it was, I had returned to the boat with a few minutes to spare, and related to the divemaster thereon about forgetting my glasses. He chided me for not mentioning it sooner, since they had loaner masks with a variety of insertable diopters for people with vision as ratty as mine. And here I was thinking I was hot shit for having my own snorkeling gear.

On the trip back, several kilometers from the shore of Key Largo, I could have sworn I saw a school of flying fish break the surface somewhere in the distance, but by the time I got the camera (a more-or-less proper one this time, with a decent telephoto lens) in hand and scanned the water, they were nowhere to be seen. It’s a shame; that’s something I could definitely stand to add to my stock, even on negative film.

I’ve said before that Florida is a curious place for wildlife photography, largely because many species seem to give not the faintest damn for people being around, at least in certain areas. While a close approach to most waterfowl is challenging in large portions of the country, in Florida you’re almost required to push them out of the way; my cousin was once blocked from entering the building where he worked by a sandhill crane, standing over 150 cm tall with a long and wickedly sharp beak, and completely disinclined to move away from the door. So when our boat returned to the harbor, a brown pelican reluctantly, and with exaggerated casualness, yielded its position in our path with an air that made it clear it suffered us only through extreme patience, and we were testing that. Some people have claimed that they can’t read that from the expression, but it’s there all right.

brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis reluctantly moving aside in a Key Largo harbor
This trip was responsible for producing one of the strangest dermal patterns I’ve ever displayed. It was summer and my car had no air conditioning, which was bad enough, but also suffered from a peculiar design where, even hurtling down the interstate with both windows and the sunroof open, only a modicum of air circulated through the cabin. Over the course of a week, I was in T-shirts, tanktops, and bare-chested, receiving sun through the side window and the sunroof, so my right shoulder and belly, but left side above the armpit, all got sunburned, marked with a broad pale stripe where the shoulder harness crossed and varying patterns from the different shirts. The dive trip added in a large oval on my back where it protruded above the water while snorkeling, bisected by a narrow band from the strap of the flotation vest we were required to wear. Among some remote South American tribes this was probably considered incredibly sexy, but it was not my fortune to meet anyone from those cultures while it lasted. Our culture, of course, was nowhere near that sophisticated, and I was obliged to remain chastely covered until it faded.

Book and theory review: Chaos

First off, a disclaimer: I’ve never been good at math, or at least, not since the sixth grade or thereabouts. I’ve struggled with it enough that I suspect there’s something fundamental that I missed, or a mental block or even something about my brain (could be that root beer incident when I was 10,) but so what who cares? The point is, someone may be inclined to say that this explains my occasional antagonism towards certain aspects of math, and they might be right; I’d prefer to see someone outlining the flaws in my arguments, to be honest, rather than offering a dismissive assumption.

The next bit is a reflection of shortcuts in our thinking processes. I constantly caution against the human trait of taking cues from others and assuming they know what they’re talking about rather than applying our own reasoning, but there’s the recognition that any individual cannot possibly learn everything, so to a certain extent we have to take someone’s word for it. When it comes to the sciences, there are several things which give me pause, but I take the shortcut that scientists that are using these concepts on a daily basis have had plenty of time to catch the flaws that I might think I see, so first, I provisionally assume that it’s solid, but more importantly, I try to find out the details behind what has me stymied. This particular case, however, is a curious one, since it appears there is no firm agreement on many aspects of it, which is not a good sign. After a ridiculous amount of research and, really, more fucking around than should ever have to be spent on anything called a “theory,” I have finally arrived at my own views on the topic; whether you find these warranted is yet to be seen.

Chaos: Making a New Science by James GleickPart of this post is a book review, but only part, before we’ll move on to more pertinent aspects of the topic, which is chaos theory. In trying to find out more about this ‘theory,’ I stumbled across the book Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, a hefty tome that appeared well-illustrated and bore the enthusiastic testimonials of many, and figured this was a better place to start than the crowd-sourced and usually vague Wikipedia. The problem with this approach is that it permits only one perspective, and for some subjects this is not going to provide the best overview.

To be honest, I never finished the book – it was that bad. Not from the standpoint of grammar or sentence structure (like I could inform anyone on that,) but from the standpoint of being explanatory, informative, and even objective. I’ll elaborate on this shortly, but first, let’s pin down the topic itself a little better.

