On the Astronomy Picture of the Day site for October 16, we get to see a stunning image (cropped version above) that’s unique in many ways. The Rosetta spacecraft is a probe designed and launched by the European Space Agency (esa) to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and presently riding just 16 km (10 mi) away from said comet. It has another craft attached, called Philae, which will separate on November 12th to actually land on the surface of the comet. But while still attached, the cameras on Philae were used to get this image of the comet and the solar panels of the Rosetta craft in an excellent composition. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a curiously dumbell-shaped body, and is now close enough to the sun that it is starting to generate the jets of vapor that produce the coma and tail, the glowing (actually reflective) haze that we typically imagine comets to have – in truth, they only have this when close enough to the sun for the ice to sublimate into vapor. But seriously, don’t just look at my cropped version up there – go to the source page and click on the image for the much larger version.
Courtesy Astronomy Picture of the Day
A month ago, Rosetta sent back an even more dramatic photo, a wonderfully detailed look at the surface of the comet – click on that one, too, because it’s a wonderfully stark and forbidding image. For years, comets were believed to be “dirty snowballs,” made of mostly ice but with a generous helping of dust, grit, and rocks thrown in. Primarily this was because we could only get a halfway-decent look at them as they got very close, but this meant they were also close to the sun and thus active, spewing out an obscuring haze of vapor. Most meteor showers, however, come from the Earth passing through the orbit of comets and encountering their trail of expelled dust, the solid stuff they left behind on their long elliptical orbits of the sun. Vapor wouldn’t be able to produce meteors, so there had to be at least some solid material, but the extent of the coma and tail led us to believe that there was extensive ice. Recent probes (notably Giotto, Stardust, and Deep Impact) revised this concept, and this image from Rosetta helps confirm it: comets, or at least the ones we’ve managed close examinations of, are far more solid matter than originally theorized.
Will we be able to go out some night and spot comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the sky? Nope – not without a pretty decent telescope, since it estimated to, at best, only get to around magnitude 11. The limit of our vision in good viewing conditions is magnitude 6 or 7 (the smaller the number, the brighter the object – Sirius, the brightest star, achieves magnitude -1.46.) But that’s okay, because the Rosetta/Philae mission will provide plenty of detailed images – esa’s website on the mission is brimming with info already. And there are always a few comets that become faintly visible each year, though they often take some effort. Heavens-Above.com is a great resource for finding items of interest in the night sky, customized to your own location, and Stellarium is an excellent freeware program as well.
I will likely bring some updates in November as Philae drops down to the comet and tries not to bounce off (this is actually a serious consideration, since the comet measures only 4.5 km, or 2.8 mi, in length and thus has such feeble gravity that the lander will effectively weigh a few grams – it is equipped with augers in the feet to drill into the surface and hang on, and they’re designed so that they don’t push the lander away in the attempt.) Keep watching (this) space…
These are just some reflections on the curious concept of the paranormal hoax, partially spurred by the comments on this post at Bad UFOs, as well as an earlier post of mine about hoaxes and lying. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores, motivations of hoaxers and how often (or not) hoaxes appear; that’s a subject that’s far more complicated than it might seem, and being able to apply a simple label of ‘hoax’ does not in any way imply that everyone committing one falls within the same mindset, has the same motivations, gets the same satisfaction, and so on. I’ve met people who simply enjoy yanking people’s chains for a short while (I occasionally engage in this myself,) and pathological liars whose motivations are unclear, but likely quite deep-seated – to think these and many other attitudes can be considered comparable is ridiculously naïve.
Instead, this is a consideration of critical thinking, and the actions of the skeptic or ‘debunker’ when examining a hoax. While the ironclad determination that some incident is a true hoax is difficult to accomplish without an actual confession – we can only determine probability, even though in many cases the probability is ridiculously high (*cough* Billy Meier *cough*) – for now we’ll just consider the situations where the incident is actually a hoax, just not revealed. In other words, a fabricated event that remains a secret, known only to the originator.
A commenter on that Bad UFOs link questioned whether anyone would create a hoax that remains unrevealed for 64 years and counting, an Argument from Incredulity and apparently unaware of such incidents as the Cottingley Fairies and the Piltdown Man, to name two off the top of my head. The idea the commenter posits is that the joke is in the reveal, the ability to say, “Gotcha!” – but can we really consider this the sole, or even the prime, motivation?
I think we can all agree, a hoax relies on having a number of people fall for a premise, and the measure of its success is certainly how many people, and for how long. Assuming just for the sake of argument that it’s all building towards a reveal, at what point would the perpetrator decide that it was time? Most likely, when no further positive results seemed to be attainable, which begs the question of when anyone might conclude this to be – how little attention does a hoax have to receive before it’s considered ‘dead?’ Since this is entirely up to one person, the originator of the hoax, then this is going to be wildly subjective. However, if we were to consider that the delight lies completely in how successful it is, then the reveal only prevents further positive results, ending that game. Not to mention, it would probably make any future hoax endeavors difficult or impossible, since the perpetrator reveals him or herself along with the hoax.
Let’s consider the situation referred to in that post, a pair of photos taken by Paul Trent in 1950 purportedly showing a UFO over his farm. It has been posited, for actually most of their history, that the object seen in the images is really quite small, very close, and suspended from the visible electrical wires. If this were true, it would mean that, with about ten minutes or so of preparation, a bit of junk and string, and two frames of film, Trent created one of the longest-lasting and most referenced bits of UFO lore in existence – not a bad return on the investment. Well, no, that’s understating it just a tad – the success continues to this day, featured in an untold number of books, TV specials, websites, and discussions.
