Can’t ya understand plain English?

Some time back, The Girlfriend was delighted to find a stuffed toy version of a blue-footed booby, and who can blame her? Everyone should have one, and I know if I had possessed one while growing up instead of a neon-orange-and-white velveteen rabbit, I would be a different person today. I’ll just leave that hanging out there…

blue-footed booby bow buttAround christmastime, somehow, it got one of those self-sticking gift bows attached to its hind end – you’re free to speculate. I figured it for an act of vandalism myself, and demanded to know the culprit responsible:

Who put the bow on the butt of the booby?”

Such a simple, direct question – I don’t know why I had to ask it three times…

[Little Girl really did photobomb the frame as I was getting the shot – I only take credit for capturing it as it occurred.]

You can hide, but you can’t run

green lacewing larva Chrysopidae with lichen camouflage
Actually, you can run if you want, and you may, because the image above is the least icky – it’s all downhill from here. You should know I don’t say that lightly…

What you’re seeing here is the larva of a green lacewing fly, family Chrysopidae, bearing the typical camouflage for this time of year, which is a nice coat of lichen – the background surface is my palm, to give a faint sense of scale. This variety of lacewing has a set of extra appendages along its back, little tree-like structures, to which it can attach things to hide its true nature from predators – I’ve seen them covered with chaff, and molted exoskeletons of other species, and once even a dead ant (very punk, that one,) but none of that is available right now, so it’s lichen. Lichen, however, is not particularly ambulatory, nor does it grow in neat little patches like this, so the species is not hard to find if you’re so inclined, and I sought out this particular one for the illustration.

green lacewing Chrysopidae seen from under camouflage
Here’s a peek behind the curtain; the head is to the right, and you can see its long, reddish-brown chelicerae, with a small cluster of eyes near the base and some of the striping on the head – remember this, because you’ll need it to identify something in just a second. The real meat of the post is the tableaux I spotted last night, realizing what I was seeing and trotting in to get the camera. Yes, we’re off on the whole spider thing again – I don’t try to do this, I really don’t, but they’re what I spot most often.

spider, possibly Gnaphosidae, with captured green lacewing larva Chrysopidae
The camouflage only works so well, and it’s largely a visual thing, which doesn’t always work on anything that hunts by something other than sight. Near as I can determine, this is a species of ground spider, family Gnaphosidae, and its lacewing prey is sitting belly-up, head at lower left. The chelicerae are pointing almost straight down, with the forelegs bunched under the ‘chin.’ But naaah, that’s not close enough, so let’s get a slightly better view.

spider, possibly Gnaphosidae, with green lacewing larva Chrysopidae prey, closer
This is a nice illustration of the spider’s eye pattern, which is one of the more dependable ways of identifying spiders, with a bit of reflection from the two at top center, and the faintest hint of the spider’s own chelicerae can be seen just under that walrus mustache. The mustache is misleading, however, since this is a female. What can also be seen, with a close examination, are two of the appendages that the lacewing attaches its camouflage to – find the dark straight line of one of its forelegs, stretching across the lichen to the right, and you can see the little arms at either end of the leg segment, ends splitting into very fine branches. If I’d witnessed the capture, I might have been able to tell you how the spider knew it was a meal, but all I saw was this, so I’m just going to guess it was movement that triggered the capture.

well-camouflaged spider, possibly wolf LycosidaeLast night was quite warm as a front pushed in, so I was prowling around to see what could be found. This one is probably a wolf spider (family Lycosidae,) with a slim possibility of being a wandering spider (family Ctenidae) – I can’t see the eye pattern well enough in any of the frames I took, but there’s only a handful of species of the latter and scads of the former, so I’m favoring wolf right now. The camouflage against the tree bark was great, and I’m not even sure how I spotted this one, but it might have been because it moved. With legs fully spread it could still sit on your thumbnail without overlap, so not exactly an imposing specimen.

The headlamp was turning up the occasional blue star reflection on the ground indicating spiders, but they were exceptionally shy, I’m guessing from it still being early in the season, and I could never get close to any. It’s a shame, because they were all much bigger than this one and would have made for much creepier images – hey, if I’m gonna do it, I might as well go whole hog, right? But don’t fret – there’s still plenty of time. In fact, I might have obtained a new way to step up my Creepy Game, but I’m not sure yet and don’t want to get you all excited for nothing.

yellow possible longlegged sac spider Cheiracanthium on leafYet another small one, but this one was captured and photographed in ‘studio’ conditions, so while doing that I was able to get specific measurements as it obligingly held quite still in this position – it’s 13mm in length overall, from leg tip to leg tip, but only 3mm in body length. I believe this to be a longlegged sac spider species, family Cheiracanthium, but again, not sure. I’ve tried asking them but they all remain silent, waiting on their attorneys no doubt. But yes, one of those eyes produced a reflection from the flash.

