Don’t mind the gaps

Yeah, it’s been too long since the last post, I’ll admit it. There are various reasons, but you know what? It’s a blog – it’s not a job, or any kind of obligation except for how I view it myself (and obviously, I haven’t felt too obligated.) If there are no photos that I think pass muster, and no topics I feel I can tackle decently, then why put something up just for the sake of some self-imposed schedule? There are a lot of writers who find themselves obligated to produce something, and very often, the results don’t compare to their previous work. I’ve never liked that kind of thing.

That said, there is another post in the works, which may appear quite quickly, or may not – there is a potential long interruption looming. There are also several drafts that I’ve been kicking around for ages that I may finish up as well. More will appear, sooner or later. I’m still here, just not posting as much right now.

Some days ago, Why Evolution Is True featured a video and other content by Matthew Inman, otherwise known as The Oatmeal. While I’ve had no problem linking to The Oatmeal in the past, I’m linking to WEIT this time because there’s a bunch of additional content therein. The main bit is a video, poignant in the manner only elaborate sarcasm can accomplish, and if you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’m behind this 100%. But then there’s a following exchange that is featured, which is also quite entertaining. So check it out.

It also, I might add, ties in nicely with the other post in the works, which means I have a bit of a theme going. That’s clarss, that is. Lit’riture.

During my absence from posting, I’ve been working on various projects, a few of them photographic, many of them not turning out the way they were intended. This is no big deal; that’s how you learn, right? But some of them might eventually make it here, and there remains a few arthropod pics I could toss up, but really, I’ve been trying not to get into a rut with those, which is another reason for the scarcity of posts. Mostly, it’s been the scarcity of subjects, which is typical winter conditions, and partially due to the sinuses not being kind to me this fall.

[As I type this, there is bread in the oven and a timer ticking on my desk, which I find to be a serious hindrance to concentration – most background noise is, and I rarely even have music on, much less a TV, but ticking seems especially obnoxious.]

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of my casual photo projects, a holiday tree ornament with the fireplace crackling in the background. It’s easy to consider something like this a simple shot to capture – until you try it. It’s mostly ambient light, which means a long exposure – that translates to tripod and a completely motionless ornament, which is hard to do with something dangling from a string, light enough to be stirred by air currents, suspended from a bouncy branch of a tree standing on a wood floor. I eventually stabilized it by rehanging the ornament to sit atop another branch. It took a little playing around to get the angle that worked best for such a narrow field of view; the tripod was crammed into a corner, barely allowing me room to see through the viewfinder. I had to cut down the fire in the background (it’s gas, so that was easier, at least) because the flames were high enough to get cut off by the top of the fireplace, giving them a curious flat-topped appearance. To give a little more sparkle and definition, the ornament and the branches have some additional illumination from an LED flashlight held off to the left – it took a few exposures to determine how long to do this for; the entire exposure was too much. And with all that, I missed having the little red bow facing front and center.

holiday ornaments on tree, fireplace in background
So, yeah. Happy holidays.

Humans overboard, part two

This was originally intended to be part of the previous chapter, but it probably deserves its own post, plus that last one was getting kind of long.

I suspect most people would classify me as an animal lover, or at least leaning heavily in that direction. And on occasion, I have run into a shocked response when it is found that I am not a vegetarian or vegan. My reply to this has been to tap my teeth and point out that these are the teeth of an omnivore, developed over literally millions of years of evolution, which is certainly true. And usually, my questioner ignores this and switches to the idea that my diet is unethical. No one, as yet, has stuck around to hear all the reasons why this doesn’t work, so I decided to enumerate them in toto here, because that’s what a blog’s for…

First off, let’s go back a step and look in detail at that factor which is so quickly glossed over. The dentition that we possess has been present, with little change, throughout the entire hominid line and even further back, and is still possessed by most of the primate kingdom as well. While we cannot offer any opinion on what is meant to be, since nothing is intended in evolution, what our bodies have developed to handle is a widely-varied diet that includes animal proteins. Our brains need a lot of protein to develop, and it just isn’t available (and appears never to have been) from the plant kingdom. Even now, with the emphasis on vegetarianism, it takes factory farming to produce enough concentrated proteins to satisfy this alternative diet – the development of subsistence farming some ten to twenty thousand years ago (itself a tiny fraction of our developmental span) wasn’t enough to meet these demands. Vegetarianism has only been possible in the last relative minute or so of our existence. Indeed, there were a few nearly-vegetarian hominids, inasmuch as we can tell from their teeth and jaws – and they didn’t last long, and had much smaller brains as well. What lasted was us, and we very likely did so because we ate meat (among countless other factors.)

True enough, now we have a choice, and in no way should this post be considered an effort to tell anyone what this choice should be – but it will serve as a counterpoint to the attempts, so often seen, of others to do the same. Let’s tackle that unethical standpoint now.

Life on this planet is a wide-scale competition for resources, and nearly all of these resources are actually other life – this holds true from the bacterial level all the way up to the largest species on our planet. A very wide number of species would not exist at all if it weren’t for the concentrated sustenance obtained from the lives of other animals. Ignoring this doesn’t make it go away; life often comes at the expense of others. And here’s where I have a little fun with perspective, because that very sentence can be considered distasteful, solely from its phrasing, especially with the word “expense.” If you prefer, life can also be considered an ongoing process relying on the interactions of all species – to the best of my knowledge, about the only species on this planet that can survive on their own without any others are things like algae, and even then it’s not clear that some of their sustenance isn’t altered by other life forms. This is what defines an ecosystem.

We have two rather distinctive, and quite strong, evolved behaviors that impact this topic significantly. The first is our fear of dying, which certainly has its usefulness. It should be noted, however, that it is an emergent property, a trait that survived because it was the most effective in passing on to offspring – if we feared death, we tended to avoid it long enough to have kids, and that’s pretty much what evolution will produce; obviously, the opposite is not an effective formula. Yet this fear of death is somewhat ironic, in that death is inevitable – it’s all for naught. Well, not exactly, because it does help us produce offspring, but it becomes clear that it’s a desire that cannot be fully satisfied.

The second behavior is the peculiar one of our empathy; even when we cannot feel pain, when we have no direct impact from the plight of others, we still feel a certain level of distress when others are suffering. This is a trait that helped foster our status as a cooperative species, in that our well-being did not merely involve ourselves, but certainly the family, and often the whole tribe (from an evolutionary standpoint, the distinction between these two is muddy, actually.) Most especially, we have a lot of empathy for the young, which makes perfect sense, since we have babies that are ridiculously helpless for years – if we didn’t stick around to help them out, our species would die out quickly. But curiously, this trait is also remarkably unspecific, and has been linked by studies to simple visual cues like bigger eyes in relation to the size of the head, and a bigger head in relation to the rest of the body – traits that our young have, but many other species have as well. Thus, we can get almost as protective over certain other species as we can over our own young, even though this serves no apparent purpose whatsoever, and cannot be rationally supported – evolution produces a working model, not necessarily the most efficient or specific one. It’s a reaction, not a planned action. It also varies in its affect on everyone – not everyone feels it as strongly as others. This might even be evolution at work, those behavioral variations that spring up, the most effective of which will eventually gain selective prominence throughout our species.

[The counterpoint to empathy is that we can also be remarkably aggressive, primarily in response to threat, and to a large extent this also links to appearance – species that merely look mean to us garner far less empathy. Pandas, with their huge eye spots and baby-like bodies, get thousands of times more endangered-species attention than any reptile out there, and this has nothing to do with the level of threat of extinction. And before anyone remarks about non-predatory diets, bear in mind that dolphins are notoriously carnivorous and predatory – just as much as tuna. Why save dolphins and not tuna? Because they fucking smile at us. Seriously, we really are this superficial as a species.]

Now, neither of these has anything to do with ethics. Ethics is about effective interaction within our own species; this is the only purpose it can serve, because we’re going to see no reciprocation, no benefit, from extending this to anything else. Ethics revolves around cooperation, trust, and fairness – tribal benefits – and while it is an offshoot of the empathy that helps provoke our cooperative behavior, which actually keeps our species going, it is a more specific, involved concept than merely reaction. Any way that you look at it, however, it has no bearing on any other species at all. Thus, using the word “ethical” in relation to how we handle any other species isn’t applicable; all it does is demonstrate how the fundamental reaction of empathy gets mistaken for a reasoned response with some overriding purpose and importance. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to kill animals for food – and nothing right about it either. It is solely an emotional reaction.

The next argument is invariably the inhumane conditions of livestock farms. Once again, this stems from the idea that we shouldn’t be mean to animals, only because we feel bad about it. And that’s fine, really. But there are a tremendous number of factors that are missed in here. The first is, not all farms raise animals in inhumane conditions – you will note that every source of video and descriptions of conditions never manages to tally how many such farms there are, what percentage of them among all farms in this country (or any country,) nor even the range of conditions that exist – it is always presented as a given that “livestock” automatically means “stacked in boxes” or whatever. Apparently, none of these people have ever driven past the vast expanses of pasturage devoted to raising animals – or more likely, find that presenting that balanced perspective weakens their morally superior standpoint. And there appears to be an underlying assumption that animals “in the wild” lead carefree, healthy, unstressed existences – just saying that brings up the idea that this is ludicrous, doesn’t it? Wild animals sleep in ice storms, suffer from unbelievable numbers of parasitic and viral infections, and are routinely preyed upon by other wild animals. They compete over food sources and mating rights (on occasion to the point of serious injury,) get trapped by floods and killed by wildfire, and may spend large portions of their entire lives fleeing danger. They never receive any kind of medical attention, much less routine feedings, and death can come from starvation, exposure, and having their bowels ripped out. Sorry to be so graphic, but let’s maintain the perspective here, especially as a species where far too may of us earn a living in little boxes. Oh, wait, all of a sudden that’s not inhumane?

