Too cool, part 25

While making my rounds in the yard today, looking for something of interest (mostly hemipterans for illustrative purposes,) I happened to glance up at the bluebird box which should, by all rights, be empty this time of year – with a lead-in like that, naturally, I saw something yank its head back inside. My glimpse was far too brief to tell me anything at all about the species, though it looked brown, and I was vaguely suspicious that it was a treefrog. I opened the box cautiously, but all I could see was a pile of newer nest material atop the older stuff, quivering gently; the box is enough above my head that I have to look up into it, and I decided not to poke my fingers in there and disturb the occupant, whatever it was. Instead, I attached a long lens to the camera and waited it out from a short distance away.

It didn’t take too long, except that when it did poke its head out, I still wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I was pretty sure it was a bird, definitely brownish, but I couldn’t make out any markings or even what way it was facing. As I circled around the box slowly, I started getting a look at a dark spot which I couldn’t place, suspecting it was a spot under the beak, but I was still confused.

Now, bear in mind my view was entirely through the viewfinder and not the cropped and enlarged image you’re about to see – abruptly, I knew what I was looking at, but it took a minute for it all to come together, largely because I was thinking along entirely different terms.

southern flying squirrel Glaucomys volans in bluebird nest box
That… is the face of a southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans,) who decided that the bluebird box was an ideal nest. Flying squirrels are much smaller than the ubiquitous grey squirrels, about the size of a chipmunk, and have two breeding seasons per year at this latitude, spring and fall. Which means this is probably a female, and likely with a brood, or one soon to appear.

southern flying squirrel Glaucomys volans in bluebird nest boxTo say I was delighted would be putting it mildly. While I’ve known for decades that they lived in this area, I’ve seen just one flying squirrel in the wild, and that was in downtown Savannah, Georgia, while we waited at dusk for the ghost tour to begin. Now, I’ve handled them while doing rehab, and even have a pair of images in the site gallery, but haven’t even come close to being able to photograph one in natural conditions. Until now, of course.

The main reasons for this are that flying squirrels are nocturnal, and spend most of their time in the tree canopies, usually nesting in natural hollows (though I still have negatives around here somewhere of a squirrel brood that was being raised in an old hornet’s nest, brought in to the animal shelter where I worked after it had come down in a storm.) So while she might be peeking out at me during the day, I knew that after sunset was when she would venture out. So I set up the camera on a tripod, with the Metz flash on a stand alongside, and waited at dusk.

It’s funny – I was just reflecting last night as I sorted through my stock images that I had too few pics of mammals, but this is hardly the stunning coincidence that it might seem since I do that about four times a year. When we moved here in late May, we brought along the bluebird boxes from the old place, but I never put them up because it was late in the nesting season and we had plenty of other things to do, so the one seen here came with the house (thus you can’t credit me with that paint job.) It had even hosted a bluebird family for the late spring breeding season right after we moved in, but I have few pics of them. Now, of course, I’m going to have to put the others up, just in case.

After a couple of flash tests during setup, I spent over 30 minutes waiting for the squirrel to peek out again, with the intention of photographing her as she exited the nest box to do some nighttime foraging. I was sitting well away from the camera on the front steps, holding the wired remote release in my hand. Now, the camera will time out and shut down after a few minutes to conserve battery power, as will the flash unit. However, the camera will awaken instantly on being triggered by the remote; the flash will not. Thus when she peeked out for a few seconds, then swarmed out of the nest, paused on the front of the box, and scampered up over the roof and up the tree trunk, the flash failed to go off. So all I have right now is this image from the flash tests, while I switch over to the studio monolight for further attempts.

text
I can’t leave everything set up in the yard, so this will be all about timing, hoping to be set up and ready when she (or the newly emerged chillun) ventures out again. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Beans & burritos, part one

green anole anolis carolinensis in dark displayYou may well ask, what, exactly, is that title supposed to mean? Well, it refers to the idea that I don’t really do artsy stuff, so this must be fartsy stuff instead. Basically, just throwing down a bunch of recent photos for the sake of it – not everything has to have exposition.

This little guy might be the same green anole (Anolis carolinensis) seen in this post – it was the same size and in the same immediate area. Sold in pet stores for years as “chameleons,” the anoles have the ability to change their skin color as well, though usually not as elaborately as the true chameleons, and this is the darkest that I’ve ever seen a green one get. This might have been for camouflage purposes, considering the foliage it was perched upon, but more likely is either a sexual or warning display, and this is reinforced by the presence of another green anole not far away, not seen in the photo (and indeed, not even photographed since it scampered for cover too quickly.) I have more detailed shots of this fella, but liked this one for the fartistic perspective.

[Okay, a trivial bit of nonsense. In pulling up the link that appeared in the previous paragraph, I put the post title, "Just lizard things," into the search bar - startlingly, the third post considered a match was this one. Curious, I searched for "lizard" within that text and didn't find it, shocking as that may seem, but I'm really trying to figure out why that post fell so high on the list of matches.]

raindrops on orange rose
We’ve had two full days of rain here, and I spent a couple of minutes playing around with the rose bush temporarily in our care (no longer playing host to a treefrog – see previous post) to try out some semi-abstract compositions. One of the tricks to using water droplets in images is to find the angle and/or supplemental lighting (this is natural light) that brings them out with the sharpest contrast to draw attention. While there are a lot of raindrops in this frame, only one is producing an internal reflection of the sky that produces a white edge to the drop, and that’s the one I chose to focus upon. The shadows, however, are important for shaping the defocused petals – direct light would have looked brighter in color, but much flatter and less dynamic.

blue grapes?I have no idea what these are, but those sure look like grape leaves. A quick search on “blue grapes” didn’t turn up any matches, but I like the colors all the same. Actually, they look extremely tasty to me, and if they’d ever made a children’s cereal that looked like that I probably would have eaten nothing else in my youth (maybe not even now,) but I’m also not fooled by it. Found in a nature preserve brimming with birds, I was going to say these were suspiciously untouched, but there are a few empty stems there, so now I’m not too sure. If anyone wants to find out for themselves, stop by and I’ll take you over there – if you survive, I’ll try a few myself and post the results.

