Monday color 30

green sweat bee Halictidae on partridge pea blossom
This Monday color comes from the same outing related here, as a member of the Halictidae family, otherwise known as sweat bees, partakes of the flower of a partridge pea plant (Chamaecrista fasciculata.) It’s funny – I grew up calling them sweat bees like everyone else in my neighborhood, but adult me (okay, bigger me, sheesh) figured this was a colloquial term and so I didn’t bother using it when searching for the species, but it appears this is a common name for them.

The framing with the out-of-focus leaves to the right, by the way, was perfectly intentional – I’m a strong believer in keeping elements of that nature complete in the frame, and it continued the emphasis towards the right that is maintained by both the bee and the flower. The soft lighting, I think, adds a lot to the shot.

But how? Part 19: The defense against evil

I was working on another post that dealt with clarifying some details about atheism, and the initial premise of this was one of those points. As I started to address it, I realized that it wasn’t going to be covered in a paragraph or two, and so it has become the latest installment in the But How? lineup, to wit: But how does atheism or secularity defend against evil?

What I was originally correcting was the idea that atheism equates with satanism, a belief that, though asinine, is held by a surprising number of people. The short answer is, if atheists don’t believe in god, they sure as hell (a ha ha) don’t believe in another character from the same stories, especially one that the nonexistent god was supposed to have created – this is kind of a “no shit” point that it would seem unnecessary to make, but many people don’t apply logic even this far. And in fact, if it helps, atheism shouldn’t be considered a disbelief in god, but all of them, every one ever proposed, and indeed all supernatural things whatsoever. So no angels, demons, wraiths, blah blah blah. I won’t assert that this applies to every atheist out there, but it’s pretty safe to treat it as an overriding rule.

Yet there’s another argument that comes into play, and that’s the frequent idea that, if you do not “accept god into your heart” or any variation of a faithful defense, this automatically allows one to be controlled by satan or overtaken by evil tendencies or whatever – the variations are numerous, but largely similar in concept. This assumes the preconception – a priori if you want to sound like a pompous ass – that evil is a distinctive, coherent force or property at least (if not personified in whatever archvillain one prefers,) and not just a label we apply to actions or concepts that we really disagree with. The former has never been demonstrated in any objective manner whatsoever, while the latter is how the concept is used constantly, even by the devout. We’ll come back to this shortly.

Further, as the meddling kids pull off the rubber mask, we find underneath (in chorus now) “M’sieur Blaise Pascal!” – the argument is just a variation of Pascal’s Wager, and suffers the same flaws. Briefly, if there is no god but you believe in one, no biggie, but if there is a god and you don’t believe, you’re hell-fodder. Pascal liked math, which might be the reasoning behind reducing this whole concept to a binary state (or that might just be pop psychology,) but it ignores the myriad problems such as which god is correct, or whether faith through fear is true, or the utter pointlessness of requiring faith without evidence (making it some sort of petty game,) and all that rot.

Let’s take a closer look at this game. We are to believe, it seems, that without divine acceptance, we are either prone to or automatically within the thrall of evil itself. Since this is a deliberate state of affairs, one must ask what purpose this serves, and most especially, why is it weighted towards the bad side? Challenges of a similar nature that we place before ourselves are for developing skills that will be useful later in life (you know, improvement and survival,) but in this case, the ‘payoff’ happens after death and is, by most accounts, quite final. This explicitly implies that the status of our souls is some kind of currency, and not for our own use. The only religions where a retained status after death makes even passing sense are those with a reincarnation cycle that allows progression, and even then, we must ask why.

It’s easy to assume that this ‘automatic evil’ pretty much necessitates that atheists alone would participate in more evil actions overall than any other demographic, but what it should actually demonstrate is which religion is the One True Faith™, because every other religion would be susceptible to the very same thing. Can evidence of this be found? Yeah, good luck with those statistics. It would also necessitate that it should be quite hard to tell when we ourselves – and by this I mean everyone – are under the influence of this evil; otherwise we would consciously steer away from it. What we’re inexorably approaching is the definition of ‘evil’ itself, to even quantify the actions. This is where it gets interesting.

Any religion you name will have adherents that answer it this simply: “Evil is anything against my religion.” Not exactly an objective measure, especially when religions routinely clash over this definition, often in extremely bloody ways, still – yes, check a week’s worth of world news, this is not a thing of the past. Teaching evolution? Evil. Allowing women to show their faces in public? Evil. Eating cows or pigs? Evil. Starting fires on Saturday? Evil. It’s pretty safe to say that everyone is able to be considered evil by at least someone else, even if it’s for playing music too loud too late at night. I’m going to call this a pretty shitass way of determining the benefits of one’s actions. Which is why so much of law is dedicated not towards promoting some arbitrary religious definition of acceptable behavior, but towards restricting those actions which are openly detrimental to others in a demonstrable and inarguable way. Benefit and detriment are not difficult concepts for the vast majority of human interactions, and wonder of wonders, we have brains capable of fathoming them.

Keeping with the theme that divine grace must be obtained, this means that we must choose the correct faith among all of those available. Again, most religious folk treat this in a pretty binary way: there is one religion (the one they grew up with, by a vast margin,) and a bunch of obvious delusions; this pretty much assumes that getting it right is mostly a matter of birth or happenstance. If we exercise reason all the way up to considering that any other religions might be legitimate, then the game becomes, how are we to choose the correct one? I mean, let’s be real: they all promise to be the word of god and/or the One True Way, so assurances aren’t a solution. Thus, if we end up using our judgment, we’re going to have to understand what good and evil really are – which, again, isn’t really that hard. The alternative is to believe (as many do) that revelation, or our instincts, are supposed to guide the way. Instincts obviously haven’t done much to whittle down the plethora of choices – indeed, there are more now than ever before in history – while revelation pretty much means that god is doing the choosing, doesn’t it? So now we aren’t supposed to make a choice? This process isn’t resolving itself too quickly, is it?