yellow possible Cheiracanthium portraitAnd another view, because I could – I like the legs stretching towards the corners and going well out of focus, and I’m wondering if it produces an ominous, reaching-for-you feel to anyone out there. One of these days I’ll try to produce a ‘stacked’ image getting the whole thing in focus, by shooting a series of images focused at different points along the body and stitching them together, but that will be a serious staging issue and I’m not sure how much it’s really worth it. The easiest way would be to have a sliding stage that the subject sits upon, since tracking focus/zoom at this magnification is difficult – the lens action is too sticky, meaning the camera can be jiggled easily from its position, even on a tight tripod. Something nice and smooth in operation like a microscope stage would be ideal, but I have yet to run across one of those to scavenge for stuff like this.

Anyway, there’s your spider fix. I’m still watching for any other subjects, but it seems I’m destined to find mostly arachnids. It’s probably something karmic.

But how? Part 17: god’s plan

[EDIT 4:30 PM: This post went through numerous drafts over a period of days, which means it was in process long before this little squirt of utter bullshit came out, and I managed to post it before Jerry Coyne posted his commentary – once again, I hate looking like I’m copying or springboarding from someone when I’m not (and happy to give them credit when I am.) But yeah, very topical, and illustrative of the same issues I talk about below.]

You can blame the previous installment for suggesting the topic this time around, but it’s a common concept within religious apologetics regardless, so it deserves the critical examination. I’ll be right up front with this: I consider the claim of anything at all being “god’s plan” a cop-out, pure and simple, an excuse to dodge the inherent flaws and inconsistencies in a religious worldview. However, disliking a concept (or, alternately, liking it) isn’t a solid reason to pass judgment on it, so let’s take a close look at all of the ramifications of “god’s plan.”

The structure of most of the ‘But how?‘ posts has been to explain how a universe without any deity can function just fine, and how so many of the factors or traits ascribed to such are just as easily, if not more so, explained without any such supernatural influence. In this case, however, there will be nothing to fill in or alternately explain the traits attributed to a master plan, since such arguments have no traits to begin with – the master plan is always assumed to be an unfathomable thing, an explanation unto itself when the logical flaws in religion appear. The naturalistic world displays no evidence whatsoever of a plan, nor does it present any reason why we should invoke or seek one. That so many people find this a disagreeable or contentious conclusion is a strong indication that motives and desires should be examined carefully in such topics, because wanting it to be true is enough to cause significant bias and a lack of objectivity, especially when it comes to producing philosophical/theological arguments. Sophistry is very easy to accomplish, and goes unnoticed as long as someone finds the conclusions so gratifying that they don’t bother to examine them critically – quit while you’re ahead, in other words. Yet there are actually so many flaws in the concept of a master plan that it’s amazing it still exists, much less getting used with such frequency and confidence.

To begin with, if we accept the premise of a omniscient, omnipotent being, there actually can be no such thing as a plan of any kind. Any being that knows everything cannot plan to do something, since the results are already known, and thus all it can do is follow the script. Planning is a concept that requires uncertainty about the future, and the desire to produce a preferred outcome among many options. We cannot, for instance, plan on gravity taking effect only at a certain time, since it’s going to whether we like it or not, nor can we plan for a book that we’re reading to end a certain way.

There is also the failure when compared against omnipotence, as well. Any being that can do anything and everything does not need to plan – any such desired outcome can be produced instantaneously. So even given an uncertainty about the future, plans are still a pointless aspect of a omnipowerful being. And in fact, the passage of time becomes pointless and meaningless as well – why should there be any such thing as a ‘future’ when anything can happen immediately? This also trashes the claims that such supreme beings live ‘outside of time’ or all throughout it or whatever. Obviously, nobody’s been thinking these things through in the slightest.