Within this, guided by our own fear of death, sits the idea that there is such a thing as a timely demise, or even an undeserved one. But death is not a bad thing, and to counteract our species’ peculiar emphasis on dichotomous thinking, it is not a good thing either – it just happens. Evolution is the process of selecting genes that help stave this off until after successful reproduction, and for many species, that’s just as far as it extends, death occurring almost immediately after bearing offspring. We cannot offer any opinion about not deserving death (or even absolving responsibility by ensuring it simply isn’t by our hands,) without, again, resorting to emotional arguments, because there is no logical argument that holds. And there is certainly no goal or achievement that we might be depriving any species of by ending their lives “too soon” (most especially when we maintain breeding programs that actually thwart most of the selective pressures that exist outside of our influence, and you will notice I did not say, “naturally” there, since we are as natural a species on this planet as any other.)

Now we come to ‘suffering’ as the primary argument, which is admittedly far more valid than ‘death.’ What is missed, far too often, is that if farm conditions are unacceptable, then change them. It’s not hard at all to campaign for higher standards for farming, and in fact, these have been accomplished numerous times. Not to mention that such an approach stands a far greater chance of also gaining the support of those who choose not to embrace vegetarianism or veganism. Unfortunately, that’s not really the point often enough – the point is to create some kind of moralistic high ground to sneer down from, a demarcation that separates the healthy, thoughtful (ahem) vegan from the groveling savages that eat meat. Yeah, that’s always been a useful approach, all throughout history…

And so we come to the idea that vegetarianism/veganism is healthier for us. Which actually hasn’t been established very well, and cannot – the assumption is made that, with every report of one kind of food or another producing some adverse effect, then the default must be avoiding any of those altogether, and subsiding on what our forebears ate. Except, as pointed out already, our forebears didn’t really have such diets. But first off, there have been few studies that show that vegetarianism or veganism really is healthier – these categories are far too broad to apply usefully, and it is remarkably easy to develop vitamin/mineral deficiencies while pursuing them. As mentioned in the previous post, what we need is a variety of proteins, carbohydrates, fibers, fats, and sugars – these are not necessarily provided by a vegetarian diet any better than by an omnivorous one, and probably takes significantly more effort to accomplish with the former. And yes, anything to excess can be unhealthy – this includes plant-based diets, since our systems are poorly equipped to handle large amounts of cellulose (ungulates have multiple stomachs to manage it.)

[A stupid side note, which I decided not to expand upon: a lot of the problem with ‘feedlots’ and farm conditions stems from meeting demand, which stems from a burgeoning population. Not only is this never addressed by vegetarians/vegans, part of the reason it even exists is our extended lifespans. The obvious solution is not to live longer, healthier lives…]

Back to our forebears. The vast majority of our species’ existence, and that of its progenitors, dealt with quite large degrees of bacterial and parasitic contamination, sustenance in varying degrees of spoilage, food sources in less-than-optimal growing conditions, and on and on – we would avoid with disgust probably 90-95% of what our ancestors ate. I mean, the huge spice trade of our recent history did not exist because of exotic culinary preparations, but to disguise the ratty and distasteful nature of so much of our food. Germ theory is even more recent, being less than two centuries old (and in fact, there are studies that indicate how our present germophobia might actually be detrimental to our immune systems.) And yet, our lifespans are the longest they’ve ever been. To think that any diet, in our age of refrigeration and health departments and food expiration dates, can possibly be considered unhealthy, in comparison to most of our past history, is laughable. Not to mention that there’s no such healthy/unhealthy divide, and you’ll note that even the minimum requirements from the FDA don’t list foods or even types, but just factors such as carbohydrates and minerals, and those are necessarily averaged out. It’s all a spectrum, some of which depends on our own individual physiology, yet undeniably quite broad. Demarcations are only in our imagination.

So, hopefully, we’ve established by now that diet is strictly an opinion, not very dependent on any kind of quantifiable superiority in any way – but if not, let me know and I’ll bring up some of the things I left off for brevity. Opinion is naturally personal, not only unbeholden to anyone else’s influence, but also a poor choice of rationales for any form of superior attitudes. We have a culture that has glorified health and diet to the point where somehow this is everyone’s concern, up to and including how people may be judged by their impact on our health care system. This is absolutely amazing when you come to think about it, because if we’re that concerned about health and costs, we should eradicate automobiles entirely, far and away the leading cause of hospitalization and death, as well as property damage, environmental pollution and destruction, and so on.

Pronouncing one’s moral high ground is simply asking for trouble, both (as noted above) from the standpoint that it’s never been a convincing attitude, but also when one encounters the type of person (ahem) who is willing to challenge it; no one is free from exploitable guilt trips. I mean, holy shit, you condone intolerable overseas labor practices for a phone to update Facebook statuses and take selfies?!? You not only brought another kid into this world, you let your pregnancy be paid for by insurance?!? Do you have any idea what the batteries in your hybrid car do to the environment?!?

Overall, however, it’s probably better to recognize what a personal opinion is, and if we expect deference towards our own, we should be extending it to others. Eat whatever you feel comfortable with, and do so while reading what you like, watching the movies you like, or listening to the music you like. If you feel so bad about yourself that you need to judge others as lesser beings because of any personal choices like these, perhaps it might be a hell of a lot more useful to improve yourself with your contributions to society in some way – everyone wins then, and without any self-importance. Just a suggestion…

No record this year

shamrock flower in late autumnLast year, I was making it a point to post more than I had any year earlier, and did indeed reach that mark, just a few days past this date last year. It is safe to say that I won’t be setting any records this year, since with this one I am 44 posts away, and I don’t see me knocking out, like, three posts a day from here on.

The move to a new house had a lot to do with this, as did the fewer subjects I was finding in the immediate vicinity. The cold snaps that hit the rest of the country have not avoided this area either, and they’ve served to render a lot of things dormant earlier than usual. One exception (I think, anyway – I wasn’t paying close attention last year to their behavior) has been The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog’s shamrock plants, which have bravely staggered through the frosts that decimated many of the other plants and are still, somehow, pushing out blooms, albeit rather weakly. There are more trees in this yard, and the dead leaves are a thick carpet that can only be cleared away for roughly two hours or so.

Finding subjects to shoot in these conditions has been rather challenging, and this holds especially true for sessions with students – not just the subjects themselves are scarce, but the background conditions, framing opportunities and contrasting colors and whatnot, are also harder to find. While I am more inclined to shoot little tableaux instead of wider landscape or scenic images anyway, right now there really isn’t much of a choice; thus, students are almost forced to adopt my style, ha ha!

So for the most part, I am engaged in winter and christmas projects, writing, and odds & ends around the house – nothing worth blogging about, though I suppose I could take a bunch of pictures of my food, and put on a wool cap (or “beanie,” whatever) and do selfies. Cast your vote in the comments…

oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia in autumn colorsBut I can put up a couple of images between long-winded posts, like this oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) found at the botanical garden. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in late fall, and I really like the effect – the leaves have a rich variety of colors, almost like those cheesy plastic fall decorations you can get at lame stores, only real and alive. I might have to look into planting some of these around here in the spring, since they seem to do well in shade. That’s kind of a prerequisite with this house, where large portions of the property get no direct sunlight, or little patches falling between trees that traverse the yard during the day (the patches, not the trees – those apparently only walk around when I’m not looking.) I have been making lists of plants that don’t need much sunlight to flesh out my vegetation options.

This year is virtually guaranteed to produce at least a couple of decent snowfalls here in NC, and I’ve got a few locations lined up which might prove interesting in such conditions, so we’ll see what happens. That’s the only thing I can tolerate about snow – I don’t do winter sports (or any kind,) don’t hunt, don’t ice-fish (or any kind,) and The Girlfriend and The Sprog don’t even want to get into snowball fights. The only thing I can say in favor is that this area is a lot safer for winter driving than the previous one; almost no hills, and roads which are likely to receive attention (what passes for it in NC, anyway) much sooner. There remains a possibility that I could have to go up to central New York at some point, not something to look forward to, and it’s unlikely that I’d have the time to shoot any scenic photos while there, either. That’s even if there was a proper snowfall during my visit, and not the typical grey skies over dirty, unmelting snow and plow icebergs that fill so much of my childhood winter memories. Floridians can get pretty snarky about the snowbirds (northern tourists) that visit during the winter months, but they don’t know what happens to your mood when you spend nineteen days out of every twenty with no sunlight. It’s not good.

[Floridians often have this big thing about being ‘native,’ rather than a transplant, and when someone says they’ve spent their whole life in Florida, it’s a matter of pride, and sometimes arrogance. It’s quite amusing, really.]

long-jawed orb weaver Tetragnatha on dead branches in still waterI’m continually impressed with the cold-weather hardiness of spiders. Last winter, I kept observing tiny green lynx spiders that would vanish with the snow and ice storms, only to reappear as soon as the stuff had melted. And while wandering around looking for pics recently, there were virtually no arthropods to be seen, even in the botanical garden (I spotted two, instead of the typical dozens,) but these branches clawing their way from a still pond sported a few very active long-jawed orb weavers (Tetragnatha.) There’s only one visible in this image, even if you think you see another – that’s just the reflection in the cooperatively placid water. And as tiny as it is in the pic, it’s hard to miss, isn’t it? Framing and contrast, framing and contrast…

I’ll keep looking for pics of interest (well, that I find interesting,) but I’m not expecting a whole lot now until spring. There’s still a zoo trip that may occur, and it’s been a while since I’ve been to the NC Museum of Life & Science, so perhaps I can get something in before the end of the year. We’ll see what happens, I guess.

Humans overboard, part one

I stumbled across an article recently that told of a potential new psychiatric disorder, orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Or to put it in more blunt (Al-like) terms, being too fucking neurotic over what one eats. Now, I’m among the first to believe the psychiatric professions can be over-exuberant in describing and diagnosing new disorders – the fields do not, and can not, produce the inarguable results and unmistakeable evidence that empirical fields such as archaeology can – and what even constitutes a ‘disorder’ is an area without delineations, all shades of grey. But I don’t really have a hard time believing this one, since I see the key elements of it on an almost-daily basis; this is especially telling since I’m an untrimmed beard away from being a hermit. Now, I don’t expect nor encourage anyone to take my word on anything here – in fact, I will state this right up front: go look this shit up for yourself. Get informed. But the functional part of this is seeking real info in the first place, not assuming that your knowledge is already complete, nor that your preferred sources of info are necessarily accurate. What I hope to do here is introduce some perspective to illustrate why this is even necessary.

