The struggle for an appropriate title

You’ll understand in a second.

So, there is a documented case of a woman named Mary Toft who, in 1726, claimed to have given birth to rabbits. Now, there are a lot of weird stories from a few centuries ago, mostly of the “so we are told” variety, and even today there are a number of medical marvels that we know of through supermarket media that somehow never have a thesis written about them. This story wouldn’t be half as interesting if it was strictly post-event recollections, perhaps with a forlorn rabbit offered as evidence, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Oh no.

See, Mary was pregnant, but miscarried after sighting a rabbit – because, you know, rabbits. Little shits, all cute and harmless and stuff. But soon afterward, she claims to have then started delivering various animal parts, and notified (what passed for) doctors in the area. One, by the name of John Howard, over a period of several days helped her deliver a fine selection of incomplete pets, up to and including nine baby rabbits.

This was a hoax, I’m sorry to say. But let’s examine the over-and-above efforts expended in pursuit of this one. Doctors, even then, didn’t stand on the other side of a screen and shout instructions during childbirth, so it is a reasonably safe bet that Dr. Howard there was not being fooled by any simple slight of… uhhhh… hand. I do believe the good doctor was assisting this poor woman in the production of dismembered critters through the usual and accustomed route.

As one source saucily put it, “Let’s pause to let that sink in.” However, I don’t think ‘sinking in’ is adequate or even possible in such circumstances; I suspect some pushing was in order. And I would like to be perfectly clear in this regard: if you are required to prime your boomhauer with bunnies in order to perpetuate your hoax, you are almost certainly carrying things a wee bit (a ha ha) too far.

And it has to be said: If you are already accustomed to inserting hossenfeffer in your hootch and see nothing wrong with this, there are probably some repressed childhood memories that bear examination. Let me guide you, in the event that no one else has up to this point, but this is not a spectator sport.

Mrs. Toft did eventually reveal her machinations – by that I mean the hoax – when she was threatened with vivisection, because, hey, a treatise on the necessary plumbing would be good for years on the lecture circuit. This, however, was further than Mary was willing to take the joke, a significant datum that many parents might find useful in childrearing. And so, thus ended Mary Toft’s career of launching lagomorphs from her labradoodle. At least, for an audience…

I am not making this up.

Homey don’t play that

As a species, we like to occasionally speculate on extra-terrestrial life – what it would be like, how prevalent it is, what we could learn from it, and so on. More than speculate, really, because we’re actively looking for it (or at least some of us are,) and have done some interesting theoretical science along those lines. I’ve written a few posts about it myself (first of a three-part series here, a further examination here,) though I hasten to add that the relationship between my stuff and theoretical science is distant at best, just barely on the same continent – maybe an outlying territory. And yet, I also want to point out that the topic remains theoretical, for everyone, because that’s all we can possibly engage in right now; we’d need a lot more information than we currently possess to accomplish anything more than speculation. We’re groping in the dark.

A post over at the National Center for Science Education blog sparked this extended thought process. The basic premise therein is that, between the discovery of atomic fission and the drastic changes we’re making to our environment and climate, we may not be terribly long-lived as species go; if we are at all representative of intelligent life, then it’s possible that intelligent life lasts only so long in the universe. So in cosmic terms, in order for us to encounter any, they would have to be almost exactly aligned with us in a developmental timeline. If they developed earlier, their signals fell upon deaf ears (like of the sauropods) and stopped before we could hear them, and if they develop much later, our own signals will have stopped.

Now, I’m going to ignore countless other factors within this whole topic to concentrate on one small aspect, but it’s an interesting one (it is – don’t argue.) And it’s something that underlies a lot of my posts here, so if I have a personal philosophical message – aside from trashing philosophy, I mean, – it’s along these lines.

Let’s start with the nuclear annihilation angle. While I am largely of the opinion that this is a passing phase of our development and a threat that will vanish soon, there are still some convincing arguments that we stood a little too close to decimating a large percentage of our world population, as well as provoking a drastic effect on our environment, with the discovery of nuclear weapons. It’s not like these hazards were at any time unknown, either – we were aware right from the start that they were intensely powerful. And we also knew, right from the start, that human behavior is a bit too unstable and outright petulant to possess such power. The attitude that surrounded them seems to be, “We, the responsible ones, better have enough bombs on hand to stop those irresponsible other guys.” Not only is there the idea that we had weapons more dangerous than humans could be trusted with as a whole, but that “we” were smarter and more trustworthy than “they,” this peculiar egotistic division that our species loves to engage in. Though the weapons have remained unused since the two initial events seventy years ago, we’re not really confident some one of us won’t be stupid enough to use them, quite possibly through that same tribalism that creates the “we” and “they.”

Chances are, no matter what, we wouldn’t wipe our species out in this manner, but it is possible that we’d wreck our economic system enough that space exploration, radio astronomy, and such pursuits take a distant back seat for a while. But consider if we, as a species, were just a smidgen more hotheaded, tribalistic, defiant, and egotistical – how easily could it have happened then? The balance between the rational consideration of consequences, and the emotional reaction to (even perceived) provocation seems to be surprisingly narrow now – it doesn’t seem like a slight change in our mental makeup, some aspect of evolutionary development long ago, couldn’t have made things turn out drastically different.

Now let’s consider climate change. There are several key aspects of the entire debate, having little to do with whether it’s actually taking place, believe it or not. Most of the debate was over whether humans were significantly, noticeably contributing to it, the “anthropogenic” part. And most of the debate over that was fostered, funded, and provoked by those who had the most to lose over the findings, the ones that would suffer serious hits to their gross profit structure if they had to curb the production of greenhouse gases, and a hell of a lot of money was poured into this fight. Almost entirely ignored within this all was that it didn’t matter how much the human contribution is (a measurably significant amount of it, by the way) – continued production of vast quantities of greenhouse gases was only going to add to the problem. Firefighters do not need to know if the house fire was started by a gas leak to turn the fucking gas off anyway as soon as they arrive.

But the overriding aspect that rears its ugly head in this situation is the short-term versus the long-term effects. By protecting profit structures, by denying and ignoring the impacts (predicted for decades, by the way,) by fighting to maintain the status quo against all indications that it would have to change, those in active denial were placing immediate gratifications over long-term hazards in level of importance. Future issues are “somebody else’s problem” – one of the failings of term limits in politics, and visible throughout many policies, including the one towards nuclear waste. Even on a personal level, we can foster a market that favors huge, overpowered trucks and muscle cars through some misplaced and pointless association with machismo, and consider the negative effects (and even the ongoing cost of gas) as somehow irrelevant, or out of our control. But, we can see a photo of a fast-food worker spitting in someone’s food and get incensed over it – feel free to weigh the relative impacts of each action.

[I want to be careful about playing the blame game here – there are numerous ways in which our environmental impact takes place, and a lot of them either honestly out of our control or outside of a viable opportunity, such as purchasing a hybrid vehicle or making our homes more efficient, often at a prohibitive cost. At the same time, the market will support these better as the demand increases. Something to consider.]

Tracing it all back, we find that most of the stumbling blocks in the path of long-term benefits come from simple traits: ego, status, greed, even convenience and indulgence. Overall, very basic emotions largely revolving around reproductive rights, but also around our status within the community (which is not exactly clear is even a separate thing from reproduction – is our fancy car showing off more to the neighbors or to potential mates?) And a lot of this is pursued way out of proportion to any benefit, mostly because we never think about it. So, we have a house twice as big as we need, are well past reproductive age, are competing with no one for any kind of needs whatsoever – what the fuck are we pursuing now?

That the question can even be asked is a rather telling evaluation of our species. The brains that give us the power of the atom, that tell us the long-term consequences of our actions, are too often incapable of directing us towards a productive, rational course of action. You would think that even a comfortable retirement, much less a luxurious one, would fall behind the continued thriving of our entire species – yet most times it doesn’t. The evolved drives that we have involve only the immediate future – which means we do not possess any instincts for lasting survival. That has to come from our brains actively considering them. Not very hard to do, really, but we have to make the effort.