[It is worth bringing something else up here: if we consider any behaviors that religious folk have gotten up to over the centuries as being wrong – holy wars, witch hunts, misogyny, bigotry, slavery, anti-semitism, beating children – then we are assuming that we can and should use our own judgment of what’s right or wrong. Which is fine – I’ve always argued in favor of this remarkably simple action. But religious folk, all too often, resort to their scripture as being the final word, abdicating thought in favor of blind fealty. Curiously, they only seem to do it for things that a) are currently socially acceptable, and b) align with what they want to do in the first place.]

Another commonly claimed aspect of the inevitable descent into evil without faith is, “doing the devil’s work” – the primary point of becoming evil, so we are told, is that one recruits more followers, satan’s own missionaries. So of course, this should be pretty obvious as well. Since we’re here on an openly atheist blog, this is rather solid evidence of this recruitment, isn’t it? No argument from me, believe it or not. Of course, it also applies, and often much more so, to most other religions as well – the line up there about “missionaries” was not accidental. Religious folk are notoriously bad about seeing things from a narrow perspective, and this usually includes the idea that they themselves couldn’t possibly be evil, but if we’re going to treat this as a serious aspect of theology, then we have to dispense with the special rules that automatically favor any given party. Again, which religion is the correct one? I mean, we’re talking about the polar extremes of good and evil, so this should, by all rights and definitions, be pretty damn obvious. But it isn’t, is it?

Let’s step back and consider what the recruitment of evil might actually look like. No one, of course, wants to be evil, so nothing overt can take place; it would have to be subtle and misleading, easy for people to mistake as good while not actually accomplishing anything good. Quite a few different techniques might fit with this, such as an environment where questioning authority figures is bad, and the delineation of rules that don’t really accomplish anything but cannot be broken, and most especially, the creation of separate groups of people that reinforce certain standards within and discourage questioning and critical examination; this might even go so far as to establish ‘pat answers’ that don’t really answer anything and dismiss difficult topics completely. You know, like, “It’s all part of a master plan.” Yes, I just described the vast majority of churches to a T.

Contrast this against both atheism and secularity, which don’t have churches and rarely even promote group gatherings, encourage critical examination and the consideration of alternatives, and concentrate on guidance that can objectively be considered good by everyone, or at least as many people as humanly possible. Oh, and the complete eradication of arbitrary privilege and ersatz authority.

I’m not trying to be funny, and I’m not making the point that churches or religion overall are tools of the devil – I consider the whole concept to be horseshit, remember? But the fact remains that, if you want to guide someone away from their inherent tendencies, there are a lot of ways to do this, and churches have employed them all at one time or another. Up to and including the very idea that not following their guidance was evil, regardless of where it actually led – you know, like witch hunts and holy wars and misogyny and slavery and so on and so on – you cannot kill an infidel unless you’ve first established the very concept of ‘infidel.’

All of this has been working from the standpoint that the churches promote, that evil is a coherent thing. However, it’s actually very easy to see how flawed this idea is, and secular humanism (and pretty much any ideology and philosophy not tied to a religion, as well as psychology and sociology) dismiss this as nonsense. Anyone – me, you, your folks – can do evil, or to be more objective, things that are openly detrimental to others without any outweighing benefits. I make it a point throughout this blog to clarify that it’s not what people are, but what they do; trying to apply a label to someone is a shortcut in thinking, and purposefully dismisses everything that they might do that wouldn’t charitably fit within the label. When we examine the figures from history that are most often tagged as evil, the first thing we note is that there is no religion, nor lack thereof, that they can claim as common. Second comes the bare fact that none of them acted alone; they all had followers, thousands to millions of them in most cases, and these followers had even less commonality. Moreover, the vast majority believed they were doing good. The problems arise when one’s definition of good and evil are more self-serving and insular, to say nothing of political and expansionist goals hidden behind pre-existing religious motivations. Believing that there are absolutes in life makes decisions much easier – not better, just easier; see the bit above about ‘infidels.’

Or, we could view it all from a sociological and biological perspective, where good and evil are not useful concepts because they’re far too vague and subjective, and absolutes simply don’t exist. Instead, we see things from the standpoint of motivations, and become aware of how humans justify actions under the combined influences of survival behavior, status, protection, and yes, even tribalism. We become aware that everyone, given the right motivations, can be induced to do things highly detrimental to others, and often these motivations are easy to manipulate – moreover, these have been demonstrated countless times in tests. We start seeing how even rationality is not the distinctive trait that we often believe, but instead colored by impulses and reactions and ‘fitting in.’ For instance, does it make any sense at all to care about what any sports team is doing? What is this accomplishing, how is it improving anything at all for us? But still, it’s a huge interest among humans. Figure out why, and you start to understand how small a part rational thought actually plays – and that ‘rational’ is too subjective a term in itself.

So, since rationality is weak, that means that spiritual or scriptural guidance is a good thing to use in its place, right? Isn’t that the whole message? But again, this argument doesn’t carry very far – to the church doors and no farther, really. Every religion makes the same claims, but obviously, not every religion is providing the same guidance, and while it would be nice to assume that the faith we were raised within is, by the most remarkable of coincidences, the perfectly correct one, good luck convincing anyone else of that. Meanwhile, rationality and decision-making, despite the fact that there are no absolutes within, still perform astoundingly well, so well that we use them constantly and, surprise surprise, they are the very foundation of learning. If the creators’ message was that we shouldn’t rely on them, the message has certainly been quite mixed, since they’re more dependable than anything else that we’ve ever embraced. Worse, most religious folk even stuff rationality into their faith, as they decide what parts of scripture are just too batshit to follow or willingly dismiss the bloodthirstiness as metaphorical or ‘contextual.’ [Actually, a very large percentage of religious folk don’t even bother with the scripture, but simply follow what everyone else around them is doing…]

So we come back to the original question: How does atheism or secularity defend against evil? And the short answer to that is, by knowing what it is. And while it’s easy to believe that secularism handles the issue of evil by dismissing it as nonsense, it’s a lot deeper than that. Since we can all perform bad acts, there is no magic membership that exempts us from worrying about it; no holy emblem or weekly ritual will fend off the looming specter. We protect ourselves from evil, or more specifically from doing highly detrimental things to others, by maintaining an awareness of what we do and why we do it, by realizing it should not be defined by arbitrary standards or ‘what everyone else believes.’ We can figure out good and bad without difficulty in the vast majority of cases, and do not need ancient texts to fill in for our feeble reasoning powers.