I’ve been to this nature preserve a couple of times with a student, and both times the light has been overcast and lousy (I don’t pick the meeting times.) I usually don’t set up the lighting bracket unless I’m going to be working in one area for a while, since it takes time to set up and tear down, and of course won’t fit into a bag when erected. Even though it is able to be held by hand and that’s how I usually shoot with it, it’s also heavy and bulky, making even changing lenses a bit awkward, and it’s the student’s time so I’m usually not aiming to shoot much anyway – none of my students, at this point, are doing dedicated macro work. This means I generally use natural light, which on overcast days that often means at maximum aperture, and usually only subjects of opportunity – these grapes are one example, and the anole at top another. It has a different affect on color and mood, one that many people can detect in an image even when they’re not sure how they know it. Bright sunlight might have been too contrasty for some of these subjects, but a hazy bright sky could have improved things, I suspect.

leaves decaying to veins
This was from way back, lost in the mists of time (well, okay, March of this year.) Just some unknown leaves decaying in a pond. Well, I thought it was cool, anyway…

ruby-throated hummingbird Archilochus colubris on lilyAt the botanical garden one day, a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) that wasn’t doing very well took a sip from a lily while I was nearby. Ideally, of course, you want a clearer view without another bloom in the way, but I kind of liked the idea that this was an almost-obscured perspective, a sneak peek at the bird. The yellow feathers near the tail, however, aren’t normal, but a sign of discharge, part of the reason why I said she wasn’t doing very well – the other was the tendency to perch and fluff out her feathers on a perfectly warm, dry day. Birds that are ill often do this to conserve their body heat and divert their resources towards areas where they’re needed more. Something was amiss, and I have a lot of very detailed frames of her while she simply sat on branches, not quite oblivious to close approaches, but certainly a lot more tolerant of such than is typical.

I’m going to take the opportunity, and the column space, to reflect on something that I noticed recently. While considering photos for this post, I had nearly all vertical compositions to work with, and they’re actually not the easiest to use in a post unless I make them “full” column width – otherwise I have to include a lot of verbiage alongside to try and prevent ugly blank spaces. I often remind new photographers about turning the camera to shoot sideways if the subject works better as a vertical, but it almost seems I’ll have to start reminding myself to shoot horizontally. I have no idea why this is – maybe I’m just in favor of vertical compositions anymore, or perhaps it’s a brain tumor.

Graphocephalo leafhopper sharpshooter on misty leaf
red and green on misty morningBoth of these images were taken on the same morning, after a deep overnight fog that I failed to take advantage of. Above, a lone Graphocephalo genus leafhopper aligns itself with the shape of the leaf yet somehow manages not to be inconspicuous – it still attracts less attention than the lone red leaf that fell across its healthier brethren. I know you were waiting to see if I could make it ten days without posting images of some insect, but it was not to be. Let it go a little longer – the winter months will be hard on me, and I’m already doing too many ‘studio’ shots because the pickings are leaner. The other day a small male mantis appeared on the porch, but only allowed a couple of half-ass frames before flying off in desperation. I really need to live in a rainforest someplace…

A little over a week ago, I went out scouting a new location and simultaneously trying to locate a bombardier beetle for a presentation I’m working on. It required hiking a long trail through the forest, and in a few dozen meters I’d already walked through six spiderwebs, despite having pushed twice that many out of my way. I switched to my typical tactic in such conditions and began swishing a long stick up and down in front of me as I walked; this has to be done fairly rapidly, because it’s easy to time it so the stick drops down beneath the web as you’re stepping forward and you still end up with a face-full even though you ostensibly cleared your way. I did this for about two kilometers and damn near developed blisters on my hand just from waving a thin stick around. Anyway, I’m sparing you photos of all of those – I didn’t take many anyway, since the conditions were too breezy to focus tightly on a spider in a web, and I already have quite a few frames of all those species to boot.

katydid action poseAnd so I leave you with a katydid portrait, because everyone should have one, don’t you think? Once again shooting wide-open in poor light, the background colors set up a pleasant but low-key contrast to the orthopteran, who adopted an insect-of-action pose for the shot – some species just can’t act natural in front of a camera. One antenna is of course rather visible, but the other droops down in an arc over the head, and believe it or not, I shifted position and timed it to be that way – I’ve been burned many times before on antennae falling in front of an insect’s eyes and ruining the shot. It’s one of those stupid things you never imagine you’d have to think about when chasing macro photos, but there you go, a little tip from your Uncle Al. Who’s wondering why you keep forgetting his birthday, not to mention Uncle’s Day…

And now a word from our sponsors

Juvenile grey treefrog on rose bushThis is just a couple of quick comments – nothing really thought-provoking. I say that as if it’s different from the rest of the content…

The Girlfriend purchased a rose bush on Saturday, as a gift for her daughter-in-law. While on the phone with my dad on Sunday, I was looking idly at the bush and noticed the occupant you see here, who almost certainly came along for the ride. That it remained on the bush and did not bail it in the car, even though it spent some time locked within during a pretty hot period, is impressive. In size, it’s just barely bigger than a thumbnail, a literal one – about one-third the size of an adult. Here’s hoping that it decides to stick around, and to try and facilitate that, I shifted the planter for my salvia next to it – this has a water reservoir in the bottom, that a few years back served as a home for another treefrog one summer.

Since I hadn’t spoken with him in a while, I related the tale of trying to get hit by lightning. Now, a little background. Despite the content often seen here, and my fiercely atheistic stance, my dad actually does guest sermons at a few churches in his area – neither one of us is, apparently, having much of an affect on the other. So, while I had my own humorous take on the proximity of the strike, he had a completely different (though still humorous) perspective. Since I’d already told him that I’d send him a print shortly, he said that it if arrived in time, he’d use it as a topic for his next guest sermon.

Um, yeah. So a photo of mine is going to be used to reinforce religion, is it? What do you think: should I charge appropriately, since churches collect money every week from their members so this counts as commercial use, or should I simply stipulate that it can only be used with a prominent link to the blog? I’m open for alternate suggestions.

Animated lightning multi-exposureWhile waiting on those responses (I imagine it will be a while,) I’ll leave you with an animation made from twelve consecutive frames of that storm. These were all ten-second exposures with roughly ten seconds or less in between, so overall this spans just under three minutes – you’ve seen cropped versions of two of these frames in that earlier post. Right after the last frame seen here, I switched camera position, so the big ground strike – which occurred three frames later – could not be included in the gif (pronounced “hal-a-PEEN-yo”) without drastic cropping. Still, this does a great job of illustrating the twisting and depth of the clouds, and the activity therein.

Coincidence? Well… yeah…

I’m going to apologize in advance: I’m too lazy to spell out a lot of the background details that would make greater sense of this post, and am counting on anyone either following the links within and/or having some familiarity with the culture, and even then, it may sound like a personal rant. That’s okay; skip it if you like.

I don’t read half as many blogs as I used to. In part, this is because my reading habits have changed, and in part, it’s because I find a topic and write my own take on it (which doesn’t always appear here.) But mostly, it’s because many bloggers just started annoying the piss out of me and I thus found better things to do.

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True has encountered one such blogger, one that I used to read and comment on in the past, then abandoned after the quality plummeted drastically: Adam Lee, sometimes known as ‘ebonmuse,’ from Daylight Atheism (another was PZ Myers over at Pharyngula.) Coyne made an atypically short post on the subject, largely leaving it up to the reader to evaluate on their own – which was handled pretty damn well, I have to admit. Lee (posting as ebonmuse) actually appeared in the comments and, at least at the last reading which was several hours ago – the comments now number well over four hundred – got badly hammered.