We come back to that balance point. We received fancy brains largely because they were more efficient than evolving an automatic reaction to every environmental demand that we might face, but we still have the automatic reactions too, and they actually compete for attention. Our continued survival very likely depends on the brain winning the competition more often, and right now it’s not too clear if this is possible. As mentioned above, had we developed with a slightly stronger aggressive/protective instinct, the nuclear stalemate might have come out quite differently, and I’d have to be chipping this whole post into stone tablets or something. But are the drives that push us towards short-term benefits, status and ego and all that, actually too strong to allow the brain to guide our species towards long-term survival? It’s not a matter of what any individual may feel, or how easy it is to say, once the subject comes up in discussion, that the long-term is much more important. It’s a matter of how many actions our species as a whole may take under the goading of these base instincts.

These instincts were almost certainly necessary for us to survive this long, and variations of them exist in most species that engage in sexual reproduction – it seems highly likely that such traits (or close analogs thereof) are necessary for survival. But species also go extinct, failing to develop traits that will allow them to handle the new environmental demands. It’s not a matter of a ‘bad evolutionary selection,’ but the semi-random elements of both environmental variation and genetic mutation failing to achieve compatibility; sometimes this occurs very quickly and a species dies off with a short existence on this planet, and sometimes it doesn’t occur for a long time, like the proliferation of the trilobites that lasted 270 million years, through two major extinction events before disappearing in a third. Humans can’t make any claims to success or longevity; every species on the planet right now is a successful descendent of the beginning of life billions of years ago. The question is, which ones will continue far past this point?

Here’s another perspective to temper the idea that selection is ultimately successful. The various cancers, which many species can claim susceptibility to, have evolved right along with us; most of them can’t spread between individuals, and if they’re successful enough, their environment – the host – dies. They inhabit a niche of self-limitation, but as long as they usually spring up well past reproductive age, the tendency for them to exist still gets past the selection process. In essence, they’re a detriment that exploits a loophole in natural selection, yet do not possess any ability to expand beyond a given point.

And now, another factor, one which I’ve touched on before. We are a curious, exploratory species, always interested in what lies over the horizon. And when you think about it, we’re incredibly optimistic about it, unrealistically so to be honest – any newly discovered area stands an equal chance of being worse than where we are now, but this doesn’t temper our anticipation that it will be better. And these odds go crashing down dramatically when it comes to space exploration, since we evolved for conditions only on this planet – what exists in space is ridiculously inhospitable to us, and the same may be said for the vast majority of planets we could find. Very frequently, we will hear that our future is in space, and that man’s destiny is to expand and colonize, spread out through the stars – but why would we even think that? The efforts involved would be phenomenal, the expense of energy and resources to create even a moon colony so prohibitive that we have no feasible plan to implement it. Not to mention how bleak a moon colony would be.

If you ask anyone why we would have to colonize other planets than our own, the answer invariably is, because of our burgeoning population and dwindling resources here on Earth – the one planet in known existence where we can actually live. It’s like we throw up our hands over the prospect of even limiting ourselves, of being smart enough to live within our means – somehow, this is much harder than terraforming some other planet, or building a self-sustaining colony someplace. We’ve passed beyond irony and entered idiotic now – please do not make eye-contact with the natives. And it’s not like any of this is hard to puzzle out – we just don’t, under our inherent drives to explore and expand and spread out, like bacteria.

Even worse, some of our desire to expand into space may be the same status thing mentioned earlier – we want to own and control even more than the entire planet. Historically, expansion has been driven at least as much (probably far more) by power and megalomania as by the necessity of new resources or a more hospitable place to live. And it seems likely that we recognize this trait when we are concerned about who has nuclear weapons.

But when we imagine contacting extra-terrestrial life, we somehow believe they will have almost the exact same outlooks – or at least, those are the ones we hope to find, anyway, somehow thinking this is a good thing. It may be that we haven’t heard from any such species because they possess slightly more useful instincts than we do – perhaps no drive to explore at all, and instead one to make their conditions as ideally suited to their survival as possible, so their home planet is fully sustainable; they pick up their toys, too. The mark of an advanced race may be conservatism, that they won’t expand. By the same token, they might look at us askance, stunned by the behaviors we exhibit, the conflicts that hamper our development and put us at constant risk. Perhaps they might hope that we, like cancer, cannot extend beyond the host.

Which also means that encountering extra-terrestrial species that are similar to humans in any significant way might be a very bad thing; we may not like the mirror that is held up to us. Especially if they have the resources to extend contact across such vast distances in the first place. If they offer any blankets in trade, it’d be best to pass on them.

Truly, a bug

While redoing some drainage channels around the house, something in the dirt seemed a little too undirtlike [spellcheck doesn’t like that word, but I’ve long since learned that spellcheck is bigoted] so I scooped it up. Lo, it was a cicada, the first I’ve seen in the earlier instar nymph form, the phase that stays underground for freaking years and feeds on tree sap.
unearthed cicada nymph
Not that you can really tell much difference from the form that emerges from the ground and molts into the adult in the summer months – except for the eyes, it pretty much looks just like the exoskeleton it blithely leaves behind on tree trunks, a literal litterbug (unless you count the bugs that live in leaf litter, but I don’t.) I always thought the live ones would be more colorful, or striated or something – the reality did not justify the breathless anticipation.

This one was moving sluggishly at first – well, at always – but as it warmed up a little indoors it got slightly more active, especially when I was cleaning it up. This took place with an eyedropper and an artist’s paintbrush, and it fended off such ministrations around the head and mouth. At one point, dabbing it with a cotton swab to soak up excess moisture, it seized the cotton tip in those nasty little forelegs and wouldn’t let it go.
cicada nymph on tree root
For illustrative and educational purposes, I perched it on a tree root, which is where it would spend the majority of its life, drinking up sap and hashing out very long poems. Still annoyed at being disturbed, and likely unable to see anything more than light through those eyes if that, it kept its midlegs raised in either defensive posture or a rude gesture – I’m inclined towards the latter, since I’ve seen bees do this too when another encroaches on the flower its feeding from.

While I would like to watch this one develop, or at least emerge from the ground and climb its tree for the final molt into adult instar, I can’t think of any way of accomplishing this, so I’m simply going to return it to the location where I found it, now that the digging is done. It’s not like there’s a shortage of them come summer, though I’m still frustrated with coming across a swarm of them all molting at once, literally dozens, when my camera was miles away (obligations with friends – see how badly those can turn out?) One of these days I’ll get the whole sequence.

Bolstered, however, by actually finding something to photograph in January, I went out with the flashlight to see if anything else was stirring – spiders can be surprisingly hardy in cooler weather, for instance. Alas, all I found were a few centipedes and some snails, which I brought inside for a brief photo session and a race, unless I caught myself doping one of the snails and forfeited the race.
snail race

Can’t have that

Held back by ghostsLooking at the sidebar, I find there are no posts from the previous years – not for this date nor, apparently, for three days afterward, which is the parameter of the plugin. This just seems wrong somehow (the lack of posts I mean,) so I am obligated to break that pattern.

Assisting me in this endeavor is an image from a few weeks back. Please feel free to examine it for the magnificent insights that it may provide, laying bare the innermost workings of your soul.

Or, since there is almost certainly no such thing as a soul, hopefully instead you noticed the misleading aspect of it, the leaf ‘anchored’ to the reflection of the tree branch. Yes, I specifically positioned myself to bring this about. If you didn’t notice this, then I feel even better about this little trick, as if this makes me somehow smarter or better than you. Well, I mean, even more so than normal.

Yes, the focus being slightly off was also intentional, because see above. The idea was to give a faintly disconnected, dreamlike aspect to it all. Don’t look at me like that. It was.

Okay, fine. Be that way.