But okay, let’s go ahead and bend the rules a little, and posit that the properties we have been assured of for centuries don’t actually exist; this supernatural being is instead very powerful and very intelligent, but not ultimately so, being limited on both fronts. It is also trapped in the passage of time as much as we are. Thus, the future is actually uncertain, and not everything can be achieved immediately. We still have to face the third necessity of planning, and that’s a desire for a certain outcome. Which by itself is a really loaded avenue of thought. Nearly all of our human desires are easily traced back to survival, whether related to procreation, or status, or even just figuring out mysteries – the ability to find solutions to puzzles has been responsible for accomplishments as basic as figuring out how to plant crops and as advanced as calculating mass, velocity, and gravitational influence to maintain satellites in orbit. Natural selection can account for these easily, and the ones that haven’t (so far) been adequately plumbed by this theory – things like the appeal of thrill rides or the purpose of nostalgia – aren’t really leading in a religious direction anyway. But what desires would a supernatural being possess, and where would they come from? Survival, social instincts, avoiding danger, even any form of accomplishment – all meaningless to such an existence. All of our frames of reference are from the standpoint of humans whose existence is not guaranteed, and who must compete, beings with finite abilities and lifespans no matter what. We cannot even say that anything supernatural could get bored, or has thinking processes at all, much less something bearing any resemblance at all to our own. In fact, it is safe to say that perpetual existence is something that would be pretty damaging to the makeup of our own minds, so any being that could handle this is not very likely to be similar in any way.

This is, of course, the “we cannot fathom the mind of god” argument, and I agree with that completely – but that pretty much trashes all traits assigned to this god, including plans, including intentions, including why we would have been created in the first place. We have handy-dandy little functions like empathy and a desire to get along with the rest of the tribe – these don’t even make sense to the idea of a singular supernatural being. Going with the premise that we were created by such, we have no idea why we were created, and whether it’s actually leading anywhere or whether it’s just an observation to see how quickly we will destroy ourselves. As I’ve said before, it could even be that all of our concepts of religion were introduced to see how long it takes for us to spot all of the nonsense and discard them. We cannot assume beneficence, or indeed anything at all – the plan is entirely up for grabs, and even if any such being could appear to us right now in an inarguable form and say, “This is what I want you to do,” we can’t even tell if this is because it’s a good thing, for humans or the god or the universe as a whole, or just for the shits and giggles of a being that, let’s face it, can start all over again without any effort whatsoever.

Which means that the appeal of a master plan can only come with a lot of bare assumptions, ones that we have no evidence of and no reason to believe are valid. Even the tautological assurance that scripture is true because scripture tells us it’s true fails to take into account the simple possibility that misdirection is part of the game. Whose game, of course, is a question that remains to be answered, but I’m quite sure that the first thing I’d do when trying to mislead someone is assure them that I’m legit, and I doubt this insight was lost on all of the people who were scribbling down scripture throughout the centuries. Nobody has even come close to ruling out the possibility that scripture is simply creative fiction, while two distinctive traits make the probability of this high enough not to be ignored (unless, ahem, you’re trying): the bare fact that there are other religions in the world, which obviously cannot all be right despite having their own self-confirming scripture; and the uncomfortable evidence of the extensive editing that has taken place over the centuries. But it gets even worse.

Whenever someone insists that everything is part of a master plan that we aren’t meant to know, the very first question to pose is, “Then how do you know about it?” Let’s be real, here: if we can be created by some being, then that same being can just as easily a) tell us what it’s all about, or b) completely eradicate the very idea of questioning to begin with. This idea that we have some information regarding what we’re involved in but, ha ha, “I can’t tell you,” goes beyond pointless. There are two scenarios that make it past the logic failure: the first is that it’s all a game of this supreme being with no intention of making sense or reaching a particular conclusion – which not only defeats the definition of ‘plan,’ it eradicates any reason to care about it in the slightest – and the second is if doubt and uncertainty are specific functions that we’re supposed to have. Which is fine – let’s run with that posit too. Think about everything in our lives that we doubt, and what uncertainty does for us, why we even have it. Does it revolve around, to a significant margin, danger and survival and erring on the safe side? Does the uncertainty that there might be a speeding car coming around the bend, or that the fish being sold from the back of a van might not be the healthiest thing we’ve ever eaten, demonstrate the functions of doubt well enough? Does the presence of umpteen-hundred laws regarding consumer safety and contractual obligations tell us that doubt is misguided or frivolous? If anyone wants to argue that doubt is part of the plan, that’s fine – the first thing to doubt is the claim that there’s a plan in the first place.

But let’s not leave that one hanging all alone. Note that, in the vast majority of cases, the idea of a plan is used not to clarify anything, but to excuse the discrepancies, the anachronisms, and the contradictions that continue to crop up in religions worldwide. In almost every usage, the phrase is intended to stop us from questioning and doubting. It slots into the huge open space left in our concepts of religion when reality isn’t demonstrating any of the properties that this god and its creation are supposed to have. Theodicy is the (quite large) branch of theology that tries to cope with the very existence of evil in a created universe, and untold years have been spent on this pursuit – yet, this is only because of the overriding assumptions that there is both a beneficent deity and a plan. The problem is solved by assuming a deity that is not beneficent, as well as being solved by no plan at all – and it must be said that evil almost becomes a non-issue from an atheistic standpoint, because it is no longer a defined aspect that must have been created or intended, but simply an artifact of a competitive species (and not particularly hard to trace back to survival instincts, as well.) No more part of a plan than a sex drive or the ability to taste food.