A few days ago, I commented on the curious trait of assuming others are incredibly, incompetently stupid – that post had actually sat in draft form for many months, sparked by seeing several examples and then lying dormant for a while as I switched focus to other ideas, before being resurrected when I saw yet another instance. I was speaking as broadly as possible in there and not listing direct examples (or accusations,) but one of the things that provoked it originally was a post of Lee’s on the sexism of comic books – that was the one that convinced me to dump him from the blogroll. I just think it’s amusing that, not long after I reminded myself of this long-past disappointment in the blogger, Coyne has his own encounter. And yes, it’s coincidence – I’m not suggesting either Coyne or Lee is even aware of my existence.

Closely related is another post, sparked by a ridiculous trend that swept through the genre of skeptical blogging: the feminism bandwagon. And yes, it’s a bandwagon; the epidemic of sexism and female exploitation isn’t really supported by scientific studies, and the few real examples held up as evidence are usually completely misunderstood – that’s when anecdotes and incredibly inept pop psychology aren’t being used as a foundation instead, which is, as near as I can see, most of the time. This should not be taken to mean that I think sexism does not exist – yes, there are people who really would derive this conclusion from the above statement, quite a few of them actually – but to say instead that no one has even come close to supporting the idea that it is as pervasive as it is usually claimed. Many cannot even differentiate between a sexist individual and something that runs throughout a culture.

And this is, of course, if the sexism of a single person has even been established; referring to a medium that entails, not a word or a time limit, but a character limit, is not exactly what I would recommend using to evaluate an entire personality, as crazy as that seems. But of course, if you’re only after something that confirms your pre-existing viewpoint – if all that’s important is running with the crowd, rather than understanding good science or, heaven forbid, actually trying to find solutions – then whatever comes to hand is obviously sufficient. Applying a label or pronouncing someone inferior to one’s own exalted status does not require any kind of rigorous testing, any knowledge whatsoever of psychology, and no ethical reasons to try to determine accuracy.

None of this bears any resemblance to skepticism or critical thinking in any way, of course. It actually has far more in common with a religion: intractable positions, inability to remain objective, demonization of opposing views, and even the opportunistic selection of ambiguous events as “evidence.” Just like religious folk can find a miracle in a tortilla that vaguely resembles someone whose likeness has never been recorded (yeah, figure that one out,) rabid feminists can find support for their viewpoint in virtually anything that has a gender reference, regardless. I had my own fun a few years ago when I tried to make the point that Lee was grasping at straws, blissfully unaware of how scientific studies worked (you will have to load a lot of comments before finding my contributions, since several sub-threads ran away, but if you possess the fortitude to read through the whole mess, you’ll see what I’m talking about.) If you’ve never heard the term, “mansplaining” before, that’s because it’s a jargon term that exists only among feminist bloggers – see that demonization point above. If you’re male and make an arrogant or condescending comment, you’re mansplaining – this from a culture that feels the use of the term, “feminazi” is evidence of sexism in itself. Did I forget to mention double-standards?

Now, let me posit a hypothetical situation for you. Let’s assume that anyone on Twitter has been firmly established as sexist, somehow. What, exactly, is going to be their impact on culture? I mean, is it even possible to find someone so weak-willed and impressionable that they would model their behavior on a Tweet, or on anything that even a major celebrity does, much less a lot of people, enough that a culture is somehow affected? Let me know, because I’m obviously wasting my time attempting to make cogent arguments when offhand comments in a fatuous social media outlet are enough to shape minds and impact society. Unless, of course, such a thing is not only utterly unsupported by any study of human behavior, it doesn’t even make sense from a casual evaluation. But no, that simply can’t be true, because that would mean that Lee and others like him are crusading over purely imaginary dangers. And that people are wasting millions of dollars on psychotherapy to correct damaging behavioral issues when they could just ‘follow’ the right celebrities…

It’s extremely easy to cater to our desires for social cohesion and believe that whatever in-group we’ve discovered is correct, effective, and able to make a difference, largely from the number of people who ‘agree.’ But large numbers of people in agreement do not, in any way, indicate any solid conclusion or value to their viewpoint – think of any political party other than your own, or religion other than your own, or country, or whatever. If we never stop to think, “Hey, is this really a solid line of reasoning?” then we’re not really thinking at all, are we? I can’t imagine that being of any value.

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A small aside: I’m almost positive this whole affair with accusations of Richard Dawkins’ sexism came about from one particular incident a few years ago, yes on Twitter (it’s named appropriately,) when he made a disparaging comment about Elevatorgate, one of the key events in the whole online feminist brouhaha, revolving around a prominent blogger getting propositioned while alone in an elevator. For someone like Dawkins, who routinely deals with news such as women being beaten, disfigured by acid, mutilated, and on and on, all in the name of fundamental religion, I can imagine that this issue could be seen as a ‘First World Problem,’ akin to whining about cellphone reception – that is, at least, how I see it, but don’t let me assign motivations to Dawkins, because I honestly don’t know and aren’t abjectly stupid enough to judge based on an offhand comment. However, if my exposure to the online response is any indication, it was enough to create this Enemy At The Gates for the online feminists. It might not be true, and I hope not, because it’s particularly pathetic.

Worse than Speedos

Enoplognatha ovata full
So, I was testing out a new flash attachment (not quite what I was after, but still functional) when I came across this little guy, quickly identified as an Enoplognatha ovata, but you probably said that the moment you saw it. You likely also know it’s a male, because that detail is kind of hard to miss, seeing as how it’s displayed in those boxing gloves right out front: the pedipalps. While the females have small and dainty ones like expensive spiked heels, the males have these swollen, grotesque blobs appearing able to smite the arachnid equivalent of a troll.

Enoplognatha ovata face with pedipalpsMy specimen is small, as the male spiders often are, this one measuring 8mm in body length at best (I forgot to confirm when I could.) I went in for a face shot because, hey, anyone can do an overhead full-body pic, plus I was, as I said, testing out the lighting. After I unloaded the memory card, I noticed (besides the eye reflections) that the chelicerae appeared somewhat distinctive, and since I had not yet identified the species, I decided I’d like a closer look. He was still sitting where I’d taken these shots and left him, which was on a graduated container sitting on the porch (containing other arthropods, if you must know, ones not half as interesting as this one,) so it was an easy matter to capture him and go for slightly more controllable conditions.

Slightly. Once removed from his ‘safe’ position, his cooperative torpor vanished, and he spent most of his time perambulating around a leaf, primarily trying to remain both on the underside and facing away. I mentioned before about the soldering rig that I use to hold leaves and such for ‘studio’ arthropod sessions, and I’ll add a little tip: find something as articulated as possible if you’re going to pursue this, because the ability to shift your subject around to present the most useful angle is extremely helpful, and such subjects are rarely cooperative enough to get into position with a few slight nudges. This one did not appear to like either the light I was using as focusing assistance, or the looming camera, and repeatedly turned to face away.