Winter captives

Scarlet peacock Anartia amathea on few-flowered milkweed Asclepias lanceolata
A few days ago I demonstrated my vast disconnect from the parent mindset, because I went to the NC Museum of Life & Science, on one of only two Mondays they are open during the winter as well as a school holiday, and wondered if it would be crowded. I know, I know – don’t mock me because I’m beautiful. And I didn’t specifically plan this one, because it was a session with a student, the inestimable Al Bugg, plus it was an opportunity to get some critter shots in a season that’s pretty lean around here. So I was able to cope with the plethora of yard apes that were everywhere.

As has been featured here before, the NCMLS has a butterfly house, providing the opportunity for closer shots of more exotic species than can usually be found in natural settings. The purposes that the photos can be used for is varied: probably not stock images for sales, because of the anachronistic insects and vegetation, but for a splash of color, or fartsy stuff, or even just the opportunity to work on framing, creativity, and light control, it’s fine.

tattered owl butterfly Caligo memnonNormally I avoid the butterflies that look tattered or a little beat-up, but this one worked well with the diffuse backlighting, and the color pattern lent it an air of being quite old. It could actually have been, but “quite old” for a butterfly might be a month, and in any case this was the typical coloration of the species, an owl butterfly (Caligo memnon.)

Anytime you’re visiting a place of this nature, it’s a good idea to take photos of any identification guides that are provided, so you can easily refer back to them to pin down the species (a ha ha, did you get it? Pin down the— oh, never mind.) A long time ago, I used a mini cassette recorder to take notes on the fly, but for circumstances like this, I’d end up trying to describe the color pattern well enough to distinguish the subject from anything similar or, on occasion, noting the frame number – this was back in the days of film, and if need be, ask your grandparents what “film” and “cassette” mean. So it was easier to identify the butterfly at the top of the post as a scarlet peacock (Anartia amathea,) but quite a bit harder to identify the flower species as a few-flowered milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) – my friend was no help at all, but I was pretty sure that it was an NC native plant so I narrowed the search that way, and didn’t have to try and describe the peculiar shape of the blossoms (because finding flowers by color is rather haphazard, since there are thousands of species that are “red & yellow.”) And this is what I mean about useful stock – the butterfly is South American, while the flower is North American, so they wouldn’t normally appear together.

paper kite butterfly Idea leuconoe on some pink flower
The same might be said for this one, a paper kite (Idea leuconoe) on a flower that I’m not going to try looking up, but almost certainly native to NC – not something that an Asian butterfly should be found feeding upon. Part of me asks, “Is this important?” – entomologists are likely to be the only ones to spot the anachronism, and even then might still find the image aesthetically pleasing (or might not.) Scientific usage is ruled out, as is a feature on Asian travel, but perhaps not much else. It’s the perspective that defines this photo anyway.

walking leaf insect Phylliidae While it is tempting to think that captive subjects are easy to photograph, this isn’t always the case, especially when it comes to species like this walking leaf insect, of the family Phylliidae. Sure, they’re right there behind the glass (and you’re gonna like them, ’cause they’ve got class!) and certainly not leaping around, but there are reflections from the glass to consider, and distortion if you’re not aiming perpendicular to the glass surface – angles are a no-no. And then there’s the setting, which is often not something useful in any way – in this case, a few plants that served as food and clinging surfaces, backed by the other side of the terrarium (so more glass for reflections) and then the greater environs of the museum, which on a crowded day means constantly moving people in a wide variety of clothes. Thus, it was even easier to get something in the image that was unwanted, in one way or another – which explains this tight closeup. The arthropod itself was probably just shy of the length of your hand, much easier to do detail shots of instead of something a few millimeters long, but backing off for a full body image meant something unwanted was going to be in the frame. Plus, I had to get enough attention on that peculiar head; there are quite a few insects that just seem to have cool looks, for want of a better term, like the orchid mantises (repeat link,) but this is not one of them.

By the way, you’re seeing the insect from the back, head towards the top of the frame – that’s the roundish thing in the center, flanked by two forelimbs, and topping the dorsal ridge ‘spine.’ The remaining four limbs can all be found by looking for that ‘vein’ thickening on the ‘leaves’ to either side – everything you see in this image is actually insect, except for a little bit at upper left.

red wolf Canis rufus in reposeAnother example is this red wolf (Canis rufus,) a Carolina native that was almost decimated due to greater human populations, now being reintroduced through breeding programs. A lot of people decry captive animals of any sort, and I can see their points, but there are a lot of factors that should be taken into consideration that often aren’t – in my experience, people with the firmest opinions usually have the most superficial understandings. Species such as this are being released back into coastal areas, which often sparks protests from farmers and hyperparanoid parents, but the truth of the matter is, the damage they can do is infinitesimal, much less than disease, and they are hardly as aggressive as popular opinion often portrays. The ability to see them in person, as mellow and pleasant as any family dog (more so than a lot, actually,) helps dispel the negative impressions, putting the programs in a more-acceptable frame of reference.

One of the pair was resolutely staying in front of the chain link fence of their enclosure, reinforcing the captive idea and making it hard to create a worthwhile image, while this one was sprawled out asleep atop their den (which also had enough manmade elements visible.) But as one of the museum golf carts came cruising by, this one sat up and watched attentively, probably wondering about a late-afternoon feeding. The light was right at this time of day, and as the wolf tracked the cart its eye caught the light, producing that little sparkle that improves animal images, not to mention the amber color that helps distinguish this from a dog. Nothing truly exciting, but still a nice portrait, and that’s what captive photography allows the best. I liked the vertical composition better, but still have enough of the body in there to illustrate their coloration, which is hardly the ‘red’ that one might expect from the species name, and there’s even a hint of how it works as camouflage. Soon after this shot, all I could see was the animal’s back and top of the head as it sprawled out again – which is another tip: have patience if you’re after an interesting shot. At first glance nothing may be happening, and when it does, it might be brief, but you have to be there and be ready.

My favorite pic from the day, however, was one I initially thought I’d be throwing out.

ring-tailed lemur Lemur catta portraitThere are a lot of species of lemur, but the ring-tailed (Lemur catta) is the one that gets 99% of the attention somehow, and I’m actually a little tired of them myself. The ones outdoors were a little active in the chilly air, but not terribly so, and my shooting angle was downwards, which I hate. A cluster of them, however, were in the glassed viewing enclosure, huddled together on a branch a short distance overhead, and I decided to go in close for a portrait, if I could get past the shortcomings of the filthy glass, the bad light, and the inappropriate background. This was the first frame I took, and I was sure I’d gotten reflections in it, so I shot a bunch more, including some great eye-contact and backing off a bit to do a pair. As I unloaded the images and started reviewing them, however, the expression in this one grabbed me immediately, and there was nothing distracting in the frame at all – even the light color is pleasantly warm (note the orangish cast on the cheeks.) It wasn’t my intention at the time, but this is also exactly what you’d want for a magazine cover: simple and direct subject, open space at top for header, and plenty of useful space along sides and bottom for content teasers and barcode. I just like the expectant, Les Mis appeal to the expression, though.

For portrait people, there’s one more aspect I’ll point out. The guideline on portraiture is generally shooting at somewhere between 80 and 120mm in focal length, aperture of f8. The point behind these is that together, they produce the best proportions and depth-of-field for portraits. A wider angle, for instance, may cause a small amount of fisheye distortion that might make the nose prominent. Here, I was shooting at 80mm, f4, and while the eyes are sharp (the point you should always focus upon,) you can see the right ear and the tip of the nose are going out of focus – might seem okay for this usage, but not something that should be done for people. The background, however, is exactly what you’d want, and there is an outline of sharpness around the lemur itself, just grabbing the viewer’s eye.

It will be a while before there’s much else to photograph around here, which is why the title refers as much to me as to the subjects herein, and you’ll probably see a few posts of archive shots for a bit. So this was a decent break to help along the slow season, but I’ll still get a few things of interest up as we go.

Odd memories, part 14

Those memories – sometimes they’re stirred by the oddest things. Especially when they’re odd in themselves.