And Trent didn’t just snag the believers, but the skeptics as well. No small amount of effort has been expended in evaluating the images, doing enhancements, performing meticulous calculations, and on and on – both in the efforts to establish the images as ‘genuine’ and to establish them as not. Overall, these efforts have likely had little effect – believers are unconvinced by the points made by the skeptics, and the skeptics are unconvinced that a pair of grainy photographs can possibly be considered evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation. In fact, there’s extremely little that they could tell, even if we could definitively establish the images as genuine or hoax. Regardless, the hoaxer’s delight may not be so much from whether anyone believes the images show extra-terrestrial craft, but simply in who wastes their time even bothering with them in the first place. That would mean that the only people who aren’t part of the hoax’s success are the ones who couldn’t care less – and that the point where the positive results have petered out and any reveal seems best-timed has not yet been reached (and won’t, since Trent died in 1998.)
This does, of course, throw a certain consideration into the efforts of skeptics and debunkers, because any participation in the discussions (much less the extensive efforts to scientifically evaluate the photographs, or anything else given as evidence,) means that they’ve been snagged just as badly as any believer – perhaps even worse, if all their efforts cannot reveal a simple piece of junk dangling from a wire. What a joke science is! The commenter on the referenced post even tumbled to this idea, though curiously not mentioning that the believers were also snagged, and apparently unaware that this speculation completely trashed his/her original argument.
So should skeptics be self-conscious of being taken in by a hoax when even considering such cases in the first place? That’s really a personal thing, but overall, I’d have to say no; there are plenty of other reasons to evaluate any and all such claims, and useful information and perspectives to impart while doing so. The idea of a hoaxer ‘winning’ in a battle of wits is a petty and personal emotion, not having any effect outside of our minds, yet the methods of critical thought and examining what, for instance, any photo could really tell us – these remain useful and worth sharing. Not to mention that there may be a lot of personal satisfaction derived from the process, just like completing puzzles or figuring out murder mysteries; anyone’s choice of entertainment is their own.
As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be more active in the discussions of UFOs and paranormal claims, but I never got too deeply involved for a number of reasons. Partially it was because virtually no case examined, even if somehow proven authentic in some way, could possibly tell us much of anything; without rigorous controls and quantifiable results, there are no scientific benefits to be had. Partially it was, indeed, the idea of wasting a lot of time on a near-effortless hoax. And partially, it was because very few involved in such topics can be bothered to hear anything that counters their beliefs, even while repeatedly calling for “open-mindedness,” if you enjoy the irony.
But mostly, I found that the common denominator in all such topics, and many more besides, was the lack of critical thinking – of being able to compare situations, of applying perspective, of following a line of reasoning or seeing logical conclusions. I constantly saw, and see, people starting with a preferred premise and then finding only the supporting factors for it while ignoring all others; who insist on rigorous scientific evidence behind any disproof, but accept casual anecdotes as proof. Who argue that it cannot be a hoax if it remains unrevealed. This experience is, in part, why I started blogging, and why you don’t see posts dealing only with nature photography. It may or may not be working at all, but that’s my choice of entertainment.
I toyed with posting this too late, like last year, just to get everyone into the spirit of things, but I figured the effect would be much better if people were forewarned and prepared to take full advantage of it. So be it known, tomorrow is National Grouch Day. That’s right, all those little shits who keep telling you to cheer up, stop considering the glass half-empty, turn that smile upside down, and all that, have to go fuck off. All day. Oh my dog, it’s going to be great!
Or, not. Probably not. Actually, we all know it’s gonna suck – why am I even bothering? I mean, who the hell scheduled this for October, anyway? Third week in January, that’s when it should occur. A Monday. It probably won’t even rain tomorrow. But we’re stuck with it this kind of inept planning, like always, so there’s nothing we can do but bitch about it.
And it’s not like it’s gonna do any good, or that anyone’s even reading anyhow, so this is just wasted effort, but here’s a list of things you can do to make the most out of the day, especially by ignoring them:
Let the air our of your spare tire, and those of everyone else you can get to as well;
Loosen the top of your own salt shaker;
Make sure your hands are wet when you shake out a pain reliever too vigorously;
Get paint on the bottom of your shoe, so the drop cloth sticks to your feet;
Forget to charge batteries;
Drink straight from the jug/carton in full view of everybody;
Eat spicy burritos tonight, especially if a long meeting is scheduled for tomorrow – bonus points for riding the elevator a lot;
Don’t replace toilet paper (see above);
Shave/groom in the dark;
Glue a stone into your shoe (and, like the spare tire, the shoe of anyone else that you can get your hands on);
Use a torn bag for the kitty litter, or when you walk the dog;
Soap everyone’s favorite coffee mugs – also, substitute decaf;
Keep screwing with the thermostat;
Hesitate at green lights;
Release the door you were holding for someone just before they reach it; if it’s a woman and she comments or glares, say, “Oh, you looked like a feminist,” in explanation.
That should get you and everyone else started on making the most out of the day, and if they don’t work, you know what to do about it.
But seriously, this one’s for us. Grouches are supremely marginalized in our society, suitable, it seems, only for talk radio. We have this unrealistic standard constantly being set for us, that we should be upbeat and cheerful all the damn time – we can’t let optimists dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not. Our voices need to be heard; we need to stand up, tiredly, and say, “No! Let’s look at the dark side! Tomorrow is another day, and it’s going to be miserable too!”
Or not. Whatever. Fuck off.
