Progress report September 15

I told you I would probably be back to let you know how it was going with the kittens, and I should have been back sooner, because a lot has happened since the last post. Let me ‘splain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up.

First off, after having observed their visits daily for a week, we suddenly determined that there are four kittens, not three – not once did all four show themselves together in that time. It turns out the lynx point was actually twins.

The Girlfriend and I sat outside for a couple of evenings just to let them get used to our presence, and noticed that they seemed very fond of the back porch; even when we came inside, we’d see them poking around right outside the door. The next obvious step was to prop the door open and leave a little food just inside, and see what happened. Last Saturday night was when this experiment took place, and we stayed up late watching them, one at a time, venture in to snag a few treats. The Girlfriend was about to give up for the evening, way past her normal bedtime, when I spotted the calitabby well inside the kitchen and motioned her over to watch. We both got plenty of exercise in remaining motionless (um, whatever) over the next hour, as all four kittens came inside and, curiosity overcoming their caution, investigated the whole damn house.

This required them to walk past the two of us standing to either side of the living room doorway, whereupon two of them ventured down the hallway into the bedrooms, while one walked practically over my feet to check out the living room. On occasion, one of them would spot a movement from us and freeze, staring intently until it assured itself that it was a fluke. Up until one of the lynx points, returning from its investigation of the underside of the couch, was standing directly at my feet as I whispered very quietly to The Girlfriend. With growing horror in its eyes, the realization dawned that it was sitting directly underneath a towering Threat, and it literally did a quadruple take that nearly overcame my skills at suppressing laughter, before it darted for cover. The calitabby, however, became so fascinated by the sugar gliders (pets of The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog) that she not only overcame her fear of us for a bit, she started ignoring our conversation, now no longer whispered. We wanted to close up for the night, and convincing her that it was time to go took more effort than we thought it should have.

At this point, The Girlfriend decided we should go ahead and trap them indoors at our first opportunity, since the neighborhood has a few too many hazards for little kittens out on their own, so I rigged the back door with a long string so I could close it from a distance, and over the next couple of evenings caught all four during their ventures inside. Since they’re still somewhat feral, this caused a bit of panic, and they secreted themselves in various crannies within the house, giving little indication that they were present at all. Now, as I type this it’s late on Wednesday evening, the 14th, but this will post on Thursday morning, so adjust accordingly. But after dinner this evening, The Grilfriend spotted one of the kittens sneaking around in the bedroom, so we fetched the roast beef lunchmeat and began trying to coax them out. This worked even better than expected, as can be seen from the photo – the calitabby and the flame point took very little time at all to learn how to take snacks from our hands, with the cali actually asking for more audibly. The flame point, less polite, would often snag The Girlfriend’s hand to keep the treats from escaping. As can also be seen here to some degree, the calitabby is noticeably bigger than the flame point, and indeed all three of the others – she appears almost to be older, though this seems exceptionally odd. The likelihood of four kittens from two litters, all Siamese mixes, appearing together at once without a mother, is rather slim.

After a prolonged feeding session, I got them both interested in a cat toy and spent fifteen minutes drawing them practically into my lap, but not yet close enough to start tickling. Still, that’s certainly a good amount of progress for one evening.

My computer sits in the corner of the living room, and as I unloaded the first images to begin this post, the calitabby and a lynx point both sat nearby and watched me, allowing me to talk to them without being very antsy at all. They’ve been both investigating and playing within the living room, so The Girlfriend and I feel that getting these critters tamed down as housecats isn’t going to pose much difficulty in the slightest. I just paused right there (it’s almost live-blogging!) and got out some toys, and it didn’t take a lot of effort to get the lynx point totally spazzed out. It’s been very amusing, and I regret having no decent way of obtaining video at the moment, or you’d be seeing more than still images.

So, is this better than bugs? ;-)

Odd memories, part six

Scott Meyer of Basic Instructions fame speaks with the insight of the classic philosophers:

The Nerf designers may actually be missing the point – part of the skills of childhood is repurposing toys to your own ends. Things that are too specific cripple kids’ creative (and destructive) powers.

In my youth, GI Joe was a nine-inch (metric wasn’t invented then) fully-articulated dude with fuzzy beard and blue Speedos, perhaps a step up from my older brothers’ Joes, who were clean-shaven, plastic-haired, and conspicuously neutral in the nether regions (the action-figures, not my brothers.) I had a six-wheeled ATV “Banana Buggy” and a Schweizer 300 helicopter, though I did not know this at the time, for him to chase semi-military adventures within. Both of these were cool, but they didn’t provide half of the amusement of hurling Joe out of the third-story attic window with his homemade parachute. Joe, it must be said, was more accident-prone than YouTube stars, and curiously, his chute failed more often than it worked, especially when my friends and I figured out how to tie the knots for only momentary security. Joe would often regain consciousness on the front walk, limbs splayed at traumatic angles that the animators of Family Guy are quite familiar with; they know. But Joe never grimaced, never hesitated, never shirked his duty of running his ATV at full speed under the couch, which the ATV cleared but Joe did not…

Stairs are an important part of a child’s development, I am sure – we had four flights of stairs in the house that I grew up in and look how I turned out. The flight of sixteen steps in the main foyer was an excellent acceleration ramp for the Hot Wheels tracks that I inherited from my brothers. The orange plastic sectional tracks, able to be bent vertically but not horizontally, retained a bit too much warpage from being curled into loops, so it was hard to keep the cars on the track in the bottom third, often flying clear before reaching the jump we had placed at the end. Ah, but when they stayed true, we could send a Deora (without surfboards) or Whip Creamer sailing out the front door without touching the floor. Those that collect Hot Wheels in vintage condition nowadays, still in the original packaging even, are total dweebs – a Hot Wheels has not been christened until the paint is chipped or a wire axle bent down a bit. Ones with heavily-damaged front ends are true classics, bearing the history of numerous childhood experiments.