If, instead of simply using it as an excuse when things aren’t making sense (such as the countless contradictions throughout scripture,) we instead apply this idea of a plan throughout, we have to accept that we are only puppets, in many cases doomed to ignominious ends precisely because the rules have been withheld from us – the plan obviously being far more important than the entirety of life on this planet. Pick any scripture that you like, and recognize that with the concept of a plan, every death, every torture, every abuse, all suffering, was intended – again, this is the problem of theodicy. For instance, if we take the creation story from the abrahamic scriptures, we have to reconcile the plan against the ‘fall,’ and the expulsion of adam & eve from eden, making the issue of punishment for their behavior, in fact the behavior itself, a script. Scripts are fine for fiction, but it’s quite a different matter when it’s our lives that are playing the parts. All of the things we were supposedly created to feel, love and pain and camaraderie and the desire for a strong society – everything – are all play-acting in denial of the control that the supreme being wields over our lives. We were created to find these immensely important, but then told they really don’t matter at all. Did you sweat blood over raising that child, born with a disability, to face life optimistically and with a fine sense of ethics? Too bad – she’s going to die at age 17 in service of this master plan. Bear in mind, once again referring to the abrahamic scriptures, that this supposedly happened to every single being on the planet, save for the select few on the ark. How, exactly, did the centuries of life leading up to that event perform some function? Are we to believe that all of god’s petulant hissy fits that resulted in mass slaughters, throughout any religion one cares to name, were all planned? Is this idea somehow comforting to all those who promote it? Or do they ignore the ramifications?

The argument can be made that this concept of an ultimate goal means we all play a part, and no matter how pathetic our lives or ends, it serves to push this goal along. Sounds fine on the face of it – until you recognize that we were created to suffer, and could just as easily have been created not to. And again, this is assuming that it’s a worthwhile plan, and not because some god is simply bored. Going a little deeper, it is the definition of nihilism; it doesn’t matter what we do because our actions are through ignorance of the true goal – we cannot act to shape it without knowing what it is.

Going still deeper, it has served as justification for virtually any action that religious folk have taken, no matter how heinous (and there’s been a hell of a lot) – obviously mere mortal desires and comfort must take a backseat to this plan, and since god has it all under control then whatever happens is obviously a part of it, right? This might even sound good when it’s used in conjunction with whatever actions we feel like taking, but it pales a bit when it comes to watching our village get decimated, or when the bomb rips apart the bus. Seriously, in the face of this master plan, what does any action, any feeling, any desire, matter?

But again, these desires do have a specific benefit to an evolved species, requiring no philosophical gymnastics to try and explain or excuse. Even the idea that organized religions are all just the efforts of a self-absorbed few to consolidate their power structure – which no one has disproved in the slightest – fits in quite well with evolved traits. It does mean, however, that we are responsible for our own decisions, and answerable not to what we imagine some supreme being really meant, but to all of those around us instead. We have the ability to foresee and predict the consequences of a large percentage of our actions, and we have reached the level that we now occupy precisely because this ability is so remarkably useful, making it both functional and explanatory, not to mention an overriding drive of humanity. To discard all of that, to dismiss all accomplishments of mankind throughout history, in favor of a shallow, feeble attempt to excuse all of the logical failures and anachronisms of religion, is undeniably pathetic. We can do better.

Hey, Vernal!

small frame of pond with tadpoles and minnows
If I’d been more on top of things, I could have posted this the day I took it, which was Saturday, and thus only been a day later than the equinox and slightly more, I dunno, appropriate? Timely? Whatever, this is a nice illustration of spring, better than I originally believed, even. I think it’s fairly obvious how narrow a field of view this is, capturing a tiny section of a shallow pond, and I was focusing on the minnows over the leaf. However, I count eleven separate critters or portions thereof present in the frame. If you get more than that, let me know, and I’ll give you a prize of some kind once our independent judges have confirmed the count.

pond slider in near-silhouetteAw, what the hell, here’s another, a pond slider showing off those fabulous nails. I did a tweak in the curves function in Photoshop to bring out the stripes on the head and hind a little better, rendering it slightly less of a silhouette. This is a tighter crop than the original, and it’s interesting the difference it can make – there were no more reeds visible in the wider version, but additional open water in the lower corners, so this crop makes it seem more as if I was spotting the turtle through a gap in a thicket of weeds than the original does. I think our minds, knowing how plants grow, automatically fill in the lower sections outside of the frame with the reeds that must be there. And until I saw the effect for myself, I never would have imagined it working that way, so playing around with exactly how and where you crop an image might bring out a different perspective and impression. Experiment freely.