Watching an episode of Sealab 2021 recently dug this one from the (sordid) depths, but that show can do that to you. Sealab 2021 is a reboot, or something, of a children’s cartoon from, my dog, 1972, called Sealab 2020 (look closely if you have to.) I remember watching this show on Saturday mornings, which is what kids did before cable networks devoted entirely to cartoons existed, and (not to brag or anything) I even had the Sealab 2020 board game.


Williams Street productions obtained the rights to the situations and characters and brought them back for a series on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late night hosting block, aimed at… uh… a bit more earthy humor. Or warped. Juvenile. You’re getting the idea. Williams Street took the characters from the original children’s environmentally-themed action show and made them more than mildly dysfunctional, wrapped up in truly bizarre plotlines that often ended with the destruction of the sealab itself. Notably, it ran five times as long as the original…

Anyway, the memory. Some years back I was out scouting photographic subjects, and had stopped the truck on a lonely stretch of road, the kind where shallow graves tend to appear, if that helps you imagine the setting. While looking at a large dead tree, I spotted a small piece of luggage sitting not far from the roadside, not Louie Vitamin style or anything, but much nicer than one would expect to see in such a location, and in quite good shape. Now, because of my photography habits, I am often in search of useful bags, since the manufacturers don’t recognize my demographic very well, so I scooted off the road into the thin underbrush to fetch it; plus, since it looked recently discarded in this remote locale, there was some curiosity as to why.

A quick peek inside back when I reached the truck satisfied that curiosity while tempering much of any future curiosity as well. To my short inspection, the bag contained some lacy undergarments, something with a whole lot of leather straps (perhaps more than one something,) and an adult magazine. Hah! You thought with a lead-in about shallow graves and thwarted curiosity, there were gonna be body parts or something, didn’t you?

[A brief digression here to examine the abuse of the word, “adult.” Its meaning is perhaps the most variable in the English language – you are an ‘adult’ at age 12 when it comes time to pay for entry into amusement parks and movies, except that you’re still way too young to see an R-rated movie, for which you have to be accompanied by an adult, which suddenly means over 18. Of course, ‘adult’ movies, the ones that feature non-simulated sex, have the same age restriction, even though the age of consent is 16 in the US, but 18 is when you can be tried as an adult. Also note that it is easier to see graphic dismemberment on the screen than it is to see sex, which is a peculiar part of our culture. By the way, 18 is fine for voting and military service, but 21 is the limit for alcohol and cigarettes – again, it’s not clear who’s making these distinctions. Getting back to “adult” now, you cannot live in an adult home until you’re over 65, yet you can wear adult undergarments (not the kind mentioned above, which are usually worn by 16-year-old girls) at any age, as long as you’re incontinent. And I have not noticed any particular distinction or pattern, in relation to all of the above, when pronouncing it “uh-DULT” or “AA-dult.” And of course, what precisely is meant by the word when used in ‘Adult Swim’ is anybody’s guess, but maturity is not exactly the byword I think.]

The bag I simply dropped into the bed of the pickup truck and forgot about, and don’t ask me why right now, because I really don’t know – maybe I was thinking of re-gifting it come christmastime. A few days later however, when a friend of mine noticed the bag and asked why I was leaving it out in the weather, I invited him to look inside. He spent just as long as I had perusing the contents (which is to say, a few seconds, without bothering to actually reach inside,) before he handed it back to me. I wish I could remember the conversation that ensued, but I do remember tossing the bag negligently (a ha ha – think about it) back into the truck.

In moments, our conversation stopped, as the new sound now emanating from the bag made itself heard. This is where Sealab 2021 comes in.

The clip doesn’t do it justice, either, since the bag was sitting on the sheet metal of the truck bed. The sound was magnified by this, echoing slightly in an ominous manner, and I could have sworn I heard, “There is no Dana, only Zuul.” My memory wants to insist the bag was dancing around the bed in small pirouettes, but this would take some pretty powerful batteries and my memory is a liar sometimes – though, this would help explain why someone (perhaps while walking funny) tossed it out…

My friend and I exchanged glances briefly, confirming that neither one of us intended to reach inside to shut anything off, or even wanted to be seen in the general vicinity. I’m pretty sure no further words were uttered, but I can’t vouch for giggling.

I realize now that I missed a photoblog opportunity. I could have mailed the contents out to various volunteers across the globe, who would have taken photos of said contents alongside various tourist attractions and landmarks, to be posted as a travelogue online someplace. Perhaps named it some variation of, “Where’s Waldo?”…

*     *     *

A small follow-up note: As I post this, one of the recommended videos that appears after the clip ends is titled, “Vanishing Bottle Prank,” which I cannot help but feel is in exceptionally poor taste. I always thought better of YouTube…

Thar she glows

crappy comet C/2014 Q2 LovejoyThat was terrible, I admit it…

As comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy has been getting brighter, we’ve had zero visibility here, until tonight. I went out and did some searching with binoculars, finally locating it, then brought the camera equipment out to give it a shot. The result you see here; certainly not going to win any awards. It’s still dim as far as celestial objects go, unable to be seen unassisted in the light pollution at my locale, but also too dim to register very well without an extended exposure, even at ISO 1600. The problem with extended sky exposure is the Earth refuses to stop turning, so stars and comets keep skidding across the sky – that’s the source of the elongated streaks in the image (and not camera shake – I was using a sturdy tripod and a remote release.) This is a mere three-second exposure at ISO 3200, f5.6, 500mm focal length. The way to prevent such streaking and get nice, detailed long exposure images is with either an equatorial tracking telescope mount, or a little homemade device called a barn door tracker. If you’re interested, there are numerous sources online to show you how one is made. I don’t possess much of any woodworking tools, so this project has been sitting in the background for a few years, and is not likely to get tackled before Lovejoy has faded from view.

If you want to see this for yourself, have a decent set of binoculars (10×50 or better recommended) and use to plot its precise location as seen from where you live. Stellarium also helps, since Heavens-Above doesn’t give the best broad views to help locate it, but they do give precise coordinates which can be used in Stellarium, since Stellarium doesn’t give the comet’s location on its own (or at least I never found it myself.)

shady dude on lakeshoreWhile I was out, I tried a few other long exposures for giggles, and kinda liked this one. That’s my own shadow across the water there, and I’m amazed at how clear the reflection of the opposite shore is – I don’t think I’ve ever done a long water exposure that sharp. Also, I was apparently accompanied by four ghosts while out there, as you might see when looking at the bottom portion of my shadow. They’re remarkably distinct at full resolution too, but not otherwise mystical – they’re just optical reflections within the lens of the bright lights at top right.

If we ever get a really decent snow, especially if the pond freezes over, I’ll be braving the cold and doing more night exposures, since this pond is within walking distance. If I think I can get a really slick shot or three, I can cope with freezing my ass off for a little while. I need to cover the tripod legs with pipe insulation again before that happens, though – the last set got shredded by the cats, which found it much more satisfying to sharpen their claws on than any of the myriad scratching posts they have access to. Half an hour out in the cold and those aluminum legs get painful to handle, even with gloves.

A few days earlier, we had overnight freezing rain/mist conditions. I didn’t get the chance to do any shooting as early as I should have for the best results, but I still managed to trot out to the botanical garden before all of the ice melted. The sky was still overcast and, naturally, most of the plants were not exactly vibrant, so I was exercising an even greater selectivity in subject matter, with much of a sameness despite those efforts.

Frozen mist on naranjilla
This is a naranjilla fruit, a little past prime now, but quite fetching with its coiffure of frozen mist – a shot of direct sunlight to provide some sparkle would have been appreciated, but it wasn’t going to happen that day.

cotton pod with frozen dripAnd this is a rather sad cotton pod – usually they burst wide open like popcorn. This is a stacked image, two sandwiched together; one image had the front surface of the husks in focus, the other had the stem and icicle. Shooting handheld in dim light, I didn’t even try for a depth-of-field that would have both of them in focus, because the shutter speed would have gone too slow, so I simply cheated and edited them together afterward. I find this a little too direct and centered for my tastes, but there really weren’t many other framing options – I cut out a lot of distracting elements as it were, and liked the visual aspect of the pod, so there it is.