Enoplognatha ovata pedipalps detail
But even as I got the angle I was after, mostly what I captured were those pedipalps, and I cannot help but believe this was intentional (on the spider’s part. Sheesh. Pervs.) Now, this is where I correct some information I posted previously. Originally, I said that the pedipalps collected sperm from the testes opening situated under the abdomen, and were used to ‘manually’ (‘palpably?’) insert this sperm into the female. Then, I read somewhere that the sperm were actually produced within the pedipalps – this was were the gonads resided. But on researching images that might illustrate this better (my search history will one day creep out the investigators,) I have gone back to the original statement: the sperm is produced within the abdomen, collected in the pedipalps, and retained there until needed. So we’re not exactly seeing the spider’s manhood arachnohood here, but close enough for blog purposes. We don’t ever see ours either, just the cheap purse that contains them. Which really should have a couple of armor plates included…

Enoplognatha ovata pedipalps detail
And true to my own nature, I provide far more detail than you ever really desired – probably something about my upbringing that should demand therapy. But seriously, how could I not share these images? Those are some impressive stones, and he probably knows it – spiders don’t have any necks to hang gold chains around, so this is how it translates. Now I wish I had sworls. Perhaps I could get a tatt— no.

Enoplognatha ovata chelicera fangs detail
Out of a large number of frames, most of which will be discarded (another tip: never trust focus or lighting, and take lots of variations, the biggest benefit of digital,) I did eventually get what I was after, which wasn’t half as interesting – those are the fangs sitting just behind the pedipalps. You can also see the stump of the missing leg, and one more detail, visible in some of the other images too. That dark spot at the base of the abdomen is where the lungs reside, and just aft of that is the external opening for the genitals – this is the closest we’re going to get to actually seeing the real things, short of dissection. I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Just to show I’m not totally lacking in normal taste…
lion cubs facing off
… I’ll throw in an image of lion cubs preparing to wrestle – probably insufficient to offset the rest, but at least I’m trying. This was from several years ago (pre-blog, ancient history) at the zoo, the cubs’ first day out – they were having a blast. Maybe I need to do a post on them…

Just how stupid?

I admit it: all too often, I look at the generally low level of intelligence displayed in the entertainment, the political parties, the religious tendencies, and the blind consumerism in the US and harbor serious doubts about how many people in this country are capable of critical thought. It’s not exactly something to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy.

Yet, there’s a caveat in this. I also give more credit for intelligent thought than is shown by many within our society – there is a noticeable tendency to think or imply that everyone else (you know, them) is too stupid to make simple decisions. This appears in a wide variety of places, but I think it’s better illustrated with some examples.

Every time that youth in this country find something compelling and interesting, a plethora of moral crusaders manage to derive some impending doom from such interests, almost always with the idea that children are vapid and impressionable, to the point of being brainwashed. Most people are familiar with such claims about “rock n’ roll” back when it was first becoming popular, while in my youth it was the “satanic influences” of Dungeons & Dragons or backwards song lyrics. Recently, Harry Potter and the sexism of comic books have been targets of such crusades.

I hasten to add that this is hardly limited to youth, either; churches are notorious for promoting the idea that no one can make simple decisions without referring to their own particular rulebook, and we routinely see attempts to pass legislature aimed at controlling free expression and even established science. When the nice young men come to your door to ask if you’re saved, there isn’t the faintest recognition that you’ve not only heard all of their horseshit before, you’re far more aware of the rampant flaws therein (and perhaps even the bits about humility.) But that’s a milder example, compared to the crusading evangelicals that push for marriage restriction laws and block access to abortion clinics, who somehow believe that safe sex education is inadequate but their message of abstinence, elucidated within comic pamphlets, is far superior.

It also takes no effort to find politicians who act to save people from themselves, most often in close connection with some religious hotbutton, but not always – witness the ban on the sale of very large soft drinks in New York City. To be sure, there might be ulterior motives in many such efforts, yet this doesn’t change the fact that the professed motivation infers the inability of the general public to make smart decisions – that’s what they consider the selling point. And then there are the bizarre aspects of tribalism, where any one sports team, any state, or even the actions of this country are undeniably superior to all others, able to be found in the comments section of nearly any forum.

The attitude that underlies all of this is that other people do not possess the sense of those championing such causes. In essence, the general public needs the guidance of these brilliant minds. Egotism plays a large role in many of these, naturally enough, and might underlie all manifestations, but curiously, it does not often act to motivate people towards making themselves well-informed and objective, only to believe that this is self-evident and requires no special efforts.

Yes, the irony of this is appreciable, especially when we look back at the past examples. The country did not dissolve into chaos when the Beatles became popular, and role-playing gamers did not unleash satan upon the world by saying, “I cast a summoning spell” – even with the assistance of arcane dice rolls, as hard as that may be to believe. Much of such attitudes relies on absurdly feeble armchair psychology, and the belief that children, for instance, cannot recognize the unreality of cartoons. The very ignorance that underlies such assumptions is intriguing: someone that cannot recognize absurd premises is assuming the responsibility of protecting others from ignorance.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts now that tackled the idea of sexism in comic books and video games – but the underlying problem with addressing this is, there’s no evidence to establish that anyone is influenced in the slightest by such depictions. Such media are fantasy; they’re well known to be unrealistic, because that’s the whole point of fantasy. One could just as easily claim that video games promote epic quests, and that comic books cause children to believe that criminals wear funny suits. Yet we are continually bombarded with the idea that violence in media is a bad influence, despite the facts that crime stats have been dropping as media gets more violent. And even that isn’t a pertinent correlation; crime has much more involved influences than what someone sees on TV.

There’s also a huge problem with people that do not understand what sexism is, and believe that every manifestation of sexuality, most especially of females, counts as sexism – you will hear the word “exploitation” in such circumstances at least three times as often as in all others combined. It’s unfortunate that so many choose to champion a cause that they fail to understand, much like those that felt the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole (or a strangelet) that would devour the world. But behavior studies have aptly demonstrated that a) men and women view sex differently, and b) this does not mean men are wrong. Yes, men respond to, and in fact seek, certain body shapes in women, much more so than women seek in men. Homo sapiens is actually on the subtler side of sexual dimorphism, compared to the differences in size and behavior often found in arthropods and fish. We do not consider the peacock to be exploited by the peahen who selects her mate based on the flamboyancy of his tail, but accept this as a curious manifestation of selection pressures. And the comic book editors and artists, as well as the movie producers and so on, are not exploiting anybody by featuring voluptuous women – well, this might not be true; they could be exploiting men by using such simplistic methods to gain their attention.

I have no doubts that last bit could send a lot of people over the edge – men are never exploited! How could they be? They run everything, they’re bigger and stronger and more capable… and so on. If you’re quick, you picked up on the real sexism that underlies so many responses in our culture, in the assumption that women become victims so easily. And that men cannot differentiate between a comic book and real-world interactions.