Just a handful of recent images, incorporating both ‘found’ and ‘planned’ photos – nothing deep to be found here. Above and below, a grey treefrog (either Hyla versicolor or Hyla chrysoscelis) was found squatting in one of the bluebird boxes one midday, to my surprise in a position that provided the full view of the autumn sun, now noticeably lower in the sky even at noonish. Though this is at least the third I’ve seen on the property, in my experience treefrogs don’t pick a particular ‘home,’ but will wander around and find shelters of opportunity – they may be seen a few times over in a particular sleeping spot, but have no qualms about switching it for another. In the next couple of days following these images, this one did not return to the bluebird box.
Which brings up a good place to mention the aftermath of the post about the flying squirrel. The following day, I kept spot checking the box she had chosen for her nest, from a distance, but never saw the faintest signs of activity. Eventually, late at night, I chanced a quick look inside the box, to find that she had abandoned it, taking her choice nesting material with her. I can only guess that all her peeking out during the previous afternoon was her way of determining that this was an unsafe place to raise the kids (still unsure whether they had been born yet or not.) This is often the difficulty with photographing species in the wild, even the semi-urbanized ones: your presence can be noted and considered too much of a threat, and no matter how long a lens you might be using, it can only magnify so much. Though I remained in the yard about 8-10 meters away, often partially hidden on the porch steps, she wasn’t inclined to stick around. Because of this, I wasn’t as motivated to put up the other bluebird boxes right away, and in the interim, one of them got this temporary occupant.
I was about to do some detail images of a triceratops beetle, and gathered some oak leaves to use as a backdrop. Riding along on one was what I believe to be a variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, um, caterpillar (Lochmaeus manteo) – the common name of some species comes from their larval form, so this is the larval (caterpillar) form of a species named the variable oakleaf caterpillar moth. I can’t help but think that they could have made this slightly more logical…
I hadn’t planned on using the caterpillar as a photo subject, but while it was right in front of me with the lights all set up, I figured, why not? Upon unloading the images, however, I saw a strange detail that made me go back out to try and produce in better detail.
The flash angle was just right it seems, and some portion of the internal anatomy became visible through the head of the caterpillar. Much as it might look like a brain, I have my doubts, since the brains of caterpillars – most arthropods – are exceptionally small, but then again, so is this; the entire caterpillar measured 22mm in body length, and 2.5mm across the width of the head. I have enough images from other angles to show that this really is internal, and not a trick of external shape or coloration, but none of my additional attempts brought out any better detail. The eyes, by the way, are that handful of little domes at lower left.
So, yeah, is anyone wants to tell me what I just got images of, I’d be delighted.
One of my other projects with the new house is putting in a pond – mostly decorative, but of course it will serve double-duty as a habitat for aquatic denizens except mosquitoes. In going out yesterday to evaluate what still needed to be done (a lot,) I discovered a largish wolf spider had gotten trapped within the plastic pond liner, unable to scale the sides. I enlisted The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog’s help with the next two images, finally getting something that I’d tried to do earlier, not quite successfully:
Wolf spiders are very common throughout most of the US, and certainly around here, but very hard to pin down an exact species since it often takes a detailed look at the underside – we’ll stick with the family Lycosidae for now. This one was very reluctant to crawl onto my hand, given any other option, so I accomplished this by giving it none. I’ve seen them at least twice this size, but this was still a respectable specimen to try and overcome my lingering arachnophobia. Credit to The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog – her arachnophobia is much more significant, and she had to get fairly close with the camera for these shots, especially the next one (although this is a tighter crop of the full frame):
I feel obligated to point out here that the spider was very well behaved while she sat on my hand – once coerced into climbing aboard, she remained largely motionless for the two minutes we spent getting photos, and was restrained no more than you see here. Spiders really don’t deserve the reputation that they have. So when I point out that you can see her fang resting against my finger, right there underneath the long ‘mustache’ that most spiders have, you can rest assured that this was only casual contact and nothing at all ever came of it.
In contrast, as I type this I am scratching at a couple of large weeping sores on my feet, the aftermath of an encounter with fire ants – it would appear that the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) can be found in this area now. I wasn’t absolutely sure about this until I caught one biting me the other day and examined its corpse, but the body color and style matches. One bite from these little fuckers, from just walking in their general vicinity in sandals, has done far more damage than every spider encounter I’ve had in my life, combined – yet I’m still not myrmecophobic in any way. And since a phobia is an irrational fear or distaste, it doesn’t really apply to fire ants anyway – they have earned the acrimony.
First off, a comment. Those who are typically most concerned about the title question are those who are trying to discredit evolution because it trashes their belief system: creationists. Thus the people who would most benefit from this topic and the underlying information are the people who will never read it, because their worldview requires that they remain defiantly uninformed – apparently god is vulnerable to a decent argument. So I know there’s no hope of reaching any of them, but as it says in the Welcome page, part of the purpose behind this blog is to organize thoughts and get some practice in writing; if at some point, I reach someone else with something they find interesting or useful, excellent. But I’m under no illusions that this is guaranteed, or even likely.
So on to the question: what would prove evolution wrong? And by this I mean, since ‘evolve’ doesn’t have to refer to species, how could the theory of common descent and natural selection be shown to be false? But let’s get a little misunderstanding out of the way first. ‘Theory,’ in scientific usage, does not mean anything like ‘best guess’ or ‘pet project,’ and it is not part of the progression ‘hypothesis-theory-law’ – I was taught this in school too, and it’s dead wrong. A theory will never become law, since a law is the observation of physical properties, usually able to be expressed mathematically. A theory is an explanation for the observed physical facts; the facts are an overturned houseplant and marks that look like cat footprints in the spilled soil, the theory is that the cat did it. The more facts we find that fit with the theory, the stronger the theory is, yet there will never be a law of, “the cat did it.” With natural selection, the supporting facts number into the millions now. Not to mention, the theory also predicts, telling us what is likely to be found and how we might combat illnesses and such – this is hardly weak, or an example of dogmatism in science.
