Many years ago I worked for an idiot landscaper, one that insisted the tiny little splash of color on his business cards had to be a precise shade of green – none other would do. Apparently he believed this made some difference, though somehow he never made the effort not to be an asshole; I would have thought that might make more of an impression, but what do I know? Anyway, that’s beside the point – I only bring it up to demonstrate that I’m not that bad in comparison.
I was about to print some more business cards of my own just now, and decided to create some new designs and tweak the old ones. I have gone with photos of course, actually having real photo prints made and cutting the cards out myself, which allows me to have several different designs at once without incurring a ridiculous set of printing fees. While I have two logos of sorts that appear on my letterheads, these are photos converted to line art; on the cards my ‘branding’ is just a particular font that I use over top of the background image, one that presents a set of problems all its own.
The font is Eras Demi ITC – it came along with some software long ago, but is not typically included in everyone’s package, and I had to search for it to install it within my computer’s TrueType fonts so all of my programs could access it. I do my photo editing in Photoshop CS2, which allows text to be added easily. Making business cards is no sweat then, right?
Not so fast. I use the font in italic form, but there’s something weird about this particular one. The option to alter it to either bold or italic, which can be found for most fonts, does not exist for this one – in Photoshop, anyway. I can do it easily in Word, for some reason. So, in order to use it, I have to type out what I want in Word, then copy it and paste it into Photoshop.
It pastes in with its own baggage, which is the background color, generally white. So I have to delete that to have just the font. This introduces the fun of anti-aliased images: in order not to produce ugly jagged edges, the pixels on the border of the text are blended with the background color to give a smoother appearance. When I select the white background to delete it, there still remains a thin border of pixels of varying shades of grey. Change the parameters of the selection to try and get rid of these, and it can actually end up turning the text slightly transparent for some godawful reason. Leaving the borders looks ugly.
Not only that, but if I decide to change the color while in Photoshop, the fill tends to eradicate this anti-aliasing and get a bit blotchy and jagged around the edges, looking even worse. So I try out a few colors to see what stands out the best against the background image, then carry that color into Word and set the text therein. To help with the anti-alias edge issue, I usually ‘highlight’ the text in a medium-grey tone, so the background is more neutral and doesn’t produce much in the way of border problems.
But wait! For reasons known only to Microsoft, the highlighting function accounts for normal fonts, but not slanty italic fonts, so it often ceases inside of the right side, where the leaning text overlaps the edge that a proper, upright text would remain within. Add some spaces, doesn’t matter, nothing happens – who would want to highlight empty space? So to have this background color extend past the end of the font completely, I end up adding three spaces and a period, which fools Word into thinking there’s more to the sentence. This, of course, has to be deleted out as well once it is pasted into Photoshop.
I actually have Illustrator CS2 installed on this machine, but no matter – it doesn’t recognize Eras Demi as a potential italicizable font any more than Photoshop does. I’ve also tried using Open Office because I really don’t like Word, but it has its own collection of quirks that makes exporting text painful.
“Use a different font, you idiot!” I heard you say earlier. I would, really – I’ve been through dozens; none of them have the look I like, either being plain or (and you’re familiar with this if you’ve ever gone seeking fonts for a particular use) unbelievably goofy-looking. There is apparently a strange subset of people who spend time making text look quite bizarre, and worthless for any reasonably normal function.
What this means is, creating new business cards is a remarkably tedious process for something that really shouldn’t take that much time. I honestly consider all of the serif fonts like Times New Roman – those that need curlicues and bases hanging off all of the letters – to be ugly, so this is the price I pay for that opinion. I would also dearly love to find a distinctive semi-serif font, one that allows an easy distinction between uppercase “i” and lowercase “L,” but there are few of those around too.
The other issue I have with this font is that few computers have it installed, and most text-editing programs embed the type of font in the document as a tag – take the document you created and print it from a computer that does not have Eras Demi ITC installed, and it will be replaced by whatever the default font is, usually Times New Roman. This makes my letterhead look really hideous unless I purposefully save the document as a PDF, which makes the whole thing an image instead.
So every place you see that “Wading-In Photography” or “Walkabout” banner, here or on the home page or on my business cards and handouts, it’s an image, because you probably don’t have the font installed. And getting it there took more stupid fussing than it ever should have. I have no real idea how much this kind of thing affects people, but I’m hoping most find my choice at least a little snazzy looking. At least tell me you do, so I think the effort is worth it…
On Sunday, the temperature topped 22°c (72°f,) making me break out the sandals for the first time since November – they’re my summer footwear, if I’m wearing anything at all. I had a student, and these images came from our session out scouting conditions and planning for the busy season come spring. It was easy to believe it was here already.
Then came Monday, with the temperature plummeting below freezing and producing sleet and snow – nothing serious, but certainly a far cry from the previous day. Putting up these images is almost an act of defiance, as I sit here with cold feet and a runny nose (the computer resides in the coldest corner of the house) – kind of a, “pics or it didn’t happen” attitude.
This image is taken against the reflection of sunlight in the background pond, aperture wide open to render the sparkles as circles (from the shape of the lens element) instead of polygons (from the shape of the aperture opening.) The term for this line of sparkling water pointing towards the sun is ‘glitter trail’ – or at least, it is now. Formerly it was used for Liberace’s concert tour…
I don’t like to shoot a lot when I’m with a student, since this is their time, not mine – I’ll typically only do it when they’re in pursuit of their own images, as kind of a side activity and so they don’t get the impression I’m hovering over them watching everything they do. In some cases however, like this one, the point is to work together and bounce ideas off one another, seeing how many different ways any subject can be approached – everyone has their own style, but inspiration is always a useful tool. I purposefully offset the glitter trail to one side to reduce the direct glare into the lens – you can see the negative effect this can have with the lowermost bud. Then as I did the post-processing crop for this image, I specifically put the base of the branch right in the corner, because I prefer that kind of framing.
In some places the daffodils are in bloom, a species that often gets snowed on from the mid-latitudes on northward. I had gone low to put some complementary sky color in the background, and cropped this one much tighter for a semi-abstract feel – you still know what it is, but now it’s more dramatic shapes than simply a flower blossom. The light angle is a huge help here, not only sharply defining the rumpled texture of the petals, but also throwing a shadow behind the pollen organs that makes them stand out brightly. Almost unnoticeable details like this can make one image more interesting than the others, even when we may not be really sure why it is.
Once again, I’ll emphasize being willing to get into weird positions to create a better composition. I was lying full on my side, head almost on ground, to get the upwards angle necessary for this framing – to say that I get dirt stains and damp patches in odd locations on my clothing is an understatement, but the way I see it, big fat hairy deal. I occasionally carry kneepads and ground covers with me just for these purposes, but they’re cumbersome, so it isn’t often. I never worry too much about how I look to anyone – this is what I do. What’s funny is watching the students emulate me, no longer self-conscious about looking weird, or perhaps suddenly realizing how much decorum has held them back from creativity – only kids roll around on the ground, right? But if it helps you create a better image, something different and compelling, go for it. Discomfort is fleeting.
Now, this next bit came up while I was putting together this post, sparked by another student who is into black & white work. There are many ways to tackle this from a digital standpoint, not just from converting to greyscale. Digital images are composed of red, green, and blue dots (RGB colorspace,) separated into channels. Selecting just one of these channels and deleting the other two can produce quite interesting effects, depending on the colors within the original image, and I tried it out on the daffodil pic for giggles.
This is just the blue channel, converted to greyscale after deleting the red and green channels. White is composed of all colors, and receives an equal representation among all three channels, so the mostly white bloom still came out bright. But yellow is the complementary, or opposing, color of blue in RGB space, so whatever is yellow tends to go darker in the blue channel, making the central trumpet stand out in greater contrast – more so than in any other channel, and much more so than simply converting the whole image to greyscale. The problem is, the blue channel tends to be the poorest in terms of quality, and why this is I cannot say right offhand – it could be typical of digital RGB files, or just a trait of my camera. But the sky especially went grainy and a bit blotchy, faintly visible at this resolution but truly ugly in larger versions. I could ‘shop this out easily enough for an arteestic print, but it still makes using solely the blue channel to be a little challenging.
I had no sooner mentioned to the student that he should keep an eye out for just such subjects when this next critter was spotted, taking advantage of the day.