In my very early childhood, kids still actually stuck playing cards in their bicycle spokes, something I’d better explain because I suspect a lot of readers no longer know what the hell this is: the rattling made a sound reminiscent of motorcycles. Bikes are anything but bikes at that age, becoming motorcycles, aircraft, and even spacecraft. The physics that we learned from Hot Wheels we carried over into bicycles, or at least tried to, making ramps of various sizes when we couldn’t find our own in natural conditions. Bear in mind that this was the Golden Era of growing up, when playground equipment was metal and concrete and there was no such thing as helmets and pads – I still have a scar on my knee from wiping out in gravel, a scar that carries the fond memory of having banged the scab a week later and reproducing the tears, only to find a stone still embedded in my skin and now adhering to the scab. Fun times! I did a lot of bicycle jumps, learning that steep ramps often cause the bike to want to pitch forward on landing. You get over the pain quickly because your friends will only laugh that much harder if you moan or cry. Had we continued to use playing cards in this manner, some of our bikes would have sounded like Harleys at idle from the missing spokes (budda budda budda – blap – budda – blap blap…)

As I got older, model kits took over, and as most boys know, there’s a period of time that they don’t turn out how they were intended; this is coupled with those that get knocked down and obtain too much damage. At such times, their appearance is improved with the time-honored application of gasoline, usually anointed well out of the presence of stodgy uncreative adults. Several of my kits became masses of blobby plastic out Behind The Barn, which is another important developmental area. This achieved new heights of awesomeness when my brother-in-law brought over his 12-gauge shotguns and we attempted to extinguish the flames with birdshot. One gains valuable scientific knowledge of atomization and vapor ignition from watching the USS Constitution with full rigging, after having been damaged by pirates (tumbling it from the top shelf,) take one in the powder magazine and vanish in a classic fireball. Much is said about the joys of children’s laughter, but past a certain age, it means you better check to see what they’re doing.

Actually, just a little older than that, it then means you probably shouldn’t…

It is worth noting that this is a period in time when reality, and what your friends tell you with utter confidence, are two entirely different things, often polar opposites. My sister convinced me that the air freshener in the bathroom with strawberries all over the can actually tasted like strawberries, from her personal experience. I can save you that experiment: it does not (c’mon, I was four.) One of my model rockets was destroyed because a friend told me that a two-stage engine and a single-stage were pretty much the same, and a two-stage would successfully pop the chute. I watched my carefully built model return earthward at a high velocity with its chute aflame, never to fly again.

Oh, yeah, I should probably say that model rocket engines are a source of very useful chemicals. Split open the compressed cardboard casing with an X-Acto knife and you get a cylinder of varied packed powders that ignite easily. They smell terrible, of course, which makes them very useful for twisting small amounts into buds of toilet paper and sneaking into cigarettes. When you do this, you dump out several cigarettes and place the loaded one well into the pack, so it’s not found until sometime later – helps cover your tracks. The bottom charge flares brilliantly, because that’s the propellent, but the middle charge (we’re talking single-stage here) is the bit that produces the smoke trail to spot the rocket, and it works quite well. Being careless at one point, I ignited an entire cylinder of this stuff in our living room (on the fireplace hearth – I had a little sense back then)… right before my dad came home. The living room was filled with smoke about halfway down to the floor, but I suspect my dad got too much of a kick out of my sheepish and terrified admission of guilt and merely told me to air it out before my mom got home. Or maybe I’d given him ideas of his own; come to think of it now, some of my rocket engines went missing soon after. I’d always blamed my brother…

So, yeah, with all that, especially for the women reading, you can begin to understand where Mythbusters really came from. Even Homer Hickam, one of the pioneers of rocketry and author of the book Rocket Boys (later to become the movie October Sky,) engaged in shenanigans of this sort – if you’re lucky, you never grow out of it.

One free internets to everyone that knew what a “Banana Buggy” was. It’s the least I can do now that that song is going through your head… ;-)

Book review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Yes, you might have noticed that I haven’t been concentrating on new publications, and this is for two reasons. One is that I haven’t been reading very much in the way of new publications, and the second is, I’m recommending books that I think people should read ;-)

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective AgencyDouglas Adams is best known for the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, which is very entertaining but has several weak spots. He hit his stride later on, though, and the best remains Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Set in more-or-less contemporary times, DGHDA is a mystery, ghost story, and quirky science fiction book all together; for those that think science fiction requires spaceships, aliens, and time travel, this isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes it’s simply an expansion of our mundane world and the qualities within, and anyone who dislikes Star Trek (I cannot find fault with that) won’t find that this book compares in any way.

Most distinctly, Adams took the time to craft his plot meticulously. This is not a draft dashed off to make some publisher’s deadline, but the culmination of lots of effort. Anyone who noticed the somewhat haphazard progression of the first Hitchhiker’s Guide book will not see the same here, and in fact, it is definitely worth reading DGHDA twice to see exactly how Adams included the details and how they all come together. Many mystery writers provide clues to the solution by dropping a little too much detail in areas normally left bare; Adams is typically much more subtle, but even when the reader catches them, such details leave the reader completely flummoxed as to their meaning. In essence, he agrees to give all the clues, confident that it will do little good. It is only at the end that they converge in a remarkable fashion that few writers could pull off or would even attempt to, and subsequent readings will almost certainly reveal quite a bit that he passed off casually, which had much more bearing on the plot than it seemed.

Adams displays a penchant for eccentric personalities, so naturally this describes his protagonist, Dirk Gently. Gently runs a “holistic” detective agency (I regret spoiling the title in this way,) specializing in solving his cases not by dealing with the immediate details of the case, but with their “fundamental interconnectedness” with the universe as a whole – this might involve attempting to find an elderly client’s missing cat by vacationing in the Bahamas. Gently is revealed quickly as a con-artist, which is perhaps the most lucrative profession of those who have a gift for intuition and human nature. Or perhaps not. He appears abruptly on the scene from the college past of Richard MacDuff, a quintessentially a-social computer programmer who finds his boss inexplicably murdered. The murder does indeed get solved, but in the grand scheme of things this is entirely incidental, overshadowed almost completely by something quite bizarre.