And I feel this is necessary to add, even though the hint was dropped more than a few times above: the very idea of a ‘wolf at the door’ has been a manipulation technique for a long time now… and so has the automatic bestowal of ‘privilege.’ Like the late night infomercials that promise to solve a problem we never knew we had, religions have always been at the forefront of telling us of the looming threat, as well as actually defining it for us – with, naturally, the promise of making it all go away, send $29.95 to the address on your screen. And look, here’s a friend of ours who is a happy customer. But don’t worry – abusing those people over there isn’t evil, because they’re evil, so we’re actually doing good, be careful not to slip in the blood…

Though people have a really hard time believing this about their own churches and faith, they readily accept it, and even consider it necessary, when regarding all of those other faiths, especially the ones that, you know, hate outsiders and have all those nonsense rules. You know the ones. But there’s a logical point that is usually missed when making these considerations: just because all of the others are wrong, doesn’t mean that at least one has to be right.

Of course, all of this is coming from one of them atheists, so paying any attention at all is evil – close your eyes and run away, and certainly don’t think for yourself.

*     *     *     *

There are two other arguments that I have used several times in the past that are relevant to the considerations in this post, both intended as thinking exercises. The poet Baudelaire once wrote, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist” (this was paraphrased in the film The Usual Suspects, where it helped the plot along.) And the nonexistence of both the devil and evil itself is what I’m saying above, so ol’ Baudy’s got the drop on me, eh? But, there’s an even greater trick, and that would be the devil convincing the world that he was god. Yes, that’s right, it would mean that every bit of scripture was a lie. But good luck finding any indication of this, like anachronisms, and events completely without evidence, and unbelievable stories, and followers provoked into vicious actions, and petty behavior from the gods…

The other argument that I’ve posited, strictly for giggles, was if there really is a creator, but religion itself is a test to see if humans will accept it blindly through crass attempts to appease our overlord, or if we will trust in our senses and everyday experiences and move beyond that, showing that we are truly an advanced species that can utilize the brainpower that we have. And then we go to the next level.

I still consider them both nonsense myself, since they both rely on supernatural stuff that just doesn’t work (which means that the second one defeats itself, really,) but they remain a set of alternate considerations intended to spark a bit more thinking than usual.

And a further note. They’re both “What if?” scenarios, which are admittedly pretty lame; anyone can make up anything at all and ask what would happen if it was true, which is really only useful to keep stoned college students occupied, at least until the Doritos run out. Yet, such scenarios are used all the time in religious discussions, and in fact, religion itself is largely the proposition that scripture and/or any interpretations thereof might be true, because we can’t actually support this at all (not to mention how often the bits that are demonstrably untrue are openly dodged.) This can’t lead anywhere except towards a favored conclusion. But critical thinking, and for that matter most of the sciences, instead focus on support for any proposition, the weight of evidence and probability, and becomes both more trustworthy and less subjectively indulgent.

Making up

Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus caterpillar chowing down
I did almost no shooting this week, but made up for it a little on Saturday when I had two students, though all of these images came from the second session. This month will be a new record for images uploaded, mostly because of this post, but there may still be more.

The opening image is a monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus,) the first I think I’ve seen around here, and one of two immediately visible in the UNC Botanical Garden. From the size, both were probably not far from forming a chrysalis, so I may be making more frequent trips out there to keep an eye on things, since this is one species I would desperately like to have a sequence of, given that the chrysalis is transparent and you can watch the colors develop from pale blue pupa (don’t ask me why this happens from a caterpillar of this color) into the orange and black of the adult butterfly.

[I have to note this as meaningless trivia. I often name my images something goofy and/or punny, partially because it helps me find them faster; this one was originally going to be named “MonarchMeal.jpg” before I realized that “FitForAKing.jpg” was the same thing but better. Moving on…]

Leatherwing Chauliognathus beetle facing off with eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly Papilio glaucus on flowerHere, a very-common eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) finds that its targeted nectar producer is already occupied by a variety of Chauliognathus beetle, probably one of the leatherwing species and also extremely common – I had no idea it was there when I leaned in to snag the butterfly as it landed. Chauliognathus can be found all over the place around here, and nothing seems to want to eat them – I have seen them openly ignored by mantids, lynx spiders, and assassin bugs. BugGuide.net had no mention of defenses, but the beetles do indeed have a way of deterring predators, a milky acid secreted on demand, though whether this is irritating or simply bad-tasting I cannot say. With enough upvotes (see the button below) I’ll pop one in my mouth and find out directly…

bumblebee bombus delighted at new flower
There have been quite a few Hemaris to be found this summer, which is very cool, but that’s not what this is. When the one I was following flew off, I switched over to the bumblebees raiding the flowers. This one just caught my attention as I was sorting images – it seemed so delighted to find another blossom waiting for it. Look – it even appears like its mouth is open, though they don’t actually have one that we would recognize.

tiny white crab spider perhaps Mecaphesa on flowerGiven the lack of flowers in my immediate area, I’ve been planning on hunting down the crab spiders when I returned to the botanical garden, since it’s the only place with the yellow and white flowers that the crab spiders seem to prefer. As you can see here, I was successful, but not exactly as intended; I had planned for something a bit bigger. I didn’t go for the really detailed closeups – as I said earlier, that requires a lighting rig that I don’t lug around when I’m out with a student – but I’m going to take a stab at this being a Mecaphesa anyway.