[A quick side note: dogma, which religion relies on and would probably cease to exist without, is somehow considered by religious folk to be a bad thing if it crops up in science. Yeah, this kind of hypocrisy occurs constantly.]
Now, disproving a theory does not make any other theory fair game for consideration (much less a ‘default’ conclusion) – it has to fit the exact same facts. So there’s really two different topics wrapped together. It is perfectly possible to discredit natural selection in its entirety, but this has no effect, positive or negative, on any other theory at all – nothing gains strength through the weakness of natural selection. Moreover, natural selection would not even have to be discredited for any other theory to be considered – for some reason, people seem to have this, “There can be only one” idea, but it’s possible to have multiple theories for the same conditions, and we do, in areas such as quantum physics and cosmology. So that means the second part is establishing the strength of any other theory – same facts, better predictions, better demonstrations of accuracy and understanding.
So to compare facts against the theory, we know that genetic traits can be manipulated and selected, because we’ve been doing it for centuries; we would not have most or our current fruits and vegetables, most of the dog and horse breeds, most decorative flowers, and hundreds of other items, without this. So change of some kind is distinctly demonstrated. Natural selection is simply the idea that the environment can also serve to make these changes, only much slower – if a critter that develops more leaf-like appearance survives longer, those gene variants will probably gain greater numbers in subsequent generations. This hardly needs to be demonstrated because it’s simple probability, but nevertheless, it has been shown to fit by the careful study of genetic lines within species, and in fact, we have this down fine enough to actually produce genetically-modified organisms (GMOs,) which takes the whole selective breeding thing at the beginning of this paragraph to a whole new, very specific, level.
Genes also provide a supporting statistic in their mutation rate. It is the mutations and ‘drift’ (along with recombination of male and female parental genes) that allow a descendent to be different from its parents, and by knowing the rate that this occurs on average, we can actually trace back a timeline, especially to a point where two species diverged from a common ancestor. The frequent claim, by the way, that there hasn’t been enough time for the changes to have occurred is nonsense – there’s been more than enough time given the demonstrated mutation rates.
Supporting this method of generating a timescale is the fossil record, which fits tightly into the genetic timeline. When we look at chimpanzees and gorillas, comparing their genome to our own, we find a distinct number of differences, most of them in stretches of DNA that produce little or no affect in traits – the so-called ‘junk DNA.’ These stretches, untouched by environmental pressures because they produce nothing for the environment to act upon, serve as a genetic clock to count backwards to the point where all three species had a common ancestor. The fossil record matches this very well, as our predecessors and those of the other great apes converge in traits and appearance towards one another. The fossils, by the way, are dated through multiple means, including demonstrated sedimentary deposition, radio nucleotide decay, plate tectonics, and even ice core samples; again, the more facts that converge on the theory, the stronger the theory is, so we’re pretty solid on these dates all tying together quite well. If the entire theory is wrong, then which part of it is wrong, and why does this wrong portion still fit with all of the rest? If they’re all wrong, how do we know? What’s right instead, and how has that been proven?
The fossil record also demonstrates natural selection throughout its range, which is 3.5 billion years. Everywhere we look, every fossil found, shows the progression of traits we should expect, from the simplest forms to the more complex, from the development of limbs to the migration according to climate, from the sudden loss of hundreds of species during an extinction event to the development of new ones from the survivors following. And I have to include a small side note for perspective: we did not have fossils when the theory of natural selection was developed by Darwin and Wallace. Only a handful of finds had been made and noted, but they were all considered anomalies. The plethora of extinct species that we have now were nearly all found after the theory predicted their existence – the theory was and is, in fact, the primary motivation towards searching for them in the first place. Their nonexistence would have weakened it remarkably.
So, for natural selection (which is at heart a very simple function) to be falsified, we’d have to find something that was responsible for all of these data points and millions more on top, that explained viral mutations and antibiotic resistance and vestigial organs and similar skeletal structures among widely disparate species and DNA similarities and ontogeny and on and on and on – all data which we have at hand. We’d have to show that natural selection (with its underlying reliance on probability) was not responsible for the myriad forms we have today, and can even watch develop. In short, it would have to act exactly like natural selection without actually being it.
The first salient point about this proposal is, who cares? If there really was a new theory that could take the place of natural selection and common descent, fine, so be it. It would still have to predict solid results, and that’s the whole point behind a theory in the first place. Second, as mentioned above, it does absolutely nothing to accommodate the efforts of those who want to dismiss evolution, because what they want in its place is special, directed creation – a god. And it is necessary to be perfectly blunt in here: there is no evidence for this idea. At all.
Faced with all of the bits enumerated above and many more on top, the creationist response is to claim that none of them are interpreted correctly. That fossils are planted by god just to test our faith, or examples of species that all died in the flood. That at the same time, all of the dating methods we use, that interact and overlap, are all wrong. That genes don’t actually indicate common descent, or would have taken too long to produce changes. That the breeding that we’ve been doing for centuries, even recognized in many forms of scripture, produces changes in traits, but not species (the micro and macro evolution distinction, one that exists only semantically and not physically.) That all, or nearly all, of the fossil hominids that we’ve found count as apes and are thus not part of the human family tree. And on and on. The most salient fact of all this is that none of it is enumerated, at all, within their scriptural sources of information – it is, in plain fact, mere speculation. Which would still be all right if the facts bore it out, but they don’t.