A little background. My first job out of school was in a natural food store, one that my folks eventually purchased and ran for a while (though I quickly moved on to other things myself.) I had direct immersion into various aspects of the healthy food ‘experience,’ and plenty of contact with pretty much the entire spectrum of behavior and outlooks. And while I earlier credited a youth bible camp as fostering a lot of my current emphasis on critical-thinking, the time spent with people focused on, and downright obsessed with, the idea of healthy eating also bears a lot of the credit for my skepticism; the vast majority of information freely distributed in such circles ranges from misunderstanding of published scientific results to complete and utter fucking bullshit.

I can’t put all of the blame on the healthfood mavens, however, because a large part of it also stems from the human tendency to go overboard, as well as the ridiculous reliance on fads and trends. Two specific, timely examples: sugar and gluten.

Not long ago I found an article from a dietician who lamented that processed sugar is not a toxin, in any way, and he was extremely tired of having to repeat that. I could identify, because I’ve been reminding (or outright informing) people of this for decades. Processed sugar is almost entirely glucose and sucrose, which our bodies routinely use for their energy needs; they are, in point of fact, absolutely necessary for us to live, and processed sugar is among the most efficient ways of introducing these into the body, since the body needs expend virtually no effort in refining these molecules for introduction into the useful parts of the system. Sugar is not especially bad for the teeth; most of the enamel-destroying acids comes from starches, actually. And sugar is not especially fattening. Drinking a soda made with sugar will not automatically add fat to your system. The difficulty – the only difficulty – with processed sugar is that we like it, and can easily seek out foods with a lot of it. If we eat these foods to excess (key words here,) then we may put on more weight than is ideal. That’s it.

The ability to interpret those words correctly and without hyperbole is what mankind is rather inept at. Bare truth: taking the sugar out of soft drinks does not make them any healthier, or any less dangerous to us, by more than a tiny fraction, since they have so few dietary benefits in the first place. There are studies indicating that sugar substitutes actually produce worse effects on our system than the sugars would have. The primary thing to take away from this is very simple: don’t eat anything to excess, because there is no key ingredient that makes anything healthy or unhealthy.

I’ll use that cue to sidetrack slightly, and address the idea of toxins. While it’s not quite safe to say that toxins don’t exist – biologists use the word to describe elements that some species produce specifically to inflict on other species, in either defense or obtaining food – the idea that any substance we might encounter (outside of insects or reptiles) is toxic is, well, completely misunderstood. An article in National Geographic a few years back explained it quite simply: toxicity is not a matter of substance, but of dosage. Everything can be toxic if we receive enough of it – even water, even oxygen. But the dosages, and even the chemical bonds formed in certain circumstances, dictate how bad, or good, the effect on us is. Both chlorine and sodium are pretty nasty substances; exposure to either in concentrated and unaltered form can kill us very quickly. But sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt, is actually necessary for the functioning of our bodies. Excessive salt (mostly sodium) can lead to various reactions such as hypertension, which in the long run increases our chances of heart issues, and very excessive amounts will clog the kidneys and lead to death very quickly, which is why drinking seawater is bad. But there’s no way to consider either chlorine or sodium a “toxin” because they’re both necessary for our continued health.

And so we come back to gluten. Gluten is just a pair of proteins found in cereal grains – “true gluten” being found only in wheat, while similar protein combinations can be found in other grains. During bread formation, gluten binds the dough together in an elastic way, allowing for the stretching, Silly-Putty-like consistency of dough and the even distribution of small pockets of CO2, the by-product of yeast that makes all those little holes in bread. Without gluten, the CO2 production forms a big bubble in the dough, which tears easily and collapses, so producing rising bread with gluten is tricky. It is not a toxin, by any stretch, and the only hazard to gluten is if you have a specific intolerance, such as an allergy, to it. That’s it. There’s nothing else. No study has ever found an inherent problem with gluten within human systems overall, nor even very serious adverse effects. Extreme reactions can happen with severe allergies, but most people who even exhibit the intolerance get the horrifying health issue of an upset tummy from it. If you’ve eaten bread all your life without issue, feel free to continue to do so, despite the plethora of products and food preparers trumpeting their remarkable “gluten-free” properties.

This really is an important aspect of it all, though, and deserves a lot of attention. The majority of people don’t read studies. The majority of people don’t even look up “gluten” when they go on a gluten-free diet, much less get advised to do so by someone qualified, like a doctor or dietician. They hear the hype, they see the grocery stores carrying more and more products advertising their lack of gluten, and think, “Holy shit, if everyone is reacting to it, it must be really fucking bad for me!” And this is the drastic misunderstanding of hype and marketing that occurs constantly, because of course the more people who think (I feel bad using that word here) in this way, the more the food producers are going to jump on the bandwagon and heave out products that pander to knee-jerk consumerism. No federal source has mandated a reduction in gluten for any reason whatsoever; no study has determined that a reduction in gluten has any effect on our lifespans. The rising number of allergies (to lots of substances) which sparked a few companies producing gluten-free alternatives to pretzel-lovers snowballed, through blind consumerism, into this pathetically ignorant fad. Seriously, don’t believe me – I readily admit it sounds stupid, and not something that our technological species should have succumbed to – and look it up for yourself.

I have to insert a vital point in here, sparked by my attempts to find an article mentioned previously. Online research requires a little discretion, and the ability to spot when someone is vomiting up utter bullshit. Simple rule: if it’s in popular media, especially if it’s a YouTube video, accuracy is completely up for grabs, but likely drops below even a 50/50 chance. Actual scientific papers, the ones where people have to show their work and then it gets vetted by a large number of other people experienced within the field, is about as trustworthy as we can get – and even that has some issues. However, if your work is utter shit, you’ll never get published in scientific journals – but you can make a video or send some press release to whatever media outlet likes sensationalist stories, and never have to worry about whether facts are involved or not. And this happens quite frequently. If in doubt about your media source, do a search within on stories about UFOs or Bigfoot; a positive hit tells you accuracy and solid info is not their forté…

There is (at the very least here in the states, but I suspect throughout Europe as well) a strong emphasis on ‘healthy eating,’ which is a topic that’s as widely variable as it is hard to define – that right there is a significant clue. Once again, it has a lot to do with not understanding what recommendations really are, but owes no small credit to fear-mongering and blatant exaggeration (see above.) To begin with, let’s step back and examine what the goal is to eating healthy in the first place. Extended lifespan, and not dying young? Fair enough. The problem is, there’s no magic formula to accomplish this. First off, there are so many variables in human lives that no single element, not even a remarkably-restricted diet, is capable of accomplishing this. The healthiest diet ever presented, for whatever definition you choose to use there, cannot prevent us from getting cancer (much less being killed in an auto accident.) And the worst diet ever conceived, same criteria again, isn’t guaranteed to kill us within a few years or even decades. Health, aside from being very hard to define, relies on a ridiculous number of factors, diet being only one of them. When anyone thinks they’re quoting from a study that says that red meat, for instance, is bad for us, they’re usually not noticing that the study has found excessive consumption is correlated with increased tendencies toward a specific health issue, such as colon cancer. What this actually means is, it’s probably not a good idea to eat red meat at every meal. It does not say that red meat will give you cancer, much less that avoiding red meat will provide a cancer-free life. These distinctions might seem obvious, but it’s not hard at all to find people who have utterly failed to interpret these correctly.

Actually, it’s hard to find someone who has read the damn study in the first place – usually, they’re just parroting the interpretation of a study that they received from some source they trusted; perhaps some daytime talk show, maybe a health-food niche magazine, possibly ever something their friend said. As soon as any one of them makes any of the mistakes outlined above (or any other example thereof,) then we’re no longer dealing with real information at all. Naturally, such mistakes can be made at every repetition as well, so it takes very little time for real information to become tainted, twisted, or spun out of control.

Some of that is intentional, as well. Those who gain money from their own ‘healthy’ alternative foods have plenty of reason to promote the dire consequences of not buying their product, unsurprisingly, but even those who have nothing to gain can be remarkably exaggerative. Despite the fact that our lives are longer than ever now, and so many debilitating illnesses have all but vanished, we live in a culture where danger stalks us at every turn, from fluoride in our drinking water to high-tension power cables overhead. While it is true enough that the bran and germ portions of wheat, so often removed to make smoother, better-tasting flour, are more nutritive than the white endosperm, somehow this has been taken to mean that the skins of all vegetables are more nutritious, and that “processed food” has no redeeming value. Cooking does indeed break down a few beneficial vitamins, but what’s left behind is not a totally inert substance, much less something that is actively bad for our health. This bizarre fixation on binary thinking springs up a lot – if it’s not good for us, it’s bad; if it’s not healthy food, it’s unhealthy. This is obvious nonsense, but the attitude is pathetically quite common. There is no such thing as a ‘healthy’ food, and really, no supportable ability to even plot foods on a useful graph of health. Our bodies process all foods to extract that which is useful for us and discard the rest, and we discard every day. Moreover, everyone’s system is different in subtle, and sometimes overt, ways – I personally have developed sensitivities to peanut-butter and oregano, which makes them less-than-ideal for me (mostly due to adverse affects on my digestion, and not necessarily being harmful,) but these probably have no impact on you.

We can denote statistical averages for a lot of things, including primary diets and general longevity, or instances of some kind of cancer, but these are most often only tendencies, and not translatable to ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ in a functional manner. Moreover, such statistics cannot account for the countless variables that exist that may also be skewing the numbers, which include environment, genetics, and even just random variation. But we’re not a species that likes such vague results; we want to be able to apply a useful label to things just to avoid ambiguity. The attempt to do so, however, can just as often result in a label which is completely incorrect.