This basking mud turtle, likely a stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus,) was remarkably patient with us, allowing some very close approaches without bolting from its sunbathing spot into the water, though I was using a long lens for this particular image. With any wildlife, get a few frames from a distance when first sighting it – the ‘proof’ shots, as it were. Waiting until you get the perfect framing may mean the animal bolts before you get that close, and you end up with nothing. This turtle did, eventually, duck back under, but not before we’d gotten within 2 meters – surprising, since most won’t allow anyone within 10 meters or more, and I’ve spooked some from better than 20. I’m aware that anyone reading might think it cruel that we chased the turtle back into the cold water after it got warmed up and should have left it alone, but it must be said that turtles weather far worse conditions than this, buried in the mud of the pond and lake bottoms – their systems handle it just fine, so we can’t judge from our own human perspective too readily. Living as it did on the edge of a housing development where people walked their dogs all the time, it would probably fare better being a bit more cautious, anyway.
The bright sunlight produced a lot of contrast, throwing deep shadows, so this image is assisted by some fill lighting – I mounted the flash to throw a little light into the shadow areas and brighten them up a bit, rendering them only half as dark as they had been. The turtle wasn’t going to be so cooperative as to raise its head enough to get sunlight onto an eye, which would have been much more dynamic a frame, and this was also as low as we were going to get without sinking into the mud of the pond bottom ourselves. You take what you can get.
I admit to not applying myself to finding a new topic for the long-quiet category of amateur naturalism – if you could see me now, you’d know by my face how contrite I am. But baby critter season approaches, and so I am reposting this one from last year regarding injured and orphaned wildlife (and wildlife rehabilitation) in the hopes that it provides help to someone in need.
I used to work in this field a fair amount, both in administration of wildlife organizations and as an active raptor [birds of prey] rehabilitator, plus I served as wildlife adviser in several different situations. So I’m familiar with most of the more common reactions people have when they find ‘orphaned,’ injured, and ill wildlife. It’s hard to give enough useful information without trying to cover every situation or alternative, so treat this as an overview. One thing that I especially want to emphasize here is that there is an immediate emotional response in most cases, which tries to override the advice given by those who work in the fields, so be aware of it. There isn’t an ‘instinct’ we might have that applies to wildlife, and the rational mind is the part that needs to take control.
Additionally, the amount of folklore regarding wildlife is not just abundant, in most cases it’s ridiculously wrong. I’m not even going to say, “If in doubt…,” because you should doubt right off the bat, and consider that most of what you’ve heard is highly suspect. This means, contact someone who is supposed to know, and go with their advice.
Number one rule, and I can’t repeat this enough: Don’t try to raise wildlife on your own. Their diets are specialized, their needs varied and specific to the species, and their adult behavior dependent on how they’re raised. This isn’t the place for guesswork or experimentation. Even if they seem to be ‘doing well’ (like the viral video of the guy raising a baby hummingbird,) they may have developmental issues from an improper diet or exercise, or simply have imprinted on the wrong species, and you are in essence just prolonging the death of the animal. In the US, it’s illegal to raise any species without a specific permit, and songbirds are federally protected. It’s possible to obtain these permits, and quite frankly encouraged, because there are few places with enough rehabbers, but if you’re going to do it, do it right. More further down.
So, we’re about to enter baby bird season, and this accounts for a large percentage of wildlife encounters. I’ll dispel the first myth that touching a baby bird will cause the mother to abandon it. Utter hogwash, pure and simple – yet, I don’t always discourage parents from teaching this to their children, because it’s one way to try and get kids to leave them alone, which is a good thing. Better, perhaps, to teach them to leave them alone for the right reasons, which is to avoid interrupting their feeding schedule, or injuring them, or thinking it would be neat to have a pet robin. But returning to the myth, baby birds will occasionally fall from the nest, and it’s perfectly fine to return them to it, and in fact this is recommended.
It doesn’t always work, however. Some species will discard young that are not doing well, and some even kick their own siblings out – this is nature’s method of selecting the most viable offspring, as ruthless as we find it, and we’re not going to change it. Basically, if it’s a baby bird not ready to leave the nest (not fledged; we’ll return to this,) put it back. If it keeps coming out, there may not be much you can do.
Can’t reach the nest? Try to find a way, first. If that’s not possible, occasionally the parents will accept a substitute nest, such as a plastic berry basket with soft tissue as bedding – this should be placed as close as possible to the original nest, firmly anchored so it doesn’t come down. Observe the nest carefully, but from a safe distance, for 30-60 minutes to see if the parents have indeed found the substitute. If not, seek out a rehabilitator or wildlife official.
Abandoned nest? Maybe, maybe not. Once the eggs hatch, the parent birds go into feeding mode, gathering food constantly during daylight hours and stopping at the nest for brief periods to jam it down the gullets of their ravenous progeny. The 30-60 minute rule above is because waiting less may mean you’ve simply missed the brief feeding period between the extended gathering periods. Observation has to be done at a distance that does not alarm the parents – minimum is six meters (yards,) and more is recommended. Also, being low key is paramount, so take a seat (with binoculars, for preference) and remain still and quiet. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s for the health of the offspring, and if you didn’t care about that you wouldn’t be reading ;-)
As the nestlings become fledglings, they abandon the nest on their own in learning how to fly. This does mean that they’ll be found unable to fly, fluttering around at low level and even just sitting there staring at you. This is normal, and they should remain undisturbed. The parents are nearby, providing food and encouraging the flight attempts. Most bird species know enough not to give away their progeny’s locations to predators, or draw attention to themselves by moving a lot, so your ability to approach, or not being attacked by angry parents when you do so, means nothing at all. Again, observation is good here, as is knowing the calls of the species in question – the parents may be coaching their young towards them.
Now, telling the difference in ‘nestlings’ and ‘fledglings.’ A nestling is a baby bird that must remain in the nest for a while; they will have few feathers, or perhaps even odd ‘quills,’ which is what the feathers look like as they are growing out. Unable to support itself? Eyes not open? Nestling. Fledglings are the babies that are ready to learn how to fly. Their feathers will have good coverage with little to no stragglers or ‘stuffing coming out’ (the baby down.) One rule I always used over the phone was to ask if there were tail feathers – if there are, they’re about ready to fly. These are fledglings and should only be observed.
If in doubt, contact a rehabber/official. This is before doing anything else, save for getting it out of immediate danger. No food, no water, nothing at all. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say, “We’ve tried giving it water and worms” – birds can aspirate the water if it’s not given the way the parents do (you’ve noticed the beak getting jammed halfway down the throat, right?) and only one species in North America eats earthworms. Again, folklore – ignore it and be safe.
Also, bleeding in birds is serious, no matter what. Birds have very thin blood that doesn’t coagulate easily, and they can bleed out quickly. Also note that those ‘quills’ of new feathers mentioned above have a blood supply for a while, and these can be broken and start bleeding as well. Time is important in such situations.
Baby raptors will tear you up – they know how to use the beak and talons very early (often on their siblings) and will not hesitate to protect themselves. And adult raptors will protect their young. This is where it’s best to leave it to the experienced.
And it may seem funny to have to say this, but baby birds do not look like their parents. Adult kestrels and screech owls, both diminutive raptors, are often considered “babies” when found by those not familiar with what a real juvenile looks like. Basic rule: if it has a smooth appearance and good coverage of feathers, it’s at least fledgling age, probably older.
What about mammals? This is a little different – mammals are generally not found away from their parents unless something has gone wrong. Most especially, if the youngster’s eyes aren’t open, they’re wet from the rain or dew, or if they’re cold or dehydrated, this is the time to contact someone. Test for dehydration by gently pinching up the skin over the shoulders or side in a ‘tent’ and releasing – if the skin takes more than a second to go back into position, this is dehydration.
Always use gloves. Juvenile mammals can certainly bite, and there’s an additional risk to this: rabies is active throughout much of North America. This is an invariably fatal disease once it passes a certain point (much more so than HIV,) so this needs to be taken seriously. It is not just the bite that can transmit it, but contact of an infected animal’s saliva with mucous membranes can introduce it as well, which means that picking up a damp animal and rubbing your eyes puts you at risk. Animals do not have to be showing symptoms to be infectious, and symptoms vary anyway. BE SAFE.
It’s not just rabies. Mammals are far more likely to introduce other zoonotic issues than birds – they’re enough like us that parasites (internal and external) and some viruses can be transmitted to us. Bringing them into the house may mean you just introduced fleas, lice, giardia, and so on into your home. You’ve been warned.
Also, and it pains me to have to always say this, but cute does not mean safe. Any animal can defend itself. I have never been bitten by a raccoon, despite their aggressiveness, but I have a scar and a touch of nerve damage from a grey squirrel – one, moreover, that was raised in a house. Rabbits and mice can bite the hell out of you. Shrews even have a toxic saliva. Yes, I am trying to scare you – if you’re scared, you’re cautious, which is better than incautious.