By the way, I’m not really sure why this is, but brown hues like this tend to come out much better in overcast light. This is counter-intuitive, since cloud cover filters out yellow and red wavelengths, which is largely what brown is made of. What’s left is mostly blue wavelengths, giving us that colder feel, yet it works well for dead, dried, or old vegetation in a lot of cases. This might simply be the nature of the vegetation itself, somehow not reflecting much blue at all but capable of bouncing back the vestiges of other colors. I’m just guessing, I really have no clue.

Atop one of the wood fences in the garden was a really impressive forest of lichens, and this is where I regret not getting out sooner, because ice might have made this quite an interesting subject.

close-up of lichens
There is always something otherworldly about lichens, and to the best of my knowledge, there were two distinct varieties in close habitation (I can’t be bothered to look them up for this.) None of these alien stalks were more than 10mm in height, and I wanted a semi-gravity-defying perspective, so I was shooting through the miniature forest for this one. Definitely something that benefited from softer light as well. If you find it kind of creepy-looking, well, that’s the point. [If you don’t, just keep quiet and let me be happy in my ignorance – there are too few bugs around to maintain my regular icky posts.]

frozen mist on dying purple flowerAnd finally, my favorite image from this short session. I had already walked past these small flowers earlier without noticing them, but had returned to check out another species of plant I’d photographed on an earlier trip, and the tiny splash of color caught my eye this time around. No idea what they are, but the minuscule frozen mist drops were catching the sparse light just well enough to really stand out. And this is probably an ancient holdover from my youth, when grape was my favorite flavor of anything, but that purple color is so compelling I can almost taste it, contrasting nicely with the green as well. It also helps illustrate how low-contrast light can be useful when dealing with a high-contrast or colorful subject – bright sunlight might have been too much.

There are a couple of trips still in the planning stages that might produce some more decent images during these slow months – not promising anything, but we’ll see what happens. I also have a few archive subjects that should pop up within the next week or so, just in case anyone else was going through bug withdrawal as badly as I am. You are not alone, so take heart! Arthropods will be coming shortly.

Friends with benefits

I’m not surprising anyone when I say humans are a social species, both from the biological definition and from our own self-description. But it goes further than that – we’re socially-influenced and socially-dependent, meaning we make a really stunning number of our decisions based on how we feel others will respond to them, often without any other consideration at all. This isn’t just about fads and fashions and middle-school students either – status is only about the perception of others, and that extends up to what cars we drive and what houses we buy. Think about that for a second: we will make our decisions about the expenditure of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars based on what someone else thinks. Certainly, not entirely (and yet, are we sure that applies to everyone?) but when it comes down to it, the practical considerations of what functions best, what is most efficient, what fits our budget best, and so on, all somehow compete against the opinions of others, as if this had some importance, some impact, some necessity. We might spend years in education and training, then gaining experience, working our way up the ladder, largely to maintain and especially increase our status. It’s almost frightening.

That this is actually an evolved trait leaves little room for argument, especially since it’s existed in our species for all of recorded history (and all of the fables as well,) prevalent throughout the world in every culture. And why it evolved into us makes sense too, when we consider our past. For millions of years, our ancestors lived in small groups or tribes, hunter-gatherers, struggling for survival against countless factors from scarce food to bad weather to literal hominid-eating predators. Like many other species, it was better to have a cooperative social group than to try and exist as individuals, reaping the advantages of pack-hunting and community child care and larger-scale farming and the safety of numbers. But to maintain a cohesive group, there must be the instinct, the desire to cooperate and interact. We tend to believe that most everything we do is the result of rational consideration, the careful weighing of benefits – that’s what our brains are for, and what ‘sets us apart from the animals’ (always an amusing phrase – what are we, minerals?) But plenty of other species, from elephants to ants, also operate on the same principles, and it’s safe to say they’re not all getting there because they sat down and weighed the pros and cons. There’s little if any reason to believe that we don’t possess the same kind of evolved behavioral instincts, and quite a few to believe that we do.

For some species, it may amount to almost programming; ants may have just a handful of near-automatic behaviors – construct the community warren, raise the young, protect the queen, and so on. As the environment presents more challenges and variables, however, it becomes harder for brains to have defined answers for everything, and easier to have them capable of evaluating a situation when it’s encountered; decision-making. The weather is turning bad – seek shelter or ignore it? And right away, we can ask ourselves, well, how bad is it? (I’m sorry, I don’t have a punchline to follow through with, but if you have a favorite, feel free.) And we, and other species as well, look through past experience, and consider time lost while sheltering, and above all we think, how important is it to keep foraging? Because survival is the pattern that natural selection produces. The individual that has the tendency, the desire, the prod, to behave in a manner that’s slightly more useful, that increases the chances of surviving to reproduction, is the one that spreads its genes more effectively.

Cooperation is the same way. The group, the tribe, the village – they have to stay together, not just physically, but on goals and ideals as well. What we got out of the selection lottery is the reliance on the opinions of others, the desire to appease our group (what we might call peers now, but in the past it was our extended family or tribe.) Without this, getting kicked out of the tribe because we weren’t interested in the same goals would be a fairly common occurrence, and without another group of people to hunt/forage/huddle with, we could die easily. And, very likely, did – ending any genetic behavior towards individualism.

This necessity existed for millions of years – in the history of life on this planet, it was only recently that we no longer needed this trait so much. Just in the past few thousand years, even few hundred, have we gotten to the point where survival wasn’t nearly as dependent on others – that’s an eyeblink in terms of genetic change. Evolution has this property where it shapes the species towards the environment, but the environment can change rapidly, and at any given time the species may be in the process of catching up – and those that don’t, go extinct. But it means that an unknown number of traits, perhaps quite a lot, are for conditions that were, but no longer are.

More interesting, however, is how this is accomplished. We have the desire to care for and protect babies, which is good, because damn our young are worthless for years. But it’s remarkably unspecific, so unspecific that we can fawn over, uh, fawns – research has shown that we respond to factors such as heads out of proportion to bodies, eyes out of proportion to faces, short limbs, and so on. Yes, everything that women think is ‘cute’ about baby anythings – you’re getting the picture. The funny thing about natural selection is that it doesn’t have to be specific to work, and a false-positive may be absorbed as long as it isn’t detrimental, or at least, significantly detrimental. If the benefits outweigh the detriments, there’s the advantage that can be selected.

Cooperation is a little more complicated. First, there’s the concept of who deserves the cooperation. Again, selection works on the genetic level, so what’s going to come out of that is what gives benefit to those who are related, that can carry the same genes. From the standpoint that a sibling has the greatest percentage of the same genes, and a first-cousin a lesser percentage, and a distant cousin even fewer, behavior that favors the immediate family tends to be strongest. A tribe in prehistoric times has been surmised to have usually been made up of an extended family unit, and in areas of the world where such cultures still exist, this holds true; thus, the tribe typically was the family, having a much higher chance of carrying the same genes as any other tribe. Even if it absorbed an ‘outsider,’ said absorbee would likely marry a relative anyway. Yet the selection of ‘peers’ is trickier, since tribes might merge into stockades or villages, or even temporarily join for harvest or hunting benefits, so what seems to have been selected was a tendency to bond with ‘like-minded’ individuals, those that shared the same interests, outlooks, goals, et cetera. If this sounds like internet chat groups, well, there’s a good reason for that. It also means that this distinction of ‘in-group’ can be variable, depending on the situation, allowing allegiances to change to fit the environmental demand.

And for every in-group, there’s an out-group, the reason such a distinction is even made. From the natural selection standpoint, this is a group that has little to no likelihood of sharing genes or beneficial traits. The gene part isn’t always something readily apparent, but the beneficial trait part is covered by seeking like-minded companions. Those that show radical differences earned the mental classification of ‘out-group,’ perhaps not necessarily ‘enemy,’ but certainly not those to associate with. Strong bonding and reliance revolved around the tribal unit, strengthening the unit itself, while an almost disdainful attitude towards outsiders kept us from watering down the genetic legacy, and whatever benefits it might contain.