The reader may find themselves assisted by some knowledge of the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, since Adams built portions of the story around these. It is not necessary, however, and it is highly doubtful that such knowledge would contribute to solving the mystery before the denouement – I have yet to see the author that can craft a tale this unique. We are not treated to a series of events likely to occur in any timeline, much less all of them, and we are not embroiled in the emotions and motivations of the characters. Instead, Adams provides a concatenation of details that seem completely haphazard, which makes it much more interesting to see them tie together so distinctly in the end. The science fiction aspect makes it permissible to use a plotline that would otherwise seem contrived, yet Adams does a great job with blending this into both history and folklore. Every aspect of this book interacts as part of a whole, homage perhaps that the holistic detective agency is not quite so contrived after all.

One of the reasons that I feature this book here is that Adams has subtly included some key aspects of critical thinking within, from Gently’s disastrously successful college scam to later seizing upon key factors in eyewitness accounts. However, I found the passage regarding hypnosis to depart from this jarringly, in that it is portrayed in a “common knowledge” manner rather than with accuracy. Too much of the book revolves around this for it to be easily overlooked, but since the remainder is both solid and capable of holding the reader’s attention, I find myself willing to overlook it. Some fiction authors are fond of taking common beliefs, folklore, and legends and crafting their story around the idea that such things are accurate; Terry Pratchett is notorious for it. Adams does a marvelous job of incorporating “what everyone knows” into his story, extrapolating it further back than most people would consider. In doing so, the reader is left to discover (unless they’ve been clued in by reading book reviews) that one poor individual is not likely to obtain their happy ending. But, for the good of the many…

Adams’ interest in critical thinking, expressed in interviews and articles, even shows in largely disposable passages of the book, where a casual conversation between characters causes one to explain the software that made his employer famous, a program called Reason:

“Well, Gordon’s great insight was to design a program which allowed you to specify in advance what decision you wished it to reach, and only then to give it all the facts.The program’s task, which it was able to accomplish with consummate ease, was simply to construct a plausible series of logical-sounding steps to connect the premises with the conclusion.

“And I have to say that it worked brilliantly. Gordon was able to buy himself a Porsche almost immediately despite being completely broke and a hopeless driver. Even his bank manager was unable to find fault with his reasoning. Even when Gordon wrote it off [totaled it] three weeks later.”

We later find that all rights and developmental notes of the software were purchased in toto by the US Military; they could perhaps have saved themselves a lot of money by hiring theologians instead.

There also the matter of Electric Monks. Adams is exactly the kind of writer who would slip in something meaningful about their coincidental appearance, perhaps implying that this is not coincidental after all. To say more would be to give away too much within the book, something that I have been endeavoring not to do (in case this wasn’t obvious,) so I leave it to the reader to consider this themselves. The idea was even toyed with in “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” so I suspect there might be a very subtle message in there, with the potential of an evolution joke, especially if you refer to them as “Monk-E’s.”

As a note unrelated to the story, it can be surmised that Adams wrote this in close proximity to the other book of his that I reviewed, since several casual aspects can be seen in both. Adams’ increased interest in the workings of science and nature peek in slyly, as does a dodo. It provides an interesting insight into the way that a story develops from life experience, though I suspect anyone would be hard-pressed to predict that such experiences would lead to this. Moreover, it leaves one wondering what else might have occurred in his life which inspired the portions of this book not related to his world travels and encounters with endangered species, an almost disturbing thought in itself.

I feel obligated to say that his follow-up to this book, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul (not a sequel so much as another story with some of the same characters,) does not half measure up to the wonderful planning and execution of DGHDA. The unfortunate thing about writing works of insight and interest is that you raise the bar on yourself. I consider Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to be the pinnacle of Douglas Adams’ small collection of books, both meticulous and clever, and well worth the time to read. Twice.

Someone else is going to have to explain his issue with Chesterfield sofas, though.

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The illustrating image is lightened a bit, since exposures of this kind are hard to judge in the LCD, but this is not digitally composited – some of us simply know how to do this ;-)

Still here

You know, when you commit to a blog, you start feeling obligated to provide fresh content on a regular basis, so people checking in always have something new to find, or they get bored and stop checking in. And while I don’t engage in the bizarre popularity contests of social networking, I still have a desire to reach more people, be it from ego or from a desire to make some kind of impact (probably a combination of the two, and don’t ask me which one outweighs the other.) So I don’t feel like I should be doing what I just did, which is going a week with no updates of any kind.

Truth be told, though, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest going on in my life, and even less that I felt like writing about. Some irritating illness had me feeling out-of-sorts, with little desire to write and even less pleasure with what I did manage to put down. Several drafts sit in my folders awaiting a time when I can make them more up to my standards, whatever those might actually be. In the meantime, I’ve tackled such bold and meaningful tasks as 80s lyrics quizzes, and trying to tame down three kittens that appeared a week ago.

The Girlfriend heard one calling outside the window one night, but it had ceased by the time I came in to listen for myself. The next day, however, she spotted two of them on our porch, and thus began the task of trying to capture them. The house alongside of us, a rental, is recently empty, and apparently the kittens (we have determined that there are three) use an empty shed as their primary shelter. They have learned that we put out food and so will venture into the yard frequently, but remain wary of us when we’re outside. The photo above was taken in our side yard as two of them had a very cute wrestling match yesterday morning. Yes, the yard is that unkempt, at least in that area, since a few old trees keep the yard loaded with mower-damaging branches and acorns, and because we let half of the yard remain au natural as habitat and to reduce emissions from the mower.

The Girlfriend and I both have backgrounds in animal shelters (that is, in fact, where we met,) and so we’re familiar with feral and semi-feral kittens. We also both are recently without pets now, as the last of my three cats was put to sleep a year ago June, while the last of her two dogs this May – all had lived quite long lives. We have both sworn to remain without pets for a while, knowing full well that something like this was very likely to happen anyway. The goal is going to be to place them in good homes once they’re cool with people; we’ll see how that goes. Since all of them are Siamese mixes with blue eyes, this probably won’t be hard.

The markings are less apparent here, but they all have a certain individuality. Siamese cats have a basic color pattern, which is a cream-to-white body with “points,” or coloring on the extremities of ears, nose, legs and tail. The most common is the classic “seal point,” or deep brown coloration, while there can be “chocolate point” (lighter brown) and “blue point” (grey.) When interbred with other cats, these points show genetic influence from other classic color patterns, so what we now have visiting us are a lynx point (grey tabby, or tiger, extremities,) a flame point (orange tabby,) and a very curious mix of broad tabby markings that might even be calico-influenced. No, they do not have names yet.