In many cases, mammals about half of the adult size can be on their own without issues – they learn how to forage for their own food reasonably quickly. Again, the stillness thing doesn’t mean they’re lost – it may simply mean they’re trying not to attract attention. This is especially so for white-tailed deer fawns – they often curl up in the grass and conserve energy while mom forages, and will not move even when someone approaches – occasionally not even when picked up. Leave them be, and come back in a few hours. If they’re still there, that’s when you should contact someone.
Rabbits are notorious for abandoning the nest if it’s been disturbed, even with a full brood of young within. This is doubly hazardous because their nests are often in clumps of grass and can be inadvertently discovered by cleaning the yard. If it happens, immediately put everything back as it was, without touching the young, and place a few distinctive blades of grass across the nest opening (preferably something you can see from at least a short distance away,) then leave it entirely alone. Come back in a few hours and check to see if the grass has been moved. If it has, things are probably okay. If not, it may be time to check the warmth and hydration of the young. Contact a rehabilitator.
Again, trying to raise them yourself puts them at a high risk. This is especially true for rabbits, which are among the hardest mammals to raise in North America. I can’t count the number of people who have assured me that they did it once before, so “they know how to do it.” While this may be true, it ignores numerous things, such as how viable the released offspring were and whether they lasted longer than a month, whether they had developmental deficiencies because of improper nutrition, and even whether they had habituated to food or behavior that left them ill-prepared for their conditions. There is a shortage of rehabilitators, so believe me, if it was easy most people would be encouraged to tackle this on their own. The fact that not only is it discouraged, it is unlawful in most areas, should be a good indication that there’s something more to consider. And the welfare of the animal should take higher precedence than anyone’s ego.
Injured animals are extra dangerous. Yes, they may seem incapacitated or helpless, but you know what they say about appearances. One of my colleagues rashly checked an injured, near-comatose squirrel bare-handed, and it bit through her finger, joining its teeth together in the fleshy part of her index finger – I actually heard them grinding together. It then passed out without letting go. Animals in pain (even pets) often respond aggressively – they have no concept of your attempts to help them, and restraint can make them even more agitated. Deer can do vast amounts of damage by thrashing with their hooves, and the big waterfowl like herons and cranes can drive that beak into your face (and yes, they aim for effectiveness.) I really want to emphasize this, because the nurturing instincts are badly misplaced here, and extreme caution is necessary instead.
“There’s a nest of animals in my attic/crawlspace/walls and they need to be removed!” No. Most especially not when they’re raising young, which is most often when anyone notices them. Once the young are there, no further damage is going to be done to your house, because the parents are concentrating on raising their brood. Trying to relocate them is hazardous, both to the animals and to people in many cases, and pointless. Let them be, and in a few weeks the young will be old enough and move out on their own – about the only exception to this is bat colonies (more below.) Once there are no young to raise, the adult animals often leave on their own – nests are primarily for young – but they can also be encouraged to leave or stay out at that point. Squirrels are pretty bad about wanting to return to successful nest areas, and will even chew through wire mesh at times, but most others take the hint and find better places to live.
“But what about rabies?” Animals raising young, even in the eaves of your house, are not an especially high risk. Contrary to belief, rabies does not cause animals to leap suddenly out and attack people; those events are remarkably rare. While anyone should be quite cautious of any mammals that openly approach, living near them does not place anyone at special risk – you’re at greater risk of being killed by the tree near the house falling on you, and we won’t even talk about road risks. Like snake bites, most contacts with rabies vector wildlife occurs by people initiating the contact.
“Animals are doing damage to my property and need to be removed!” No. I can’t tell you how much this attitude annoys me, but that’s what a blog is for, right? Wildlife goes where the habitat is ideal, and pays no attention to humankind’s imaginary idea of “property.” First off, anyone should enjoy the opportunity to see behavior, something that is often hard to accomplish even when making the effort. If someone has wildlife around, chances are they aren’t in a high-rise apartment, which means they wanted to live with at least some vestige of nature visible; surprise surprise, it comes with other animals. While we might decry the damages to our gardens or landscaping, that’s part of the territory, just like road noise and power lines. Learn how to cope, and the ways to exclude animals from certain areas so we can have tomatoes. I’m sorry that a $500 tree was stripped, but no one should have planted something that was that appealing to the local species in the first place, and chances are, numerous appropriate trees had been cut down first so that the fancy landscaping could be put in its place (and I used to work for a landscaper, too.)
Trapping and removal is rarely effective. If there’s a habitat, someone else will move in. And wildlife populations have been shown through numerous studies to be fairly self-regulating; the issues come because habitat destruction by humans is not. We can put in housing developments much faster than the natural cycles of population reduction and management, and those displaced animals end up somewhere. They likely feel the same way about us – dread the point where they develop opposable thumbs.
But what about bats? Ah, the poor little guys! Much of our population considers them ugly and creepy, not at all helped by folklore and horror stories, yet bats are actually way cool mammals, and good to keep the insects down. But most species nest in colonies, and this does sometimes mean in attics, which can produce lots of guano (bat poop) and increases the risks of rabies exposure, primarily when one gets lost and ends up within the human spaces of the house. However, the damage that they can do is minuscule, since they do not dig or gnaw, and excluding them only takes 1/4″ hardware cloth (small-holed wire mesh.) Again, this should be done when no young are being raised, and should always be done with gloves and a breath mask (guano turns into dust easily and can be inhaled.) Should you find a bat in your house, contact your local animal control, since states differ on how they handle potential exposures.
I said I’d get to this: So you want to learn how to rehabilitate wildlife? Once again, this is actually encouraged, but like riding a motorcycle, it should be done properly and responsibly. If there isn’t a wildlife center or organization available in your area, contact your regional Wildlife Resource Commission office (for the US at least) to find out who in your area can train you, and most especially what permissions you need. In the US you’ll need at least one permit, possibly several. What you’ll mostly need is training, because any species requires a decent body of knowledge to tackle well – which also means pick a species, at least to start. Your local rehabbers can suggest a few, which might mean picking something you didn’t initially desire, but which is either easier to learn or presents the greatest needs within an area (and again, is this about you, or the animals?) Expect to spend a lot of time at it, since most animals need lots of attention – mammals may need feedings every four hours around the clock, and birds every 15-30 minutes during daylight (yes, I knew a songbird rehabilitator that kept baby birds in the desk drawers of her office.) And it’s almost certainly all coming out of your own pocket.
I feel obligated to say this, too: wild animals are not pets, and should not be raised as such. There are lots of reasons. The domesticated animals we have as pets, like cats and dogs and horses, have been bred that way for thousands of years and quite likely were chosen because they already had traits that assisted the process. Animals do not domesticate by simply raising them around people, and in many cases have behaviors that cause them to run afoul of our own (I mention once again the squirrel scar I bear, and will post that story later on.) Many animals also do not have diets that are easy for humans to replicate, meaning that they’re unlikely to thrive and may develop serious disabilities. But most distinctly, what we might imagine them to be like is rarely ever the case – they are highly unlikely to bond with humans in the slightest, and aren’t going to make good companions, do tricks, or even exhibit any appealing personality. They belong in the wild, and that should be your only goal.
Now, if the demands of rehabilitation are too much to contemplate, you can always volunteer with a local organization, and do rehabilitation on a rotation as your schedule permits. This helps prevent burnout and lets you have vacations and family emergencies. This also allows you to get involved without necessarily requiring the permits, because you can operate under the aegis of the organization and its own permits (which is how I worked with raptors, since my apartment would not fit the 15-meter flight cages required.) Still, expect to be dedicated to the job, even when it’s unsavory – cleaning cages and wounds, and even euthanizing injured animals, is a requisite part of it all. Not to mention how many species expect live or fresh food. If you’re thinking of cuddling fluffy bunnies, you’re not ready; rehab requires lots of ugly stuff, and very little bonding – they’re not pets, but wildlife, and need to be wild.
Or, simply donate money or materials. That works too, and is just as necessary – the nice thing about the subject is how nearly everyone can find a niche (provided they accept the reasonable expectations.) Despite such things as Wildlife Resource Commissions and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, there really isn’t money being put into wildlife rehab, especially not from a state or federal level. The vast majority of organizations run solely on donations and grants, and often even have to have veterinary services donated. Experienced workers are great, but donors are just as important, if not more so. Even people who can promote greater donations are important. Just about everything is grass-roots level, all of the time – the few exceptions are great, and demonstrations of what can be done, but not what you can expect throughout the field. Your help, whatever it is, will be appreciated.
A final note: find out, now, how to contact your local wildlife people. Before you find yourself with an injured owl on your hands. In some areas, it’s not self-evident or easy to find, and if it’s not a registered organization, you can forget about searching any telephone listings. Local animal control usually knows, and the 24-hour emergency vets. Often, 911 operators do not, and even local law enforcement may be stumped. A few minutes to get prepared can save a lot of hassle later on, and as I said, we’re entering baby season.