Then we come to the really damning bit, which is the necessity of a competing theory – it is not enough to call something into question (even if accuracy were present); for the alternate explanation, creationism, to be worthwhile, it must be able to explain at least all of the above facts, as well as having a coherent structure in the first place – fair’s fair, after all, and the same rigorous standards need to be applied everywhere. Ignoring, just for the sake of the broad posit, any and all scriptural accounts and going only with directed creation as a theory, we must define in what way this is differentiated from non-directed physical laws. The big difference is, of course, intent, so, what is the intent? Nobody has yet answered that. Add on, who or what possesses this intent, and you get a bunch of vague replies, all of which claim properties outside of evidence, tests, or even existence in this universe or set of dimensions. That this once again brings us to exactly the same result as natural selection is usually lost (or conveniently ignored) – it does not produce any different results, makes no predictions, and cannot be tested. This is not even a theory.
Opening up the big box of scriptural sources for even proposing this concept in the first place, and we find so much incorrect information, so many failed predictions, so many inconsistencies, that now the only rational response is, “Oh fucking please.” Even the faithful adherents, heavily invested in this somehow being plausible, cannot reach any agreement on conditions or details; there is not one theory, but a million of them. Some posit a universe only a few thousand years old; some posit that their god created all the rules as we see them. Some posit direct intervention, as in, miracles; some posit a ‘ground of being’ and vague spirituality that cannot even be defined. None of them can offer a useful explanation as to why the recurrent pharyngeal nerve, going between the brain and the throat in mammals, loops down into the chest cavity and around the aorta, or why humans are sometimes born with tails, or why radiometric dating matches so well with sedimentary deposition.
And then we return to the prediction part, and the predictions of the creation theory are, well, not much – judgment some day, though when this is to occur has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times that it’s laughable now. But as for biological predictions, or what we might expect to find, or how to use this to our benefit? Zilch, nada, nothing, bupkiss – while we can (and do) use natural selection to predict fossil finds and virus mutation, perform gene splicing and determine what kind of organs can be transplanted, and on and on. We use it because it works, better than anything else yet proposed, and still remains quite simple.
[Another quick side note: while we knew that something carried information from a parent to offspring, the basic concept of genes, we had no idea what DNA was at the time common descent was proposed; when discovered, it fit with the predictions, but offered a few surprises on its own, including trashing the idea that the pressures an organism faced during its life could be passed on to the offspring, usually known as Lamarckism. What we found is that the genes are not altered during the life of the organism, and can only change by chance when they duplicate in reproduction.]
So with all that, it really doesn’t matter what would prove evolution wrong, as demanding as that would have to be; we still have the bare traits of life, the fossil record, the predictions, the genetic compatibilities, and all those related facts, and nothing is going to make them go away. Meanwhile, it also wouldn’t make any form of creation more plausible in the slightest – that would take a whole lot more facts to support it on its own, even if we had no such concept as evolution at all. That search has been going on for a few thousand years now so, uh, best of luck with that. Thankfully humankind can keep moving forward without them.
I am a little slow in putting this up, because I forgot to check back after I heard this might be appearing, but you should definitely review this post about the card game Emergent. Why? Well, first and most importantly, it was created by my friend Dan Palmer, who has been creating and tweaking games his whole life, and this is to be his first commercial offering. Dan has a gift for finding interesting forms of gameplay, both effective and entertaining, and I’ve had firsthand experience with this for a long time now (like, two freaking decades.) But there’s also the little detail that the graphics of the deck are actually mine.
Not the designs themselves – those are Dan’s. But he wanted real photographs to represent the color suits of the cards, and enlisted my help in finding images that would fit the bill. Once these were chosen, I worked from his instructions and criteria to put out the other cards as well (it’s not like text is a huge skill.) He designed the logo and graphic backgrounds; I just made them to order. Dan also located a printer that could do a really slick job of producing the cards, and managed to get his complete deck in hand for a gaming convention early this year (though not without a rather intricate backstory in itself involving delivery times, car breakdowns, and the suspicions that Fate might be a real force after all.)
The trip I mentioned a while back was actually into his neck of the woods – we live far apart now and all of the prep work was done through the magic of the intertubes – so I not only got a chance to play it out for myself a few times, we attended another game convention together and got to try it against a few blocks of players, receiving a lot of input. On the drive back, we hashed out more rule tweaks on this and a few other games Dan has in the works.
A few weeks ago, he contacted me about a new card that might be added, and had decided on purple; did I have something that would fit as the background image? His own suggestion was a nighttime lightning shot, since the sky tends to go purple in those conditions anyway, but he was up for any suggestions. I sent along eight possibilities I think, and he had largely decided to stay with one of the lightning examples I provided. Then, perhaps a week or so later, I got the hazardous near-miss image and of course sent this along; I think he’s pretty much set on using that one now (if the additional card passes muster, at least – this remains to be seen.)
This whole thing has been an ongoing story. Not just from the progress of the card deck from concept into real time, but on many other fronts as well. The convention mentioned in that other post was directly related to Dan’s day job, or at least part of it: a bit of swarm-oriented software for assisting in medical diagnoses. He and his colleagues have been developing this for the past couple of years, and submitted a paper on it not too long ago. I was enlisted to help tweak their images for publication clarity – ensuring that a color image would retain the same contrast and illustrative properties when converted to monochrome for one-color printing, overlaying results from different stages in the process, that kind of thing. Dan’s presence at this convention was due to the paper’s acceptance, and so I then helped a bit with the presentation he would be giving – I don’t want to make any kind of big deal out of my contribution, because it was minimal; Dan and his colleagues had produced a fascinating body of work and a process that will, hopefully, become integrated into medical diagnoses in the near future. I was only there to ensure that the illustrations worked, and in a lot of ways, that’s what a photographer does: present a visual representation of some concept. Art is all well and good, but function is in demand ten times as often.