'Something in the window up there keeps making a clicking noise.' 'Shhh! The fuzzy white thing... just... moved!'

There is a curious genetic trait that shelters and cat-breeders learn: a large percentage of white cats with blue eyes are deaf, and even cats with one blue eye may be deaf on the side of the blue eye. Thus, we’ve been paying attention to each of these, but they all show very distinct hearing, so no worries there.

These little boogs appear to be only 8-12 weeks old, so I have confidence that we’ll have them socialized pretty quickly. Once past the age of four months, socializing feral animals gets much harder – two of my three former cats came from exactly such efforts, as they tamed down pretty well with me in foster care but remained very wary of strangers, so much so that returning them to the animal shelter would have left them cowering and unresponsive in the cages. Thus they became my pets by default, and lived to be fourteen and sixteen years of age – one remained neurotic enough to hiss at me if I entered the room suddenly, though most other times she remained quite social (I frequently reminded her that I “haven’t killed you yet,” but this apparently made little impression.)

More typical blog content (well, at least my kind of blog content) will be along shortly, as I tackle some of the topics inspired by other reading, but I may also offer updates on the kittens as I go along. It is, after all, the internet. Rest assured that I generally detest the language of “LOLCat” so we’ll be dispensing with that here.

Amateur naturalism, part one

In an earlier post, I mentioned encouraging kids to keep a journal about their insect observations, and at that point (the first draft of this is being typed immediately after I published that post) decided to create a series dedicated to this subject. So, welcome to the first of the Amateur Naturalist posts, this one dealing mostly with insects. Bear in mind this doesn’t have to apply to just kids – anyone interested in such subjects should feel comfortable chasing this if they want. Hell, I’m in my mid-forties. But if the writing seems aimed a little too low, I apologize; I’m trying to strike that balance.

Insects are one of the easiest subjects to pursue, from an observation standpoint, because they’re so abundant – chances are, no matter where you are in the world, you have thousands of species available. From a nature photography standpoint, however, they’re much harder, because decent photos of very small subjects are challenging on several levels, as well as often requiring something in the form of specialized equipment – usually a lot of somethings. Right now, I’m going to approach this from a non-photographic view, because photos aren’t necessary to generate an interest in this subject matter.

Basic materials to help with this pursuit are as follows. None of these are absolutely necessary, and none of these need to be specialized, but any of them can help considerably:

Observation Journal: Any method you want to use is fine for this, whether it be the “Doctor Jones” field manual to scribble in right on site, or a word processing file on your computer, or even an audio recorder (so help me, I still say “tape recorder.”) You might be amazed at how much can be forgotten, and being able to go back over what you’ve observed helps a lot, including reminding you of something to look up. Comparing what you knew or surmised then and what you know now is also encouraging and a good reminder of progress. For those in school, it can even be something that garners extra credit. Just try to make it a habit, and be sure to re-visit it periodically.

Magnifying lens: There are good and bad examples out there, and the more expensive ones tend to provide better images, but even the cheap ones work better than nothing. Simple “fresnel” magnifiers can be obtained in office supply stores and carried in a wallet, and cost so little that damaging or losing one is insignificant. Glass lenses tend to provide a better, less distorted view, however, and larger ones can provide more working distance and a wider field of view at the same time. Working distance helps a lot for insects that can be scared away or under cover with a close approach.

Collecting cans: Something small that closes tightly is ideal – I use film cans because I have tons of them. The idea is to hold onto something until it can be examined closer under better light, or even taken to someone who knows more for identification. Entomologists (those that study insects) very often kill and preserve specimens, because this allows close examinations and comparisons, but other may balk at this, and that’s fine. Bear in mind that identification of insects usually requires more than appearance, and a photo or sketch will be inadequate in a majority of the cases, so a live specimen will often be the barest minimum. Most insects use air in such sparing amounts that air holes aren’t as necessary as many people feel, and these should be short-term enclosures anyway, but if needed, a nylon screen top affixed with rubber bands works better than holes, which allow for almost no circulation.

Fine forceps, tweezers, or hemostats: These are used more for dissection, and for handling material in the habitat rather than the insect itself. Snagging an insect by a leg or a wing is likely to injure it, and I don’t recommend trying it unless the insect is either sturdy or dead. But you may want to remove stuck-on materials (like in the case of the camouflaged inchworm,) or parasites, or move vegetable matter for a better view. Locking hemostats also allow for securing something that moves in the wind or needs to remain in a useful position. Also, something very fine and sturdy, like a long pin or needle or dental pick, provides a very small probe that can move material, lift wings, or flush out a tiny spider from among leaves. I don’t carry one and frequently end up furnishing one from pine needles and sticks, so learn from my shortcomings ;-)

Something to measure with: Ideally, it should be pocketable and be in metric, since most insects fall into the fractions-of-inches realm (not to mention it’s about time we dumped English measurement anyway.) You might want to use a variety of things, depending on the circumstances, but a small ruler from the school supply section of a department store works fine. If you’re into photography, and especially if you want to submit photos for identification and scientific use, a proper photographic scale works better, such as those found here, or you can print your own courtesy of Jason Quinlan. A small tip, too: insects may not wait around for you to slide a ruler up next to them, so before you try, measure them by eye against their surroundings, so you can measure that when they get scared off by the approaching ruler. Estimating is usually a bad idea; people are typically terrible at guessing size.

Flashlight: I recommend the kind that can go in a headband at least, so both hands can be free, but this also works to help spot certain critters at night, since the reflection works only at very narrow angles, so you want the light as close to your eyes as possible. Even by day, a flashlight can help throw light into shady areas or see details that ambient light just isn’t producing – any photographer knows that light angle can highlight contours and textures, and can even lend a hand with camouflage. Spare batteries help too, especially if you’re hiking at night and need the light to get back (think ahead!)