Hope this helps!
A few years back, there was a topic of discussion in “skeptical circles” (meaning some blogs and forums that featured critical thinking discussions fairly frequently) regarding the lack of female attendees at various skeptical conventions and meetups – most especially, the lack of female speakers. Actually, such discussions may be still be taking place, but I’m moving in different circles now, and it’s partially because of the ill-informed arguments over this topic.
Here’s what happens, and this is pretty typical in many different areas. People notice that the speakers at most conventions are predominantly male, and don’t know of an apparent reason for why this should be. A certain (far too high) percentage of them, believing that the numbers should be perfectly split between genders, start to wonder what is happening that is excluding women, up to and including the prejudice of the male organizers. Another percentage wonders in what way women are being made to feel unwelcome, perhaps subtly. People start trying to figure out how to make these events more female-friendly, changing the topics to attract women, pressuring the organizers to feature more women as speakers, and so on. The reactions range from curiosity over what’s happening to direct accusations of sexism and misogyny. For a while, there was a push to promote a new self-applied label, Atheism+, for those who were both atheist and feminist – apparently a new dividing line is supposed to help promote acceptance.
What was rarely asked, or even considered, was whether this was a perfectly normal state of affairs. There’s a folk belief that men and women are no different in mental makeup, and without ingrained cultural biases, there will be equal representation between the genders in all pursuits – the only reason there isn’t is because society is dictating the rules of behavior. This is a very widespread concept anymore, and efforts to try and avoid establishing gender roles are spreading. But it’s horseshit – men and women do have different thought processes and approaches, and this has been established for a very long time now. Nor is there reason to believe this is caused solely by culture. We would be a rare species among all of those on the planet if we didn’t have any differences, in fact.
The first thing I have to throw out (because objectivity and reading the actual lines, rather than between them, is far too rare when it comes to such topics) is that this does not make either gender better, worse, flawed, superior, or whatever. Different just means different – no value judgments belong. The second thing that I have to point out is that it would be a truly unique situation if an uneven representation of gender, in any milieu, was due entirely to one influence – there can indeed be prejudice, social roles, and outright sexism within any situation even while the major influence in numbers is due to inherent preferences. But assuming that there is blatant sexism at work is just as wrong as assuming that there is none; the objective approach is to determine exactly what is at work before proceeding with ways to change it (I purposefully did not say “correct it” here – this implies that there’s something wrong in the first place.)
There are pursuits that are dominated by women, among them apparel and crafts, cooking, dancing, romance novels, and so on, just as there are pursuits that are dominated by men, among them sports and racing, action movies, fishing, et cetera. A lot of people would insist that these are gender roles dictated by society, that will change with the right attitudes, but this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There is nothing stopping women from forming motorcycle clubs, and a lot of men would be delighted if the women they knew shared their enthusiasm for sporting events. It also must be noted that if someone feels uncomfortable with any pursuit, it doesn’t really matter if it comes from within or if it’s been “dictated” by society – uncomfortable is uncomfortable. The only thing that really should be considered, and carefully at that, are the situations where someone wants to engage in a pursuit but feels uncomfortable when they cannot.
Now, let’s step back a bit to see things from another perspective. Sexual reproduction is a curious thing in the animal kingdom, because it creates certain situations in almost all species. Both genders are inclined to promote their own genes, since the desire to do so is what made it through natural selection – those that want to reproduce are just a bit more likely to reproduce than those who lack such a drive, and so the next generations are dominated by the same desires passed on by the parents. But because females are committed by the time and demands of pregnancy, they fare better by being selective over who they choose to mate with; the investment is significant, so it’s in their best interest to ensure that the genes they accept from a male will help that investment. In most species, this means selecting a mate that appears healthy, active, and able to help provide for or protect the offspring. Thus, females select. The male investment is significantly less, but varies depending on the species; some require a mated pair to provide adequate resources to successfully raise young, some exists in colonies of shared responsibilities, some are entirely independent from birth. But in nearly all cases, the males compete to be selected by the females – sometimes this is passive, with displays of physical fitness or health, and sometimes it is aggressive, chasing off other males. Often it is both, and for the vast majority of human history, back through several earlier species, this was almost certainly the case.
What this means is, underlying much of human male behavior sits the drive to compete for favor, appearing to be a better choice than anyone else. This manifests in countless ways, from sports to payscale, clothes sense to academic achievement – it’s the way our species thrives. To be sure, females compete as well, but far less aggressively, and in fact, the one-male/multiple-females dynamic exists in numerous species… including, in several cultures, our own. There is far more evidence that the single-spouse concept is culturally influenced than the multiple-wife concept is – the latter makes perfect sense from a biological standpoint when you compare the relative contributions of sperm to child-bearing. A superior male spouse choice, shared among multiple females, optimizes the genetic legacy for all involved – provided the supporting resources of food and protection can be maintained as well.
What does all this have to do with skepticism? I apologize for being tedious, but without all the details, it won’t seem clear. Skepticism, and indeed any form of debate, is to a large extent competitive – demonstrating how much more wise the individual is over another. It is also a factor of building a strong ‘tribe,’ ensuring that the collective actions and goals of the group are most effective. It does make this blog seem a lot like strutting around a bar with an open shirt, which is why it is offset by the strictly non-competitive pursuit of nature photography. Yes, that was tongue-in-cheek as well – most of what we do is competitive in one form or another, and the only time to be embarrassed by it is when it fails to produce (or actively work against) some real benefit.
But there lies the key factor. It’s the males that stake territory, that build or maintain a spousal habitat, that devote a lot of energy into competition, while the females devote a lot of energy into bearing the young. This does not imply in any way what is meant to be or what someone must do, it just means this is the system that works for so many different species – the necessities of surviving and raising young are split among the two genders, and so there is different behavior for each. This makes it likely (though far from proven) that males are much more interested, more motivated, to pursue active skepticism than females – just as this gender bias is visible in all debates, politics, sports, and most other forms of status competition.
By all means, however, if a female wants to pursue skepticism, or football, or the CEO position – if a male wants to sew, or dance, or make jewelry – then they should be free to do so, without feeling in any way uncomfortable about it, even if they interpret the ideas expressed above as meaning that something isn’t right. Such behavioral influences come from a time when they were far more important than they are now – our culture has changed much faster than evolution can keep up. But overall, just because we do not see an immediate reason for a difference in behavior or desire doesn’t mean it can’t exist, or that there is something wrong.
There’s a more subtle factor that may be at work, too. As a species we tend to be more captivated by male voices, especially rich, deep ones – I am obligated to use the word “timbre” here. Morgan Freeman could convince most of us to do just about anything. Such a thing doesn’t make someone a better speaker, considered in regards to content, presentation, dynamism, or anything else, but it can make someone more favored when speaking, which does influence how much approval they gain. Thus, it remains possible that male speakers simply elicit a greater audience than female speakers overall. This certainly seems unfair and smacks of sexism, but it’s a subconscious reaction to tone more than a prejudice over the value of someone’s gender; these are not interchangeable, and mistaking one for the other is not going to be productive in any way.
Again, this doesn’t mean that there is no bigotry present in such situations, either – there are plenty of examples of sexism and misogyny to be seen. But there are also plenty of examples of those labels being applied where they weren’t even remotely supportable – from what I’ve seen personally, the latter is far more often the case. Before any conclusion is made, especially before any accusation is leveled, the objective thing to do is to gather the information first.
It also helps to realize that culture is far more an expression of desire than a method of suppression. Just taking clothes as an example, even as ‘conformity’ dictates what current fashion might be, a lot of things simply never catch on, or die out quickly, because they just weren’t acceptable. Even neckties are disappearing, thank dog (stupidest damn idea for men’s fashion ever, partially because they’ve remained for so long.) And while men often feel obligated to be good at building furniture or repairing cars, the number who actually possess these skills is shrinking rapidly – culture might make us feel uncomfortable, but it can rarely force a behavior.
Later on, there might be a speculative post about some of the ramifications of this, extensions of the ideas. For now, I only want to point out that if women or men are underrepresented in some field, this may only be an indication that we have the wrong impression of what is ‘representative’ in the first place. We have reasons to be different, and we tend to follow what makes us most pleased. Being influenced by evolved survival traits from long ago isn’t bad, or “the way things are meant to be,” or anything else – it just is. We may still want to change something, recognizing that our culture now is not what natural selection faced over our long history as a species, and it’s likely we can find a more beneficial approach than ‘instinct.’ But conscious will does not easily dismiss subconscious imperative, especially when few realize it even exists; most certainly, any approach to effect such changes needs to take any subconscious biological influences, should they exist, into account.