Sexism is the belief that gender is responsible for an irrational, unsupportable deficit, or requires a special response not justified by physical differences. Women and men receiving different pay for the exact same job duties? Yes, that’s sexism (and kindly note that I did not specify which gender received lower pay – this distinction is again lost on too many people.) Women depicted in any form of media with emphasis on their figure? Sorry, that doesn’t count – it’s simply recognizing the difference men and women have in their standards of desirability, and is not different from men being depicted as square-jawed and children as cute or precocious; stereotypes abound in media, because the point is to garner a reaction without the amount of time it takes to establish a personality, attitude, whatever. It could just as easily be pointed out that men are always depicted as the stupid ones in the relationship, driving the plot of nearly every sitcom since The Honeymooners. And if you want to see stereotypes, watch how overweight people are depicted…

The ‘chicken or egg’ issue also arises here, in that many people think that stereotypes and media depictions have fostered particular attitudes within cultures, never realizing that it most likely is the other way around – media that isn’t popular doesn’t receive attention, so the goal is to appeal to as many people as possible, which means media more often follows culture, rather than influencing it. But this doesn’t explain why so many people seem to find themselves on a higher plain than everyone else, able to enlighten and direct those not gifted with their own special breed of intelligence.

As mentioned above, it’s probably ego, the aspect of our behavior that makes us compete against others virtually all of the time. Being seen as smarter than other people is a point in our favor, and this may mean we’re likely to seize onto any factor, however weak, that could be used to indicate this. I originally thought that this idea didn’t contrast well against the typical insecurity we have over appearance – that’s almost the opposite of ego – but appearance is immediately evident, while intelligence needs to be demonstrated, so it’s open for any examples that can be found. Then there may be two parental traits that pop in for an appearance as well: teaching/mentoring and protecting children, with ‘children’ occasionally just meaning those younger than us. It’s not hard to find examples of adults that feel everyone younger is more naïve than they, even when they fully believed they had everything under control when that age themselves.

But, lest I fall victim to gross hypocrisy in regards to Armchair Psych 101, this is only speculation. To determine the accuracy of this, and any other idea about the influence of media or pastimes on our behavior, it’s going to take a lot more than someone believing it’s a logical progression – it requires detailed studies with large efforts made to eliminate the thousands of other influences we have in our daily lives. But almost certainly, the belief that any crusading individual is more capable of perceiving the influences or problems that will victimize the ‘general public’ is a significant bias all its own, and largely unwarranted. While we might decry the abysmal lack of intellectuality in much of our media, and the subterranean level of discourse in politics and such, this isn’t any indication that Homo sapiens, with a few exceptions, is functionally incompetent and needs protection from itself. And unsurprisingly, such an attitude is likely to be perceived not as benevolent guidance, but as pompous arrogance.

Catching a wave

Leaf litter under normal light

I’ve had these images in my folder for a while now, considering doing a post on them, and just realized that we were coming up on a year since they’d been taken, so I’m timing the post to appear on that anniversary, since humans do stupid pointless things like that…

These were from the trip we took to Savannah, Georgia, and for that trip I had a particular goal that never came to pass: I wanted photos of a scorpion, most especially one fluorescing in UV light. Scorpions are nocturnal and more than a little secretive, so spotting them takes luck or an edge, and mine was a recently-purchased UV flashlight. Several nights, I went out wandering around with the light, shining it in every location I thought likely to host a scorpion, but saw none at all. However, every once in a great while I saw something like this:
Leaf litter under ultraviolet light

Note the difference with the top image, and how a few leaves seem a whole lot brighter in the bottom image. To the best of my knowledge, these are playing host to some form of fungus, one which fluoresces under UV. This, by the way, was a 13-second exposure solely by the light of the UV flashlight.

Ultra-violet light, like infra-red, is a band of wavelengths that sits just outside of those we can see, what we typically call the “visible spectrum” – there are no exact demarcations, but generally, UV runs between 100 and 400 nanometers (nm) in wavelength, while what we can see (visible light) is roughly between 400 and 700 nm. This is a very narrow band in the electromagnetic spectrum, outside of which falls everything from X-rays to AM radio, cellphone signals to gamma-ray bursts from supernovae – they’re all just different wavelengths of the same form of energy, transmitted in photons. While our eyes detect this narrow band, coincidentally (or not) the region of the most energetic emissions from our sun that make it through the atmosphere, we can also detect a few other wavelengths with our organs: our skin reacts to both UV (tanning, skin cancer) and infra-red (heat.) But for the most part, we miss most of the remaining bandwidth.

The deep purple light seen above isn’t UV, but the portion of the flashlight’s output that impinged into the bandwidths we can see – regular strength violet, if you like. It’s very dim to our eyes, even though my light source is putting out as many photons as a normal flashlight, they’re just mostly ones we can’t see. Digital camera sensors, however, can usually pick up a range of wavelengths a little beyond what humans see, if they’re not filtered out (they usually are, because capturing them can alter the photo and make some images look different.) But there’s often a little overlap, so the image here is not exactly what I was seeing, though close.

glow in the dark ornamentNow we get to fluorescence. Fluorescence (and phosphorescence, a close relative) is a curious trait where a substance absorbs energy that it then re-emits as visible photons. In cases of UV fluorescence, possessed by some substances, some arthropods, and even some minerals, the UV photons are absorbed into the substance as greater activity in the atom, electrons jumping to a higher energy state. Almost immediately, they drop back down to their ‘normal’ state and re-emit this energy, but at a different level, thus producing a different wavelength, one that we can see. So it’s not like the normal situation we find ourselves in every day, where photons simply bounce off of an object and reach our eye, but a trade, where objects keep the photon energy and exchange it for photons that we can see – a chemical ‘currency exchange’ system.

(The same, by the way, often happens with IR, getting re-emitted as a lower wavelength still detectable to us as heat – think of a black object left sitting in the sun for a while – and often this energy is used in other manners by living organisms.)

Fluorescent lights rely on this principle (yeah, big surprise there,) though technically they’re phosphorescent, since there’s a minimal delay before the energy is re-emitted as visible photons. The tubes have high-energy electrodes at either end with a low-pressure inert gas down the length between them, while the insides are coated with a phosphorescent material. When the bulb is charged up, the gas permits electrons to scatter down the tube in all directions, which strike the material coating the tube – that material absorbs and re-emits the energy of the electrons as photons, causing the coating to glow. You might see on older bulbs a bare patch where the powder has come off the glass, and this appears darker even when the bulb is on – uncoated, the glass is only a window into the inside of the bulb, and the gas within doesn’t glow itself. If you could look down the length of an active fluorescent bulb, it would appear to be a tube lit from the outside.