To say nothing whatsoever of seeing only the facts that we want to. Any of us can seek out and find studies that support our pre-existing viewpoint, that proves us right – even though we should be trying to find things that prove us wrong, just to see if they really exist. On top of that, we are (for some reason) infatuated with victimhood; if we feel bad, if we do not have the advantages that we believe we should have, it’s not our fault if we can find some element that caused it. This appears among far more topics than simply food. But hey, if we get a virus that knocks us down for a few days, it’s not simply a random occurrence or contact with someone infectious, but the fault of the food preparers who sacrificed our health for the sake of profits. There really is this idea that, were it not for outside influences, we would be in perfect health, as if such a thing actually existed. This is complete horseshit – not just the abstract concept of perfect health, but also that we are by default healthy. There is no equilibrium to be found, no ground state of being (despite all the averages we might calculate); life is constant change, and not just ours, but the myriad forms surrounding us as well. A virus may pop up that dodges our natural immune system, and we may take a few days to overcome it – that’s just how it goes. Some days, tension or air quality or all sorts of other factors might cause us to develop a headache – this cannot be taken to mean that we have done something wrong, or that we never would have had a headache if it weren’t for those damn fluorescent lights.

We cannot ignore the “more is better” attitude either. While it is almost certainly true that exercising is better than a sedentary lifestyle, this does not mean that conditioning for a marathon makes it even better – there are no superlatives, no absolutes, to be found. And the improvements, in most cases, probably amount to only a few percentage points, again, among the countless different factors encountered throughout our lives. We would consider it ironic that we get struck by a car and killed while pursuing our health, yet this is simply a demonstration that controlling our health is only partially within our grasp. There are many, many things we cannot change, or even account for, so fixating on any collection is next to meaningless.

We can also ask, again, what the goal truly is. An extended lifespan is a distinct possibility, but why, exactly, are we extending it? Is there some kind of record to set? Is there some reward that comes when we die? If we spend our lives obsessed with the effort of extending them, what are we accomplishing? Perhaps using the time we actually have to, you know, live our lives is something to consider? And probably makes us more entertaining at parties. I’m not going to espouse the idea of justified foolhardiness, but at the same time, I cannot espouse the idea of living in constant fear of the inevitable, either. Again, this isn’t a black-or-white decision – there’s a lot of middle ground.

The extent that this grips people is sometimes astonishing, as indicated by the potential new disorder mentioned in the opening paragraph. I’ve seen enough of this myself, and it’s also easy to find with some online searching, usually without even trying. For instance, this woman appears to live in constant fear of anything that a manufacturer might do, including thinking white glue will actually poison her children through casual skin contact (her demonstration of this, using one of the more potent natural oils, is hilarious. Hey, I cry while chopping onions – that means I’m absorbing onion juices through the knife blade, right?!?!) But if we buy into all of the fear-mongering, without ever asking ourselves if it even makes sense, that’s not a healthy approach either. Stress really can affect our health, much more so than white glue, than sugar, than bread; believing that ‘toxins’ lie in wait around every corner is hardly a mellow approach.

Anecdotal evidence is rampant within such lifestyles, and in fact, just about the only thing that is trusted. There’s something amusing about this, since anecdotal evidence is only slightly more trustworthy than reading chicken entrails. Stomach bothering you? Oh, it must be because you ate high-fructose corn syrup. Here, drink this tea. Did it go away? That’s the healing power of the tea! Of course, nearly every minor stomach ailment will go away on its own within a day, but the tea will get the credit if someone wants to believe in the power of the tea. Placebos work on the human trait where we can feel better if we expect to feel better, and worse if we expect that too. And of course, any potential correlation is seized upon, whether it exists or not. A doctor told me once that most cases of “food poisoning” are anything but – the bacteria that causes it are exceedingly rare and usually cannot survive basic food preparation, much less get reintroduced at some point along the line. But we eat two to three times a day, so any virus that causes abdominal distress in any way gets linked to the last meal. In this particular case, the culprit was kinetosis anyway…

Back in that natural food store, I worked with a woman who bought all of the health fad stuff wholesale; natural fibers for clothes, no microwaved food, no pharmaceuticals, and more herbs than you can shake a stick at. Her daughter lived the same way, but her sons didn’t buy into the lifestyle at all. Her daughter died at a young age of cancer, while her sons suffered no major maladies at all. This is, of course, just as anecdotal as any other account you might find, but think about how this must strike the person dedicating all of their life to ‘healthy’ approaches. What went wrong? What little, unaccounted-for toxin snuck past the defenses? How could this have been prevented? If you really believe that we are by default healthy, then how much more paranoid can this actually make you? If you want to find something to blame, it will be found – perhaps driving past the chemical plant daily, or eating school lunches while growing up. Does this really help anything at all? Can this possibly be considered a good lifestyle?

The professional advice, the stuff that can apply to nearly everyone, has remained the same for decades: eat a balanced diet and exercise. That’s really all that’s necessary, because it counteracts the tendencies that we have not to. It’s not a high bar to reach, and serves no purpose in repeatedly being pushed higher. Just chill. Trusting those who sell hype for a living, believing that our advanced society is brimming with dangers and toxins and carcinogens, is not just irrational, it’s paranoia. Nobody needs that. And if you want to let your diet go for a day and have a little junk food, this isn’t going to affect you in any measurable way – our bodies are remarkably adaptive and hardly so fragile that a Twinkie is going to crash the system.

Coming up: A further examination of some related factors, that I split off because this was already going too long ;-)

The days of yore, part three

lion cubs facing off
Some time back, after posting a bunch of especially creepy pics, I added the above image and mentioned that I should do a post about it. As you can see, I’m right on top of that, having taken only nine weeks to get to it.

It is, like all images to be seen in this post, a zoo pic, the dreaded ‘captive’ subjects that seem so dire to people at times – real nature photographers certainly should be out capturing all their images in “the wild.” Yeah, whatever – by all means, don’t tell anyone they’re wild if they’re not, but if you can get images that people like, and/or that tell an interesting story, what does it matter where they’re obtained?

lion cubs looking coolAs my own example, I give you a warm christmas eve day, 2006, at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro. For some peculiar reason visitors were sparse that day, and the cubs, about eight weeks old then, were having their first outdoor session, having spent all their previous lives in the birthing den with the mother. The day was brilliant and clear, the temperature around 20° C (68° F.) And the cubs were making the most of it, tackling their folks, stalking one another, and pouncing on grass and twigs – basically, exactly what domestic kittens do at that age, but for some reason it’s far more fascinating and entertaining when you see wild species doing it, even though they could hardly be called ‘wild’ in this case.

There were four in total, and another test that was taking place was seeing how well dad would react to them. Now, I have to admit that I’m not exactly sure if the male lion was, indeed, the sire of the sprogs – zoos are just as likely to use artificial insemination to ensure viable genetic variation, as well as dealing with potential personality clashes. You just can’t slap together opposite sexes of any species and expect them to get it on, or even get along, any more than we can expect this of humans. Bottom line, ‘dad’ might not have been, but the staff were still waiting to see if he would serve the purpose anyway, since this was actually his first introduction, outside of controlled conditions, to the cubs. In the wild, male lions might kill the offspring of another male when taking over a pride, nature’s way of ensuring less competition for his own genetic line. It may seem barbaric to us, but that’s because we have our own instincts – curiously, they’re so strong regarding protecting infants that we even cross over into other species.

So, how was ‘dad’ dealing with the cubs?

lion father and cub chillin' together
Pretty damn well, to be honest. He could not have been more mellow and still been conscious, and while the cubs weren’t climbing all over him as they were with their mother, they probably could have without incident. In this shot, the cub had been perched atop the rock getting into pounce position when dad looked around, causing the cub to adopt the innocent, “just hanging out” look seen here. It’s never a good idea to let your prey know you’re going to attack them, especially when they outweigh you by such a huge margin. When their back is turned, however…

lion cub about to pounce on father
The cub never did complete the maneuver it was contemplating here; perhaps it realized that it did not have the appetite necessary. While we were there, we didn’t actually see any of the cubs wrestling with dad at all. But of course, there were quite a few tussles amongst themselves, and mom certainly didn’t escape their attentions.

lion cubs attacking their oblivious mother
She was just as mellow as dad, mostly ignoring their feeble attempts at matricide, which encouraged them to stalk one another more often; this might even have been intentional. She was not without the instinct of every mother everywhere, however, as some of the cubs found out when they decided to direct their attention near her face. Suddenly, it became the ideal time to keep the kids groomed, despite their (also typical among species) struggles to avoid such ministrations.

lion mother washing a protesting cub
You may have noticed a difference in angle between the two pics above of momma, and that’s because the zoo had multiple vantages over the lions’ area; we switched back and forth as necessary, though I tended to stick with the angle seen most often in these pics because of the lighting.

Like most zoos, there are some restrictions on getting nice, natural-looking, and uncluttered compositions. The enclosures still have to keep their charges safely within (and, just as much, the less intelligent members of the human species out,) and this means that very often you will have something that just doesn’t work: bad lighting, or a poor perspective on the interesting behavior, or simply evidence that it is, indeed, a zoo.

backbiting lion cubs
Yet, there’s a benefit to working with captive animals that you can take advantage of as well, since animals that are habituated to your presence are more likely to engage in behavior that is extremely hard to capture in the wild. Wild animals may not ‘let their guard down’ in areas where they can be seen easily, and may well be sensitive to your presence, or at least suspicious that something is different. So capturing some adorable interaction can be a lot easier with captives…

lion male and female nuzzling affectionatelyThis is exactly what it appears to be – a very affectionate nuzzling, including some gentle nibbling on one another. I was there with The Girlfriend and The Younger Sprog, and you can imagine the reactions at this point, as well as the frantic instructions to, “Look! Look!” and, “Get it! Get it!” They could hear the shutter snapping as well as I could, or at least they should have been able to, but it’s possible that normal sensory functions were somewhat overwhelmed at that point. They were, naturally, getting their own shots as all this was taking place.