Even more importantly, it must be asked if it matters at all. If women really are underrepresented in skeptical pursuits because they aren’t as motivated by them, changing every speaker in every venue to female would likely have only fractional effect – few women find only female speakers to be compelling, and it’s actually rather insulting to think that females are more likely to pay attention only to other women. If the goal is full gender equality, wouldn’t the ability to ignore the gender of the speaker be more important than perpetuating some idea of a dividing line in the first place?
It’s a tricky topic, and I’m not trying to promote any particular attitude, just the ability to consider other perspectives. Armchair psychology plays far too much of a role in discussions of this nature – humans are a complicated species, and simple assumptions about us stand a good chance of being utterly wrong. Not to mention, when present in regards to skeptical pursuits, it becomes rather hypocritical.
There’s always a tradeoff in photography, the bad that must be taken with the good. The primary one, the thing that negatively affects the greatest majority of photos, is camera movement caught by slower shutter speeds. In order to get adequate light for a good exposure, the shutter has to be open for a certain amount of time, and as this time gets longer in cases of lower light or smaller aperture, the chance of capturing some small twitch of the camera itself gets ever greater. This is especially true of high magnification images, such as telephoto and macro work – while the camera might only move a tiny bit while the shutter is open, this little bit of blur is magnified as much as the subject of the photo is, and therefore becomes much more noticeable. Thus, nature photography is rife with situations where camera shake can ruin an image.
The best cure for this is a tripod, and to a lesser extent, a monopod. These reduce the amount of camera shake possible for any given situation – but, it must be noted, do not eliminate it. No tripod is perfectly stable, and some situations contribute more to camera shake than others – shooting in a high wind, for example, and even the slap of the reflex mirror in SLR bodies can set the camera a-trembling. Overall, however, it is simply a good idea to use a tripod.
Maybe. Actually, here are my two basic rules:
1. A tripod should be used in every situation where it will improve the quality of the image;
2. This may not be very often.
It all depends on the situation. While stalking cheetahs or white-tailed deer, a tripod will likely help a lot. The subjects are almost certainly going to stick within the same horizontal plane, and lateral movement often isn’t too significant – even cheetahs, as fast as they can be, are probably going to be photographed from a significant safe distance, so the panning movement of the camera is reduced commensurately. Birds are another matter; they move in all directions, and are very likely to appear at quite a high angle above the photographer. This may mean that a tripod has to stand very high, sometimes over eye-level of the photographer, and extending this high means camera shake is more likely – the higher a structure, the more vibration it will undergo.
This is why most nature photographers aim for a ball-style tripod head, rather than the more common pan/tilt head. A ballhead releases the camera to move in many directions with a single control, allowing panning, tilting, flopping, or the combination of all three at once, making it much easier to follow the bird that passes diagonally overhead. In contrast, a pan/tilt head has separate controls to release side-to-side motion, and up-and-down motion, and often flopping the camera sideways into a vertical orientation. Following a moving subject while loosening these controls is obviously a bit problematical, at least until we evolve a few more arms.
Now we (finally!) get to macro work. Here a ballhead often isn’t necessary, because even if such subjects decide to take off and fly overhead, the chances of following them for a series of macro images are, shall we say, rather low. But the magnification is very high, so preventing camera shake is a good thing, and a tripod should be used often, right?
Not really, and here’s why. At such magnifications, the position of the camera becomes very crucial; slight changes in location can result in significant changes in framing and subject portrayal. It’s a matter of pivot point. For something like cheetahs on the hunt, the pivot point is where the photographer stands, turning to follow the motion of the cats. For macro work, the pivot point is often the subject, and the camera shifts around trying for the best angle. Shifting a tripod a centimeter to the left can actually be kind of fussy, and when it comes to shifting in all three dimensions, it becomes quite involved.
Now consider that a tripod requires those three legs to be firmly placed, and for many macro subjects, this may mean extending underneath the subject, since working distance is so minimal, usually well less than a meter. It becomes very easy to disturb the plant or surface that the subject rests on, and therefore ruin the shot. It is also challenging to make such movements of a tripod in subtle ways that don’t frighten off the living subjects.
“Did you seriously just move to the back side of the leaf?”
Also to be considered is how many macro subjects appear very close to the ground (including on it) and that an ‘eye-level’ position is usually far more interesting than shooting down from above. It’s actually quite hard to get a tripod down this low and be stable enough to use. Even the fancy ones that allow very low angles through short columns, wide leg spread, or laterally-positionable arms cannot get very low, and when they can, they require a significant leg spread to hold steady. Take it from someone who has shot with the camera suspended upside-down underneath a tripod with a reversing center-column to get steady low-level shots:
it sounds cool until you do it. Go ahead – turn the camera upside down in your hands and, quick now, adjust aperture and exposure compensation.
Even in those situations where the photographer sets up an indoor studio and works with captive subjects, on a branch held in a moveable clamp for example, a tripod can be severely limiting. The subject may wander around on the branch, or present the best angle from below, and too much movement of the clamp can disturb them.
Then there’s “settling.” Just about any tripod head will shift slightly after tightening the locks, meaning the camera repositions itself, and this is magnified by all intermediates between body and tripod head, such as battery-grips and flash brackets. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tripod head that doesn’t possess some settling, though I admit I haven’t worked with the ones that cost more than my yearly phone bill.
Finally, we consider the focus range. With a standard macro lens or equipment such as extension tubes or diopters, focus range isn’t too limited, but in the more esoteric applications such as lens stacking or lens reversing, the range of sharp focus is ridiculously small, measured in millimeters. Positioning a tripod to tolerances that fine can be remarkably tricky, at times even impossible.
There are some workarounds available. Some tripods and photography stands allow for an entire arm, as well as the ballhead, to be released by a single lever, so repositioning is much easier. Of course, this means the camera will go crashing down unless held firmly as the lock is released, and settling may become a major issue. There are also devices often called macro sliders, which go between camera and tripod head – these allow fine movements forward-and-back, and sometimes side-to-side, so the camera can be moved much easier in relation to a close subject. This still doesn’t affect the restrictions in up-and-down positions, or help at all with pivoting around the subject. Once I got one, I realized I was using it less than 10% of the times that I thought
So with all that, it means a lot of macro work is done handheld. It’s easier to shift position to change framing, there are no considerations of where the legs go or adjusting the tripod for low-angle shots, and there’s nothing to fuss with that increases the chances of spooking a subject off. Which means, what do we do about camera shake?
The first thing is, use a higher shutter speed, so the probability of shake is greatly reduced. Combined with the smaller apertures often necessary for such work, this usually means natural light exposures are out of the question. Which leads to producing adequate light with a flash or strobe (whichever word you prefer.) This often progresses to trying out some form of flash or macro bracket, to allow positioning the light where it will have the best effect. The shutter speed cannot go above the camera’s flash sync speed (on most modern bodies, this is 1/200 second or so, but older bodies may get down to 1/60 second) – unless, a dedicated high-speed strobe is used, occasionally called focal plane (FP) flashes. These can sync at quite high speeds, but be warned – the higher the shutter speed, the less distance the flash can cover, which still may not be much of an issue in macro work.
Is 1/200 second enough, at that magnification? Usually, yes, since the brief shutter speed and small apertures often mean very little ambient light is coming in, so the exposure duration isn’t really governed by the shutter speed, but by the flash duration instead. Exceptions are situations like a shiny subject in bright sunlight, where bright reflections are enough to get exposed and may betray the camera’s movement. So even with this, remaining as steady as possible is important.
You may think you can stand quite still, but so still that your head or hands move less than a millimeter? How about while standing in a half-crouch leaning over a bush with a heavy camera and flash rig in your hands? It can get interesting, believe me, and after a day of extensive shooting, you might find weird muscles in your calves, forearms, or lower back protesting the next morning. This is the main challenge of shooting macro work handheld, but the flexibility in focus and framing options offsets it significantly.
At times, a monopod can help a little here, restricting movement in one direction at least – it may not seem like much, but a 33% increase in the probability of nailing the shot is not to be ignored. A monopod does not have to be used straight down to the ground; it can be braced sideways against a rock or tree trunk, or even forward against the surface that the subject itself rests on (this should be done with care, since it makes it very likely you’ll shift that surface.) Sometimes, even just the weight of it hanging from under the camera, not in contact with anything, adds a little inertial stability, like the various camcorder stabilizers that are available. This has to be used judiciously, since the point of those stabilizers is to keep the camera level as well, and this is often working against macro uses. One perspective may require a certain camera angle, looking down slightly on the subject, but shifting lower means a different angle, shooting more level, and thus adjusting the hanging monopod so you’re not now trying to hold its weight at an angle.