No matter what circles you move within, chances are you’ve at least heard of chaos theory. In and of itself it’s kind of hard to explain – It’s not exactly chaos as we normally use the word, meaning random and wildly variable, but instead a tendency to depart from expected results in an increasing manner; the phrase often associated with this diversion is “non-linear.” The gist is, within any kind of dynamic system (say air or water masses,) a very small variable can cause radical changes to ripple through the entire system; the example often used is that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could potentially cause a hurricane thousands of kilometers away. In deterministic physics, this is not at all surprising, since any molecular interaction stands the very high potential of spreading among neighbors, and in fact everything is this big dance of interaction. Somehow, though, chaos is often claimed to disprove the tenets of determinism, radically so to hear Gleick and others tell it.

The second aspect of chaos is fractalism, where the pattern of the whole can be found, repeatedly, within the parts, going smaller and smaller. Or vice versa: start with a simple pattern and the pattern will grow by repeating itself. If you are having trouble reconciling this with the bit above, good – we’re on the same wavelength. And I have yet to find a source which has explained the connection; believe me, I’ve looked. At 317 pages one would think that Gleick’s book could manage to pin down the origin relatively quickly and move on to a detailed examination, but when I found myself halfway through the book and no clearer on the relation, or even the entire concept of chaos, I finally gave up hope for this to be explained in any way.

But the book was exemplary in illustrating one of the basic points of mathematics that I’ve had to repeat, which is that it is only an abstract, and its application to real-world situations has to take place with a certain level of fudging. Even as he presented example scenarios meant only to illustrate the effects of chaos, Gleick failed to provide anything that actually made sense. We’ll take his early example of mapping a shoreline, meant to demonstrate how this fractalism manifested. From a typical mapping distance, dozens to hundreds of kilometers above the surface, a shoreline is a meandering, random thing – but the closer you get to it, you’ll find that it remains random and meandering, and that at no level does it default to anything else. Now, as an example of fractal patterns, you might be excused if you fail to see how this is supposed to work, since “random” is not a pattern – it’s the absence of it, by definition. Randomness on a small scale – say, where the water meets sand grains – propagates upwards in scale to delineate the shoreline as seen from space? Preposterous! Yeah, a moment’s thought makes this a rather unimpressive example, doesn’t it? But it gets worse as we consider any example of a shoreline, perhaps where the cliffs erode into rocks and such like that. Get close enough, and you find the smooth surfaces of individual rocks, and closer still you find the crystalline structure of the same – but this pattern (the true meaning of the word now) doesn’t propagate very far at all; not even to naked eye level. And in fact, I have found no example of such fractalism anywhere in nature; it exists solely in mathematical realms. Sure, patterns of leaf veins or flower seeds may maintain a pattern very briefly, but such patterns do not, for instance, repeat even throughout the entire organism, nor can they be found at the microscopic level, much less the molecular one. So, where is this fractalism manifesting? Mind you, these are the examples of ‘real world’ fractalism, which says nothing of the wholly abstract and application-free examples such as computer-drawn Mandelbrot patterns and infinitely increasing the surface area of a cube by repeatedly cutting channels through each face (and each new one resulting from this practice.)

But let’s leave fractals behind and return to the more direct meaning of chaos theory. It’s easy to see how it might work with many different realistic scenarios, such as following driving directions. Making a left instead of a right at any given point, or taking the third right instead of the fourth, will ultimately fail to get us to our destination of course, but depending on where in the process this takes place, it may deliver us to wildly variable locations. And as any role-playing gamer knows, one crummy dice roll can change the entire campaign. The essence of chaos theory is the heart of every alternate scenario for WWII ever imagined.

Yet, there’s this concept called determinism, which relies on the wild idea that the laws of physics are, well, laws – as in, something unbreakable. Given force A and angles B and C and surface friction D, the dice could only arrive at one outcome; they appear random to us only because we have no handy, immediate way of calculating the factors involved. The concept of random actually means a result that does not originate from a known physical effect, coming from… well, apparently nowhere. We have extremely limited examples of such, only at the quantum level, and they disappear by the time they reach the atomic level; they might even originate from physical laws that we simply haven’t discovered yet. Which means that randomness is either extremely limited in scope, or completely nonexistent.