And as I said, visitors were rather thin that day, so very few people saw this particular spectacle, and not many more got to see the cubs’ first day out. This was six years ago, and the cubs may well have been sent on to other zoos, since most decent parks now exchange animals; the trade in capturing wild specimens, something that Gerald Durrell once took part in, has now halted among all reputable establishments, except in rare circumstances. The mother succumbed to cancer a year or so ago, but I noticed as I was attaching the link for the zoo (repeat) that a new pride has been born recently; I honestly cannot say if they were born to one of these cubs or not. We haven’t been back since that trip in 2006, don’t ask me how we managed that, but it looks like we’re going to have to try again soon.

I leave you with my favorite shot, as an impish cub halted in his grass gnawing to focus directly on me and the long lens staring down, curious as to what I was doing up there above the rock wall. Any emotions that we think we see in this expression are almost certainly imaginary, but if you see a feline version of David Attenborough, narrating a segment on the peculiar habits of humans, well, you can be excused…
expressive lion cub portrait

Are you serious?

pareidolia face in iceAmong the many reasons why my photography, and thus my posting, has slowed down so much is the temperature, which like most of the rest of the country has dropped significantly. The triops tank on the porch, which was no longer showing any activity anyway, had formed several thin sheets of exploratory ice crystals extending down into the depths – cool enough (a ha ha) when viewed within the water, but much more distinct when removed. Yet the real reason I’m commenting is that, unless you’re a rare individual, you will have no problem seeing a face in this image, at the very least now that I’ve mentioned it.

Just pause here for a moment and consider how ludicrous this is. About the only details that contribute to this idea are a round spot, hardly rare in nature, and a jagged gap underneath that we interpret as a mouth. But, c’mon, is there any species in the freaking world that even remotely resembles this? If we actually saw a person like this, wouldn’t we be struggling to suppress our instinct to spew obscenities (while, my instinct, anyway) for the sake of decency? While many people could spot the ‘face’ instantly, how hard would it be to program a computer to find it? Could we explain this human trait to the visiting extra-terrestrials? Maybe they’ve already seen this weird thing in us, and that’s why they’re staying away. That and some internet memes…

This tendency to see faces is very common, and called pareidolia. And it’s remarkably easy to provoke. While anyone might argue that this isn’t supposed to represent a true face, only a cartoonish caricature, that doesn’t actually explain anything – it’s likely that we can get anything out of cartoons because of precisely this trait, since if you look at most cartoons, the features that represent a face are often not much more detailed than this, certainly not anything close to human appearance by any measurement. The point is, it doesn’t take much to make us see a face, and we’re easily capable of ignoring numerous missing details, bad proportions, and extraneous spikes coming from the forehead.

It’s not just faces, as some of the examples at this page from the Skeptic’s Dictionary shows. We can spot similarities in shapes, contours, shadows, and contrast, for faces, whole bodies, and even positions. At some point, this all crosses the vague line into what we can call pattern recognition, and it’s not even clear we were ever outside of it in the first place. We are, as a species, quite adept at pattern recognition, which may provide a bit more understanding of some points on that page. They list Carl Sagan as saying that pareidolia is an evolutionary trait, but then pronounce some skepticism of this, saying that there’s no evolutionary advantage for “a hawk to be dive-bombing shadows on rocks.” This is perhaps taking a rather superficial view of evolution. A hawk attacking a shadow isn’t likely to produce anything detrimental to the hawk if it’s wrong, simultaneously being extremely beneficial if the shadow really is a prey animal – the benefits outweigh the hazards by a significant margin. And the same can be said for pattern recognition as a whole, throughout many different species. Because of the way genes dictate development, patterns in coloration are actually common, and spotting these can lead to a meal, or to determining the predatory species before they’re too close to avoid. Some species have even developed an advantage based on this trait, by showing eyespots or other traits of dangerous predators to ward off potential attackers. There is also aposematic coloration, the ‘keepaway’ warning of bright, contrasting colors, which present a distinct pattern coupled with a discouraging defense that together are firmly memorable; one bad experience being enough to merit an ongoing avoidance of the species. While patterns of behavior, and cause-and-effect, are also traits that can help a species predict an outcome, which can be useful for the fox capturing a mouse under leaves all the way up to humans planting crops for a later yield. In fact, a vast majority of our knowledge base can be attributed, at least in part, to pattern recognition, and even our scientific method emphasizes replication: ensuring there really is a pattern in the first place.

Pareidolia, then, might be considered an over-sensitivity to such patterns, recognizing a visual cue that really doesn’t exist. As indicated above, this is not necessarily detrimental, and it should be noted that no species is perfectly primed towards survival; while our upright stance provides a lot of benefits, it also leads to chronic back and knee issues in our species. The fact that our species, with very few exceptions, is so inordinately prone to finding faces and patterns is extremely strong evidence that it’s an evolved trait, even if it’s so vague as to produce a face from misshapen ice.

Having bad eyesight, I have another perspective that might have some bearing, one that we often don’t think about in our world of corrected vision. If our vision is bad, the finer details are often lost, and what we might see are vaguer shapes, defined more by contrast. There is nothing that defines perfect or optimal vision; it all depends on our environment, so everyone relies on pattern recognition in one circumstance or another, such as spotting a distant face in a crowd. Caricatures often rely upon the details we’re more likely to notice, exaggerating them far beyond reality while still sparking recognition in most people.

This has already turned out to be a much longer post than originally intended (sorry,) and I keep finding more bits to speculate upon. For instance, the amount of pareidolia that relates to religious themes seems remarkably high, leading to some thoughts about whether religious people are far more prone to seeing such images, and why this should be. However, this is assuming that the pattern I thought I saw actually exists, which is not really supportable. People can see faces in soda cans and manhole covers, and may see several a week – they’re just not remarked upon very often. Religious images, however, are validation, often considered evidence of supernatural influence and ‘a sign’ of something. Thus, it isn’t necessarily that religious folk are more inclined to see it, they may simply be more inclined to find significance in it, and from my own experience, this is practically a defining trait of religious folk. There is a certain level of amusement to be found in these; no physical description of jesus or mary exists in scripture, so anyone’s impression is either imagination, or based on artwork that was the artist’s imagination, while no one ever finds the face of muhammad because any likeness is considered blasphemous…

I mentioned above about teaching a computer to find faces, yet it’s been done – not necessarily for any useful reason, but many cellphones now have facial recognition software, because I guess humans need the help? It couldn’t possibly be because smartphones are ridiculously expensive toys. But anyway, this article has a great composite image of random polygons that, at low resolution, look like portraits – mostly of Albert Einstein, which you’re welcome to make all the snide comparisons to the above paragraph that you can. There are two more articles that I found while poking around, here and here, that may also be entertaining. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on the ice…

Measuring sticks

I like perspective. Not just the kind used in photography, but the kind that changes the way we think about something. It’s very interesting sometimes, in that there are bare facts, and then there’s the way we feel about them, how we classify the information and relate to it. It comes up quite a bit in the spirited (read: vehement) discussions of free will which, whether it exists or not (it doesn’t,) still doesn’t change how our lives operate. A curious place for it to spring up, however, is in regards to Pluto.

This is perhaps the most contentious astronomical subject, at least to the general public, and a lot of it has to do with how we phrase things. As most people know, Pluto was one of the nine planets almost from the moment it was discovered, up until 2006, when its nomenclature was changed to dwarf planet. Invariably, this is referred to as being ‘demoted,’ and the qualifying term dwarf probably also contributes. A lot of people resent this change, even refusing to accept it, and get surprisingly emotional about it.

First off, there is no such thing as demoting a planet, since there is no status or prestige a planet can hold anyway, except in our own eyes. Pluto remains unchanged, and quite likely (barring a lot of our physics knowledge being dramatically overturned) completely unaware of its title, or indeed anything at all – it’s a frozen rock, and was long before we apes started jumping around and worrying about HBO series. The reason the classification was changed was to help distinguish various bodies found in our solar system. We make up all of these terms, including ‘planet,’ just to communicate, and any changes are intended to facilitate this (though perhaps not successful in this endeavor.) Yet they remain just abstract ideas in our heads.

Let’s go ahead and get dwarf planet out of the way. It’s defined by a solar system object a) orbiting the star, and not another body like a planet, b) large enough to shape itself through its own gravity, and c) incapable of clearing its orbit of any debris. That last bit is the clincher, since Pluto sits in the Kuiper Belt with a lot of other, smaller bits of rock and ice, while the eight major planets have gathered up the majority of loose matter and absorbed it. Another dwarf planet, Ceres, sits within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, while most of the others are out there in Kuiper territory with Pluto, some even beyond that.

We have millions of bits of stuff in our system. The asteroid belt contains lots of rocky bodies with highly irregular shapes, lacking enough mass to pull themselves into a sphere, the most gravitationally stable of shapes. Many satellites (‘moons’) of the planets are large enough to have done this, but of course orbit their planets and not the sun, thus that distinction – this is notable, since a lot of them, including Earth’s moon, are larger than Pluto.

One of the potential new classifications, back in 2006, was that a planet must be substantially larger than its moons, which would also have ruled out Pluto. Every moon exerts its own gravitational influence on the host it orbits, tugging it around in proportion to its mass, causing a wobble in the host’s orbital path around the sun. Pluto’s largest moon Charon is large enough that they pretty much orbit each other; the common center of gravity between them lies outside of Pluto’s diameter, so it doesn’t just wobble, it circles, like two skaters spinning with joined hands.

Now for fun, let’s look at some other qualifications that we could use:

A planet should be able to support an atmosphere. Pluto would make it, Mercury would not.

A planet must have a moon. Pluto wins out again over Mercury, and Venus as well. It has, in fact, five moons, so it ranks well above Earth (one moon) and Mars (two minuscule moons) in that respect as well.

A planet should have an axial tilt relative to the orbital plane. In other words, it should spin ‘upright’ in relation to its path around the sun. This depends on how sloppy you want to get, since none fit this bill, but Mercury is closest with 2°, Venus and Jupiter close behind with 3°; the rest, including Pluto, are tilted significantly, Uranus being totally screwed. And Venus rotates the opposite direction from all the rest.