Overall, spiders seem to be relatively scarce this year, and I can’t say why – I’m inclined to blame the harsh winter that we had, which they’re not used to in this area, but that’s only an uneducated guess. Long before this time last year I had found several sizable specimens, including wolf spiders laden with their young, but have barely seen any this year. In my experience, however, arthropod species seem to have preferred seasons; one year the ladybeetles were prolific and the following year almost unseen. This year the mantids seemed to hatch very late. It may have a lot to do with what weather conditions exist at certain times, like during egg-laying and birthing season.

blue dasher dragonfly Pachydiplax longipennis framed against lily pad
I went bigger for this one, since the wing detail wasn’t showing well in smaller versions – this is a blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis.) Dragonflies aren’t really hard to photograph, but doing something interesting with them is preferred. Here I experimented with shooting through a gap in the nearby reeds while centering the Odonata against a lily pad – the reeds are so far out of focus that they nearly vanish, but have some interesting effects with the specular highlights from the water anyway. The reeds are directly between me and the wings on both sides, but don’t really block the view at all – see this page for an explanation of how this occurs. This was tighter crop of a larger frame, and can be re-framed any number of ways, one of the benefits of shooting a bit wider.

Author Homo sapiens doing a selfie in a hanging mirrorAnother experiment, a gruesome one. At one point in the garden was an art installation that featured several round mirrors dangling from monofilament, twisting gently, and I crouched down and timed the rotation to snag a self-portrait. The focus is a little off, with good reason: when shooting a reflection, you are not focusing onto the surface that is reflecting, but past it all the way to the subject, the entire light distance. With a spinning mirror, however, there is only a fraction of a second when the distance is correct, too little time to snag autofocus, much less the manual focus I was using with this lens, so it’s actually surprising (to me, anyway) that it came out this well. I like the surreal aspect of it with the defocused edges of the mirror, done with no tricks at all, but don’t worry – it’s not going to be the end-of-month abstract shot.

To make up for doing that to you, however, I offer the image below. The session was almost up, and I was lamenting that I had not seen any green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) at all, even though I was expressly keeping my eyes open for them because the garden is a favored habitat of theirs. And then, with two minutes to spare, this little specimen was found, posed fetchingly on a plant with its long (and surprisingly intact) tail hanging down. Even this big on the blog isn’t doing it justice, and I like how the toes are maintaining a negligent grip on its perch. I can only guess that it had just leapt to this locale from elsewhere, though I did not see or hear this occur, and only the gentle swinging of its tail alerted me to its presence. I’m pleased with it.
green anole Anolis carolinensis perched awkwardly on plant

On the negative side 5

American alligator Alligator mississippiensis in Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge
Yeah, it’s been one of those not-posting weeks, which is how it goes sometimes. So, once again we dig into the archives, back in the days when I was shooting negative film, before I got serious and switched to slides (much less digital, which came even later.) And so we find ourselves in May, 1994 – geez, over 21 years ago! It doesn’t seem that long at all. A couple of friends and I were vacationing in Florida, only my second visit (the first being a family trip 16 years previous to that – man, now I feel old.) We were down on Sanibel Island, and had rented bikes to tour around, including doing a pass through J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Let me help you out here: If you have not ridden a bike in a while, it is not best to start with someplace that has sand trails, especially not on a hot day.

Anyway, I was on a quest for cool critters – shocking I know – and stopped at one point to peer through some foliage at a pool that I could just barely make out. Revealed through my efforts, really not very far away, was the first alligator I’d ever seen in the wild, floating placidly. Not an impressive specimen as far as gators go, being somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 meters, but it was a gator! And right there! I mean, they’re remarkably prehistoric-looking reptiles, pretty much only found down in the southeast corner of the country, quite exotic when compared to the fauna found everyplace I’d ever lived before that. Even on that previous trip, we’d only seen captives, so this was my personal milestone.

As images go, it’s okay, but that’s it – nice textures and lighting, but not even fartsy. There wasn’t much I could do about the foreground leaves almost blocking my view, the ones that produced the green blobs, but I think they give a faint hint of peeking through the foliage – nowadays I’d be tempted to frame them better to enhance that aspect. It was some time later, after the print was hanging on my wall, that I realized how much of the body of the gator can be seen underneath the water.

Funny, I can almost pin down the exact date this was taken, since it was on the same trip as the first shots here. Knowing our passage across the state, I can say this was likely three or four days later.

Traveling with others that have different interests means that you spend only a portion of the time doing what you really want to do, so within a few years I did a solo trip, the first of many, and was able to dedicate my efforts to exploring and photography. On my return to this refuge, I was wondering if I’d be lucky enough to see an alligator again, and was sitting in the car filling out the donation form at the head of the wildlife drive when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. In the channel right alongside the drive, less than four meters away, a massive gator was cruising by, so close that I couldn’t even frame its head with the 75-260mm lens I had affixed – I had to wait until it passed a bit further off.

American alligator Alligator mississippiensis in roadside channel
This one was pushing three meters, many times the mass of the first, the size that says, “Don’t get out of the car” – compare the eyes with that above. But yeah, welcome to the refuge, and it was the first of many images that day that would convince me to keep returning to Ding Darling. If you visit Florida (much less live there,) and don’t go at least once, you’re a doodyhead.

Monday color 29

backlit red hibiscus bloom against blue sky and cloudsToday’s Monday color was shot exactly one year ago – tomorrow. I say this now so you have time to find a gift.

I almost used this for a previous Monday color, because that week was when I introduced the page of editing tricks that features the same image (meaning this is not its first appearance,) but then I had that other shot which merited a mention on white balance, so it was topical.

A brief note on positioning here: subtle changes can make significant differences in the photo. If you look closely at that blossom, you can see that the textures of the petals are very distinct, especially at the top – the light angle was just right to create some shadowing from the natural ridges, and thus give the flower a bit more definition and shape. It takes real effort to notice things like this, and I’ll be honest: I was concentrating on framing that flower against the clouds after I noticed the natural glow, and capturing the textures was only incidental. Still, it illustrates that a very slight change of angle can add some subtle enhancements to your images at times. Just something to be aware of while you’re, you know, concentrating on all that other stuff at the same time.