Dan, within his ridiculously busy schedule, also ran a summer camp this past season, and he demonstrated the very same software within it; the algorithm is designed to produce probabilities from a large number of diagnoses. Obtaining medical images for public use is indescribably involved, due to patient confidentiality laws, so instead of using medical images, Dan asked me for anything I might have, or be able to produce, with hidden elements – the idea is that the kids would independently point out where in the image lay some unexpected element, if it even existed, and their confidence level in it as well, and the software would collectively evaluate their ‘diagnoses’ and provide a potential ‘group’ diagnosis. The most fun was the criteria where there should be nothing of note in some of the images, but they should give the impression that there might be. So, once again I was providing my services towards Dan’s work (and in fact, this funded the trip up there.)
Is there a point underlying all of this bragging? Sure. It’s great to be able to get paid for doing exactly what you want to be doing, recognized for your art and all that, but it’s also extremely rare. Most times in fields like this, you have to produce what someone else wants, sometimes just as much as if you held one of those office jobs you thought you were avoiding. Pride in your own work, your own taste, your own style and approach, is all well and good, but pride in making the client happy is important too, and more in demand.
And, it is really cool to be watching these various things come to fruition, to be a part, however small, in these projects. Hell, I’d be interested in noting their progress just from watching them develop, even without any involvement of my own. But when they work, I know that my contribution is at least doing what is needed.
* * * *
If you spotted the thin red line down the middle of one of the cards on that linked blog post, good catch! Too bad I missed it before I packed the images off to Dan. It’s simply a reference line for keeping things centered on the cards, existing on its own separate layer, and was supposed to be rendered invisible before I finalized the card image. It was already fixed long ago, but this was the first deck of cards made – just one card has that artifact, and of course it’s one of those chosen for the illustrating image…
Several days ago on my birthday The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog, with notable forethought, presented me with a Triops hatching kit. Triops are a peculiar critter; sometimes called ‘tadpole shrimp,’ they are freshwater crustaceans of the order Notostraca, and their eggs are one of those types that can sit dormant in dry sand or soil for years, only to hatch when the rains finally come. Much as we might expect them to be sea-dwellers or at least river denizens, instead they are often found in temporary ponds in desert conditions. More importantly to a nature photographer that likes weird things, they look a bit like stretch versions of horseshoe crabs, with a broad head plate and a long tail. I didn’t waste a lot of time in starting the kit off, but I prepared my medium and tiny macro tanks in the interim.
Unfortunately, what hatched wasn’t exactly what was expected.
This is not what any of the photographs I’ve found of Triops looks like; this is more likely a brine shrimp, which is interesting in that the water is not briney at all, being only filtered tap water. Moreover, this is either the only one that hatched, or it quickly consumed any others that came along.
Nonetheless, it appears to be finding plenty to eat, as can be seen from that dark band down the middle, which is the alimentary canal. Between the top photo and the following two I was using two different lighting angles – both are dark field techniques, but the top is bouncing the flash off of a white card, which diffuses it and allows some ‘ambient’ lighting, while the two flanking this paragraph are directly backlit; you can see the difference in contrast, as well as how the digestive canal shows up.
The topmost image, by the way, was taken today, a few days later than the lower two, and at this point the shrimp measures about 10mm, now easily seen from a short distance as it patrols the tank.
Plenty of other things also hatched, and for a day or so I just assumed they were more Triops, but it soon became apparent that I had a fine selection of daphnia in the tank. It does not appear that brine shrimp (or whatever the big guy is) eat daphnia, so they’re all living their merry lives in the tank.
Daphnia are tiny little things that it takes a very close examination of to determine are anything more than blobs. The tan backdrop of this one is a bit of the moss that the eggs come packaged within, which is fairly annoying because some of it floats, some of it sinks, and all of it gets in the way – I sucked this up with the daphnia in the eye-dropper. This is using the tiny tanks, or more specifically, a piece of acrylic with several holes drilled through it glued to a microscope slide, forming little wells that hold a few drops of water. It’s very useful for small, hyperactive subjects like daphnia since it restricts their movement, both from out of view of high-magnification lenses, and in depth that would take them out of focus. Here’s an uncropped view:
The hole drilled through the acrylic is 6.5mm across, so you can judge how small the daphnia is. However, just for more accuracy, I captured another for a better measurement with the ruled loupe I have, and ended up photographing this one too for one (or two, really) special reasons.
The dark eye-cluster and the digestive tract are the only things not transparent on a daphnia, so that means the other dark spot in midbody is… another daphnia. I’ve seen them with internal eggs, but this is the first I’ve seen them with developed young, and it was fascinating watching them squirming around in there. Yes, there’s two – you can just make out the dark spot and ovoid mass showing through the organs of the mother on the lower side of the digestive tract. I wasn’t even sure what I was seeing until I downloaded the images, then went back to get more.
It’s also possible to make out a few anatomical features of daphnia, which are illustrated here. The ‘rabbit ears,’ pointing upwards in this image, are sensory antennae near the mouth, while the serious rack are other antennae used primarily for locomotion. You can also see the apica, little spines from the hind-end that may be used for defenses or swimming, or both. Mama here, the largest in the tank, measures a millimeter in length, so since I don’t have a microscope to work from, this is about the best you’re going to see from me.
Per instructions, I used only half of the egg and moss material provided, so I’ll be trying a second hatching soon; we’ll see what that produces. Should that fail to provide me some Triops subjects, there are always places to buy eggs, so they’ll appear here eventually.
I realized, as I looked outside later in the morning than I should’ve, that we’d had an overnight fog and it still hadn’t cleared completely, so I trotted down to the pond to see if anything interesting could be done with it.