A planet should be a rocky body. As opposed to being gaseous like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

We could go on, but basically, one can create any sort of criteria one wants and pin this label on anything at all. Pluto is unique in a lot of ways, and can be appreciated for those. It is probably far older than the Earth, if you count being in a solid shape or stable orbit; Earth’s moon was likely formed by a collision with another Mars-sized object early on, and both had to restabilize. Earth may only exist, at least where it is now, because of the gravitational influence of Jupiter, which both prevented it from being drawn closer to the sun and helped clear away other bodies that would have caused catastrophic impacts. Pluto may also harbor the oldest molecules in the solar system, or very close; it is too far out for heat from the sun to cause many affects in its atmosphere, and too small to produce gravitational pressure that would catalyze any elements it possesses, which cannot be said for any of the major planets, and a few of the dwarves.

And what this is demonstrating is that all of the bodies in our system are unique. We can apply any labels to them as desired, when we think broad classifications are useful, but this in no way makes anything either unremarkable, or part of a prestigious group. In a way, this starts to sound like the misguided validation trend of the ’90s, where every child was special, but this doesn’t exactly apply; humans have a desire for recognition and improvement, and moreover very good reasons for pursuing these, so thwarting them by lowering the bar denies their usefulness. In contrast, all of the bodies in our system have something they can teach us, and no benefit to be accrued from either improvement (whatever arbitrary definition one uses) or change of any kind. Worry about the label only when the label has some application.

But this brings us to New Horizons. New Horizons is a probe currently on its way to visit Pluto, having begun its journey in January of 2006. On December 6th of this year, it will awaken from hibernation for the last time to begin its primary mission, while in January it will start actively collecting data about Pluto and its various moons. On July 14th of 2015, it will make its closest pass of Pluto before it trundles on towards even further reaches.

This might seem odd, but it’s a flyby mission, unlike many others that we know of, such as Cassini and the Mars Global Surveyor. As mentioned in an earlier post, it took quite a bit of maneuvering to get New Horizons on a path to intercept Pluto in the first place, because it’s so damn far out there; it used Jupiter’s gravity as a slingshot boost to be able to reach Pluto without relying on rocket thrust. Basic premise: thrust requires fuel, which is mass/weight. Mass/weight requires fuel to move. The more fuel you boost into space, the more fuel is needed just for the fuel’s own mass. The goal is to need as little fuel as possible so the mass being boosted is something more productive, like instrumentation.

Now, to reach Pluto in the nine years it’s currently taking, New Horizons has to be booking right along; presently it’s clocking 52,704 kph (32,749 mph) in relation to the sun, mostly ‘straight out.’ So in order for it to orbit, it would not only have to turn, it would also have to slow down to orbital velocity, somewhere below Pluto’s escape velocity of 4,320 kph. That’s a lot of fuel, that it would have had to carry the entire way. Long story short: it doesn’t, and is only going to whiz past Pluto and further into the Kuiper Belt, but not before gathering as much info as possible.

Which should be significant, since nearly all of the information we have has been gathered from Earth’s immediate vicinity. There have certainly been probes that have been much farther from Earth than, say, the Hubble Space Telescope, but that doesn’t mean that they were any closer to Pluto. We tend to think in terms of the concentric circles of the orbital plots that we always see illustrated, lining up the planets (and dwarf planets and non-planets) nicely, but they all orbit; while Cassini is hanging out at Saturn, this still might be on the other side of the sun from Pluto, even farther away than Earth. The New Horizons mission had some pretty crucial timing, in that using Jupiter for velocity assistance required Earth, Jupiter, and Pluto to reach appropriate positions in their orbits, something that wasn’t going to happen again for 300 years.

So most of what we know has been obtained from a great distance – always at least 4.28 billion kilometers (2.66 billion miles,) which is the point where Earth’s and Pluto’s positions come closest together. Hubble has been responsible for the best looks of Pluto to date, which haven’t been all that detailed.

Hubble Maps Pluto

That’s it; that’s all the detail we have. Are those blobs clouds? Craters? The missing Martian canals? A Monolith stockpile? We don’t know yet. You’ve seen some of the detail that Hubble is capable of, so this illustrates just how small and distant Pluto is, but if that’s not enough, how about an animation of Pluto and Charon, taken by New Horizons in August of this year?

Wait – they’re not round? No, they are, they’re just too dim for all of the surface features to show in the exposures used, not to mention they’re shaped by the pixel dimensions of the camera sensor, so they get irregular outlines; again, check the distances listed in the image itself. New Horizons traveled from 429 million kilometers away to only 422 million during this animation – in comparison, Earth’s closest approach to Mars is 54.6 million kilometers, and you know what that looks like in the sky.

Also note, as explained on the page that the image links to, that both Pluto and Charon are wobbling. This is not from bad camera aiming, but because the image is pinned on the common gravitational center of the two, the barycenter. Discussing this illustrates the difficulty and relativity of orbital mechanics. If you’re on Pluto, it would seem rock-steady and Charon would be orbiting, but the same in reverse would be seen from Charon, just as we sit here on Earth orbiting the sun and think the sun ‘rises’ and ‘sets.’ But if you took Pluto’s time and distance to orbit the sun to obtain an average orbital speed, that’s the barycenter, and Pluto advances and retreats routinely around this due to Charon’s gravitational influence.

Another interesting note is that New Horizons’ mission is still being planned, with the Hubble Space Telescope still scouting targets of potential interest after the probe passes Pluto. Part of this is because the timing of the probe’s launch was crucial; part of this is because there’s a huge demand on Hubble’s time, from astronomers all over the world – anyone can apply to use the scope, but they have to petition for it and make their case for how important their research is (so you’re welcome to try, but don’t hold your breath.) As yet, while there are some potential targets in range of New Horizons‘ path and limited fuel, to the best of my knowledge nothing has been confirmed yet. Suffice to say that the folks at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the ones that control New Horizons, don’t consider the mission over once the probe passes out of effective range of Pluto, even though the flyby is the only confirmed mission; everything else will be gravy.

So keep watching the astronomy news. In a few months, New Horizons will be pumping out images and information about this little dwarf and its moons, providing a hell of a lot more information than we’ve been able to determine since its discovery in 1930. Meanwhile, you can go to the mission site for details and what we’ve accumulated so far.

Now for a little bonus. The change of Pluto’s status wrecked the mnemonic that untold people recited to recall the order of the planets in their distance from the sun, such as “Mother very eagerly makes jelly sandwiches using no peanutbutter,” or, “Mary’s Violet Eyes Make Johnny Stand Up Now Period” (a ridiculous number of them use “very” in a stunning lack of originality.) It’s easy enough to change them to leave off the final P, but what about all of the other dwarf planets? Shouldn’t we be reciting them too?

And so, I took it upon myself to create one that includes them all:Missing velvet earmuffs mean cold January storms unleash numbing pain on helpless quaking men’s red ears since breakfast.

Got that?

It’s simple: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Orcus, Hauma, Quaoar, Makemake, 2007 OR10, Eris, Sedna, 2012 VP113.

Now, I know you’re questioning a couple of them, but bear with me. 2007 OR10 was originally nicknamed “Snow White” due to its supposed albedo, the reflectance it possessed; later on, it was determined to be red in color instead, and the original Snow White stories (before Disney) sometimes featured her sister, Rose Red – I am not making this up – so this was the obvious choice. And 2012 VP113 is occasionally nicknamed “Veep” or “Biden,” so I went with the latter, mostly because ending a sentence with “very” is awkward.

You’re welcome.

But of course

autumn trees against clear skyThis autumn has proven to be one that I’ve rarely had the chance to take advantage of: a fairly good display of colors, peaking during clear weather, with no storms or even high winds to strip the leaves from the trees. So while this area has few vantages that provide the best display of colors – generally something that overlooks rolling hills with a wide variety of deciduous trees – I have to say I bagged a decent selection of images, from several different locales.

Once again, though, bright sunny days are not always the best to pursue certain subjects, and vivid colors are among them – contrast can go too high and details can get washed out. Sometimes, it’s better to be in the muted light of heavy haze or even overcast, or in the deeper shadows of a full forest canopy – it all depends on what’s in front of you. For reference, see a couple of the closer leaf shots from a year ago. The colors aren’t quite as vivid yet they have a richer tonal range, more subtleties and a bit more variety.

Many areas that anyone might find themselves within aren’t ideal for nice scenic landscape images – there isn’t a good selection of differing tree species (and thus colors,) there are too many distracting elements or ugly bits of urbanization or industrialization, and so on. So sometimes creative framing can save the shot, finding a position that maximizes the impact of the good elements you do have and eliminates anything that doesn’t work.

autumn colors on reflecting pond
For instance, this image was taken within a housing development, at an angle that eliminated all houses, poles and wires, and bright blue recycling bins. The few colorful trees, spread out along the lakeshore, were grouped together into the frame by my shooting position, and the uglier longneedle pines between were captured in a way that their sparse, lopsided branches helped fill out the composition – if you look at the far lakeshore, that’s actually more representative of how the trees were laid out and how much color was to be found. On occasion, I’ve seen a single tree that I like and wandered about, crouching and dodging, to try and use it with some other element to the advantage of both. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but you never know without trying.

yellow floating leaves against bare branches and blue sky reflectionI am probably a little too hooked on using reflections and floating leaves, but hey, I like ‘em. The idea of ‘peak’ colors is a little misleading; there is often a point where you can see the maximum amount of colors, but usually a number of species have hit their most colorful much earlier, while most others are still green, and these early bloomers greet ‘peak’ with empty branches. Sometimes this can be worked into the composition, sometimes it’s a patch of distracting, somewhat anachronistic bare trunks. For this one, I decided to use those branches as a backdrop for the leaves passing by, and the blue sky and yellow leaves set off one another nicely.