Looking back, part five

This is the last of the ‘Looking back’ posts – calm down, calm down, you knew it had to end – because I’m considering myself caught up now; these pics were taken the day before the first in the series. But now that we’ve gotten a little space and variety mixed in, we’re going back to the mantises – well, a mantis. While there are two that fit this appearance, I’m suspecting from its location that it was the same one that I photographed molting in detail.

When watering the garden one afternoon, I spotted a katydid on a tomato plant – they can be heard all over the place in the evenings, but mostly up high in the tree canopy, and I’ve only seen one other down within sight. Arrogantly interfering with the natural order of things (because we humans are unnatural and don’t belong on this planet,) I snagged it and took it around to place near the first mantis I could find. Armed with the camera, of course.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
What followed was easily the most awkward capture I’ve seen, perhaps the most awkward ever witnessed in the history of entomology – well, okay, maybe not that bad, but it was bad. The mantis did not take long to recognize the katydid, which will go unidentified here to spare the family (and because there’s too damn many species to pin it down easily,) but the pounce was just pathetic. Honestly, how the mantis got this big is beyond me.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
I’m not even sure how they managed to arrive at this position, which looks like some kind of bizarre exercise routine, but note the mantid’s left foreleg, down low, clutching not just the katydid’s hindleg, but also the edge of the leaf.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
This image shows something that might be very curious – I watched this happen and I have no doubts as to the deliberate nature of the action. You can see that one of the hindlegs is now being held in the mantis’ mouth, and I can say that the mantis did this purposefully, using its mouth as an additional grip while switching its foreleg down to gain better control of the struggling katydid. There are a lot of species that won’t do this, just by nature; the legs are for gripping, the mouth is for eating. The local gray squirrels will never pick food up in a forepaw, for example, even when they will hold it there for eating – they always pick things up by mouth. But sugar gliders, a marsupial from Australia closely resembling a flying squirrel in this country, will easily pick food up in a forepaw (The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog had them as pets for a long time, so I was able to observe them closely.) Seeing an arthropod using its mouth as a grip seems quite odd to me, though it might be typical for mantids and I’ve just never witnessed it before.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
It was a mighty struggle, made ludicrous by the idea that katydids have two defenses: camouflage, and leaping away with those long hindlegs, both of which were effectively negated from the start. Yet the attempts by the mantis to immobilize the katydid were almost completely ineffective; here, the mantis is trying to end the struggles by beginning its meal on easily the least damaging part of the insect, the wings. You will note that it has bitten through the hindleg it had in its mouth, which lessened its control of its prey. This particular position, for some reason, puts me in mind of kittens gnawing on each other during playtime. Yes, I’m weird – we’ve established that long ago.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
Now the other hindlimb has been detached, though the mantis maintains a fierce grip upon it still. That grip, in fact, was preventing it from moving forward and getting a better shot at the katydid, who still had four limbs left and was making the best of them, so the mantis is still playing Silly Buggers with the wings; to me, it even looked as if the outer wing sheaths were tough enough to withstand most of the mantid’s attempts to masticate them, but this may have been because it had to do both at once, since they were pinned together by the mantid’s own grip. I was embarrassed for both of us.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
Here I switched vantage, standing above the combatants to shoot almost straight down, giving a better view of the awkwardness of the capture. The mantis looks like a harried mother with two kids pulling in opposite directions… except, one of the kids is just a detached leg clasped against a leaf, which was the only thing preventing the mantis from shifting position to do this properly. There is likely a level of instinct in there not to relinquish something recognized as part of its food, even though it was not actually controlling the primary target.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis and katydid
Finally, the mantis dropped the drumstick and the leaf to bring two limbs into the fight, and got a proper grip on the katydid – it’s been seven minutes since it first snagged that leg and leaf together, most of that spent holding a detached limb while the katydid struggled madly. But now, with perhaps a bit more useful instinct, the mantis started in on the head. Note, while we’re still here, the tattered nature of the katydid’s wings.

You would think that the struggles of the katydid would cease soon after the mantis started eating directly in the vicinity of the right eye; you’d be wrong, and I was startled at how long the damn thing kept kicking as the head was disappearing – I am sparing you those images, because they are indeed graphic. At one point, the mantis was calmly gnawing on the end of another limb while the opposite end, driven by the chewing, was bashing the katydid in the remains of its face with what I can only assume was a gruesomely taunting manner, the insect equivalent of, “Stop hitting yourself!” Yes, I agree, that was unnecessary – oh, you meant my comment? Well, okay…

I think we all understand that nature isn’t necessarily pretty, but at times it can also be ridiculously inept.

Looking back, part four

Canada geese Branta canadensis with rainbow in backgroundWe continue our quest to catch up with these images from only nine days ago – yeah, make any comments you like – when a torrential rain came through not long before sunset, followed immediately by a break in the clouds. Knowing what that meant, I trotted outside and, sure enough, there was a prominent rainbow, probably the best I’ve ever seen. It was the classic full-on double rainbow right across the sky, except that it was difficult to get it all in view at once, and I didn’t possess a wide-enough lens to do it justice (though I should have grabbed the film body, which didn’t have the crop factor.) After a few quick shots right out in front of the house, I trotted over to the pond and tried for more fartsy shots there, not having a lot of foreground interest to work with – these Canada geese (Branta canadensis) served when the great blue heron refused to pose and I couldn’t find the cormorant.