The old-style cathode ray tubes used in TVs and computer monitors – you know, the ones as deep as they were wide – use this as well. The front viewing screens are coated in phosphorescent materials, and an electron gun within hurls electrons at select areas of the screen (what we usually call ‘pixels’ now, though that’s not exactly accurate,) which will glow momentarily. One gun, with electrons aimed by magnetic plates, will redraw the image one dot at a time, side-to-side, top-to-bottom, sixty times a second or so (that’s actually what the ‘refresh rate’ expressed in hertz, such as 60Hz, means.)

[Trivia from an old fart: the even older TVs which used vacuum tubes instead of transistors would not immediately lose their charges when you switched them off - instead they would discharge gradually. The TV image would shrink rapidly to a dot as the magnetic aiming plates zeroed out, but the dot might remain for quite a while as the electron gun kept firing off, exhausting the charges from the tubes - this might take several seconds to over a minute. Also, devices that used tubes always had a certain, 'hot' smell to them.]

A more noticeable delay is the re-emission of phosphorescence is most easily seen in glow-in-the-dark toys and such, which work just as well with UV light as with visible. I will swear that while watching the ornament seen above in the dark one (slow) night, I saw the light output suddenly ‘step’ downwards a fraction as if switched to a dimmer setting – how this could take place, and whether it was more an artifact of my eyes, is something I have yet to determine.

something small fluorescing under ultravioletAnyway, as I was typing all this I realized that I hadn’t tried out the UV light around the new yard yet. I had done a little exploring in different areas around the old place, finding very little of interest, but so far hadn’t checked out this area. I knew there were no scorpions to find, but what about other arthropods? Some macro photographers, like Nicky Bay, have discovered a lot of arthropods that fluoresce under UV, but these are mostly exotic (meaning, not found in North Carolina.) But I went out looking anyway.

I found a few bits of odd fabric, like an old tennis ball and a patch of threads in the garden – who knows where it came from? I was convinced that I had found a small patch of fluorescent fungus until I saw the details after downloading the images. But at left, a minuscule sphere of something that fluoresced as strongly as many synthetic materials, perched on a fencepost, a fraction of a millimeter across. I haven’t the faintest idea what this is, but the color in visible light put me in mind of tree resin, though I suppose it could also be an egg, or perhaps an alien artifact.

[Another short, nonsense diversion: I got into a discussion on a UFO blog once with someone who was using UV light to find evidence of alien visitation on people's skin - four-fingered handprints, "ancient symbols," and so on. It got especially entertaining when I challenged him to explain how, exactly, he considered these "alien" when we have countless substances that fluoresce under UV light, including things as benign and easy to obtain as highlighting fluid. He tried blathering about spectra to disguise the fact that he had no controls at all, and I was circumspect enough not to accuse him of planting the 'evidence' himself. But yeah, that's how it goes in UFO and paranormal circles - we haven't any evidence whatsoever of alien species, much less any traits we could be confident in, but glowing stuff magically appearing on someone's skin under a black light must be aliens. Is it any wonder that I promote critical thinking?]

Apheloria virginiensis montana nymph in visble lightAt one point, I found the juvenile form of an Apheloria virginiensis montana, a large black & yellow centipede that’s not hard to find around here – see the adult here. About 3cm long and the color of dirt, I would easily have missed it without the UV light, and even then it didn’t fluoresce too strongly, but enough to notice, anyway. It was next to impossible to convince to hold still, so I had a bit of fun finding the exposure time that would halt its motion enough to be reasonably sharp, and then setting the ISO to maintain it and still get enough light from the UV flashlight to render a decent image. The image below is 1/50 second at f4, ISO 800, and took numerous attempts, also including bad focus and the little bugger sticking to the edges of the storage container I used as a restraint, not providing the best of backgrounds.

Apheloria virginiensis montana nymph under ultraviolet light

More interesting was the spined micrathena (Micrathena gracilis,) a common spider in the woods around here, notorious for spinning webs at face height between trees. It displayed some nice, distinctive fluorescing portions, notable in that they appear glossy black under visible light (yes, the spider was shifting position between the two images, and I just tried to match them as best I could for comparison – note the inverted branch.) The purpose of this fluorescence is unclear – I have yet to find any source that even admits it’s a property of the species – so to go the wild speculation route, it is possible that the peculiar shape and selective fluorescence mimics some plant species, luring insects to their doom. Several flowers have been found to have distinctive patterns in UV, and many species of pollinators can see this and use it to home in on good food sources. That’s about the best I can come up with, also helping to explain the elaborate shape of the abdomen, but it would be a lot more plausible if I had the faintest knowledge of any plant that appeared like this.

Micrathena gracilis in visible and ultraviolet light

The sun, as we know, puts out plenty of UV itself, and everything that fluoresces under my little flashlight is also fluorescing in full daylight. But as may be guessed from looking at these images, the amount of light emitted by fluorescence isn’t very much at all, requiring much longer exposure times than daylight or even deep shade (and of course, trying to convince a spider to hold absolutely still for that time.) In most cases the reflected portion of the visible spectrum simply overwhelms the fluoresced photons, with rare exceptions like ‘day-glow’ materials, which give the faintest hint of their properties in a peculiarly bright appearance – also highlighting fluid, as mentioned.

Perhaps the coolest effect was discovered by accident, when I forgot to shut the flash off after I set the long shutter speed necessary for the UV versions. The mixed lighting produced a nice contrast, so I experimented until I had the best ratio down, then combined them in an alternating gif (pronounced “gnaw”.) It makes it easier to compare the fluorescent regions.

Micrathena gracilis in visible and ultraviolet light

Online course review: How to Reason and Argue

Not quite two years ago, I took a couple of online courses from the new program/organization/school/site Coursera, which were quite interesting. The idea of open-access college-level courses is tricky; while it reduces the costs of education and makes it accessible to loads more people, the ability to accurately test participants and eliminate cheating is problematic right now. One of the courses that I took was on genetics and evolution, and was immensely informative. I scored lower than I wanted (or thought I would,) and it appears this might have been an issue with a lot of people, since they changed the grading structure almost immediately upon seeing the results of the class, making it a little more lenient. These are, after all, the first, experimental versions of these courses, so there are some teething pains. Curiously, though, that particular class is now available as a legitimate, college-credit course, meaning you can apply it towards a degree.

I’m going to talk about the other one, though, titled, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. I figured this would be right up my alley, but ended up dropping the course after only a couple of weeks, and it was entirely due to the structure. In fact, I tried again, thinking that I should give it another chance, and re-enrolled for the class as it started again on August 25th of this year (it’s still going on as I type this) – I didn’t even make it that far, getting supremely fed up by the middle of week two. Seriously.

First off, it was interesting how different the class structures were. While both operated as online video lectures and presented weekly quiz questions, the genetics course was quite detail-oriented and required no small amount of problem-solving – it was clear you were expected to work hard on the class. The reasoning class, on the other hand, proceeded much slower and reiterated things, as far as I was concerned, way too much – I got the impression the students were expected to be a lot slower to grasp the concepts, and the presentation is actually condescending in its delivery.