I mentioned this before in the compositional post about water, but an awful lot of the time people just never notice the reflections at all, which is a shame, because they can be a really potent element. Always, always look to see what water is reflecting, because it might give you some great ideas, but also know that the two-dimensionality of images, the same thing that can make layers of foliage blend together into an indistinct mess, can make the reflections much stronger and more obvious than they seem when observing them in person. Depth-of-field has a lot to say too, because when we focus the lens onto reflections, it’s not at the distance to the water itself, but bouncing off the water and all the way up to the subject being reflected, which is usually a whole lot farther away. This means that you can choose to have either the reflections in focus, or the leaves on the surface (or the reeds growing within the water) in focus, but not both, even with the smallest aperture your lens can achieve. The selective focus can draw attention easily to one or the other, but it might also trash your plans to have them appear together. Also note that with a wide-angle lens, the depth-of-field characteristics might make the difference in focus trivial and virtually unnoticeable, so now the reflections may just make for more clutter in the composition. Observe carefully and experiment.

This next image I’m putting up fairly large (as far as the blog format goes) because I want some of the details to be clearer.
layers of colors
Here the water is half-reflective, half-transparent, giving an overlay of sky and foliage atop layers of leaves just beneath the surface. I also need to note that this is mixed lighting; the trees in the reflection are receiving full sunlight, but the water itself and the floating leaves are actually in shadow. This worked out rather well, since water always darkens reflections, so the exposure came out pretty well balanced.

A polarizing filter can be a handy tool in such cases. Light reflecting from non-metallic surfaces (which mostly means water and glass) will be polarized, so orienting a polarizing filter can reduce or even eliminate the reflections – you can adjust their strength in your compositions. It’s almost magical to watch what’s under the surface suddenly spring into view…

backlit red leaves against glittertrail starburstsSo while I’m on the subject of reflections, we’ll look at another variation. The reflection of sunlight near the horizon off of rippling water or wet sand is called a glittertrail, and naturally is a useful element in itself. A very small aperture (in this case f22) turns these little spots of intense light into starbursts. I liked the color intensity of the backlit leaves, but didn’t know what else to do with them until I shifted too far to the side and started blinding myself with the glittertrail – aha! I really wanted a stronger, more prominent leaf for this composition, but the wind was pretty stiff this day and whipping the leaves madly (which also contributed to the well-spaced sparkles off the water,) so this is what I got. If it motivates you to try a variation, fantastic – remember me when the royalties come rolling in.

I should also mention that sunlight coming into the lens in this manner is not only very prone to producing flare and ghosts, but very likely to trick the exposure meter as well. It’s not a bad idea to bracket widely to ensure you got the exposure that you like, or if you can determine what it should be (for instance by aiming off to the side just enough to eliminate the direct sunlight,) switch to full manual mode and override the meter entirely. The sun riding lower in the sky as we get close to winter means a lenshood should be almost constantly affixed to every lens, but that won’t do a damn thing for aiming right into the sun or its reflections.

We come to the point in the blog post where I ask, what’s wrong with this picture?
What's wrong with this picture?
If it helps, we still haven’t left the same topic I’ve been rambling on about for the past several images. If that’s not enough, look carefully at the bottom of the frame.

I did this on purpose, because it’s not often you get conditions this ideal, so if you’re still struggling, I’ll tell you: it’s upside-down. See? It’s obvious now, isn’t it?
Nothing wrong with this picture
slightly more obvious spillwayThat’s so much better, right? Uh, no? This is actually looking down from a small hill at the reflection of the trees and sky in the inordinately still water above a spillway, the lip of which forms the edge between the trees and the bright rocks, which are on the riverbed well beyond the reflection and the spillway itself. Here’s a variation that makes it a little more obvious, though I imagine it might still seem a bit mind-bending until the perspective falls into place.

In this image, it’s easy to see a particular trait that I mentioned earlier, that of the reflections being darker than the original – how pronounced it is depends on the sun angle (and to some extent the contrast settings of the camera.) Basic rule: if you want both to appear in the image, expose for the original, especially considering the sky. If you expose for the reflection (for instance, by aiming more at the water than the skyline itself when obtaining an exposure setting,) you will likely overexpose the sky and bleach a lot of the detail from it. I also have to reveal here that those who like doing that HDR stuff almost always miss this trait, and make the reflections too bright in comparison to the sky, a dead giveaway to any experienced photographer or editor.

I have one more scenic shot I’m going to put up in this post, but before I do, I have to give a shout-out. Most of these images were taken on an outing with a student, and I don’t talk about students much because I’m respecting their privacy – not everyone wants to have a web presence. But this one has said he doesn’t mind.

Al Denelsbeck by Albert BuggSo while out shooting during yesterday’s session, a large leaf dropped and perched atop my camera, and the indefatigable Al Bugg (yes, same first name, and yes, we’re often not sure which one of us we’re addressing in conversation) captured the portrait. That’s the ‘heavy kit’ I’m wearing, everything on belt packs with supportive suspenders – ready for just about anything. Go ahead and laugh.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with perhaps my favorite shot (so far) this fall – if I’d had a couple to perch onto that swing I’d have done so, but no one was around at the time. I’ll leave you to ponder the difference in mood with the swing being empty, but I’ll point out that only two trees are displaying good color, while the one that supports the swing has already passed peak. Did you notice either of these before I mentioned them?
empty swing under spreading branches against autumn colors

Gently, gently

I had a student yesterday (which I’ll talk about more in a later post,) which meant that I wasn’t glued to my computer watching what was going in with Philae. Philae, as you no doubt recall from an earlier post, is the lander portion of the Rosetta spacecraft, itself riding shotgun with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Despite my cavalier terminology, it is actually worth making some careful distinctions; Rosetta is not in orbit around 67P/C-G, as the comet is far too small to provide enough gravity to allow anything more than dust to orbit.

[Okay, brief primer on orbital mechanics. Everything with mass has gravity, but gravity is actually a very weak force. It takes a lot of mass to provide the attractive force that we tend to think of as gravity. Orbit is essentially matching sideways velocity against the downward pull. Think of falling, but somehow getting shoved sideways while you’re falling. If you go sideways far enough, the mass pulling you downwards shifts out from under you, so the attraction starts coming from a different direction off to one side, and thus your motion shifts into a different direction. Go sideways fast enough, and you’re falling perpetually because the downward pull constantly reorients; one description I heard is, “falling towards the planet but missing.” Around Earth, spacecraft in low-Earth orbit move in the range of 29,000 kph, in relation to any given point on the surface – faster than that, and the orbit extends outward; slower, and gravity can start to draw the craft in. So when any craft reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, it does so not by ‘flying’ downward, but by slowing down enough so gravity reduces the orbital distance.

Gravity is often measured by “escape velocity” – how fast an object must be going (in any direction) to exceed gravity’s ability to draw it closer. For Earth, escape velocity is 11.2 kilometers per second, or about 40,000 kph. On comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, with its much smaller mass, escape velocity is estimated as 1 meter per second (not kilometer, note) – that’s the rate of a fast toddler, or if it helps, 3.6 kph.]

So in order for Rosetta (the mother ship, as it were) to ‘orbit’ the comet, it would need to keep directing itself with rockets, using fuel at an alarming rate – thus it doesn’t, but simply cruises alongside, matching the comet’s own orbital velocity around the sun. The comets spins, though, so Rosetta gets the benefits of orbiting anyway. There’s the old philosophical question: if a magnetic ball rolls around a compass in a circle, with the needle always pointing to the ball, the ball obviously circles the compass, but does it circle the needle? The answer: why the hell do you want to know? Which is the answer to most philosophical questions, which spend far too much time pondering supposedly deep shit with no purpose whatsoever. Sometimes the human mind is remarkably inefficient…

Anyway, Rosetta does not orbit in the sense of a gravitationally-determined action, but can see most of the comet anyway. And now the Philae lander has been launched down to the comet, and this is a serious challenge it itself. Described as the size of a washing machine, Philae weighs, on the surface of the comet, a mere gram (I overstated the case a bit in the previous post.) For most of us, this is better described as 1/4 of a teaspoon of sugar – it is safe to say that the European Space Agency did not spend a lot of money on the shock absorbers. But it also means that not only could Philae actually bounce off if it approached too quickly, it could also be shoved off, or toppled over, by the very things that make a comet a comet, the outgassing of material. So Philae has two items to assist in the function of getting down and staying down, which are a gas rocket on top to push it down to the body of the comet, and a pair of harpoons on the underside to lance the comet and draw the lander tight.

The interesting bit is, the lander is in place now, though neither of these actually operated, and according to the news sources available as of this writing, no one is sure why yet. So while it is there for the time being, it might not necessarily stay there if anything at all happens. The point, naturally, wasn’t just the bragging rights of getting there, but to perform ongoing scientific studies over the next several months, so efforts are underway to fire those harpoons and tie the lander down (sport.)

Philae was not equipped with any kind of video capabilities, just still cameras, and power is limited and carefully rationed, much of it intended for the various experiments. Thus, we have no video of its approach and landing, and only certain status indicators of its landing performance. It has been speculated, however, that the lander touched down twice, having been lifted off again briefly from the momentum of an internal flywheel winding down. The harpoons, designed for an almost-entirely unknown surface, are likely capable of penetrating dense ‘soil’ to perhaps even rock, deep enough to anchor firmly, and so may well have enough force to throw Philae off the surface again. Not to worry – that’s why they have cables to pull the lander down. But if you’re keeping up, this might mean that Philae will ‘land’ three separate times on the same comet, without any true capability of lifting off in the first place.

(I now have this irresistible mental image of Philae being blown away from the comet by the sublimation activity as the comet approaches the sun, tethered by its harpoons, flapping around in the comet’s wake like a balloon towed by a bicycle.)