Today, our tribalism exists in countless forms. Consider how we select ‘our’ sports teams – yes, the possessive is always present, and very telling – on the basis that they exist in the same school, or a nearby city, or the same state; nothing whatsoever to do with how good they might be, or even the utter idiocy of merely watching, rooting for, getting ridiculously emotional over, a fucking game. Seriously, how does this impact our lives? We remain concerned over how we dress, such as still giving great emphasis to suit jackets and ties, never considering the pointlessness of either one, the peculiar tailoring required, and the idea that as functional clothes they accomplish almost nothing that clothes are supposed to, too hot in summer, not warm enough in winter, and so worthless for protection that we have to be careful not to damage them. We’re playing dress-up for everyone else, without a moment’s thought. We have countless social conventions, like saying, “Bless you” when someone sneezes and not farting in public, as if these weren’t mindlessly trivial. We make up every word that we speak, and have to agree as a culture on what they mean, but then we react in horror if we actually say some of them. We avoid admitting to the music we really like, because it’s not popular. [Duran Duran, the early years, fuck you.] We spend large portions of our lives almost terrified that we might gain some form of disapproval from others, to the point where we’re uncomfortable, conflicted, spending too much money, and who knows how many other inconveniences. And we like to believe that we’re a thinking, rational species. Please.

It gets worse. The peculiar behaviors of mass hysteria and mob mentality (links one, two, three, four, five) are well-studied and disturbingly common, and they can often result in people dying. I want to note that a couple of those links give the Salem Witch Trials as an example, but Salem’s panic lasted fifteen months while the European witch hysteria lasted three centuries. And yet, it isn’t even the distinctive events that deserve the attention, because there are two (at least) much bigger and more prevalent examples of social influence that result in horrific behavior, and those are religion and nationalism.

We’ll start with nationalism, which is largely the same tribalism as that sports nonsense above, expanded to the imaginary demarcations of a country. It takes no effort to find an online forum where nationalism springs up in an ugly manner, often sparked by the observation of some form of silly behavior (as well as a broad stereotype, and I’ll let you ponder the source of those.) When France refused to support the US invasion of Iraq a little over a decade ago, this country got so childishly fervent that we started using the term, “freedom fries,” as if invading another country personified freedom in any way, much less any recognition that France had the freedom to disagree if they desired, which is what the word means. Countless antagonisms the world over have their basis in some event that occurred decades to centuries ago, that has no possible impact on anyone today; they remain important, even dire, because everyone else finds them that way. In the intervening time, the leadership might have changed in both person and function, the economic structure undergone radical fluctuations and even collapses, the allies and trade centers bounced around, perhaps even the languages changed – but that Great Injustice of So Long Ago? That remains preeminent. Remember the Alamo…

I want to touch briefly on some observations about Nazi Germany. While Hitler is now practically a curse word, the man himself most certainly did not act alone, nor can we even narrow things down to the Nazi high command – it took a large percentage of people to go along, and always does, or leaders would have no power whatsoever. While the bulk of the military, much less the public, were kept unaware of the practices within the concentration camps, they were still well-staffed, and enough purges took place outside of them as well – purges more often than not upon the same countrymen. There is a tendency to think in terms of “Nazis” or even “Germans,” but this kind of behavior can take place anywhere, among anyone – less than a decade after the war trials, this country was swept up into the ‘Red Scare’ and McCarthyism, and still demonstrates mindless group-think such as worrying about birth certificates and the immigrant ‘invasion.’ Ironically, we end up using these tribalism traits to try and distinguish that such traits are only practiced by other tribes…

Now let’s pick on religion again, because it’d be a shame to write this many words and not piss someone off. Religion, despite the evolved behavior that seems likely to foster it, wouldn’t even exist without the cultural emphasis and social influence. There are too many different religions to believe any one of them can demonstrate its value, accuracy, or divine provenance. And this is if the vast majority of the faithful even had any knowledge of other religions beyond their title; most people practice the faith that they grew up in. There are literally countless sects, variations, denominations, practices, and delineations, so many that it’s more accurate to consider each individual place of worship as its own religion than to think that, for instance, all muslims believe the same thing. The rampant selectivity over not just the practices, but the weight given to various portions of scripture (the supposed word of god) shows that it isn’t even the veneration of supernatural influences that deserves any credit; much the same can be said for the rather imaginative interpretations given to said scripture, based on no scholarly method or translations, that somehow form the backbone of so many practices. I sit here in a state that has outlawed same-sex marriage, yet considers shellfish like shrimp (another very distinctive sin, according to the same scripture) not just a food staple, but a major economic foundation. I don’t know if anyone has actually done any surveys, but I’m personally willing to bet that at least half of the self-professed devout don’t even know the passage about shellfish exists; they’re not familiar with their scriptural sources, much less seeking guidance from such – they just listen to what’s handed out in church.

And yet, the religious influence the world over is astounding, another manifestation of tribalism that results in a truly loathsome amount of bloodshed – not from being able to demonstrate even accuracy, though benefit would be a much better goal, not to protect themselves, not even for justice, but because there’s simply this underlying attitude of, “us right, you wrong.” Often, wrong goes so far as to mean subhuman, non-chosen, demonic, possessed, and so on. And while I’m more than okay with examining the real motivations behind religious conflict (any conflict,) we have to still recognize that what works to fire up the populace, the reason why religion keeps appearing in the midst of conflict in the first place, is the social influence that it’s important. None of the benefits ever quoted for religion can be used to justify slaughter, and most adherents even try to downplay the scriptural passages where it takes place, knowing that it’s not a viable method of improvement. But it doesn’t take a whole lot to start the fire going, either, just like it doesn’t take much for riots to occur.

While the violence is more than enough to justify grave doubts, it’s far from the only detrimental practice fostered by religion. The US sees constant attempts to censor, dismiss, an even legislate against good, solid science, the kind that’s proven its value over and over again. The vast bulk of legal action to protect both civil liberties and Constitutional rights takes place because of religiously-motivated campaigns. A stunning number of people believe, without any evidence to support it (and a fucking hell of a lot that contradicts it,) that religion is responsible for morality, which naturally leads to the bizarre idea that doing anything in the name of religion is good. More times than not, when someone is getting seriously uptight about something, you’ll find religion beating the drum (and they say atheists are angry.) Pay attention to any marginalized or discriminated group, anywhere, and see how often the justification is religious. It’s honestly pathetic.

I will clarify here that I do not believe that this social influence is the sole provocation for either nationalism or religion, nor even the sole negative influence. And indeed, there are a handful of good, rational reasons to hold some of these attitudes. The overall agreement on the values and goals of a country provides the cohesiveness to see that these are maintained – but that’s hardly what we see in this country, where the fractions of political parties are at each others’ throats not over any agreement or disagreement about direction, but simply because those other parties are the enemy; whatever excuse that can be found to justify and reinforce this is seized upon without reservation or honest consideration. And religion also owes a lot to privilege, righteousness, and insecurity. Yet, take note of all of the negative influences and aspects of any form of behavior, and see how often critical examination and careful decision-making is the culprit.

That highlights the part that might be amusing, if it wasn’t for all the utter shit that ensues: it’s all just an urge. The social drive is weaker than our sex drive, easier to ignore than having to urinate. It’s this little finger on the scales when we’re weighing options, able to be pushed off, but only when we’re aware that it occurs. The problem lies entirely with our tendency to react, to make decisions based on immediate feelings rather than any form of rational consideration – and worse, to justify such reactions afterward. Anyone may claim that their circle of social media ‘friends’ is a form of networking, or helps them keep in touch – but do we really believe that, or is it just another method to seek a nonsensical status? Should we even care what strangers think? Does this have any effect on our lives, one way or another? Hell, even if someone thinks you’re a total boor in the grocery store because you didn’t say, “Bless you,” when they sneezed, are you ever going to encounter them again? And should you care that they’re judging you on the most superficial of standards? Don’t bother bringing up the word respect because that’s not at all what it means, or should mean. But certainly, when it comes to money, or the time and effort we’re expending, does popular opinion have any reason to be a factor at all?