The last time had been the busy season for the green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) but they were considerably less abundant this time around; I think it’s late in the season for them, sometimes getting pretty chilly overnight and well past breeding time, so there’s less reason for them to be out. Also, I’ve seen a green heron (Butorides striatus) hanging out around the pond a few times, and they can be hell on the frogs, so that might have had something to do with it. Nevertheless, I found a few to work with, as well as some other items of photographic interest.
As seen at top, conditions like this are marvelous for revealing just how many spiderwebs exist in any optimal area, and with a dark background, they can stand out quite well in images without the need for bright light. Consider, just for a moment, that the addition of the dew increases their weight by at least tenfold, likely far more – don’t look at me to produce any kind of serious numbers here, since I have no scale for smaller weights to speak of, much less one that could handle the micrograms that even a big web would weigh. If the spiders hang around, they’ll often get just as dew-covered, but this happens rarely; many species will abandon the web and crouch in their safe spot, usually off one upper corner of the web’s main support strands, when the dewpoint hits this strongly. The treefrogs, however, usually like this kind of weather, and if you want to see them during daylight hours, these are the days you aim for. This one posed on the leaf in a way sure to draw the most attention to itself, which must indicate that it’s a young adult female, right? Or does that only apply to humans?
As far as images to provide impressions of the setting go, this one seems to be the most accurate; I like how the frog follows the same lines as the bent stalks (I entirely missed the grasshopper in the background until just now, though.) Yet there are quite a few different approaches that can be taken for subjects like this, and I recommend trying several when given the opportunity.
Same frog, different angle and framing – the frogs don’t often perch near the blue flower spikes that pickerelweed produces, so any time I can work an angle that includes them, I’m happy.
This pose is common, reminiscent of how cats often sit, but it likely serves a more useful purpose. Treefrogs rely on the moisture and tactile control of their footpads to cling to vertical and even slick surfaces, so tucking in their legs in this manner helps keep the pads from drying out. It also makes them appear to be a porcelain sculpture – no limbs, just creases. This was shot with an 80mm lens; any closer and I likely would have scared it off.
While wending my way through the pickerelweed growing in the shallows at the edge of the pond, and before that the tall weeds and underbrush bordering the water, I encountered a few more spiders (naturally.) Two massive Argiope aurantias had spun webs across my path at waist height, both of which being discovered when only a half-meter away (they had cleverly positioned their brilliant yellow backs in the opposite direction from my approach,) and one other specimen, a large six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton,) was found perched on the weeds at the same height.
The dew almost obscured her white abdominal spots (not the ones from the species name, though – those are on the belly instead,) and she remained placidly unconcerned with my close approach, unusually so. I used the blade of my pocketknife to nudge her gently, and she remained in position, idly fending off the nudges with her forelegs before changing position only slightly – very unlike the species. When I switched my own position to provide a better photographing angle, I suddenly realized why she was sticking to her perch so adamantly.
I had approached from the opposite side, and the arched pickerelweed leaf had shielded my view of the cluster web. Fishing spiders don’t really make webs, since they’re free-roaming (and swimming) hunting spiders, but it seems they do when the old biological alarm clock chimes. I was disturbing the proud mother of several hundred little fishers, hatched from the egg sac hidden in the protective webbing, but not yet venturing out on their own – that’s what the out-of-focus haze under the leaf consists of.
Switching focus to the younguns and using the flash provided a little better view, but not a lot – there were still countless strands of silk in the way to prevent really sharp focus. Still, it’s enough to prove that I wasn’t just seeing chaff or something.
For many spider species, the mother hangs around and runs interference while the newborns spend time in a protected area; to the best of my knowledge, this is all she does, since food sources appropriate for the minuscule babies would be near-impossible for the mother to catch, especially in quantity. A few spider species catch prey that they tear open for the young, while a couple of others actually produce fluid from their mouths that the babies can eat, but I don’t believe either of these traits applies to Dolomedes. This leaves the question of why the young remain in a protective web and under the mother’s watchful eyes for a period of time, and as yet I cannot answer that.
By the way, mama measured roughly 25mm in body length, over 60 counting the leg spread – the babies were 5mm in leg spread at the most. On the previous frog-hunting trip, the fishing spider male that I photographed was in almost the exact same area – it’s possible that I now have images of the entire family. I should go back for closer portraits of the babies and see if there’s any resemblance…
I’ll close with another frame giving an even greater impression of the conditions, new branches on the same species of bush as that supporting the webs in the opening shot. I wish I’d gotten out when the fog was thick, but I still need to pin down a few prime locations that would look the best in such weather. I haven’t found any decrepit abandoned houses nearby yet…
You may well ask, what, exactly, is that title supposed to mean? Well, it refers to the idea that I don’t really do artsy stuff, so this must be fartsy stuff instead. Basically, just throwing down a bunch of recent photos for the sake of it – not everything has to have exposition.
This little guy might be the same green anole (Anolis carolinensis) seen in this post – it was the same size and in the same immediate area. Sold in pet stores for years as “chameleons,” the anoles have the ability to change their skin color as well, though usually not as elaborately as the true chameleons, and this is the darkest that I’ve ever seen a green one get. This might have been for camouflage purposes, considering the foliage it was perched upon, but more likely is either a sexual or warning display, and this is reinforced by the presence of another green anole not far away, not seen in the photo (and indeed, not even photographed since it scampered for cover too quickly.) I have more detailed shots of this fella, but liked this one for the fartistic perspective.
[Okay, a trivial bit of nonsense. In pulling up the link that appeared in the previous paragraph, I put the post title, "Just lizard things," into the search bar - startlingly, the third post considered a match was this one. Curious, I searched for "lizard" within that text and didn't find it, shocking as that may seem, but I'm really trying to figure out why that post fell so high on the list of matches.]