Both elbows braced on knees – steady but flexible
There are mini tripods, and sandbags, that can help with ground-level shots;
in my experience, the situations where they help is so limited that carrying them around to have them handy is more cumbersome than doing without, but your mileage may vary. So what often happens is that I find various ways to add in a little stability however I can. I have braced against my own crossed legs, my fist propped on the ground underneath the camera, the camera bag, trees, poles, rocks, chairs – anything handy. When it comes to macro work, a small folding chair or camp stool can provide more than a tripod by giving the photographer
a stable platform while allowing the freedom of framing and position. Odd but true.
In some cases, I have actually timed my infinitesimal swaying or shifting to trip the shutter right as the camera reached prime focus distance – I can’t recommend this as a regular practice, but it’s worked for me (I also tend to shoot several frames in such conditions because of the chance of missing – hoping, sometimes in vain, that at least one will be ideal.) The same technique sometimes works for subjects moving in a breeze, the arch-enemy of macro shooters. I have also used a tripod as a brace for my body to lean against, but this is hazardous – most tripods are not made for this kind of weight, and aren’t very comfortable anyway. The purpose it serves is to give just a little resistance, and to make the movement in your position very easy to feel, and thus counteract.
So am I advocating that you go without a tripod? Not at all – there are plenty of places where they do provide enormous benefit. See those rules up there again – use them wherever they work. But also get used to the idea that, in some situations, they may be inordinately cumbersome or detrimental, and you’ll have to find some other method of keeping the images sharp. The image at the top of this post would never have been obtained if I’d been convinced a tripod was the only way to go; aside from the subjects flying off before I could have set one up, there was no way I could erect one up against the chainlnk fence to get that perspective, and the framing that I liked required a very specific position.
And of course, all of these are my own tricks – every photographer develops their own, often geared towards their own particular style and approaches. Try anything, and look around to see what others are doing. While there’s some useful (and often expensive) equipment out there to make your pursuits easier, I’ve found that the new designs tend to lag behind the necessity, and have quite often rigged my own solutions because the ‘professional’ avenues didn’t yet address those problems. Sometimes you’re on your own.
NOTE: This post was in largely finalized form when I got the photos for the animated gif two posts back, and so I shot a few frames of the tripod position that I used. The center column (which is removable and doubles as a monopod) was reversed to put the camera down low, and the variable leg spread allowed me to use the edge of the porch as part of the support. The TC-80N3 timer remote was draped over the camera and can mostly be seen by its dangling shadow. The camera was covered with a shirt for heat and bomb protection except during the frames taken for this illustration. Despite this position, the tripod still managed to twitch a bit, as can be told by looking closely at the gif. It’s also apparent how little is really growing right now – the dark mass at the top is is one of the azalea bushes that featured in, like, 99% of my images from last year.
But I’d hoped.
I recently picked up a tablet PC to use for photography students and presentations, and of course I needed a case of some kind for it. While shopping around, I discovered that Walmart could do a custom case with my own photo printed on it, for not a whole lot more money than I’d pay for a plain case. I figured this would be a nice way to extend my ‘branding,’ having a snazzy custom logo image on my tablet sleeve, and so I ordered it.
Now, as your eyes are rolling and you’re muttering derisively under your breath, let me explain. The county I live in within North Carolina has just one department store, and that’s Walmart. The whole county. North Carolina is known for resisting any kind of progress – there’s even a magazine dedicated to glorifying the rustic (pronounced “BAK-ward”) areas of the state, which is most of it, and Orange County is especially known for fighting tooth (just one) and nail against any kind of development. Unless you’re looking at the university, you can also forget about jobs here. So, I’m resigned to shopping at Walmart, and in the past have gotten some stuff printed through them. When I provide gift certificates for photo lessons, Walmart was the only place that would print a card with my own image that a) did not charge ridiculous rates, and b) did not take three to five weeks to get them out – no one contacts me with that kind of lead time in mind. And yes, the area is also lacking in photo labs, only it extends across three counties.
What I received when the order arrived yesterday, to no one’s surprise, was absolute shit. The print was cropped ridiculously (and unnecessarily) on the tablet case, despite being the exact dimensions they called for, and had some pointless shadow borders on three sides – evidence, I think, of someone not knowing how to run the multipass printing process, but what it looked like was a clogged inkjet printer. The image was even badly aligned on the case. I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of it before returning it, just to show how incompetent it looked. I took printing back in high school, and this kind of work would have earned me a failing grade, even as my first project – it’s obvious nothing even remotely resembling quality control is in place in their department.
So, let me make this clear: DO NOT ORDER CUSTOM PRINTED STUFF FROM WALMART. You get even less than you pay for (I didn’t even get refunded shipping.) I learned my lesson, probably should’ve long ago but when you’re in the boonies you do what you can, so I’m hoping I can prevent someone else from making the same mistake. Meanwhile, I have switched sources for all of my printing work now – just not worth the risk. Once again: WALMART’S PHOTO DEPARTMENT IS INCOMPETENT. This isn’t a big billboard as far as internet information goes, but I do what I can.
Okay, back to more relevant stuff.
This is the result of my little experiment, one that I’ve wanted to try for years now and never got around to, despite having the gizmo I needed. It needs work, but not bad for a first time.
Okay, more or less first. I’ve done this with a lunar eclipse some years back now, but this is the first for a plant subject. You’ve seen these before, and better too – for instance, without the tripod leg shadow tracking across the subject.
The crocuses planted by The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog are an ideal subject, opening each morning and in a sheltered spot away from the wind, also close enough to the house that I wasn’t worried about the camera being stolen. I went with a very stable tripod position, and the key ingredient was a Canon TC-80N3 interval remote release, often called an intervalometer. It’s a microcomputer-controlled remote that can be programmed for lots of specific settings, in this case a single frame every seven minutes. Normally the camera would shut itself off in four – I remembered to reset that for my purposes here.
Aside from having to deal with that leg shadow, there are a couple of other things I will change next time. The camera was covered with a shirt to prevent it from getting too hot in the sun, as well as thwarting any incontinent birds, and this started slipping later in the sequence – you can see it start peeking in at the upper left corner, and one frame was deleted because the shirt had covered most of the lens. I was worried that the light was getting brighter as the sun got higher and reduced exposure by 1/3 of a stop twice, but probably shouldn’t have bothered – it’s certainly noticeable at the end. And I should have started just a bit sooner.
What’s really cool, however, is how the flowers start to close again as the shadow passes. Many flowers simply open once and have done with it – I’ve certainly noticed this while night shooting to chase nocturnal insects and thwart the breezes that hamper macro work. Crocuses are one variety that open in full sunlight and close every night, so a sequence of 20 frames can be captured in a couple of hours. Also note how the dead leaves at upper right, and some at lower left, crumple visibly as it goes – I had cleared some of the surroundings and these were likely losing the moisture they’d retained under the greater cover of their brethren. More attempts will be along someday, when we get nice sunlight and adequate temperatures again – I might try it with mushrooms too. The seven minute gap was actually a pretty good choice for the flowers.
I also took a trip down to Duke Gardens, though it’s still too early in the year to find a wide variety of subjects. Above, the curious blooms of a ‘Snow Cream’ paperbush (Edgeworthia papyrifera) provide a counterpoint to the crocus flowers, shielding themselves from the sun and demonstrating why a nature photographer should always be ready for a different perspective – from a normal vantage these were dull white mounds without any detail, and only from underneath did the flowers really appear.
But the cherry trees are in full bloom, always among the first to spring up like the hands of those smug kids in school (at times I was one of them, though you’ll never catch me admitting it now.) They would have been a little nicer with lower contrast conditions, but that would likely have taken the blue from the sky unless I got really lucky with a solitary passing cloud, so I’ll keep this for now. And as a note along the compositional lines, the presence of the other blossoms in the background, and the short depth-of-field that rendered them pastel blobs, was intentional; though I wanted the focus on a solitary bloom, framing it all by itself not only gives a lonely feel, it’s entirely counter to how the trees grow. Including the clusters behind, even completely out of focus, gives a more appropriate impression – since the colors match, the viewer automatically considers them all together.
And below, a female hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) noticed the camera pointing at her and provided her sexy look, the tramp. The male nearby, attempting to snooze, was keeping to the shadows while turning slow circles in the water, and none of the images I captured, handheld with a long lens, were really worth posting – it’s a shame, since this is peak plumage season for birds and the males have the best coloration. We’ll have to see what I can do to correct this soon.
Once again I’m denying that I painted myself into a corner by choosing the “But how?” tag for posts of this nature, though it worked so well for a while. Pretend it’s anything you want it to be, however, since we’re going to ignore it and tackle a frequent lament to atheists everywhere, which is, But you haven’t considered sophisticated theology.