If it helps, realize that, in any crowd of people, fully half of them are below average intelligence – some of them are downright idiots (and their popularity is hardly a guide in that respect.) Or it might help to know that a lot of people have already tumbled to this trait in humans, and are exploiting it in numerous ways. Do we really need to see a counter of how many people liked a video to know if we should like it or not? How many times have we heard the argument that “millions of people can’t be wrong”? Merchandisers prey on the tendency for people to find something popular, because that’s their cue to jack the prices. Not to mention that our political system is nothing but a popularity contest because voters can’t be bothered to concentrate on the ability to govern…

By no means should this be taken to espouse an anti-social attitude – we’re still a social, cooperative species, relying on group efforts for food, roads, medical care, and so on. And there’s nothing that will deny or replace our desires for social interaction – nor is there any reason to, since this aspect doesn’t create much in the way of problems for us. It’s only when it goes overboard, influencing or outright replacing the decisions that should be made with consideration that it becomes problematic; but this happens a lot. We’re also limited in how much we can do about it, in many ways. We might skip the suit-&-tie for a job interview, only to run afoul of that expectation from the potential employer, who still believes that it makes some difference (or that there is such a thing as professional-looking, like someone’s appearance will define how well they work.) Yet, overall, placing emphasis on making sense, on providing good reasons for doing anything, and most especially, on not doing something because we’re expected to, or everyone else is doing it, is going to help us in the long run. The wonderfully nuanced brains that we possess are also an evolved trait, capable of fathoming how atoms interact and measuring light, giving us the ability to make quite specific decisions in the face of countless variables – it’s a shame to let them be hobbled by a kneejerk reaction, an influence that lags behind our progress as a species. At least getting emotional over baby animals doesn’t end up killing anyone.

What’s funny is, sometimes this holds up people so badly that they appreciate it when someone else breaks from the herd; just speaking up in a crowd can provoke others to join in, those not in agreement with the way the wind was blowing but not sure enough of themselves to do anything about it – it’s sometimes startling how often this occurs. And it’s good for us too, because not only do we get immediate support for bucking the perceived trend, we discover that it wasn’t a trend in the first place, just the symptom of a weird behavior trait.

Also amusing is the idea that, as independent thought begins to take hold among a greater number of people, it will get easier to accomplish because it’s now accepted and approved – appeasing our desire for conformity by denying its importance. You gotta love that.

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On composition, part 23: Weather

wave clouds over breakers on shoreline
Let me be up front about this: when the weather turns nasty, it is rare that I’ll be out in it, any more than the next person, and I don’t make a habit out of many of the practices I’ll be talking about here. So don’t take this to be preachy or anything. But if you find yourself itching to get out and chase photos but blocked by weather that’s less than ideal, or worse, on a trip or vacation and faced with the dismal kind of conditions that you really didn’t want to see, this post is to point out that you’re not completely at a loss, and in fact, there are some interesting opportunities to be had.

There are three primary aspects of using weather itself as a factor or even a subject in your images: light quality, mood, and the elements themselves.

Light quality. Many people seem to think that bright sunny days are ideal for photography; many people are wrong. While such conditions can be useful for a handful of subjects, bright light increases contrast, producing dark shadows, and it’s not hard to have conditions that fall outside of the dynamic range that the camera can capture. When this happens, pale subjects like flowers, fur, feathers, snow, and even skin can get bleached out to pure featureless white, while dark subjects (largely the same list except for the snow, unless you get really crappy snow where you live) can drop off the other end of the scale and go pure black. Shadows across faces can become war paint in the image, people start squinting, and even deep, rich colors of flowers can get overexposed and washed out, losing any delicate aspect.

As the humidity increases, however, the light softens; hazy to light overcast conditions are quite useful for portraiture and garden shots, anything with a wider range of colors, and the deeper the humidity gets, the less contrast is produced, so it becomes easier to work with high-contrast subjects. Even white flowers and snow, which require contrast and shadows to show their textures and contours, can benefit from light overcast that prevents the highlights from going too bright. These conditions, however, will not produce much of anything from the sky, typically making it pale grey to pure white in images.

mourning doves huddled against the coldBest rule to follow, but feel free to break as required for results: when the light is high-contrast (very bright with distinct shadows,) look for low-contrast subjects; this is a good time to find those textures, but not things with a lot of detail, especially not a lot of shadows (like foliage.) When the light is low-contrast (light to full overcast,) seek the subjects with high-contrast: lots of different colors, the finely-detailed things that throw a lot of shadows, the clash of textures and colors of the forest floor. Also note that, on bright days, you can find these conditions in shade, whether open shade like under a lone tree or on the shady side of a building, to deep shade like a thick forest canopy.

The other aspect of light quality is its color hue. Direct sunlight is, to our perception and purposes, white (it’s actually quite green, for a bit of trivia, but we don’t perceive it that way.) But for instance, near sunrise and sunset, humidity and thicker atmosphere filter out the blue and green registers, leaving light that becomes more yellow, orange, or red, depending on the exact conditions. These are colors we consider warm, inviting, pleasant, optimistic; this is a great time for portraiture and most scenics. Cloud cover, however, filters out the reds and yellows, producing more of a blue hue, and with greater cloud thickness much of the color is leached out. This is cold, which is also somber, moody, sometimes uninviting. This color cast personifies bad weather.

And, we are exceptionally attuned to recognizing these, even when we’re not at all conscious of them. So when they appear in images, we can get the feel of the weather from them, even if there is no direct example of the weather within. To use these, you need to know something about the white balance function. The setting for full sunlight is essentially for white light, and usually produces no alteration to what the camera captures. Settings for things like open shade, overcast, and of course the various artificial light sources are made to counteract the color cast that these all impart, and actively skew the color register of the image in the opposite direction. Auto White Balance samples the image itself, looking to see if any particular color seems dominant, and skews the image towards a neutral point – sometimes this works, sometimes this is badly fooled by images that don’t have a wide variety of colors. My point here is, if you want these moody colors from the natural light conditions to appear as they are, use the setting for full sunlight.

Side note: You can use other settings to skew the color register in a way that enhances mood, even when it’s not actually present. All it takes is knowing your RGB color wheel, what the conditions normally produce and what color is opposed to it. See this page for more details.

SadFlowerAnd that brings us to mood. The color register of the image can do a lot to provoke a particular mood, but you can also do this with elements and setting. The first thing to recognize is how much our moods are affected by weather in the first place, so it’s not hard at all to compose something evocative. Perhaps, when the light is somber and dismal, you find the subject that matches this, like the abandoned house or overgrown woods. Or maybe you’d prefer the anachronism instead, heavy rain on the bright colors of the amusement park rides, icicles on the lifeguard’s chair – tell me these don’t have a story all their own. Some subjects can do well in any kind of weather, such as old cemeteries – this is the time you start noticing the things you might normally have passed by. Fog is such a wonderful thing to work with, not just for the mood itself, but because it can soften or mask distracting elements, heightening isolation, and fog at night is fantastically fun, especially with a well-chosen light source to shine through it.

It can help to think in terms of metaphor. Rain equates with tears of course, but also sweat, cleansing, the end of seasons, and even rebirth. Snow is a clean white blanket, but also silent, and often denotes the end of the year, and holidays; on any rustic bit of tackle it takes on a Currier & Ives vibe. And there’s the animal tracks it retains, often a story in themselves. Storm clouds themselves are virtually always ‘ominous,’ and speak of turmoil and change. Put any of these together with an interesting subject and they have a significant impact.