Water: Not just to drink. Some insects exude a caustic substance to discourage predators, which you may want to wash off just from the stink, and poking around in the undergrowth may also expose you to fun things like poison ivy. So of course, add to this adequate clothing and, especially if you’re susceptible to insect bites, repellant and something that eases the pain of stings. Believe it or not, I’ve been stung only once by Hymenoptera while chasing photographic subjects, but I’ve encountered countless fire ants, mosquitoes, and the occasional poison ivy.

Ground cloth: Gosh, this makes things so much easier. Observation often takes patience, and the ground is usually uncomfortable, damp and messy. I use a carpet square near the house, but often carry a small vehicle floor mat on excursions, small enough to roll up and stuff in a large pocket. I also use kneepads frequently – found in construction stores, you can get these for as little as five bucks.

Okay, so you have some materials, and want to get started. What do you do? Well, first off, there isn’t anything you have to do – observation is simply about learning, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll be picking up on things. Even just finding the insects is a matter of patience and careful examination – what works best for me is spotting the break in the patterns that plants have, something that is too symmetrical or simply doesn’t do what leaves normally do. Did something move when there was no wind? Are these leaves curled over for a reason? But there are a couple of little things that can help your observations:

Use your ears, too: We have a bad tendency to tune out natural noises, but they can point to a lot of what’s going on. Insect sounds, by nature, can be hard to pinpoint, especially when they vary pitch over the course of a few seconds. You can narrow this down a bit by triangulating, changing position a little and drawing an imaginary line towards the source of the sound from different locations – where the lines cross is fairly likely to point to the noisemaker. Do this early on, because most insects cease making sounds when danger (like looming people) threatens, so once you’re close enough to make them stop you’re out of luck. Recording such sounds, by the way, can even help identify species, but be aware that many microphones have a much shorter dynamic range than we hear ourselves, and the recording you get might sound nothing like what you heard (I did this with a bat once – the squeaks had become ratcheting clicks on tape.)

Be meticulous: Note date, time, weather conditions, plant conditions, and so on. Has it been a long time since rain? Does certain behavior seem to occur only at certain times? Pay attention, and see if any patterns emerge. But…

Don’t jump to conclusions: It’s easy to invoke a pattern after only a couple of observations, but this can be very misleading. Countless factors may have influence on something that you see, and many might not be obvious (for instance, can you smell insect pheromones? How about seeing in ultraviolet?) The scientific method involves testing any hypotheses that are made – basically, trying to prove yourself wrong. Don’t feel bad if and when this happens – real advances don’t come easy, and if it’s easy to spot, chances are someone else already has. But just learning how nature works is pretty rewarding in itself, and the interactions can be fascinating.

Insects are not human: Seems obvious, but the subtle aspect is that we’re so used to human interactions, we take for granted certain kinds of behavior. It’s much worse with animals that have “faces,” but still occurs for insects too. Bees, for instance, sting only for protection, and there’s no animosity involved. There is no fundamental difference between “damaging” and “beneficial” garden insects – such values are placed by us alone, because we prefer certain plants, but insects only seek to survive, like everything else.

Do the research: The internet is a powerful, remarkable tool. In my youth, finding any kind of information involved poking through books at the library or attempting to call someone, so I can really appreciate typing things into a search engine. In a lot of cases, finding the information you’re after takes searching in different ways, and making sure you’re not assuming some trait. It may have looked like a moth, but maybe it’s not. Yet, the internet contains plenty of incorrect information as well, so learning how to distinguish is paramount. For instance, published papers and working entomologists tend to provide much more accurate information than brief descriptions on a site heavy with photos and light on detail.

Don’t grab: Many insects, even stinging and biting ones, can be handled safely with some care. I don’t recommend handling anything unnecessarily, but on occasion it’s useful, especially if you’re examining it or showing it to someone else, like your kids (and in such cases, handling can allay some of the unreasonable fears.) But our fingers are large, clumsy, and too hard to handle insects the same way we would a pencil, so coaxing an insect into your open hand works the best, and sometimes scooping or nudging can work. When collecting into a can, usually it’s more effective to place the can in front of the insect and then nudging or scaring it in. You can also simply pluck the leaf that the insect sits on and move the whole thing. But remember – almost everything has some means of defense, and insects often have surprises. If you’re not quite sure, leave it alone.

Move slowly: Most insects have rudimentary vision, and can be fooled by very slow movements – and of course, anything is going to flee if they perceive a threat from a rapid approach or hasty searches. I’ve demonstrated the usefulness of this by moving my finger directly towards a perched dragonfly, ever so slowly, until I could nudge it under the forelegs and actually have it transfer onto my finger – I just never triggered the danger response. And holding still for a while can allow insects to resume natural behavior that they halted when you came around, letting you see more of what they get up to.

Vary the times of observations: Many insects come out at night, or change behavior at those times. Others go into torpor when the temperature drops, and must warm themselves up in the morning. Some spiders are day hunters, but many more are nocturnal. Cicadas and mayflies hatch only at specific times and conditions. If you only go out at certain times of the day, you’re going to miss a lot.

Try not to interfere: Any kind of contact or interruption can change behavior, so it works much better if you only observe. Most especially, no matter how cool something might be, insects don’t really make pets – they don’t bond, they don’t learn, and captivity can deprive them of properly varied diet, sunlight, humidity, mating, migration, and on and on. A small terrarium might be helpful as temporary housing for photos, but for the most part, it’s far more interesting and informative to let them be and simply watch what they do. Also, don’t play favorites – even if a wasp is attempting to lay eggs in the caterpillar you’ve been desperate to watch make a chrysalis, that’s how it goes.

How do I identify certain insects? First off, I’ve found from long experience that asking “the locals” is just about pointless, since colloquial terms are used far more often than not. I can’t tell you how many species of arachnid I’ve seen identified as “garden spider.” Second, insect species are incredibly numerous, and distinctions sometimes very trivial. So don’t expect exact identification, even when resorting to experts, and by the same token, even large books aren’t necessarily going to help. I’ve found can supply a lot of info, provided you know how to search for key details, but even with numerous entomologists frequenting the site and contributing, there just isn’t much known about thousands of species in the US alone, much less in remoter areas. If you prefer a certain genera, you might get by with a few specific books, but expecting an encyclopedia of all species is asking way, way too much. Better to use books to help familiarize yourself with insect traits and anatomy (“true bugs” and all that.) Getting to know entomologists can help, such as at the local university, but be aware that most specialize and may well look at your butterfly and say they know nothing about Lepidotera, since they do Blattaria. Often, though, they can direct you to a colleague that is better suited. Just don’t abuse the privilege – remember that they have their own work to do.