Monday color 8

unidentified purple flowersI admit to having no idea what these flowers are. I’m not even sure where I took this image, but I think it was Mason Farm Preserve. That misses the intention, though – these posts are eye-candy, a splash of color. Just dig the visual aspect.

Equinox color

pussywillow blooms against blue sky
Yes, of course I had to post today, but I also had to post a few images from the other day, since today is grey and rainy. So most of what you’ll see here is from Tuesday’s trip over to Duke Gardens.

lavender and yellow pansies, I thinkYou don’t need me to tell you this if you spend any time online at all, because plenty of other sites just love throwing out trivia of this nature, but it’s the equinox today, the day when daylight and nightdark hours are the same length, and this occurs at 6:45 PM. Wait, what? The sunlit and sunbarren hours are the same, only at 6:45? What form of sorcery is this? But no, it simply depends on what definition of equinox you’re using. The seasonal changes and the variable daylight hours are both due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, in relation to its orbital plane around the sun, and over the course of a year this makes the sun appear to reach higher or lower into the sky at celestial noon (which is rarely 12 o’clock, and why the hell are we still using such an arcane word as, “o’clock?”) Today, the Earth’s orbit hits the point where the sun appears directly overhead at the equator, which serves to make those bright and dark hours match up, but the precise point when it is nice and aligned is 22:45 UTC, or ‘Greenwich’ time, which is 6:45 PM here on the east coast in Daylight Saving Time. Are you getting the impression of how goofy our system of time is? Yeah, I’m one of those who’s firmly in support of the entire world switching to UTC and having done with it. Many people think this would be confusing – “That would mean the sun rises at 11 AM!” – but so what? They’re just numbers, and the sun rises at a different time every day anyway. If you take your lunch break at 5 PM according to the clock, what difference does it make if it’s still midday to you?

pond sliders getting some sun
Many also consider this the first day of spring, which is also nonsense – call it whatever you want, or perhaps something appropriate to the present weather. It may look like spring around here, but further north it’s got some time to go yet, and down south there might seem to be no winter at all anyway. What it is, however, is now warm enough that the birds are nesting and the reptiles are stirring, as shown by these sliders basking on the only log they could find in the pond. The exact species is debatable – yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta) are native to this area, but their close cousin the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) probably don’t naturally reach this far north. However, they are/were popular as pets, which is often enough to introduce them to a non-native habitat, and they can easily live in the same conditions and even interbreed with their yellow-bellied cousins. The red ear-mark can easily be seen on two of these at least, so there might be a mix of species in this image.

purple and white crocus, maybe?Now, admittedly it’s cheating a little to go to a botanical garden and post about signs of spring, since so many of the flowers are tended in greenhouses and planted outside as they approach their peak display, but it’s true enough that many of these would be appearing now anyway. I avoided the wider shots that would show the retaining walls, planters, and other manmade stuff, plus I like going in for close details anyway. Only a small percentage of the myriad flower species had identifying plaques, so I can’t provide definitive ID, but I suspect these are crocuses. Whatever, they present a great mix of colors.

close slider portrait
Another slider, one that wasn’t being cooperative because it was too cooperative. You see, I spotted this specimen basking, and decided to do some work with a student on approaches and stalking, practicing how to get closer without spooking the wildlife away. Only, this turtle was so mellow that it never moved at all, even with several examples of behavior that would send the average terrapin scrambling for deep water. So it wasn’t very good practice.

turtle reflection portrait in pond's surfaceBut since it was going to sit there like a bump on a log (or rock, in this case,) I did my own extreme closeups, including a reflection portrait. I was admittedly using a long lens for this and not the macro, so I wasn’t anywhere near as close as these imply, but I was still much closer than I had any right to be. You have to appreciate the irony, though, of encountering hundreds of animals over the years which spooked long before I could ever get a decent image, and then wanting to demonstrate how tricky it is to approach many species and finding one that couldn’t be assed to move at all…

brillaint purple flowersOkay, there’s something curious going on here. I’m probably not alone in considering these a brilliant purple in color, but let’s stop and take a close look. The petals actually run the spectrum from white down to a deep purple only at the very tips, and I suspect it’s this gradient that makes us believe the colors are so rich (helped, perhaps, but the contrasting orange sex organs in the center, and certainly by the surrounding green.) The drying blossom to the right is a deeper color, but not as vibrant in appearance – it’s not the color that’s cluing us in. Maybe it’s just me…