There are a couple of traits visible in this frame: the secondary arc is visible to the right within the leaves, and you can see that the colors are reversed between the two. You can also see that the sky is actually a tad darker between the two bows than it is outside of them – this is typical, though not always easy to make out. Rainbow photographs can sometimes be a little tricky, especially if you’re after foreground details, because they almost always occur when the sun is low and this usually reduces the light on the foreground. As such, the sky is much brighter than the ground and the subjects thereon, and a proper exposure depends on how the meter is reading the scene. With the camera aimed largely at the sky, the sky might go a bit dark but the rainbow colors will pop; the foreground, however, is likely to go very dark. Aim at the ground more and the foreground looks better, but the sky may bleach out and even lose the rainbow entirely (I have a few frames like that.) So my advice is to frame a variety of ways, bracket the exposures, and dial in some exposure compensation if you’re familiar with it. Also, using higher contrast and saturation settings will bring out the colors much better, but worsens the difference between the sky and foreground (this image, by the way, was shot at a more saturated setting, but boosted slightly for web display as well.)

rainbow segment with supernumerary arcsAnd now for something curious. When I first went outside, the rainbow was at its most brilliant, and there was a particular effect that was actually visible to the eye, though subtly – it was easy to think it might be imagined, but not only did others see it, I captured it in the images. It can, very faintly, be made out here, but stay with me because I’ll show you an enhanced version in a second. For now, look closely at the underside of the lower arc (the upper one is only faintly visible in this image, but it’s there.) Can you make out a faint band of green and a second band of violet down there immediately adjacent, ‘echoing’ the bow? It’s subtle enough here that it could easily disappear depending on your monitor/screen settings, so let’s take a look at an enhanced version from another frame.

supernumerary rainbow enhanced for contrast
This is a cropped and over-saturated view, but it makes it very clear: there are additional arcs of green and violet under the typical Roy G. Biv lineup (please don’t make me explain that) – in fact, there is even a suggestion of another pair. This is a supernumerary rainbow, and the most interesting thing about it is, we don’t actually know how it occurs [the second most interesting thing about it is, spellcheck didn’t even blink at that word, and it doesn’t even like “zig-zag.”] The only thing I can suggest about the cause of this effect is that the rain really hammered down only minutes earlier and undoubtedly still was at the source of the rainbow, so perhaps the size of the droplets or their proximity had something to do with it.

rainbow reflected in pondAs I said, it was difficult to find a lot of foreground interest to put against the bow. The cormorant that I’ve photographed a few times on these very pilings was nowhere to be seen, annoyingly, but it was gratifying to note that the main bow reflected readily in the water at least; at no point did I see the secondary arc appear in the reflection, but it was high enough that the ability to see it might have required me to be standing in the water itself. I actually tried stalking the resident great blue heron, who wanted nothing to do with any portraits that evening, and couldn’t work out an angle to frame a trio of garden spiders against the reflection. But I’m pretty pleased with the image below, a tight crop from a wider frame. It does make me wonder if it would have been possible to see the rainbow within the raindrops if I’d gone for high magnification macro, but logistically, this might have been near impossible – focus has to be extremely precise in such circumstances and pine needles aren’t the most stable of subjects, bobbing in the slightest breeze. Maybe next time.

raindrops on pine needles against background rainbow

What are they hiding?!

This one is born out of a post on Mental Floss – or at least, that’s the most recent thing to provoke the thoughts; the attitude is remarkably common and can be found connected to countless topics. In short: if a government agency or some otherwise official organization is keeping information from us, it is important that we know what it is. It must be something that we should know, something that is controlling us or depriving us or evidence of illegal shenanigans. In this case, the third “burning question” in that post refers to the CIA files regarding the Kennedy assassination which have not been released to the public. “Aha!” say the conspiracists. “This is evidence that the CIA was doing… something.” I mean, what other purpose would the CIA have in keeping information from public consumption and redistribution?

And just by asking that question, it virtually becomes rhetorical – we recognize that, for instance, national security pretty much necessitates that certain information not be freely disseminated. The same holds true for the military, of any country; making specific details of defenses readily available means circumventing those defenses becomes exponentially easier. The idea here is that the information is not exactly being kept from us, but from them. Since there is no way to share it only with us and not them, it is kept from both.

Certainly, this does not mean that the CIA (or the NSA or the FBI or the DAR) is not keeping stuff from us that we really should know, such as unethical and illegal practices. But that’s not really the issue – we’re not going to start playing a “guilty until proven innocent” game. The practice of not releasing information is not at all suspicious; it is standard operating procedure. Pointing out that files are being withheld is not support for any conspiracy in the slightest, since it occurs all of the time in countless topics and circumstances, and is to be expected. Still using the assassination as an example, Lee Harvey Oswald was thoroughly investigated following the shooting, and among many other things, it was determined that he not only spent time in the Soviet Union, in fact renouncing his citizenship of the US, he also made a trip to Cuba not long before the assassination. “AHA!” No, sit down – he was very well known as a dissident, as were countless other people in the US at the time. The information revealed that, even when he attempted to sell radar secrets to the Soviets, they wanted nothing to do with him – he wasn’t exactly low-key, nor connected any longer. He was, in fact, exactly the kind of guy you would never use for spying, because he was exactly the kind of guy you’d suspect and keep an eye on. Oswald’s trip to Havana was brief, and he didn’t even get the audience with government officials there that he was hoping for – just as any blue-collar doofus from any other country will not get an audience with any government official here when showing up unannounced and with nothing of compelling importance to show.

However, the CIA did not simply phone up the embassy in Havana and ask for this information, nor would it have been trustworthy in any way had something truly been going on. So the information came from… where? CIA spies in the Cuban government, ones that it would be a supremely bad idea to reveal? Exactly – that’s pretty much what the CIA exists to do. Moreover, this fits in precisely with the situation that we have, where there is a moratorium on the files, yet they can be made public past a certain date. Is that something that it would be a good idea to do if the files contained truly damning information? Or is it something that could be done once the operatives were long retired, the information long obsolete?