[Yes, this means for us too, and I’ve tackled that idea many times before.]

An awful lot of people, some mathematicians among them, don’t understand determinism in this way, instead believing it means predictable. But for something to be predictable, we would have to grasp all of the factors that impinge on the outcome, which for a great many subjects is simply outside of our abilities (see the dice roll example, or indeed anything at all about weather or most fluids.) Not knowing which way air molecules may twist in the turbulent interaction between warmer and cooler masses does not, in any way, mean that this process is outside of physical laws, any more than not knowing what is inside a box means the contents could be magical.

This has direct bearing on chaos theory; in fact, it is crucial to the idea that the theory even exists. A theory, in scientific terms, is an explanation for known facts, the process that produces the result. As such, not only must a theory fit the evidence we already have, it must predict future results accurately as well. When we look at the weather, or the turbulence of airflow over an aircraft’s wings, the function of chaos theory would be to predict the behavior that, so far, we have been unable to predict.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t do this. After getting halfway through the book and finding nothing of any real application – no solid information of any kind, actually – I went looking for other sources to see how this ‘theory’ was even supposed to work. And found… nothing. Every example within the book was strictly mathematical with no connection to physical processes; some of them were so far from reality that I just stared at them in confusion. Outside of the book wasn’t any better, producing nothing that was clarifying or even promising – I certainly might have missed something in my searches, but when every source that turns up says, at best, that chaos theory might be used to predict aircraft turbulence or increase the accuracy of weather reports, well, I don’t think I can be accused of jumping to conclusions. Especially since the theory has been around for decades, and Gleick’s book since 1987. For perspective, I point out the changes that have occurred in communications, biology, and even cosmology from that date, and let those be viewed against the idea that chaos is “the making of a new science.”

So let’s return to reviewing the book, before we jump back again to chaos theory itself. I am going to simplify the book down to two primary aspects – really, there isn’t much else in there. Both of them are miserably corrupt.

The science. Gleick either had no grasp of even rudimentary physics, or chose to misrepresent it to make chaos theory sound astounding; it really doesn’t matter which. He broadly, and repeatedly, implies that all of science predicts matter to behave in a linear fashion – no randomness, no variations. It’s hard to even imagine anyone stupid enough to believe this, because a quick look around demonstrates that this is not the case, but perhaps Gleick is one of those that hasn’t grasped the meaning of determinism. When a pale yellow leaf falls on a dark road, this alters the solar energy and temperature of the air masses above the road, by a tiny fraction of course, but this is multiplied by thousand of square meters of asphalt and millions of leaves even in a small geographic area; naturally, these ‘random’ alterations are capable of skewing a nice linear progression. Factors like this are what makes weather impossible to pin down – and yet, no part of this changes what we know about physics in any way.

graph from pg 71 of Chaos by James Gleick

Note to those who know how graphs work: I did not crop out any labels at all, and the process used to define the lines herein is far from typical. The split at “Period Two” represents the decision to start linking closest numbers rather than the chronological/generational procession, which would zigzag more like the “Steady State” inset. In other words, the only way to arrive at this illustration is to fuck around with useless and irrational plotting techniques just to try and highlight “chaos.”

Now let’s look at Gleick’s specific example, using a simple math formula to plot virtual population growth. You can see that, at Period Two, the numbers split – but, how could they split? The population of this virtual species is both 750 and 1020 individuals? No, it would have to be bouncing between those two numbers on successive generations, so the line should zoom up and down between those points, not become two separate lines. But okay, let’s assume that some kind of ‘leveling’ algorithm is in use – such things are employed often to define a visible trend from a wildly disparate collection of plotted points. This still wouldn’t produce two sets of results unless someone purposefully began plotting two separate sets of numbers.