Even if this could be ignored, there was the approach. For some reason, instructors of language courses seem to believe that diagramming sentences – preposition, verb, active noun, and all that horseshit – leads to a greater understanding of language, and it was this structure that the professors of the reasoning class adopted. From my standpoint, this is the way you teach a computer how to ‘understand’ language, but it’s an inherent part of how people learn to talk and write and doesn’t gain anything from being diagrammed – I couldn’t tell you what a predicate verb is and have never in my life had the faintest reason to determine one. When learning another language, it may be useful insofar as sentence structure is different from what someone learned in their youth, but that’s a translation thing.

But let’s be real. No one who is trying to learn how to reason and argue is going to sit down and diagram a fucking sentence – there’s no point to knowing how the premise relates to the conclusion (especially not in labeling the goddamned thing,) and this is especially pointless and unwieldy in conversation. There is the barest value in being able to construct a viable argument yourself, but most people have already learned sentence structure in grade school, and it certainly does not require repeated exercises, even just demonstrated within the lecture, of partitioning off sentences. Because the solid, useful part of reasoning and arguing (I lean towards words like “discussion” and “debate” myself) is presenting a solid, unflawed line of reasoning for ourselves, while spotting the flaws in other people’s points. So one doesn’t need to know whether an argument is inductive, deductive, or conductive – they need to know how to spot the subtly misleading aspects, the flawed premises, the assumptions, and the logical leaps.

Let me give an example. I recently came across the statement, on a forum, where someone argued that finding mundane explanations for the various Loch Ness Monster sightings (logs, lake sturgeons) does not mean a monster doesn’t exist. Someone else called that illogical, but that’s incorrect; it’s perfectly logical. But it sucks as an argument all the same. The flaw is in treating ‘Loch Ness Monster’ as an entity, rather than as a cultural artifact that requires much more extensive evidence (like a carcass) to establish as something beyond folklore. Worrying about the logic in the sentence does nothing to reveal the error in the approach, which lies with attitudes, assumptions, and ignoring the weight of probability. Another demonstration of how useless logical structure is within arguments is in an example that I used previously: “We have no evidence for gnomes, therefore gnomes do not exist.” This is an illogical statement – the conclusion does not follow from the premise – but it tells us nothing about the existence of gnomes either way. The functional way of dealing with the topic is to simply ask what evidence we have to demonstrate that gnomes exist in the first place.

[I have to insert a brief elaboration on this aspect. Logic and reasoning cannot ever be considered proof, of anything - sorry, philosophy majors, but it's true. Our history is loaded with examples of logical arguments and even mathematical equations that, quite simply, fell flat when they encountered the raw facts. Logic is only as good as the information it predicates upon, and that's always imperfect. That's why we look for hard evidence, everywhere.]

Moreover, the course contained no mention of the kind of things that I would have thought would come first, right out in front, such as the difference between persuasion and competition. Many, many discussions, debates, and arguments are only forms of competition, and to be blunt, such an attitude is unlikely to produce anything positive – even if your case is overwhelmingly compelling, your ‘opponent’ isn’t going to concede the point, because that’s admitting defeat. Good discussions have to be free of animosity and competition to the greatest extent possible (which is often not very far, but that’s mankind for you,) and this takes a very specific, very deliberate approach. Carl Sagan was marvelously accomplished at this, in that he almost never tried to prove a point, but instead asked pertinent questions, leading down a path that demonstrated the flaws without ever accusing someone of missing them.

Another contribution by Sagan, now adopted quite widely among skeptics, is a list of debating fallacies often called the Baloney Detection Kit. While I have rarely ever broken down an argument by structure, I have constantly used portions of this list – I certainly wouldn’t consider it all that someone would need, but the points therein are encountered so frequently that not using it is putting anyone at a distinct disadvantage in a debate. Feel free to put this down to a difference in opinion, but rather than spending weeks studying basic structure, I’d bring up common debating fallacies on day one, and revisit it constantly.

Yet another key aspect of debate is being able to find the emotional triggers that cause people to have such strong opinions in the first place. Most arguments have an emotional bias – that’s the way humans are, we attach feelings to ideas. But we very often fail to recognize this for what it is, and believe every opinion that we hold is the result of rational consideration. If we arrive at a decision by thinking it is the best conclusion given the information we had at hand, we (by all rights) should have little difficulty changing that decision given further pertinent factors – yet this is rarely seen, is it? However, decisions based on how they fulfill some emotional need are incredibly hard to change, and standpoints arrived at without rational process are very unlikely to be changed by rational process – think about such topics as vegetarianism, abortion, and religion. Addressing these usually requires the ability to demonstrate the lack of a rational process, or to locate the incorrect assumption that was built upon. Vegetarians may insist that it’s wrong to harm animals, but who determined this, and why? Everything dies, and in ‘the wild,’ this is very frequently not pretty. Moreover, humans are not an introduced species, anywhere on the planet, so there is nothing unnatural about our actions, regardless. Such points reveal a few of the assumptions that formed much of the bedrock of the arguments – once dismissed, the arguments are inherently weaker.

To be sure, perhaps at some point later on in the course, the instructors manage to address these, and other factors such as manipulative phrasing, appealing to emotion or ego, circular arguments, confirmation bias, and so on. But, I’m skeptical. In two other courses that I’ve taken, (genetics and cosmology, both from Coursera,) the instructors were able to cover fundamentals very quickly, and were involved in fine details within a few videos – less than an hour of class time. There was no condescension, no pointless reiteration, and no time wasted on establishing extremely basic information. I find it hard to believe that something as simple as debating effectively could possibly require far more setup than these very specific, elaborate sciences. I have my suspicions as to why the difference is so marked, but they remain only suspicions; regardless, the poor approach and the painfully long time to get past certain simple points make this course a complete miss for me. There are far better, more efficient ways to learn how to debate, persuade, and produce cogent arguments.

*     *     *     *

I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to link to this review in the course forum, or perhaps send it to the instructors. I imagine that if I do either, there may be some challenge over whether I know more about the topic, or could do a better job or whatever. I’ll let anyone decide that one for themselves – here are links to several previous posts, any of which could be read in about the same time as the average video lecture provided within Coursera.

Proverbial thinking

The exception proves to rule

Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”

Fear of the knowable

For a given value

Unevidence

There are skeptics, and then there are skeptics

And, for giggles, a couple of examples that I’m particularly pleased with:

Dealing with the real world

Too smart to be intelligent

Just lizard things

Contemplative green anole

“Whatcha thinking about?”

“Oh – nothing…”

I know better

So, I’ve always had this thing about capturing images of lightning, perhaps even before I had a decent camera to do so. But it’s an exceptionally tricky thing; storms may not provide great displays, and when they do, it is often not at a viewing angle that works with the surroundings – blocked by trees or buildings, or over something not too photogenic. For the past few years, I’ve been nowhere near a nice, open area where approaching or receding storms can be seen clearly, and the few times I’ve tried to get someplace, I found the storm moved off or never even came close in the first place.