If you ask me what comprises ‘sophisticated’ theology, I’ll have to admit I have no idea – there is no real definition available, it’s just the argument that is often brought up when the most common aspects of religion, the ones used by virtually every religious person daily, haven’t been standing up to critical examination. If we take the more apparent traits of the theological tomes and papers considered sophisticated, we’d settle on it meaning either “circumlocution” or “obfuscation,” (I prefer “logorrheic” myself,) and I really do believe this is one of the prime reasons underlying their selection; it means rebutting them may take a while, which is likely to be avoided, but even if it isn’t, it’s a way to make someone spend a lot of time on the task. But let’s not be unfair – some people really are impressed by examples of dense philosophical pondering without realizing that philosophy is capable of going absolutely nowhere, while others never even read it, simply figuring that so many words in support of their case must be conclusive.
There are two things that I will note right up front. The first is that the argument that nobody has answered any given theological principle is usually misdirection; only a tiny percentage of any religious folk are familiar with more than rudimentary theology themselves, much less having used it to form their belief system. It’s an interesting side argument: is religion about some abstract line of reasoning, or is it what people believe in and why? Rebutting any theological argument really doesn’t make much difference to anyone’s belief, but unfortunately, if it’s avoided, that’s considered a win for religion, having presented an argument that cannot be trashed.
The second thing is that theology is not even remotely a science, and barely a philosophy. It consists, to a vast extent, of trying to find ways to support a foregone conclusion: god exists. You may think this is being either unfair or selective, but that’s what this post is going to illustrate.
A significant part of theology is establishing that a creator might be possible, and if so, then the concept is worthy of consideration. From a scientific standpoint, this is putting the cart before the horse; a more important question is, what makes anyone propose a god or creator in the first place? This highlights the foregone conclusion part, since one could easily argue that a periodic fluctuation in physical laws might be possible, or a extra-dimensional leak of material – speculation is limited only by imagination, and it’s not really deep thought to take that speculation and then try to find ways to support the idea. Draw the right analogy, and virtually anything can seem to make sense. Instead, we typically look for things that are supported by evidence rather than speculation, and even speculation (in the form of the theoretical sciences) needs to be buttressed by something that it predicts or explains. For instance, if there was a periodic fluctuation, would this mean that gravity could be found to be in a state of flux, increasing or decreasing by a measurable amount as it goes through its cycle?
Another glaring failure of sophisticated theology is that most of the arguments have nothing whatsoever to do with the gods that anyone believes in, nor establishes any property that could be of any use. The ontological argument, for example, argues for a perfect being, but how does this tie in with the being that anyone worships? Does a perfect being answer prayers, or even care what happens to the human race, as imperfect as we are? Right here is where religious folk leap up and avow the caring of the creator, usually by our bare existence, but notice how haphazard it is – how many areas of the world seem to receive none of this, the question of how perfection could have anything to do with judgment or torment, how many badly mistaken people (every competing, contradictory religious standpoint) somehow remain untouched by this perfection, leading one to wonder just how badly the definition of perfection can be mangled to make it work for sophisticated theology. If we have to resort to poor philosophical arguments to establish a likelihood of a perfect being, isn’t that by itself a demonstration of imperfection? Perfection shouldn’t be able to be mistaken in any way, by its very nature.
Sophistry refers to explanations that seem logical or rational, but actually fail to make sense, and this appears quite often within theology, and to no small extent in philosophy as well. It’s easy to posit factors such as, “Everything must have a beginning,” (or “cause” if you prefer,) and we feel this makes perfect sense. But there’s nothing that proves this at all, and in fact, matter can become energy and vice versa, but we see the beginning of nothing at all – just changes in state. Such arguments are influenced more from the perspective of humans, beings with finite lifespans, and even that can degrade into examinations of what life actually is and how we define consciousness. Not to mention that, if everything much have a cause, then we must have infinite causes going back forever, or posit an initial cause at some point in the past. To say that an uncaused, eternal being is the cause is to demonstrate that this really isn’t a rule at all, and if the being can exist forever, why not matter? Essentially, what’s being proposed is a very specific state of affairs – that there’s a fundamental law of the universe that proves the existence of a being who’s exempt from that very law – without demonstrating that either condition exists.
The nature of science is to establish that not only is a proposed scenario/trait/law likely, any other possible scenario is ruled out at the same time; not just an explanation, but the only one that fits. Theology makes no such efforts; the argument above (known as the cosmological argument) fails to rule out that all proposed traits therein can simply not exist and the exact same results can be achieved. The idea of a sensus divinitatus, an actual biological input like smell or touch that allows humans to pick up some inkling of the divine, is almost alone in theology in that it is actually based on a bare scrap of evidence: that most cultures around the world have developed some form of religion. The rot sets in when you attempt to get any more refined than the broad term “religion,” since none of these cultures agree on what is being sensed in any detail, unable to even pin down the number of divine beings. Meanwhile, the concept of agency has been carefully examined within the sciences and can even be seen in other species. It’s not hard to create an explanation for anything; the real skill (and value) comes in determining that it’s accurate and even useful.
It is worth noting here that the value of a logical argument for religion is rather haphazardly wielded. While considered important for sophisticated theology, which is used by adherents as needed to reinforce their position, most religious practices and the scriptural stories they’re based upon are so far removed from logic that it’s ludicrous. Original sin, worldwide floods, reincarnation cycles, and in fact, any trial or test of mankind by a creator not only defy logic, they defy any explanation whatsoever, and are maintained solely by assertion and claims of divine mystery. To conflate any theological concept with the religions practiced the world over shows that no consistent standards are being maintained in the slightest.
To go just a wee bit deeper into the philosophical end of it, we must realize that even logic is not the property we assume. It is limited by our own knowledge and experience, and in fact, that’s really all it is: observation leads to inferred property, which may be extrapolated into physical law or overall truth. But in the absence of adequate information, logic can and does fall flat. The history of science has countless examples of logical, perfectly sound explanations that were later found to be completely wrong – we simply did not have enough information to go on, or no previous experience with the effect, so even a logical argument is not proof of anything; this isn’t mathematics. While here, I’ll address the argument that religious folk have used against science: that it changes so often, which certainly makes it sound unstable. But science is not the properties of the universe, it is the pursuit of understanding them. Knowledge, of course, must progress, unless one possesses omniscience, in which case one would hardly need an argument to make a point. Meanwhile, contrast this all against religions where no information, and few predictions, are ever developed in the first place, and in order to make the premises work, mystical, untouchable, unknowable realms are wielded with great confidence. It is easy to say that beyond the Andromeda Galaxy sits a golden chariot, and this assertion will never be proven wrong if we never get that far – that’s considered pretty solid in religious circles. But it’s never proven right either, which is the minimum standard of any science. While the religious may find satisfaction in vague wordplay such as claiming that a creator lives ‘outside’ of any place we could see or find, happy that the definition precludes any further demonstrations, the rules change whenever anyone dares to say, “There is no god.” Abruptly, being unable to prove this wrong is no longer a solid argument; protests against making such a definitive statement, and cries that logic has been violated, are issued immediately. Yet theology is nothing more than making such definitive statements.
[I'm going to backtrack slightly to throw out two curious side observations here about the "science changes but religion always remains the same" argument. First off, there isn't a religion on earth that hasn't changed drastically, much less lacks countless devoted adherents who cannot agree on what, exactly, isn't changing - I can walk less than ten minutes in any direction from where I sit now and find churches for six different interpretations of christianity alone. Second, science does indeed have some unchanging concepts, known as the laws of physics - it is precisely these that the religious deny are laws in the first place, circumvented by a creator and a realm of afterlife and countless other ideas. It doesn't appear as if "unchanging" is as important a trait as claimed...]
Very often, a prime criteria of any theological concept is its compatibility, either with an existing religious belief or currently understood science, or both – this is especially true of the cosmological argument. But this really isn’t much of a hurdle – I could spit out a dozen nonsense theories in a half hour that could accomplish both, but this would not make them likely in any way, or anything more than creative imagination. Note that few, if any, theological concepts have to be compatible with each other, and this raises an interesting perspective. It’s easy to find protests that science has not considered the so-and-so principle, and this is taken to mean that the principle is capable of universal acceptance by everyone except those stubborn scientists. But the protest never involves whether hindus or buddhists consider it; the difference of opinion among various religions is not somehow considered important enough to merit the attention. I’ve made the point that a sound theological principle should easily be accepted by all of those who already feel that religion is important; that seems to me to be the first goal one would want to reach. If it’s true that theology is intended as explanatory, this would be a minimum standard; instead we have the search for places to hide supernaturality, itself a concept that relies on inexplicability.