And then there’s the chaotic region, which demonstrates that no such algorithm is in use because any number of plots/figures would still average out to a single number. Worse still, we’re to believe, I suppose, that the population of these virtual animals [assigning random numbers because labeling a graph was too much effort] bounces back and forth between 61 and 12,482 individuals? I guess virtual animals can do this, but physical species would find that rather hard on the wombs…

Finally, there’s the very simple, but rather hard to ignore, factor that populations (as well as everything else in the real world) are affected by a hell of a lot more than a simple growth formula. There are real boom-and-bust scenarios in animal populations caused by disease, predation, surfeits of food, and so on, but no population ever reaches the point of chaos seen here, and in most cases present gradual changes and even fairly stable counts across many generations. So while running this formula presented a curious (if ridiculously illustrated) trend, it has no bearing whatsoever on what we might expect to see – or have ever seen. Even a situation such as bacteria in a culture dish, reducing the number of variable factors to an absolute minimum, is limited in range because reproduction can only take place at a certain rate, and crowding and food shortages will prevent too much of an increase. And this example isn’t alone: every demonstration of chaos in the half of the book that I read is just like this. So, is there even a possible scenario where a chaotic trend could be found? Gleick doesn’t say at all – that would have taken time away from:

The narrative. To hear Gleick tell it, the various mathematicians responsible for developing the concept of chaos were the most unappreciated and maligned people in our history of pursuing knowledge. The book is rife with how these souls struggled on against indifference and opposition, as dramatic as any 1950s screenwriter – in fact, reminding me irresistibly of the alt-med and cheap energy promotional screeds that can still be found; Gleick doesn’t come right out and say, “They all laughed…” but the tone is there nonetheless. And while I initially considered this drama and hyperbole, I eventually realized – at about the point where I stopped reading – that there may have been more of a grain of accuracy to this after all. There is no personality trait that can be applied to “scientists,” but the sciences have their own standards of publication and importance, which fosters a certain approach to new announcements. Essentially, one has to demonstrate both their rigor and the value of their ideas, most often in peer-reviewed journals. But esoteric mathematical formulas and properties will only gain attention from the ‘hard’ sciences if and when they can be used within those sciences. Had the population growth prediction above actually been seen in real-world population studies, chaos theory might have been vindicated; with a lot of examples, and/or some solid predictions of what would be found, chaos theory might be considered worthy of being called a “new science.” But when someone is just plugging numbers experimentally into a formula and finding anomalous and chaotic results, well, it could be an example of an emergent property in certain conditions, or it could be an example of an utterly worthless formula. The prudent thing to do is to figure this out first – but if it ever happened, Gleick didn’t see fit to include it.

This was, to me, the most annoying aspect of the book. While enthusiastic over the remarkable properties revealed within chaos theory, Gleick seemed unaware of what science is, or is intended to accomplish. Demonstrations, proofs, and even evidence were all somehow deemed unnecessary, and in their place the reader is expected to ride along with his awe of the theory; when Gleick did actually delve, ever so briefly, into actual physics, as often as not it would be with a degree of inaccuracy and misrepresentation, or with the complete ignorance that a lot of factors could impinge on any results. Even as he discusses moderately-high mathematical functions, seemingly aiming at an audience exceeding a high-school level of math knowledge, he fails to answer any of the questions that someone with a basic understanding of physics would ask; he either had no idea what his target audience is, or was aiming low while hoping to dazzle them with details they wouldn’t understand.

Now, let’s ditch the book and deal with chaos theory itself – and we’ll completely ignore the fractal aspect because I have yet to see any reason to even consider it. What that graph image above was intended to illustrate is how a simple formula could start to break down, vacillating between two sets of values, then two more, before further degrading into random values with no apparent pattern – this it the non-linear aspect of chaos, and something that we don’t expect math calculations to do. From a real-world physics standpoint, we see results such as this all the time, but that’s primarily because there are billions of factors that can come to bear on any given scenario; the lower the energy needed to effect a change, the more often it tends to occur. While a car sitting in a parking space will stay put (because the variations in energy that it absorbs from the sun and the wind and all that are too small to affect the collection of atoms bound together into a ‘piece,’) water molecules in a bucket move about and mix – a single drop of food coloring in an apparently-motionless bucket will still disperse, and given enough time it will spread evenly throughout all of the water rather than pooling at the bottom or going in a straight line anywhere. Thus, it is chaotic in nature, but hardly unexpected even when not specifically predictable. Physics is not in any way thwarted with this, and so it remains deterministic, even when the radiated body heat of someone leaning close to watch it affects the results in an infinitesimal manner.