With the recent move, there’s this pond not two kilometers away, with nice open viewing areas on both ends and several narrower choices surrounding. I noticed that evening thunderstorms looked pretty likely this week, so I started plotting.

This evening, I looked out the front door and saw one of those dramatic scenes: a towering thunderhead lit by the lowering sun, flanked by lower clouds already in shadow, a nice juxtaposition of brilliant yellow cottony folds and blue-grey framing. It was in a position that might have been ideally situated over the pond, so I grabbed the gear and scampered over.

Unfortunately, the lower clouds shifted and obscured the sunlit cumulonimbus, not at all surprising – this is how shooting weather patterns tends to be. I waited it out, hoping for a break in the clouds or something else interesting to happen, and noticed that another, more distant cloud was producing some internal flashes. This was right at sunset, and the darkening skies would allow for some long exposure times, the best method of capturing lightning strikes. In short, pick an area of activity and lock the shutter open for several seconds, or even shoot on Bulb, where the shutter stays open as long as you want it to. With luck, you’ll capture a distinct lightning strike someplace in the frame. With a lot more luck, you’ll get something well-composed, well-lit, and able to be cropped into a great composition.

Far too distant lightningI stress this a lot: lightning isn’t cooperative and may strike in a broad area. Go with a wide angle lens, and while you might capture the bolt, it may have been reduced so small in the frame that it appears feeble and not terribly imposing. Too narrow, or course, and the strike occurs just outside of your frame. And then there’s the timing. Just like the breezes kick up the moment you go in close to some fragile plant, making it impossible to focus, lightning is notorious for striking dramatically while your shutter is closed in between frames (the same can be said for meteors, by the way.) There is, however, one small trait that can increase your odds just a little. For some reason, lightning is somewhat periodic; start counting the moment you see a bolt, and note when the next one occurs in the same general area. Use this as a pattern, and open your shutter a little before the next one is ‘due.’ It’s far from perfect, but I’ve seen it so often that I’m convinced it’s true. Note that another strike may occur from a different portion of the thunderhead in the meantime, which is why I stress that ‘same area’ thing above – the flashes can alternate.

So this evening, I’m watching the activity, and seeing mostly intercloud flashes without visible bolts. Sometimes this can work really well in full darkness, because it illuminates and shapes the cloud, but while there’s still light in the sky shining on the clouds, this will often obscure any internal lighting. I captured a few tiny bolts, but nothing interesting – mostly what I have are enough shots to demonstrate the cloud movements.

Then I noticed that the quiet cloud almost directly overhead was starting to get active. This was a much better view, but there’s a problem with this, one that anyone trying out lightning photography needs to know: lightning is unpredictable (the observation above notwithstanding,) and can strike well outside of what we might think is an ‘active’ region. Here I was, standing in an open field on the edge of a retaining wall well above the level of the pond, with no tall trees nearby, and right alongside an aluminum tripod. Looking up at an active cloud nearly overhead. This is not ideal.

Here’s a little trait of lightning, by the way. People tend to think that, if the bolt misses you, you’re fine – nuh uh. The bolt is the most visible, strongest portion of a whole region of air that is highly charged – it has to be, because that’s how lightning even occurs, leapfrogging from charged area to charged area. Anything that conducts electricity can serve as a conduit for this charge, so while a bolt might strike a tree nearby and ‘totally miss’ you, something metallic can still gather enough electricity to be dangerous – it is estimated that most of the non-lethal lightning injuries to humans occur this way.

Inter-cloud lightning

The cloud above was putting on a nice show, and the pattern thing was holding very well – I was getting a strike about every twenty seconds, but all of it cloud activity, stretching across the sky while barely even producing any thunder. There was nothing to place in the foreground, nothing even remotely tall enough. I could have crouched under a tree and framed against some branches, but I’m not that stupid.

Inter-cloud lightning

By now, the sky was almost completely dark, and even the strikes within the clouds were illuminating them nicely, providing a brilliant three-dimensional effect. But there were plenty of bolts outside as well, often stretching across clear sky – this wasn’t a storm front, but isolated thunderheads or ‘cells’ produced by high humidity and sweltering daytime temperatures, the kind of thing that makes Florida ideal for storm photography.

And then,

Very close ground strike lightning

CRACK!

From the very brief delay between the light show and the explosion of thunder, I’m sure the strike was close – within a few hundred meters. This was the first, and only, ground strike that I’d seen, and it was way too goddamn close for comfort. It occurred right at the tail end of a ten-second exposure, and a quick glance at the LCD told me I’d captured it more than adequately. “That’s it,” I said out loud, shut the camera off, and grabbed the tripod to head for the car, not even removing the camera first. This in itself is an indication of how jumpy I was, since I consider this a serious no-no – it’s just asking for damage to the camera. Always remove the camera first before picking up the tripod to walk anyplace, and stow it safely in your bag. Unless you’re considering just how lucky you are to be alive, much less capture such a dramatic shot.

This, by the way, is the entire frame, unlike the tighter crops above, and I was shooting at 19mm focal length, so it’s a wide angle of view. Maybe I’m imagining it, but it seems to me you can even see the angle of the main bolt – at the very least you gotta appreciate the lens flare along it, making it almost sparkle. I’m very pleased with it, but I realize I was taking a chance I knew not to take, and the storm demonstrated how unpredictable they can be – things could have been much different. So let me repeat the warnings: stay safe!

*     *     *     *     *

I have several observations to make, outside of the main narrative. First off, you realize that, on the same day that I posted (again) a rather defiant view of religion, I was standing in an open field next to a heavy aluminum tripod in a thunderstorm (well, okay, not far from one,) and still emerged unscathed. Answer that one, religious folk!

Moving on.

I have this peculiar thing that occurs with my hands – maybe it happens to a lot of people, but I’ve never gotten the impression that it’s common – but if I close my hand in a pinching position and put leverage on the wrist in the wrong way, I can pinch a nerve; this feels exactly like an electric shock, a serious one that can go up the forearm, and it’s produced more than a few cusses over the years. I just have to note that, as I walked quickly back to the car tonight breaking down the tripod as I went, I did it again. I can only consider this less than optimal timing, because I was already jumpy and this didn’t help.

Switching topics again, I still feel a little dissatisfied with the ‘CRACK‘ above (no, not the dig at religious folk – I’m more than happy with those.) There just isn’t any good way of communicating the sudden, very sharp, abusively loud noise of a nearby lightning strike in writing, and even if I were relating this orally, I couldn’t produce any sound that would do it justice – I’d probably sound a bit goofy even trying. This isn’t right; we’re a storytelling species, we should be able to produce some kind of sound, without breaking a cedar plank, that can convey the drama. Intelligent design my ass…