hybrid plum blossoms Prunus cerasifera 'Atropurpurea' x Prunus mumeThis one I can identify, because the ID plaque was present, and if I’m interpreting it correctly it’s a crossbred plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Atropurpurea’ x Prunus mume – say that in Hogwarts and something bad will happen (like that’s unusual.) Almost immediately after getting this image, a group of students passing by excitedly directed my attention to the snake at my feet, and on glancing down I found an unimposing brown snake slithering determinedly across my sandal. I think they expected me to react in shock or something, but I just said, “Ah, a brown snake,” and tried to pick it up – seeing me coming, however, it panicked and shot for cover in the pine straw. With any luck, the blasé reaction might have impressed on some of the students how little risk snakes actually impose. I’m not sure my reaction would have been any different had it been a copperhead, the only venomous snake in the region, except that I wouldn’t have tried to pick it up. Doing anything drastic would be more likely to provoke a defensive strike than simply holding still and letting it go its merry way.

pieris blossoms after a rainI close with the only photo from today, expressing the conditions pretty well. These are the blossoms of a ‘Mountain Snow’ pieris bush, one that we purchased the other day to plant in the backyard because it does well in the shade, which pretty much describes the backyard. It flowers in early spring (so, hah! It must be spring then!) and I wanted to capture the clusters of blooms before they all turned brown and vanished, since I won’t get the opportunity again until next year. While I want things that will serve as a good backdrop and attract insects and/or birds, The Girlfriend isn’t all that concerned with arthropod activity, somehow, concentrating instead on plants that will look nice and do well in our conditions. Hopefully, we’ve got some things that will serve both purposes – we’ll see how it goes.

Too cool, part 27: This is why I don’t bother

Astronomy Picture of the Day is something that should be on your weekly routine, at least – it often features some pretty stunning images. Today’s (or I guess I should say, the image for Monday March 16th, since it’s late and this will probably post early Tuesday morning) is especially cool, and gains additional interest when coupled with a few other details.

This is the version I resized for the blog, but by all means you should go to the original or, for preference, the version you get when you click on that, which is much bigger. On the initial page, the annotations shown above only appear when you hover your mouse over the image, so you can see it without the distracting lines and labels.

constellation OrionNow, some perspective. You’re not going to see anything like that image above when you go out to look at Orion – what you’re going to see will look much more like the photo at right. Nebulae are faint sky objects, and only a handful are visible without help in the best of viewing conditions. More specifically, most details won’t even show at all without filters designed to select only the narrow bands of emissions that they produce (like, as that page says, hydrogen alpha.) So the APOD image is “shopped,” a composite of visible light and very selective wavelengths captured through long exposures.

And the primary issue with long exposures of star fields is that the Earth stubbornly keeps revolving, meaning the stars wheel across the sky, so the only way to get sharp long-exposures is with a system that moves the camera and/or telescope at the same speed, keeping the stars perfectly in frame. On telescopes with an equatorial mount, tracking motors can occasionally be added that keep the scope on your target, but these have to be aligned precisely with celestial north (which is not quite Polaris, the North Star, but fractionally to the side of it.) For anyone lacking such, there are plans available to construct a tracking mount/platform for non-telescope photography, using standard lenses, but there are accuracy issues which may limit how long these can be used before star motion creeps in. It’s a little tricky to describe why and so I’m not going to unless someone asks – for now, blame it on geometry and trying to construct a usable homemade system without custom-engineered parts. If you’re interested, however, do a search for “barn door tracker,” especially the double-arm style, which is much more accurate. I personally have not tackled such a project yet because my access to tools and decent stepping motors is limited.

Without it, however, one is stuck with brief, high ISO shots which cannot capture a hell of a lot. To wit:
Orion's Dagger and Orion Nebula, very faintly
This is seven seconds, f5.6, 200mm, ISO 3200 – and there’s still motion in the image, including possibly some tripod shake (the stars should move in a straight line and not a mild ‘U’ shape.) This is almost the exact same orientation as the image right above it (the plain one,) but a tighter framing of the center, focusing on the region of the Orion Nebula and Horsehead Nebula. The brightest star towards the upper left is Alnitak, the ‘leftmost’ belt star, the other two belt stars being out of the frame in a line directly above it. The cluster of stars at center-right are collectively known as Orion’s Dagger, more-or-less appearing as three points to the naked eye, but occasionally visible as being a bit less distinct than just three points, and you can see why – it’s a far cry from three stars. The faintest hint of the Orion Nebula is showing as the flare in this region.