This highlights the incredibly vague definition of religion in the first place, and this also makes sophisticated theology a questionable pursuit. Wouldn’t one, firm definition be a reasonable start? If we allow for the devout, personal savior attitude of christianity, and the deity-free precepts of buddhism, and the multiple deities of hinduism, and world-consciousness and karmic cycles and all of the others… what, exactly, are theologians even trying to establish? What’s the common denominator, what principle should we all be agreeing on? Most of the world’s religions have to be wrong in the details – there’s too much contradiction, extending even to local sects – so what value is theology supposed to bring? If we cannot even establish that major practices are correct or delusional, instead aiming only for the indulgence of all of them, why should anyone care? People can be right no matter what the hell they believe? You’ll pardon me if I cannot find the sophistication that this embodies.
And finally, there’s the remarkably inane concept that reality is established by popularity, or even by argument. This is no more sophisticated than blind assertion, and no more useful. Even if everyone in the world became convinced by some theological argument (good luck with that,) it wouldn’t mean that anything had been established other than convincing humans of something, which isn’t a huge accomplishment; we’re a species that believes a celebrity endorsement indicates the value of a product. For there to be any value whatsoever to theology, beyond the self-absorbed justification of existing belief, it should be capable of providing something that we can use to our benefit. It should not simply allow a belief system, but be able to explain, or predict, or even improve something in our lives – these are minimum standards of science, so religion should be able to meet these criteria handily. Yet, the value of any of the major theological arguments remains to be seen, especially since, as noted earlier, the vast majority of those who embrace religion cannot even relate the prime theological arguments.
That was all part one. Part two is why theology even exists. We, as a species, look for cause-and-effect, driven to understand how things work and why. More than a few people have put forth that science handles the how, but theology handles the why – except, it really doesn’t, does it? We only get answers like “god’s will” and “we’re not meant to comprehend,” which is a shitass version of why, if you’ll pardon my pointing this out.
Even worse for theology, however, is a very basic trait that science has revealed: we’re a species prone to seeing agency, or a specific, motivated, aimed explanation behind how things work. Not every time, no – prone does not mean perpetually – but we’re remarkably bad at personifying inanimate objects and random events, even finding order or patterns where none exists. This is demonstrated constantly in how badly people mangle statistics and odds, believing a change is “due” or a pattern of bad luck has to change. On top of this, we’re woefully biased towards human ways of thinking, to the point where we believe animals think like we do and that alien species will be able to communicate with us. All of these traits make it very easy for us to expect some form of guiding intelligence behind the universe; it just seems right. But it seems right because we evolved to think in anthropocentric ways.
We are one of many social animals, species that derive a benefit from a cooperative existence, and that sociability is provoked by the good feelings we receive from positive interactions, and the bad feelings from negative ones. An attractive stranger smiles at us and we’re pleased. We watch people’s eyes, we read their emotions through body language and tone of voice; many species do this. Some of us go so far as to believe trees strive for light and growth, and dolphins enjoy our companionship. Neither can charitably be considered the case; there’s no evidence whatsoever that this is true. We’re just biased in those directions, formed by nature to favor the explanations that feed the social instinct. The entire field of theology can easily be seen to be an extension of this, seeking explanations that provide a beneficent, kindred spirit. This is, in fact, the only thing that theology provides, since it explains nothing, predicts nothing, and is evidenced by nothing. It cannot be tested or falsified, and subverts the simple logical formula If A, then B – there is no B, unless it’s, “I’m happy.” This really isn’t a result that can lead anyplace, nor a reason to consider it a valid pursuit.
This ties in well with the certainty, mentioned above, that unprovable, indemonstrable supernatural traits exist – there can, of course, be no certainty of any such thing, unless we mangle the word to lose all meaning whatsoever. But there can be a desire for such conditions; affirmations of self-importance, or a beneficent overseer, or that we will ultimately be found to be good and thus rewarded. While it is frequently argued that having such emotions is indicative of higher meaning, we’re a species capable of extraordinary feats of denial in service to our egos and desires – this is easily seen in political arguments, and everyone wrapped in a bad relationship, gambling and addictions, justifying purchases, and even our diets. It’s hard to imagine something more ubiquitous, really. No one ever has confidence in a belief that is not self-affirming; the argument that faith is a path to Truth™ never recognizes the bare fact that most of the world does not agree on what this truth is. We should fully expect that there should be one world faith, and no religious conflict of any kind.
We come back to how sophisticated is defined. One might certainly think that human traits that can be studied and measured, that have analogs in other species, that are specific to the survival trials we face and can be shaped by natural selection as much as the unique behaviors of many other animal species, should be considered a hell of a lot more sophisticated than a collection of vague philosophical word games. That chemical and energy processes which can not only trace backwards 13.8 billion years to a period of utter simplicity, but also explain and predict the processes we can measure as far as light will carry, and allows us to manipulate atoms themselves and form computing systems based solely on varying resistance, could potentially earn the title of sophisticated more appropriately than explanations that can be interpreted at will. That taking speculation one step further, ignoring trust and instead considering predictable, dependable results to be paramount, which has led to the vast majority of advances mankind has achieved in medicine, engineering, manufacturing, energy, travel, [insert everything science has ever accomplished in here] – that this reliance on solid progress might, just might mind you, be considered somehow more sophisticated than justifying a foregone conclusion. Given all of this, it seems the label of ‘sophisticated’ isn’t really a comparative adjective, but a judgmental one – the frustrated insistence of the religious that their belief is impressive, rather than self-absorbed. This doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to take it seriously.
So, I was skimming through my music collection tonight, and realized that more people should know about this song. Thus, I’m using the awesome power of this blog to reach untold thousands of readers (before I have to head out to collect my Pulitzer of course…)
Yes, this is music from the eighties. Yes, this is Duran Duran – bear with me. The album Rio presented some curious, moody pieces that departed from the style that most people associate with the band, never released as singles in the US. One of those is ‘Save a Prayer,’ which was released in the UK and made it all the way up number 2 on the UK Singles Chart, so how it never got play here I cannot say. Definitely a very strong song in itself, with dynamic vocals against a keyboard-heavy blend of music.
About a decade later, however, it was produced as ‘The Thunder in Our Hearts’ remix by Steve Anderson and released by DMC, introducing a new almost-dance beat while still retaining the breezy mood of the original. It’s not really clubby in my opinion, even though the basic elements are there, but it’s become even richer with added harmonics and subtleties.
Now, there’s always a problem with musical taste, and that’s perspective. Aside from the influence of what anyone has grown up with, which is reputed to dictate their tastes, it also depends on what order one experiences the songs, so I’m taking a chance here with anyone that is not familiar with the original version. It’s just music though, so if you don’t like it, oh well.
I would link to the video, but the only official version is for the original release of the song, and what exists for this remixed version are remixes of that video, not very well done, or just a still image of the 12″ vinyl itself. So, only audio this time.
(If you’re curious about why I would feature a song of this title with all the other content on this blog, that last line might have helped a little, but actually I don’t care too much when the music’s solid. If you think about it though, the lyrics also imply that, come the next morning, the prayer might seem hypocritical. This may be intentional – Simon Le Bon is a self-described “concerned agnostic.”)
The original song and video can be found here, from a familiar director – this was among the first of the ‘exotic locale’ videos in the early days of the medium, and shows some nice visuals from Sri Lanka, as well as the painfully inappropriate white Crockettubbs jackets and a mercifully brief pan pipe sequence.
If you handled that video, there’s also ‘Night Boat‘ – a bit too much pretty-boy stuff, but remember, this was in the days of the hair bands, and pretty tame in comparison. I can appreciate the approach to camera angle, though…
A nice big pic to brighten your day. You know I’m gonna be back to bugs as soon as they’re around, so enjoy this while you can.
The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog had planted a bunch of bulbs late last year, and the first indications of them were already up in January. This crocus had bloomed out nicely, then the storms came and it vanished under 10cm of snow. I had checked as the melt arrived, hoping to get a shot of it peeking out of the remnants if it wasn’t totally obliterated, but didn’t see anything – then found the bloom defiantly open this morning. The damage to the petals is probably just from the cold, and not evidence of a hardy insect like I’d first suspected.
That’s not the only flower out, either, though there are considerably fewer than last year.
There are just a few limited appearances of the winter speedwell (also called bird’s eye speedwell, Veronica persica) right now, and none of their companions. I purposefully went with a wide-open aperture, in this case f4 on the Mamiya 80mm macro with extension, to create this faintly surreal effect. I looked for blooms near any remaining patch of snow, to indicate the conditions a little better, but found none that cooperative.
I also did some frames with a smaller aperture for more depth-of-field, so you can decide which you like better.
As always during the winter, this is using the sparse color to magnified effect – you can still see the browns that cannot be denied in the background. I crawl around at ground level finding the vibrant stuff so you don’t have to – think of that come christmastime ;-).
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