But then there’s another aspect of chaos, and it is seen in that same illustration. At times, within the chaos region, the results can suddenly stabilize and follow a linear progression again briefly, shown by the clear areas in the middle of the scribbles. What magic is this?

Actually, no source that I have found has yet demonstrated that it’s not simple synchronicity. Take two different pieces of music with different tempos and play them simultaneously, and the beats will match at times – over a period of time (much longer than most pieces of music last) and the combined pieces will have a beat of their own, much slower than either of the originals, where the original beats match up. And getting similar results from a mathematical formula is hardly surprising, because a formula is a pattern. This is actually an issue in computing, because the nature of calculations means it is impossible to produce a truly random number when needed – if it originates from any previous function, then it is not random. Oh, it’s easy enough to produce something unpredictable for most functions, just like a die roll, but in critical applications where any induced pattern skews the results, such patterns cannot actually be escaped.

So, what is chaos? Is it truly random behavior, or simply unpredictable? If we’re using math to demonstrate it, it’s not random. If it’s unpredictable, then what purpose is it supposed to serve? We have plenty of unpredictable situations now – the value lies in changing them to predictable. Does that pattern illustrated above serve a purpose? Sure, if it can be shown to predict animal populations over time – but since it cannot factor in any of the billions of influences on such populations, it’s certainly not going to match any real world results in any way. So what part of this can even remotely be considered a science?

When I tossed the book aside and began searching for a better grasp of chaos theory, I came across numerous examples of the same kind of enthusiasm and promises that chaos would prove to be of great value – and I emphasize the ‘would’ because, even after decades, no one apparently had real examples of how it could be applied. I still wondered about what I was missing myself, because it seemed that so many higher-educated people couldn’t be so far off base about it – and then my friend Dan Palmer directed me to a webpage entitled, ‘What are the practical applications of chaos theory?‘ with this opening statement by Ted Pavlic, an Assistant Professor of Engineering, Sustainability, Physics, and Life Sciences:

Chaos theory isn’t something to be exploited for application. It doesn’t represent some mathematical or scientific discovery that can be used in novel ways. Instead, it represents a set of techniques for analyzing dynamical systems that are deterministic (i.e., they follow apparently simple rules that lead to behaviors which depend only upon their initial conditions) and yet very sensitive to perturbations of input. Consequently, advances in understanding certain classes of these systems lead to advances in either understanding the physical world or designing technology that interfaces with such systems.

…and, finally, some light began to dawn. Chaos theory is a demonstration that, in narrow circumstances, the basic mathematics of the situation may produce behavior that appears ‘random,’ (to be more specific, affected by other unknown factors) when it is actually just a pattern that emerges. When the numbers are departing from a nice linear or exponential progression, we would normally expect something else to be having an affect, but it might only be the way the numbers must behave in those circumstances.

You will note that Pavlic specifically includes determinism in his explanation, making it clear that chaos does not thwart or depart from the concept – something that Gleick at least inferred on multiple occasions. Far from being a new science, it is a refinement of expectations, one more factor that could have taken affect in the results. In most situations, that’s one out of thousands or perhaps millions of factors, and any of those that alter the numbers used in the equation will naturally affect the results from such. It’s easy to see that the circumstances where chaos theory becomes useful are very constrained.

I said above that there is no firm agreement on what chaos theory is and what it does, or can do, and this is reflected in the number of wildly disparate claims from various sources; Pavlic’s view is hardly representative of either the theory or those who promote it, including the author of this dismal and dismissable book. Yet, it was the only view that actually made any sense at all, or that showed a connection with any real-world scenarios in the slightest; note that Pavlic is not a mathematician, but a professor of physics and engineering. Also note that, as we go deeper into the very short explanation he provided, we yet again get into what chaos could do, but not what it does.

What I finally arrived at – and I will openly admit this is an opinion, and I couldn’t care less who takes issue with it – is that there are way too many people with a vested interest in making chaos theory something that it isn’t, somehow pertinent to the hard sciences as a whole rather than an occasional factor in extremely narrow circumstances. And this is perhaps not surprising; if you’ve chosen mathematics as a career, there really isn’t a lot of room for new discoveries – the vast majority of formulas and algorithms used in any hard science were established decades to centuries ago, making mathematics a function rather than any kind of research field. I can’t help but see chaos theory as a desperate attempt to appear relevant and groundbreaking in a field that offers virtually no opportunities for such recognition.