Between and below the two brightest stars to the left lies the Horsehead Nebula, not at all visible above. In fact, even in the big version it shows as just a little dark spot against the pink cloud in the background. I was going to try and guide you to it, but figured it was easier to just present the same image from Rogelio Bernal Andreo, rotated, cropped, and enlarged to match the same perspective as my image above:
cropped version of Rogelio Bernal Andreo's Orion composite
There – the Horsehead Nebula is that little dark splotch against the pink cloud at left-center. Now here’s a version imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, featured in an APOD a few years ago (click there for the bigger version):

It seems kind of inverted, but this is because different wavelengths were captured between the two images. The infra-red filter used for the frame immediately above does not capture any of the hydrogen-alpha wavelength that provides the red colors in the image above it, those same wavelengths being blocked by the dust cloud that appears with such detail here. But this also gives a great impression of the magnification and detail that the Hubble can snag. For giggles, scroll up to zoom back out to a normal view to us on Earth.

And thus the blog title. Even with a decent telescope, even with a tracking platform, there’s no way I’ll ever capture images anything at all like the ones being produced by the professionals. But I’m happy to direct you to the better images, and hopefully provide a little perspective and awe along the way.

Monday color 7

green anole Anolis carolinensis on banana leaf
[These posts are usually lined up well ahead of time, so this one was completely written when I got the images in this post, which might actually be the same individual – they were taken not three meters apart.]

One of the images taken back on this day last October – I elected not to use it then. I know that I had been under the leaves of this banana plant, looking for silhouettes of insects on top since the sun was shining through so distinctly and the leaves are a brilliant chartreuse with a nice texture when backlit, but I can’t recall whether I spotted this green anole (Anolis carolinensis) then, or if I saw it from this perspective and then went back to see if it could be viewed from underneath – I suspect the latter.

green anole Anolis carolinensis toe silhouette through banana leafEither way, that photo was obtained too, though the lizard’s position atop the thick rib of the leaf reduced the distinction of the shadow – it really needs the image above to explain what it is you’re seeing. I actually waited to see if the anole would provide me with a better shadow pose, or would even launch itself after a leaf-footed bug that was walking along the same leaf (and provided its own silhouette images,) but the reptile was more interested in basking, possibly because the October nights were pretty chilly.

Within a month, the banana leaves were brown and hanging limply, with the appearance of corrugated cardboard that had been soaked in the rain and dried, and the anoles were nowhere to be seen, having sequestered themselves for the winter. Which just reminds me that I’m still waiting for spring and the reappearance of useful photo subjects, something that these Monday color posts were supposed to counteract. I gotta work on my psychology…

Starting the spider season off

unknown tiny white winter flowering weed
It’s been longer than I’d planned between posts, for several reasons, mostly being busy. There are also two larger posts that I’ve been working on, but they have required more time than I had available, so not just yet. But with the nice weather today, I took a moment to chase a few macro photos.

water drops on petals acting as lensesDon’t ask me what this flower is – it’s a whopping 5mm across from tip to tip, and I shamelessly added the ‘dew’ with a misting bottle since we’re still a ways off from those conditions. This was actually growing in the pot with my salvia plant, and I’ve photographed them before but still haven’t determined the species.

Because the water drops acted as lenses and were showing the details of the petals, I had to include a close detail crop. As smooth as they seem to us, every flower petal that I’ve seen actually looks like this in high magnification, quite scaly. One of these days I’ll get a decent microscope and start doing some photo-micrography (which includes learning how to pronounce it smoothly without stumbling.)

In the same pot, I found two crab spiders, which might have measured 9-10mm across at widest leg spread, which means 3-4mm in body length.

crab spider Thomisidae<br />
on pot edge
Macro work can give an entirely different impression. While seen this close they’re spiky and striated and not terribly cute, from an average viewing distance they’re barely visible, and quite delicate-looking, almost graceful in shape, and appear able to be smooshed with a hard exhalation. While writing this, I went back out for a shot to convey this perspective a bit better.
crab spider Thomisidae<br />
on salvia with fingertip for scale
Hardly ominous-looking now, is it? And given the low viewing angle and the curl of the leaf, I suspect this one had no idea my finger was looming up from underneath.

Both for the appearance and to provide some hard-to-find water, I went ahead and misted my two arachnid subjects as well. It was impossible to tell in the viewfinder and even tricky to determine when looking at the magnified images, but it seems that this was appreciated.
crab spider Thomisidae possibly enjoying the mist
If you compare this one to the portrait further up, you can see that the ‘face’ (cephalothorax) seems to be angled downwards more, likely because the spider was sipping dew from the leaf like any good ol’ country boy (‘ceptin’ I think the phrase might have a different meaning to them folk.) But since this is how most arthropods obtain their water anyway, I’m probably not being presumptuous. This time.


Tree Lobsters! is a webcomic that I only peruse periodically, once a week or so, and when I found this one I had to check to see whether I’d posted my trash talk on artificial intelligence predictions before, or afterward. Luckily, mine came first – I hate looking like I’m stealing someone else’s idea.