What just happened? Insects can have the most astounding behavior, some of it very specialized. One species of mud wasp paralyzes spiders to lay their eggs within, where the young will hatch out inside the still-living spider and use them for food (the most disgusting variation of a gingerbread house imaginable – yes I enjoyed drawing that analogy.) These spider are stuffed into the mud tubes often seen under overhangs in barns, garages, and bridges (I have yet to obtain a photo of a wasp arriving with a spider, but now I know what I’m looking for.) Remember not to draw conclusions or even be fooled by what you think happened – describe exactly what you saw, and nothing more. The biggest mistake in observation, of any kind, is trying to fit what was seen into what was expected, which really does let one’s imagination start to interfere.

You could be the first. Sometimes it seems like science leaves very little yet to be discovered, but in reality, we can’t even provide an accurate count of how many species there are on this planet, because so many remain unrecorded. Insects are very high on that list. It’s important not to get too wrapped up in the idea that you might be finding a new species or witnessing unrecorded behavior, but this is far more likely for insects than it is for just about any other family – microorganisms lead the list. The key is, the only way you’d ever know is to treat it seriously and make good observations.

And there’s another aspect hiding in here, seemingly negative but actually quite useful: you may decide you really aren’t very interested in fieldwork, or in pursuing insects as a subject. It’s much better to find this out on your own with a minimal investment of time and money than six years into an advanced degree, where changing majors is hampered by thoughts of wasted effort. This goes for parents, too: Encourage your kids, but let it run as it may. If their interest isn’t holding, perhaps something else fits the bill more. Which lets me lead in to the next installment of Amateur Naturalist posts ;-)

Does science lead to atheism?

Update September 2012 – This was one of the sample posts chosen for the podcasting experiment; click below to listen, if you like (it is identical to the text):
Walkabout podcast – Does science lead to atheism?

The title question is actually an interesting one; it is hard for me to say how many people ask it, or assume to already know the answer. It bears some examination because of the nature of science, and the way we humans tend to structure our thinking. It can be answered multiple ways, if you assign different properties to the question rather than taking it literally.

Science, as I’ve said before, is simply a methodical process of learning. The entire goal is to puzzle out nature and reality as untainted as possible by human preconceptions, emotions, desires, or “common sense.” Part of the method is to accept that humans are imperfect and prone to mistakes, and therefore attempt to overcome these barriers by testing all conclusions against empirical evidence. What this means is that science leads only to knowledge, via the best method that we’ve ever used, so if atheism is an end result, it is because nature itself demonstrates a lack of godly influence.

This is not, however, what many people mean, or at least think, when asking that question. Instead, they are asking if the scientific method, or even the “dogma” of physical laws and textbook information, only proposes a godless universe – in other words, is “god” either disallowed as an explanation, or specifically proscribed against? Bluntly, the answer is “no,” since scientific laws are only of things that we have demonstrated over and over again, things that hold true no matter what and are thus trustworthy, just as we trust gravity to bring things to the ground when we let go of them. Sure, there is a scientific theory of gravity, but one need not know this to remain tethered to the planet, and denying the theory still requires someone to explain why we do not float through the air.

But does science proceed on the assumption that a god is not acting in measurable ways? And to that, the answer is “yes” – but this isn’t as damning (I should do stand-up) as it seems. First off, the definitions of gods aren’t rigid enough to provide a useful hypothesis for explaining anything we observe, and even the general definitions of gods provide for capriciousness and, in essence, “free will.” In other words, the gods are not beholden to doing the same thing every time, and so their actions might be widely variable. These make it hard to use any gods as a working hypothesis; to test if a certain antibiotic actually inhibits bacterial growth, we must assume that nobody is screwing with the bacteria in ways that we cannot detect. If this didn’t work consistently, even rudimentary tests would be pointless. Still, there are two ways that such interference could be tested for. The first is to rule out the presence of any regularity, patterns, or cause-and-effect scenarios – what we typically consider physical laws. Nothing, for instance, has ever been observed to fall slower than something else within the same conditions – this is so rigidly within a pattern, so dependable, that everyone around the world can use it, and even measure it to very fine decimal places. We can catch thrown objects precisely because of this. Such consistency allows us to determine many other things on top of the immediate physical laws; we can design aircraft and parachutes and such because we can calculate gravity against air resistance and compressibility, and they only work dependably because no such capriciousness is ever visible in their effect.

The second way of testing this is to assume, for the time being, a posit of intention, and then to see if such a posit bears out. This is exactly the process behind testing to see if prayer works for healing, where we already know what typical recovery rates are, so we can see if intercessory prayer provides for a significant difference in recovery. There are mixed results when such studies have been tried; does this indicate the presence of a god? We have to be very careful with such a conclusion because, as noted above, we are human and may want to see certain results. So such studies have to be done in a way that interpretation cannot be open to wishes, what is often called “double-blind” testing, where neither the test subjects nor the physicians measuring results know who is being prayed for and who is not. In this way, no bias towards certain patients doing “better” can be applied, intentionally or subconsciously. When such controls are used (which aren’t as often as they should be,) the mixed results vanish, and the trends towards prayer working are no longer present. The same thing can be said for the “miracle cures” from Lourdes and in the presence of various religious icons, where the recoveries that are attested to are always things that are either not firmly diagnosed, or possible to enter remission on their own. No one is ever cured of an inoperable brain tumor, or regrows missing limbs, and the recovery rates (when the bias for self-reporting is removed) are no different from average.

No matter how faithful we might be, we do this every day ourselves. When our keys go missing, we don’t believe they were spirited away, we simply look in all the places we might have left or dropped them. When we try criminal cases, “god” is never the verdict nor the responsible party. When our cars stop working, we look for mechanical issues. All of these betray that very same “assumption of no god” that science does.