*     *     *     *

Additional Reading:
Introduction to Chaos and it’s [sic] Real World Applications, by George T. Yurkon – Another link provided by Dan Palmer, this one gets to the point much faster than Gleick’s book, and demonstrates how deterministic physics can produce disparate results with only minimal changes in conditions, but still fails to recognize that a) we never actually see this take place, and b) just to produce the patterns shown within, there must be no other mitigating factors – something that simply doesn’t occur in real world applications. We’re just shy of 19 years since that paper was published, with bold promises of what chaos theory would produce, and I am still unable to find any solid results.

A brief reassurance that I’m here

sleet-covered wild blue phlox Phlox divaricata divaricataWith the computer being down and thus no decent way to unload photos, I simply avoided taking any until things were up to speed – which means that my first photos of 2016 weren’t taken until this morning! I’m as horrified as you. Well, okay, maybe not quite as horrified, but you’ve got competition, anyway.

That photographable event this morning was snow flurries and sleet – nothing impressive at all, and to even see the snowflakes I would have had a few moments to catch them suspended in someone’s hair, since all other surfaces were too warm to sustain them. So I returned to the stalwart wild blue phlox plants (Phlox divaricata divaricata,) which are still pushing up daisies uh, blossoms, for some reason. A short distance away, the daffodils are making their appearance as well, though still a week or so away from blooming. I can’t really say why this should be happening; this is North Carolina, and it’s not like we don’t get patches of warm weather throughout the winter on any given year. They’ve been interspersed with sub-freezing periods too, especially overnight, so…

I’m still working on at least three other posts, though sporadically among other things that are taking up my time, but at least I have a working (and upgraded) computer now, with access to most of my necessary programs and files, so that’s one hurdle out of the way. I should get back into my irregular schedule soon.

In the meantime, another from this morning, going for the fartsy angle in the brief time that I was exposing the equipment (the camera equipment, filthy mind) to the elements. I’m not terribly excited about it either, but I needed the reminder of what buttons to push. This is what the Euonymus americanus (hearts-a-bustin’) tree looks like in the winter, as compared to mid-autumn.

sleet/rain on hearts-a-bustin' Euonymus americanus tree

Off to a slow start

Considering that I set a personal record (which is one of the most meaningless accolades imaginable) for posts last year (216,) this year is off to a slow start – this is partially due to being busy with many other things, but also due to my workhorse computer still being dead. It now appears that it was only the motherboard, and so the harddrives with all of my stuff on them are intact, but it will still be another week, at least, before the new system is up and running. As such, I am not shooting anything because I cannot unload the camera memory, and the weather has been very supportive of this resolve (the best descriptive word is, “yuck.”)

I still have a couple of longish, philosophical posts in draft form, and am beginning a new composition post as soon as I finish this, so something may appear before too long – just don’t ask what kind of time frame “too long” represents. There will even be another tag post like last year, so you have that to look forward to. Or dread. Or ignore.

Regardless, I will be back up to speed in a little bit; I haven’t forgotten you. How could I, after that bizarre night in Chilliwack?

I have regrets

Yes, even a glamorous bug photographer such as myself has regrets, hard as that may be to imagine. This particular one manages to be forgotten for long stretches of time, but then returns with a stab of pain that can affect the rest of the day. I’m talking, of course, about Squirrel Level Road.

On a stretch of Interstate 85 in rural southern Virginia, overpasses are often marked with the names of the roads that they uphold, I suppose to assist people with determining exactly where they were in the ancient times before pleasant but stilted voices emanating from behind a minuscule LCD screen told us the most inefficient ways to get someplace. One such overpass is, or at least was – it’s been many years since I’ve been in the area – plaqued with the name, “Squirrel Level Road.” Not, perhaps, the most enigmatic name attached to a thoroughfare, but nonetheless one that always captivated me. First off, it might depend on how you look at it, but aren’t all roads at squirrel level? How, exactly, do you determine the level of a squirrel? Do you take the average, the mean, the median, or simply the most recent level at which you see a squirrel? Or is the road named after the squirrel level, that handy tool found underneath the crowbar and monkey wrench? Maybe it’s simply the counterpart to Squirrel Hilly Road on the other side of the county? The questions abound.