I may be back with further info, but my best recommendation is to follow Universe Today, which is likely to be the most efficient method of getting updates – I say this after having watched a 40-minute podcast from ESA just over the successful separation of Philae from Rosetta, not really generating a lot of useful information. Universe Today also has a post of the ‘song’ that the comet is producing, fluctuations in the magnetic field that, as yet, have no determined cause. I suspect it’s probably someone else’s lander flapping around on the far side…

Grading on a curve

There are a lot of accusations of “islamophobia” in the media right now, springing up every time someone comments about ISIS and religiously-motivated violence, and it’s actually a good example of a frequent lament among all faiths; it is the inveterate defense of the religious whenever incontrovertible examples of bad religious influence are mentioned. In short, such examples are not representative of any faith as a whole; they are “not my religion.” And while this should be addressed in detail, it is also evidence of a much bigger, more subtle aspect that rarely gets recognized.

Let me get the immediate snarky response out of the way first. A phobia is an irrational fear, bias, or prejudice. There can be no such thing as “islamophobia,” since it is perfectly rational to be prejudiced against violence and beheadings and even rampant sexism and idiotic standards. And if you want to get technical, from a psychological standpoint a phobia is a deep-seated, instinctual reaction, reflexive rather than considered, and does not even remotely apply to criticisms or diatribes of any kind. At best, such reactions might be a rationalization of a phobia, like those who opine that all spiders must be killed with fire, but these remain two separate concepts; the phobia is the ingrained fear of anything resembling a spider despite the knowledge that 99% are harmless. Still, we’ll let this slide as a ‘common usage’ thing, since it’s not really relevant to the issue anyway.

Because basically, what religious folk are protesting is the eradication of the label that proclaims their superiority; if islam is not a good thing, then I cannot call myself a muslim with pride anymore [adjust as necessary for every religion on earth.]

Is this being unfair? Overreaching, oversimplifying? Failing to take into account the vast majority of religious folk who never participate in violent, reprehensible acts? Well, let’s take a look at this closely.

First off, the whole fairness thing has been addressed in detail here, but to shorten it to the core essence: what, exactly, counts as balancing out murder, mutilation, abuse, bigotry, sexism, and all of the other distasteful things that draw our attention in the first place? Call me crazy, but I think the key aspect would be that these never occur in the first place. While I fully comprehend the concept that, for instance, a death may be justified if it protects the lives of many others, that’s miles away from what we’re talking about here, which is excusing the completely unacceptable actions because there are other actions that are acceptable, ignoring that the unacceptable actions are also completely unnecessary. I’m sure, if you look hard enough, that you can find a positive aspect of behavior in every mass murderer. Why should anyone give a fuck?

I’m also in complete agreement with judging individuals, and separate situations, as standing alone, rather than lumping a bunch together under a broad, overreaching label in order to pronounce judgment on something as a whole. But there are two related aspects to consider herein. The first, the trivial one, is that religious folk have absolutely no problem with using these labels themselves as it suits them; this is, in fact, why the term “muslim” (or “christian,” or “buddhist,” etc.) even exists. The reliance on labels is routinely reinforced – and the reason so many get upset when such labels no longer carry the prestige they once did.

More importantly, however, is that I, among many others, do not think it’s enough to observe that certain individuals are violent/abusive/etc., especially when they’re obviously not acting, or even identifying, as individuals. Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who would like to see the abuse stop, and that means identifying the root causes and motivations – treat the disease, not the symptoms. And yes, it is perfectly reasonable to ask if religion is really the cause or motivation behind any such occurrence. It’s important not to generalize, or rely on armchair psychology, when it comes to understanding violent acts.

Yet, it’s a pattern that keeps repeating. Not to mention that the perpetrators themselves claim religion as their motivation. Even if we can find myriad causes or deep-seated, unrecognized motivations, it’s obvious that religion is serving some purpose therein, whether it’s to provoke followers, claim an unimpeachable authority, hide behind religious exemptions within the law, or simply fool the general public. Does it actually matter what it is, if religion can so easily, and so often, be tied to irrational, abusive actions? Any terrorist that claimed diet as their motivation, or their musical tastes, wouldn’t garner many supporters or positive public opinion in any way, would they? Religion serves this purpose with its appeal towards righteousness and authority, as well as a certain degree of base tribalism that has a fundamental influence on our thinking processes.

Plus, this is a two-edged sword. The primary reason people speak out to protect the reputation of religion is its supposed value in promoting good, ethical behavior – so can we doubt this value as readily as we should doubt it promoting abuse? How can we be sure of one and not the other? Fair’s fair, of course.

And that exposes much of the real problem with all of this. In the vast majority of cases, it is remarkably simple to find the passages in scripture that condone and even provoke such abuse. This is one of the many problems with most organized religions, in that the pronouncements found within the holy books are very often contradictory – saying nothing, of course, of the ridiculously variable (and remarkably convenient) interpretations of vague passages. Religious folk really cannot make any supportable claim that violence is not a part of their True™ religion, because it’s all right there in black and white. Selecting only the peaceful aspects is no different, and no more ‘authentic,’ than selecting only the violent aspects – no one can make any holier-than-thou claim when following any religion.

This extends all the way to finding any value whatsoever in religion overall. It’s fine if anyone wants to select the good bits and ignore the bad, and can make a case for what “good” actually means – but this means that a rational decision is being made, one that does not require any reliance on a religious label or authority at all; the same process can be used for all such options, including the secular ones. However, if there is even the slightest reliance on any religion, any scripture, any pronouncement from a holy figure as being evidence of a True™ higher authority – which is the entire point of religion in the first place – then not one devout person can make any claim of authenticity or superiority over any other, no matter what the faith, no matter what the action. The very reliance on faith itself, this nonsensical abandonment of cognitive decision-making in favor of blind acceptance, is wide open for abuse. Once we accept the standard that people are free to act in accordance with whatever interpretation of scripture they prefer – once we even believe scripture has any use whatsoever in guiding decisions, or that there is a supernatural realm where the definition of “good” does not rely on interactions with other humans – then we have abandoned the application of rational thought, discarding the functionality of consequences and weighing benefits and seeking a structure that provides the best results for everyone. And this needs to be emphasized very distinctly, because it really is incredibly anti-social; my religion is special and what everyone should be respecting, regardless of how abusive it is to you. This always sounds good if you’re on the end that gets the benefits, not so much if you’re on the other end. Or if you’re not pathologically selfish…

But we’re even going to go a step further on the selfish privilege line, because those that use the word “islamophobia” (and all the other variations of the theme like, “trying to destroy christianity”) are essentially saying, “Don’t you dare notice any of the bad aspects of my religion – you have to remain as selective and blind as I am!” And to go another step, they’re actually using a term that implies an irrational, kneejerk bigotry instead of a perfectly reasonable horror over fucking beheading people. This actually goes beyond offensive to the point of being reprehensible. And the only reason why we, as a culture, are so slow to recognize this is because we’ve been badgered into thinking that religion deserves respect automatically, rather than having to earn it as every other ideology and position does.

Let’s be blunt: if religion really was a force for good, then none of these points would make any sense, because there would be no religious violence or abuse in the first place. Not only would True™ adherents never resort to such tactics, but even the idea of using religion as a disguise would be ludicrous, like committing infanticide under the auspices of ‘motherhood.’ Religion shows up so frequently and repeatedly in violence and repression and abuse because its very structure is conducive to it, emphasizing privilege and authority and the abandonment of rational consideration, far beyond any beneficial acts. “Moral” and “ethical” are not hard words to comprehend, unless you believe the oft-repeated mantra that these must stem from ancient scriptural sources.

Yet too many of the faithful, loathe to recognize that their divine influence is completely incapable of regulating even those who fully accept it, don’t try to correct this on their own, don’t resort to a much more useful ideology, don’t even redouble their efforts to paint their religion in a positive light (which, as pointed out above, would be pretty damn hard to do anyway,) but instead try to blame those that are capable of recognizing the faults, that realize how ineffectual religion is as this ‘force for good.’ They attempt to maintain their special status by drawing circles around themselves, declaring that everyone outside does not represent their True™ Religion, which of course no one is allowed to badmouth. No no no, if bad things are happening, it must be something else, because by definition my religion cannot be bad. You’re bad if you believe that those bad people are motivated by my religion.

Interestingly, corporations and organizations have no problems dealing with those who depart from their standards, by firing employees, revoking memberships, publicly denying affiliations, and in extreme cases, actually taking perpetrators to court. Rest assured that if I started my own troop of Boy Scouts of America that permitted homosexual members and scoutmasters, the lawsuit would be immediate and any media I used would be blocked by legal force. Yet anyone can call themselves a sunni or baptist or buddhist, because there are no membership standards, no legal standing, no possible recourse. Which, when you come to think of it, makes any such title ultimately worthless. Most people don’t bother to think about it, though, and only accept the long-standing social idea that religion is good – god forbid anyone should have the slightest obligation to demonstrate this attribute.

But here’s the worst part. Every time someone defends their title, like “christian” or “muslim,” they perpetuate the idea that the title actually has meaning, and thus they enable the abuses in the first place. Every time someone defines themselves, not by what they do or even by their goals, but by their affiliation with some imagined ideal, they emphasize that this ideal has some kind of value. And let’s face it: we only have millions of people around the world believing in imaginary beings and realms and Master Plans because they keep hearing that others believe it, so it must make sense. Whining that this ludicrous state of affairs deserves respect is exactly why religion can be used as a recruiting tool for any batshit behavior imaginable. Insisting that there is some greater good or ultimate reward, in abject denial of the complete lack of evidence, legitimizes spirituality and mysticism and the justification of actions that result in very visible, measurable harm.

And thus, there are no ‘levels’ of religious belief, no divisions, no demarcations. Once anyone accepts the idea that some authority exists that is outside evidence, that any Greater Good exists apart from (and often in contradiction of) what is demonstrably beneficial, then the ground rules have been laid, and no one can then claim anyone else is bad for following the same damn rules. There’s really nothing to add to that.

No ideology should be about flaunting a title. It should only be about setting and maintaining goals. Nobody wears any symbol that denotes themselves as friendly, since it is immediately obvious to everyone interacting with them. We know someone is helpful when they help us. Imagine if everyone treated this as valuable, and the way they should earn respect?