The concept of law, as another example, is as “atheistic” as science, since it denies the idea of divine judgment, moral guidance, and faith in omnipotence. Sports, despite the praises of many athletes, relies on things being extremely predictable and consistent, so that the ball arcs exactly as we’d expect and wind resistance does not abruptly change. A soccer ball that changed direction in midair or lilted outside the goal might actually be worthy of thanking god for the assistance, but all we ever see are plain ol’ laws of physics at work, and that’s all that athletes train for as well (it might actually be amusing to see, not tackling dummies or batting practices, but intensive prayer sessions, but no one seems to buy the concept that faithfully, do they?) Even churches pass around collection plates, rather than expecting their new buildings to magically pop into existence, even while insisting to the congregations that miracles will indeed take place if one has faith.

We can (and frequently do) assign theistic influence to events that seem mysterious to us, but this is actually a dead-end when seeking knowledge, serving to halt progress that could be made otherwise. We practiced this for centuries: lightning, floods, illnesses, privileges, and countless other phenomena and behaviors were all attributed, at one time or another, to supernatural intervention. The very word “supernatural” denotes something that cannot be demonstrated through natural means, and is thus out of our grasp. Making this assumption precludes any further progress – it serves as a stopping point for inquiry. We have no issues now with the idea that viruses are communicable and undirected, but at one point even proposing that illnesses were something other than god’s will was considered blasphemy, and investigating such could even earn the retribution of the churches. Thank, no not god, but science that investigating and demonstrating properties eventually took hold and became accepted, because an ounce of vaccination is worth many millions of prayers.

Science itself, or more specifically the scientific method and the various laws discovered through its application, does not have anything to say about gods – as noted, supernatural things are supposed to fall outside of such domains. But one thing science actually does do is remove the reliance on default explanations. Among non-scientists, gods have been invoked, as seen above, when we have not discovered a natural explanation for some observed phenomenon. But such an attitude fails to take into account that we may simply not have looked in the right place, nor had the necessary ability to see the explanation (such as microscopes and cultures to see bacteria.) Science does not accept assumptions, and there is no “default” explanation – if we do not have an answer, we keep looking. Additionally, in order for something to be a useful explanation, it must be consistent, not beholden to preconceived notions that do not carry across cultural lines, or debated fiercely among factions.

Invoking the supernatural also provides no real answer, nothing of any use to scientific inquiry or our body of knowledge. If we cannot obtain a consistent response from some set of inputs, then how can we put this to use? Even quantum mechanics, with its wildly variable effects and indeterminacy, ends up producing distinct average responses given enough time and samples, to the point that we can use it to determine ages of organic materials and many minerals, through radiometric dating (such as the well-known Carbon-14 method.)

To continue the dogpile on the concept of “supernatural,” there’s also the contradiction in definition whenever it is invoked. If, as claimed, it involves things outside of what we can experience, sample, or observe naturally, then it has no measurable effect and can safely be ignored. However, if it impinges on the physical world in ways that we experience, such as miracle cures and personal revelation, then it becomes fair game to scientific inquiry and testing. Attempting to have it both ways is simply hypocrisy, and a shallow attempt to create an explanatory concept that’s exempt from establishing its own value.

Frequently, the statistical significance of the number of non-religious scientists is brought up as evidence that science must be influencing this. At the same time, the number of scientists holding some religious belief is used to establish that science does indeed coexist with religion. Neither one of these has any actual value, since “science” and “scientists” are not interchangeable, and in fact, there is no distinct definition of “scientist.” Science is not defined by scientists; instead, scientists are defined by the science that they perform. There is not only the factor, pointed out above, that science does not and cannot involve supernatural explanations, but also the distinctive trait of it functioning extraordinarily well without them. If there is any influence on those deeply involved in science, it is the simple fact that the more one finds out about how everything works, the fewer things there are for a god to do.

Both of these common claims about scientists’ religiosity reflect a reliance on authority, the belief that someone could be infallible, or produce the final word on anything. This is the underlying principle behind religious leaders, but also reflected in the concept of “expert” authorities as well, as in court testimony. The nature of inquiry, however, doesn’t support any such thing – in its place we have simply the weight of the evidence. Scientists do not gain esteem by title, but by their accomplishments, and even those are subject to careful scrutiny. In order for something to achieve the status of scientific “law,” the evidence must be overwhelming and unvarying, but such laws reflect only what we have experienced and demonstrated – should we find a violation of, for instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it would cease to be used thereafter. No one is considered a mouthpiece for natural evidence, nor does science accept pronouncements, even from “distinguished” scientists.

Contrast this with religion, where pronouncements override evidence and experience to varying degrees. Religious leaders are provided authority only on their title, with no demonstration of any value or accuracy. But in order to maintain this, churches require weekly reinforcement of the ideas, immersion in a culture and the use of peer pressure, as well as the early indoctrination of children (knowing full well that implanting ideas in the formative years tends to stick longer than trying to instill it in adults with experience.) Yet, even in the face of this, we still find countless examples of religious signs, as people somehow find the face of jesus or mary (that have never had their likenesses recorded in any way) appearing in a grilled cheese sandwich or on the side of a soy oil storage tank. People pray for guidance, and amazingly, receive it in a vague way that only they can experience (that somehow never provides something that they didn’t already know.) Explorers mount expeditions into mountains in Turkey looking for an ancient animal transport vessel. What these tell us is, despite the avowals that all we have to have is faith, we’re still desperate for something real, tangible, provable: evidence. No matter the devotion, we use science constantly.

And in fact, science is only a name for the process, and knowledge gained thereof, of establishing a firm trail of evidence – in other words, demonstrating reality. We use it from the moment we can first control our actions, learning how to walk and talk by trial and error. Almost everything that we consider “thinking” is built upon the input of our external sampling system, our senses. Our entire existence as human beings is built upon empirical evidence. Sure, we engage in philosophy, theoretical science, speculation, and “spirituality” (one of those words that is defined by its context and little else,) but none of these provide anything other than emotional reaction – until they can be demonstrated.