Elements. The weather elements themselves can often make great photographic subjects. Fog and mist will bring out every spiderweb in the vicinity. Frost, icicles, and hailstones can all have wonderful textures and appearances, especially with a little control over the lighting. Raindrops and dewdrops don’t need any promotion, but think about the wet surfaces of roads, or trees. Not only is the contrast increased, giving bright highlights and deep blacks in light conditions that usually don’t provide for them, they can reflect headlights, light spilling from the window of the house, or even a campfire for a touch of color. Snowflakes can be tricky – they melt upon touching a surface unless it’s had lots of time to cool down, and in the typical piles of accumulation they’re hard to make out individually, but this is where the tips of plants or spiderwebs come in, suspending them alone.

snowflakes on spiderwebOne of the handier things about concentrating on the smaller, individual elements is that you don’t have to go far to use them, or find an appropriate, photogenic subject like an old house; they can be shot right out your back door. But there’s another type of element that is also useful, and that’s the kind that communicates what the weather is like. The fluffed bird that tells you it’s cold, the bent trees or white-capped waves that speak of the wind, the scarf or upturned collar, the diagonal streaks of rain. Since photography is a visual medium, finding the visual elements that convey to the viewer the non-visual aspects is always a plus – make them hear the wind, feel the chill, taste the rain. Give them everything you can to make them feel like they’re right inside it.

Speaking of inside it… well, there’s a limit, isn’t there? Especially when you’re brandishing your camera equipment. Don’t get so hung up on the shooting that you’re taking the chance of damaging your gear. Electronics can be very susceptible to the damp and humidity that usually defines ‘weather,’ so keep it all as dry as possible. Plastic bags or those weather covers help, but aren’t ever perfect – keep a towel handy at least. When you go indoors, put the equipment someplace to help dry it out entirely – blown air greatly increases the drying rate. If your camera bag has gotten even damp, take all of the equipment out and let the bag dry thoroughly for at least a day, since it can trap moisture and drive it into the camera otherwise (I speak from experience.) See also the cold weather tips here (and, for good measure, the hot weather tips) to help with things like condensation, dying batteries, and being prepared for the conditions yourself.

Better still is not to be out in the weather directly, but just before (tempting fate) or just afterward. These also have the benefit of producing the most interesting cloud activity, especially the sun breaking through a gap, and of course rainbows. Even when doing this, however, be prepared for a follow-up squall or temperature drop.

turkey vulture over growing thunderheadsA note about getting cloud detail. Even in heavy overcast, the clouds will probably be a lot brighter than any terrestrial subject, so quite often you have to decide which one you’re going to get an exposure of, since you won’t get both in the same shot (unless you want to mess with HDR, which stands a good chance of looking fake.) For nice cloud detail, you will probably have to meter off of the clouds themselves, and this will likely render everything else dark, perhaps a silhouette against them, so picking a foreground subject that works well this way is good insurance. Bracket your shots however, or shoot a sequence where you meter off the clouds, the ground subject, and a few mixes in between. By the way, for a subject that’s not too big or too far away, a shot of fill-flash may help bring the light on it closer to the background sky, but this may take a lot of experiments to prevent it from looking fake.

A flash can also be used to bring out raindrops or snowflakes, especially during long exposures at night when they wouldn’t normally show up (the light being too low, and the rain or snow moving across the frame too fast to leave behind enough of an exposure.) Be warned, though, that if the flash is too close to the lens of the camera, you will likely produce out-of-focus ‘orbs’ – this is very true for fog and mist, so if you must use a light for those, try using a handheld flashlight off to the side, or getting the flash unit well away from the camera. Hand-triggering it through the ‘test’ button during exposure times of 1 second or more can work well. Also, this is a great time to experiment, because the conditions are different and you’re never quite sure what you might end up with.

Lightning photography is best done at night, when you can lock the shutter open and wait for the bolts to appear without worrying too much about over-exposing the frame. It’s tricky, and I’ve covered it before so I’ll link you to that post (and another, just for the story and images.) It’s best with some foreground subject, provided you can find one and get lined up with the storm appropriately, which is harder than you might imagine – I have yet to do this to my satisfaction. But in regards to that spoiled vacation thing, ocean views are great for seeing distant storms, either approaching or receding, and shooting out over a marina or harbor just adds a lot of atmosphere.

Also, because of that muted color from overcast skies, this isn’t a bad time to think about black & white photography, which can add some mood all its own. There’s no reason to switch the camera over to monochrome, since this is easy enough to do after the fact, but what does help is thinking in those terms, knowing you’re going to remove the color and so looking for the contrast instead. This page may help with both planning the shots and what to do with them afterward.

So if you’re stuck with the weather, treat it as a challenge, and see what you can come up with. Good luck, and have fun!
Al Denelsbeck in a serious snowstorm at night


During the end of the year maintenance (before the database failure,) I ran an SQL query to produce the tags used in all posts so far – I used the one found here, since I’ve never learned much SQL. In case that doesn’t make any sense I’ll explain: WordPress stores all of your post content and info in an SQL database, and the post tags do not, for some reason, have their own category. In order to find them, you have to run a query, which is a programming command that searches through the database. With this, I produced a list of the tags, and it’s impressive – I had a whopping 2,676 tags, for 776 posts to that date, which means I’m making up new tags for an awful lot of posts.

Tags are intended to help people find your posts when searching on related terms, so they should be words or terms that bear directly on the content, and that’s how I use them – except, I also use them as commentary and bizarre endnotes. There are WordPress plugins that can produce a tag cloud on the sidebar, a cluster of the most popular tags where they display in larger fonts the more they’re used. That’s fine, but boring – my top tag is ‘macro photography,’ followed by ‘Chinese mantis’ and ‘Tenodera aridifolia sinensis,’ which the scientific name for Chinese mantis – big surprises there. Much more interesting were the tags used only once, because some of them got to be a bit, shall we say, esoteric. I think it’s unlikely anyone will find my posts while searching for some of these terms, and so, I’m going to include a small selection linked to the posts they had tagged, because.

‘Mighty Mouthparts’ would make a good band name – This is admittedly a practice stolen from Dave Barry, who used it whenever he came across a particularly compelling phrase, but it’s also necessary to lead in to the next two…

‘Shit Experience’ would not be a good band name

‘Brilliant Blue Slug Penises’ would not make a good band name because I’ve already claimed it – Also features the tag, ‘you can’t call it a speedbag.’ Delightfully shameless, that post

no word on what she does with the poop

good christians often refer to people as “cunts” – A quick story regarding this one. For some reason, that search function on the sidebar will not find tags on posts, so while I have the list of tags right in front of me, I have to find the posts they go to by searching with da Google (or run another query, but Google is much faster.) This one, however, wasn’t showing up, even when I used the “site:” function to limit the search to just within the website specified. Then I realized I’d input it exactly as shown here, with the quotes, only Google considers quotation marks another advanced search function, in that the result must contain the word in quotes. But “cunts’ doesn’t actually appear in the text at all – it only appears as “cunt,” and then within a screenshot, which is an image and couldn’t be found. I had to locate this one by searching on a different term (since I remembered the post that it went to, but not when I posted it.) That’s one to tell the family over dinner when you get home…

To all blog-reading aphids

both Crockett and Tubbs – To actually make sense of this one, you probably have to read the preceding post as well

Tom Hanks eaten by a baby titmouse – I’d pay to see that

you mean your god can’t handle it? – Also, ‘fear of a smart planet’ – sometimes, they’re just a further opportunity for snark

And my readership drops to two – It can serve as a warning here, but not really on the post when it appears at the bottom in small print…

jesus gave people leprosy and killed lazarus – Also, ‘poked a badger with a spoon,’ and I’m going to be very disappointed if you don’t know that reference

one of us gooble gobble – But sometimes the reference is a tad more obscure…

not to mention the neck folds

nobody chundered – Also, ‘nobody gets eaten either’

or maybe it’s just stoned

teh gay is not catching you ignorant fuckhead – Also, ‘verbal bitchslapping’

And finally, no it’s not looking at your crotch, though I can’t prove that.