There’s a lot of common sense that gets ignored in such situations as well, such as how bloody stupid it would be to keep funding an organization that had any hand whatsoever in the assassination of the Chief Executive (and on whose orders?) Or the idea that Cuba actually arranged the hit, as if every President since would sweep that under the rug and not, you know, Iraq the shit out of them – for dog’s sake, Reagan was openly spoiling for a winnable war, to the point where he invaded Grenada because, you know, something. And no, the Soviet Union would not have stuck its neck out to protect its interests in Cuba, as massive as they might be (yes, that’s sarcasm.) It almost goes without saying that the justifications proposed for these heinous secret files shows a child’s understanding of foreign politics.

Once again, I have to stress that none of this suggests the CIA is innocent in any way, and their track record is not supportive of this either, nor will you ever find me blindly defending the agency. The point is, such secrecy cannot be considered suspicious behavior if it’s exactly what we should expect to see in any given situation. While investigation of any potential wrongdoing or coverup is commendable and encouraged, it should only be undertaken with a commitment towards objectivity, and certainly not an effort to establish a preconceived notion. We have, or like to think that we have anyway, a remarkably open government, but this should not be extrapolated to mean that it is completely open, or should be.

There are a lot of potential motives for those who embrace the idea of conspiracies, and it’s likely a deeply involved and convoluted field of study, but in some cases the prevalent attitudes carry over into popular culture. The very question, “What could they be hiding?” not only assumes dastardly intent, but the unwarranted concept that they shouldn’t be hiding anything – it’s a good example of a leading question, and one that we should always be wary of. In fact, sowing doubt is often the only purpose in such circumstances, as if doubt supports any case at all.

[And by the way, it’s a lot of fun to give an immediate, matter-of-fact answer to such questions and deflate the whole thing right from the start.]

Another common aspect to be wary of – in fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid – is the desperate attempt to propose a scenario that fits the idea of something being hidden; in essence, this is picking a conclusion and then trying to find support for it. But this is not a fiction-writing workshop; trying to rescue a weak idea is a pursuit only for the obsessive. “It’s possible,” is, as I’ve posted about before, the lowest bar we can create; we should be concerned about what’s probable instead, and efforts to establish that it’s more probable than any mundane explanation. That means evidence, and plenty of it. Suspicion is not evidence, and suspicion because it fits with some personal indulgence is especially lame. Righteous indignation is a very common trait, and all too often, the struggle to maintain it fosters a lot of bias.

Much is often made about the reports of UFO investigations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which permits details that may be detrimental to security to be redacted – frequently, when such reports are received they are so edited that little information can be derived from them. Isn’t this evidence of… something? Well, yes, it’s evidence of something, but something unexpected? Hardly. Let’s consider an imaginary example. Say that, in investigating a sighting, there was information from an Air Force Base, but most of it was cut out. Why? Well, for starters, anything airborne stands the potential of being an unauthorized and possibly hostile incursion, and we’re not talking about aliens here, but the proven-to-exist other nations which may be probing our defensive systems, as happens pretty much constantly. Details in the report may give the type of radar, the range of its effectiveness, the speed of the response, and so on. In fact, if this was an actual incursion, then it’s valuable information concerning how effective the mission was. Even the mention of a commanding officer means that any further appearances of his/her name pins down what base is being referred to and that it is a defensive installation. None of this is the faintest indication of alien life, but all of it is information that we might not want to make freely accessible.

Which starts coming around to a key point in a lot of these topics: if someone doesn’t want us to know about something, then no amount of whining or petitioning or demands for satisfaction are going to accomplish jack. Good or bad, it’s being withheld for a reason, and that reason is not going to be outweighed by even a large percentage of the public getting pissed off – indeed, that might even be what they’re trying to avoid. But most assuredly, going through official channels isn’t going to produce evidence of a conspiracy or a coverup or whatever; organizations don’t set themselves up to shoot themselves in the foot. To find anything of the sort, we’re going to have to dig deep, and not just voice suspicions.

And most especially, if there are secret files that contain seriously damaging information, no one’s going to be stupid enough to tell us they exist. Sometimes, just the barest hint of common sense is all that’s needed.

Looking back, part three

jagged ambush bug Phymata in profile
Catching up is taking a lot longer than anticipated, but a lot of that has to do with being busy with other things, among them updating the materials for the photo students, who come first (well, no, The Girlfriend comes first, but the students are still ahead of the blog.) I’ve also tried to space out the photos with a couple of critical-thinking posts, but the flow of writing is not to my liking so far, and if I can’t pass my own editing standards, as loosely as that word may be used, then it’s probably best not to put it up.

While out doing the shots from part one, I found a pair of jagged ambush bugs, genus Phymata – I wasn’t going to be able to do them justice out in the field, so I collected them for a studio shoot. I’ve done a fair amount with them previously, but that was all with the early nymph
forms, while these two were adults. “Adult” does not mean “big” – the specimens seen here were a whopping 10mm in body length, and it was only through experience with the species that I even spotted them at all.

jagged ambush bug Phymata on flowering weedAmbush bugs are predatory ‘true bugs,’ or Hemipterans, and usually find themselves a perch on a likely flower and await the appearance of pollinators. To say that they are sedentary is perhaps understating it; I have never seen one actually going anyplace, and even when provoked they are reluctant to give up their position. Both of these (if you can’t tell them apart that’s okay, neither can I) possessed wings and yet never made any attempt to fly away. This leads me to speculate that they rely almost entirely on their camouflage and caruncular exoskeleton for defense; usually they blend in much better than this, but we had no yellow flowers around to use as a setting. Also, since a lot of species count on movement rather than appearance in spotting prey, the tendency towards immobility that these bugs appear to possess might be sufficient all by itself. We’ll see more about that shortly. Right now, we’ll go in for a little closer look at the business end of things.