[I also love the references to Voight-Kampf testing, with the caveat that, “Test may register a false positive with sociopaths.” If you don’t get this, you can try to fake that you do, but you’re better off running before someone can bring a weapon to bear.]

Second, I sent the same anole images from yesterday’s post to Dan Palmer last night with a very brief text accompaniment, within which was the phrase, “The lizard still surprised me.” Dan is in a northern clime so I was kind of explaining that we weren’t that far away from winter here, yet he took it another way entirely – actually, quite a few other ways. This morning I received a reply with, as he put it, potential continuations to, “The lizard still surprised me…”:

“..after all these years.”
“..with a kiss and a swift departure.”
“..with the DNA test.”
“ copping to *both* murders.”
“..and ultimately ruined my childhood – it could have busted the Santa myth much more gently.”
“ reptiles are wont to do.”
“..with the sincere apology.”
“..Valentine’s Day was weeks ago.”
“..I did not recognize him without the eyepatch.”
“..I thought that I had eliminated them from this planet during the mid-80’s.”
“..who drinks hot chocolate went it’s this warm out?”
“..Pampers makes lizard-sized?”
“..after the Bay of Pigs, I thought he was dead!”
“..he hadn’t even heard of Harry Potter.”
“..with a gentlemanly poke of his walking stick and an invitation to the club.”
“..he was wearing his Villiage People T-shirt.”
“..her lipstick and nail polish didn’t match.”
“..and I *love* surprises!”
“..before it’s battery ran out.”
“..despite the lingering awkwardness from the “barn” incident.”
“..he was posing under a spider web that said, ‘Pigs suck.’ ”
“..but only because I can percieve more dimensions of sarcasm than the human species.”
“..for the last time.”
“..the six-shooter in his holster wasn’t even loaded.”
“ didn’t taste at all like bubble gum.”
“..without Mary and their 14 little darlings.”
“..the stock tip proved quite lucrative.”
“..pawn to G5, checkmate.”
“..nobody brings up the Partridge Family anymore.”
“..we had agreed to split the winnings 50-50 – now one of us was going to die.”
“..they were out of red sparklies.”
“..tequila, at this hour?”

Followed twenty minutes later by another batch:

“.. claimed his name was D.B. Cooper.”
“..had a very interesting theory about quarks.”
“..told me I could save 15% or more on car insurance.”
“..was almost unrecognizable with the new tat.”
“..I expected someone taller.”
“..that his name was an anagram of “Zildar”.
“..that’s what hermaphrodite means?”
“..he claimed to have let the dogs out.”
“..he had eaten all the Skittles.”
“..he had actually heard of Emo Phillips.”
“..had been rendered mute by the remote.”
“..had a thing for pickles.”
“ know, I really wasn’t expecting that – hence the surprise – I guess you had to be there.”
“..lizards have blue snot?”
“..eyes *are* window to the soul.”
“..he wasn’t supposed to be back until Friday.”
“..if he was here, then who the hell was that in the pool this morning?”
“..I thought it was snails that left a slime trail.”
“..not everybody makes sergeant that fast.”
“..I couldn’t picture him running for office.”
“ me, I can’t stop.”

At that point, I asked if he was trying to provoke me into posting them, whereupon the followup this afternoon was another batch. Okay, then.

“..he said he would get at least a B-, and he did.”
“..turns out he’s a well-known anime model.”
“..liked Ghostbusters 2 better than 1.”
“..he doesn’t have a Facebook page.”
“..he’s done unspeakable things with Q-tips.”
“..and after 35 years of marriage, that’s really all you can ask for.”
“..but not as much as the tarantula did.”
“..he really has been donating his lunch money to charity.”
“..he has the reflexes of Starbucks barrista with the shakes.
“..her lingerie collection is larger than mine.”
“..he drinks milk right out of the carton.”
“..he leads a double life as tax advisor *and* a taxidermist. You should see his business cards.”
“..she does not have a license to carry that concealed weapon.”
“..he spent World War II in a quiet valley in the Austrian countryside.”
“..she lives to spit.”
“..he only responds to ‘Scalydude’.”
“..he has only seconds to live.”
“..he has had intimate relations with Clint Eastwood.”
“..he loves to collect pennies – he chases after them when they roll.”
“..he wears shades, doesn’t give a ^&$#*”
“..overpaid for his porsche.”
“..what, without a viable brain and all.”
“..and that takes a lot of girl scout cookies these days.”
“..really, I can’t stop.”

All of which missed the point entirely, which was that I never knew lizards liked corn liquor…