We’ve had two full days of rain here, and I spent a couple of minutes playing around with the rose bush temporarily in our care (no longer playing host to a treefrog – see previous post) to try out some semi-abstract compositions. One of the tricks to using water droplets in images is to find the angle and/or supplemental lighting (this is natural light) that brings them out with the sharpest contrast to draw attention. While there are a lot of raindrops in this frame, only one is producing an internal reflection of the sky that produces a white edge to the drop, and that’s the one I chose to focus upon. The shadows, however, are important for shaping the defocused petals – direct light would have looked brighter in color, but much flatter and less dynamic.
I have no idea what these are, but those sure look like grape leaves. A quick search on “blue grapes” didn’t turn up any matches, but I like the colors all the same. Actually, they look extremely tasty to me, and if they’d ever made a children’s cereal that looked like that I probably would have eaten nothing else in my youth (maybe not even now,) but I’m also not fooled by it. Found in a nature preserve brimming with birds, I was going to say these were suspiciously untouched, but there are a few empty stems there, so now I’m not too sure. If anyone wants to find out for themselves, stop by and I’ll take you over there – if you survive, I’ll try a few myself and post the results.
I’ve been to this nature preserve a couple of times with a student, and both times the light has been overcast and lousy (I don’t pick the meeting times.) I usually don’t set up the lighting bracket unless I’m going to be working in one area for a while, since it takes time to set up and tear down, and of course won’t fit into a bag when erected. Even though it is able to be held by hand and that’s how I usually shoot with it, it’s also heavy and bulky, making even changing lenses a bit awkward, and it’s the student’s time so I’m usually not aiming to shoot much anyway – none of my students, at this point, are doing dedicated macro work. This means I generally use natural light, which on overcast days that often means at maximum aperture, and usually only subjects of opportunity – these grapes are one example, and the anole at top another. It has a different affect on color and mood, one that many people can detect in an image even when they’re not sure how they know it. Bright sunlight might have been too contrasty for some of these subjects, but a hazy bright sky could have improved things, I suspect.
This was from way back, lost in the mists of time (well, okay, March of this year.) Just some unknown leaves decaying in a pond. Well, I thought it was cool, anyway…
At the botanical garden one day, a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) that wasn’t doing very well took a sip from a lily while I was nearby. Ideally, of course, you want a clearer view without another bloom in the way, but I kind of liked the idea that this was an almost-obscured perspective, a sneak peek at the bird. The yellow feathers near the tail, however, aren’t normal, but a sign of discharge, part of the reason why I said she wasn’t doing very well – the other was the tendency to perch and fluff out her feathers on a perfectly warm, dry day. Birds that are ill often do this to conserve their body heat and divert their resources towards areas where they’re needed more. Something was amiss, and I have a lot of very detailed frames of her while she simply sat on branches, not quite oblivious to close approaches, but certainly a lot more tolerant of such than is typical.
I’m going to take the opportunity, and the column space, to reflect on something that I noticed recently. While considering photos for this post, I had nearly all vertical compositions to work with, and they’re actually not the easiest to use in a post unless I make them “full” column width – otherwise I have to include a lot of verbiage alongside to try and prevent ugly blank spaces. I often remind new photographers about turning the camera to shoot sideways if the subject works better as a vertical, but it almost seems I’ll have to start reminding myself to shoot horizontally. I have no idea why this is – maybe I’m just in favor of vertical compositions anymore, or perhaps it’s a brain tumor.
Both of these images were taken on the same morning, after a deep overnight fog that I failed to take advantage of. Above, a lone Graphocephalo genus leafhopper aligns itself with the shape of the leaf yet somehow manages not to be inconspicuous – it still attracts less attention than the lone red leaf that fell across its healthier brethren. I know you were waiting to see if I could make it ten days without posting images of some insect, but it was not to be. Let it go a little longer – the winter months will be hard on me, and I’m already doing too many ‘studio’ shots because the pickings are leaner. The other day a small male mantis appeared on the porch, but only allowed a couple of half-ass frames before flying off in desperation. I really need to live in a rainforest someplace…
A little over a week ago, I went out scouting a new location and simultaneously trying to locate a bombardier beetle for a presentation I’m working on. It required hiking a long trail through the forest, and in a few dozen meters I’d already walked through six spiderwebs, despite having pushed twice that many out of my way. I switched to my typical tactic in such conditions and began swishing a long stick up and down in front of me as I walked; this has to be done fairly rapidly, because it’s easy to time it so the stick drops down beneath the web as you’re stepping forward and you still end up with a face-full even though you ostensibly cleared your way. I did this for about two kilometers and damn near developed blisters on my hand just from waving a thin stick around. Anyway, I’m sparing you photos of all of those – I didn’t take many anyway, since the conditions were too breezy to focus tightly on a spider in a web, and I already have quite a few frames of all those species to boot.
And so I leave you with a katydid portrait, because everyone should have one, don’t you think? Once again shooting wide-open in poor light, the background colors set up a pleasant but low-key contrast to the orthopteran, who adopted an insect-of-action pose for the shot – some species just can’t act natural in front of a camera. One antenna is of course rather visible, but the other droops down in an arc over the head, and believe it or not, I shifted position and timed it to be that way – I’ve been burned many times before on antennae falling in front of an insect’s eyes and ruining the shot. It’s one of those stupid things you never imagine you’d have to think about when chasing macro photos, but there you go, a little tip from your Uncle Al. Who’s wondering why you keep forgetting his birthday, not to mention Uncle’s Day…