My regret is that I have never actually been on Squirrel Level Road – I feel that’s one of life’s experiences that should not be dismissed. Just once, I needed to pause in my travels, find the appropriate exit, twist along among countless meandering back roads, and triumphantly reach Squirrel Level Road, perhaps take a pebble or discarded beer can as a souvenir (don’t tell anyone.) I’m quite sure that Squirrel Level Road did not have its own exit, otherwise I would have stopped immediately the first time I saw it – you don’t let opportunities like that go to waste. It was probably, in fact, kilometers from the nearest exit – Squirrel Level Road is not where you would find a Burger King and a La Quinta, or even a sign that said, “Clean restrooms.” While Virginia has its share of big cities, southern portions of the state, at least, can be really rural. On my drive through in 1990, as I was moving from New York to North Carolina, I found myself getting drowsy and wanted to stop for a caffeine perk, taking the next exit. I-85 is a major road, so any exit should have easy access to a gas station or a convenience market, right? Yuh huh. I drove for quite a while seeking any kind of civilization, trying to ensure that I could remember my way back, and eventually happened onto a gas station that looked like Goober Pyle still worked there – except, not at that particular time, since there wasn’t a soul to be found. What could be found was the Pepsi machine, an ancient artifact that dispensed glass bottles cap-first from behind a long narrow glass door, and had the bottle-opener situated handily right alongside. Alas, it was out-of-order, and I returned to the moving truck and eventually the interstate with no need of caffeine anymore, because I was magnificently irritated by that time.

I was to repeat this kind of activity perhaps twenty years later, this time when coming down from Ohio, but I can’t recall if I was in Virginia or West Virginia at that time, not that there was any distinction. What I needed then was a restroom, and I took the next exit that actually had a town listed, even visible to my right as I came down the off ramp. A small town, of course, but even small towns have restrooms, clean or not. I drove into what appeared to be the center of town, but could tell from the buildings that I was headed in the wrong direction for a gas station, instead seeing two churches and a barber shop. Turning around, I began following the road that paralleled the interstate, figuring this one had to produce such amenities soon. What I stumbled onto, I believe, is the place where all of the small town churches are built, because I passed no less than five more of them on a stretch of road that couldn’t have been two kilometers long, making the ratio about one church for every six houses. I don’t want to give too strong an impression of Podunkville, because I passed a tanning salon as well, resplendent in unpainted cinder blocks with a gravel driveway sporting very few weeds. The gas station never did materialize, and I returned to the interstate to try the next exit, which in turn displayed no signs of civilization at all, nor even electricity. I pissed in the weeds.

It occurs to me now that it is perhaps for the best that I never tried to find Squirrel Level Road. Not just for the reasons above, though they’re certainly compelling by themselves, but for the very idea that Squirrel Level Road should be a mystery. It is, quite likely, nonexistent, a will-of-the-wisp luring bold explorers into some inescapable fate – I admit I have never found anyone who hailed from Squirrel Level Road, nor professed to having even seen it. But even if it is not some supernatural harvester of mapless travelers, it could simply be one of those extradimensional portals, open only to a select few; the reason why I cannot find anyone who knows the road is that those that have found it never return. Which could be good or bad – while it’s easy to scare ourselves with thoughts of giant marauding rodents seeking revenge for that potato chip fakeout we pulled on campus so many years ago, it could also be a magnificent place where all the woes of our former existence are left behind. Squirrel Level is not something that we reach, but that we can only aspire to, an absolute that draws us forward. Perhaps Squirrel Level is not to be found by looking, and only those who do not seek it can stumble across it when it is most needed. Or it could be that one does not go to Squirrel Level Road, we can only come from it, forever behind us.

Or are these all just those things that we tell ourselves to feel better? Are you, the reader, looking at imaginary me in disgust right now, finding me pathetic for not having sought out Squirrel Level Road and for trying to excuse this oversight? Have I even branded myself by admitting that I do not know Squirrel Level Road, preventing me from hanging with the cool people? Because, you know, I would’ve found Squirrel Level, but I had commitments every time. Or is there, like, a First Rule of Squirrel Level Road Club?

I’ve never been so torn writing a simple blog post…