jagged ambush bug Phymata detail of head and pincers
From the inordinate size of the base of those pincers, I have to assume they’re quite strong, but despite what appears to be visible serrations, they’re for holding, not cutting. Hemipterans are, of course, sucking bugs, using a long proboscis to draw their nutrients – you can see it in shadow under the insect’s ‘chin’ – so they would derive no benefit from breaking up their meals in any way; indeed, it would reduce the fluids they eat. And from other images that I’ve gotten in the past, I can say that one of those surfaces on the pincer is actually flat. Note, too, the fine hairs arranged along the edges, which allow the ambush bug to feel their prey and know whether it is perfectly immobilized or not. These can be found on many species of crab, which are also arthropods, and I can tell you from experience that disturbing them usually triggers the pincers to slam shut automatically (much to my chagrin with a sizable pet hermit crab, many years ago.)

black ant investigating head of jagged ambush bug Phymata
I failed to notice, as I selected a weed stem to use as a prop, that the plant was home to numerous aphids and, in turn, several tiny black ants that were ‘milking’ them. This meant that every couple of minutes an ant would venture up to the top and usually right across the ambush bug. You might imagine this would be bad news for the ant, but the ambush bug largely ignored the impertinence, save for producing some sharp jerks of its head when an ant traipsed thereon. You can also see the natural groove that the antenna fits into when drawn back; ambush bugs seem very protective of their antennae, and it took some time without disturbance before it would extend them again, slapping them back as soon as I loomed too close with the camera.

misted jagged ambush bug Phymata
I gave them both a misting while I had them, only partially for the photographic possibilities, but more because they’d been in a film can for hours and I figured they might need the water (neither of them showed the faintest interest in gathering any of the moisture.) I included this image because one of the droplets formed a nice lens on the compound eye, magnifying the underlying ommatidia. I can’t tell you what affect this might have on the perceptions of the bug, except that they’re likely used to it, because it can happen during any rain and overnight dew. But there’s one other detail that I want to highlight, because I apparently haven’t featured it here before.

scentless plant bug Niesthrea louisianica proboscis detailIf you look closely at the base of the proboscis in the image above, right at the point of the ‘nose,’ you can see a little gap with a paler, ridged something in there. The proboscis is actually a multi-part appendage, as I discovered by accident in some previous macro pics, prompting me to seek more like the one at left. There is a hard outer ‘cutting/stabbing’ sheath, often articulated, called the labium. Fitting within it are the bits that do the actual drinking, looking like a fine thread even though there are actually four parts, collectively called the stylets, separately a pair each of mandibles and maxillae, terms you might recognize from just about any anatomy lesson, otherwise known as the lower and upper jaws respectively. The separate nature of the labium and stylets is nicely shown with this scentless plant bug (Niesthrea louisianica) that obligingly posed for me while feeding from a leaf. Diagrams and explanations of all this can be found here.

jagged ambush bug Phymata on spearmint flowersAfter the photo session, I took both ambush bug specimens out and tried to find appropriate places for them. One went onto the flowers of the spearmint plants, and the other onto a geranium bloom – like I said, we don’t have any yellow flowers around here. The geranium was apparently unacceptable, since I haven’t seen it there since, but the one on the mint seemed to be okay with the choice, considering that it is still there as I type this, a week since its release – that’s it in the pic, obviously not camouflaged terribly well, yet still in flattering colors (if I’m any judge, which I’m probably not.) Faintly visible in this image is the red spot on the back of the ‘skull,’ also visible in one of the photos above and the one with the scentless plant bug. These are small simple eyes called ocelli, primarily believed to help flying insects maintain stable flight. If you roll back a few posts, you can see them on the mantises and the cicada as well.

It is unfortunate that I discovered the ambush bugs after this next subject, since it might have meant a nice meal for them, one I wouldn’t have begrudged at all. But on the same spearmint plant one evening, I spotted a peculiar outgrowth on the flower spike, quickly revealed as not growth at all.

wavy-lined emerald moth Synchlora aerata larva on spearmint flowers
As hard as this is to make out, this is the caterpillar of a wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata,) demonstrating their typical active camouflage defense. These caterpillars detach bits of plant matter from the plant they’re feeding upon and attach it to their backs to blend in, which works surprisingly well, unless you spot the break in the expected pattern. Here, the caterpillar is sporting larger brown mint leaves, obviously drying out, and some of the mint flowers; the natural color of the caterpillar is displayed along the inchworm arc to the left. You can see other illustrations of them here, and here – it’s plain that they can also adapt their body color to fit in better.

wavy-lined emerald moth Synchlora aerata larva head shot
It took several attempts, since the inchworm was alert to my presence and hid its head every time I leaned in for the detail shot, but I managed to get the barest photo of it feeding – the ones at the second link above are better. There are three pairs of forelegs, two plainly visible and one in shadow but betrayed by the hint of texture. These little guys can do a surprising amount of damage, and I was first alerted to their presence by the turds deposited on leaves below, even though it took another day to find the ninja pooper. Since the spearmint plants are my favorites, messing with them is not allowable, and it’s a show of extreme tolerance that I even got these images first. Immediately afterward, this and another caterpillar were detached and tossed far afield; I can only hope the ambush bug is at least protecting its own flower spike from a return.

Monday color 28

purple crocus in early spring
No exact species for this one, just a crocus planted by The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog at the old place last year, a welcome bit of early spring color while nearly everything else was dismal. But for giggles, we’ll boldly defy the topic and go monochrome, in a special way.

crocus in monochrome, blue channel only
This is the same image, converted to greyscale, but with one important distinction: it is solely the blue channel. The red and green channels, the others that comprise RGB image files, have been deleted. I discuss this is greater detail here, but basically, some images look better in monochrome when only one channel is used. Most times it’s not the blue channel, which tends to be blotchy (on the cameras I’ve used anyway,) but in this case it had a distinctive effect. The complementary/opposite color for blue is yellow, so in the blue channel, anything that had significant blue in the original image will appear bright, while anything yellow will appear dark. Thus the deep contrast between the purple petals and the orange pollen. Since the original image wasn’t very contrasted in brightness, simply converting it to greyscale with all three channels produced a lackluster effect. Just one of those things to experiment with.

I still like the color version better, though.