We can ponder the mysteries and intricacies of god’s retribution, demonic conflict, unbalanced chi, foul humors, and germ theory, all for the exact same set of symptoms… but we rely on what germ theory has provided for us when it consistently and undeniably works. In fact, we found germs solely because we recognized the patterns of infection, and tried to see what was causing them. Lo and behold, critters too small for us to see and never mentioned in any religious scripture in any culture turned out to be the most ubiquitous life on earth. Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, assistant to Giovanni Cassini (we name our satellites and probes as we do for good reason) confirmed that the periodic movements of Jupiter’s moon Io occurred at different times when the earth was closer to or farther from Jupiter, and calculated the first figures for the speed of light – in 1676. He did not pray for this information, nor receive it from revelation, nor interpret it from genesis (which, it must be noted, refers to the “vault” of the heavens, not implying but saying directly that the sky is a ceiling, which couldn’t be further from the truth and cannot even charitably be called a euphemism.) Progress awaits us if we don’t assume such scripture (or anything else) is accurate, but test for accuracy instead.

In developing methods to derive knowledge, we came across some useful tools, so useful that they are now used throughout scientific investigation. Among them sits the examination of alternatives. Once an initial conclusion or hypothesis is proposed, alternatives are considered and tested, to be sure that the right conclusion is being made – if an alternative fits better, the original conclusion is obviously thrown into doubt. With scripture, of course, we find that much of what is related regarding the shape and composition of the earth, the size and makeup of the universe, the history of mankind itself and the events that have occurred in the past, all range from remarkably inconsistent to flat-out wrong. One alternative that presents itself is that most scripture is simply fiction, which doesn’t run into any serious flaws in the slightest. Another is that a god presented scripture (or the communication related therein) as accurate, but modeled the entire universe in contradiction to this. Such a posit, which incredibly is seriously considered by far too many people, raises the important questions of what purpose it serves, and how to determine that this is more accurate and explanatory than, for instance, scripture as fable. One must also note that, in accepting the two posits that a) there is a creator, and b) that scripture represents such creator’s communications, then it automatically follows that either the scripture or the universe presents intentional deceit.

But, since these all offer not only nothing to be tested, but nothing of any value, while the laws within this “modeled universe” work consistently and thoroughly, there is no function that is actually served by following any posit of scriptural fact. It can be argued that faith itself has an emotional value – someone may prefer to believe in an active and beneficial god – but if they cannot believe that such is true, the emotional value vanishes. In ancient times, people may have preferred to believe that the bright thing in the sky was a chariot driven by the sun god, but this had no effect on their lives then, and we miss absolutely nothing from not believing it now.

It becomes easy to see that it isn’t practicing science that leads away from religion, but nature itself. What anyone might perceive as godly influence can be seen as both the desire to scientifically establish their belief system, as well as actually being valueless in terms of function – we cannot use, predict, or build upon “miracles.” We must begin considering that the tendencies towards atheism in those that seek knowledge are not because science leads to atheism, but instead that religion leads nowhere.

Can you hear me now?

Ah, yes, natural disasters! Bad enough in their own right, but compounded because they herald the news programs desperate for drama, so they can run their stock footage of other disasters and send some idiot to stand out in the rain shouting above the din of their windbreaker six sizes too large (you thought “windbreaker” referred to something other than the noise?) But this is nothing compared to the religious windbags who trumpet every newsworthy phenomenon as a “sign,” making even the noise of crashing nylon seem soothing.

As the east coast of the US got treated to a minor tremor and a weak hurricane in quick succession, nitwits such as Pat Robertson, Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann were quick to proclaim god’s wrath revealed – “We warned you,” they said in effect, “You were only spared now to give you a chance to choose the proper path!” We have, they assured us, received a message. But like graffiti, it’s not really clear who this message is directed towards, nor even what it says.

Now, the earthquake is indeed a rare occurrence for that area, and it may be true that god is communicating with central Virginia about something. After all, the towns of Mineral and Louisa, Virginia are well known as beds of, well, nothing in particular, really. Since it was midway between Charlottesville and Richmond, maybe god was trying to send them both a message about their, um, totally average iniquities? Ah, but wait! DC is only 135 km away – surely that’s the target! The strike was off-center simply because god sneezed (and who’s going to bless him when that happens?)

Then we have the hurricane, which tells us that god has it in for the east coast in the late summer months, possibly because of bikinis (god apparently isn’t paying attention to Lake Havasu or the French Riviera.) Spring Break is not the bastion of hedonism, vice, and obscenity that we have been led to believe by the liberal media, if I’m getting the message right; god instead doesn’t like pasty overweight families from New Jersey and Ohio.

But seriously, we can read this message if we try hard enough. After all, it’s mostly the southern states that get hit by hurricanes, Florida by far the worst. If we add in tornado season, we find that it’s mostly the states in the southeast region that get handed the message, the region commonly referred to as the “bible belt.” Coincidence? Don’t be too hasty! As Texas Governor and bible-thumper Rick Perry announced plans to ask for god’s intervention in the drought, Tropical Storm Don drove straight towards Texas yet died out without producing measurable rainfall.

Wait! There’s more! Florida has been known for its storms for centuries, since the first Spaniards arrived. There are hundreds of shipwrecks off the coast, mostly of god-fearing Spanish fleets bringing their treasures back to the glory of the church, or arriving to instill proper worship upon the savages. Oh, there’s a pattern all right!

The real message, however, is clear, yet perhaps heeded just as little: religious pundits have absolutely nothing of any value to provide to anyone, and resort to drawing vague connections to natural disasters because they have nothing to sell but fear. And in fact, this is exactly the message they tell us that their god provides – this holds true for every last religious “leader” who preaches damnation. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we’re urged to refer to this creator as, “Mommie Dearest.” We might have gotten to see what the oft-rumored “loving” god was like if we hadn’t fucked around with wire hangers. Just sayin’…

Then of course, we might, just might, consider the possibility that only brain-damaged asshats bother waving the god flag in the first place. That pattern seems to hold pretty well, too.

Just for fun

I actually get chills when watching the following video – it’s just too cool seeing this all come together:

I’ve known this video for a couple of years now, and there’s a decent chance you’re familiar with it; at least with the tour that culminated from it. That, however, was only the lead-in for this. Turn your volume down if you’re someplace public:

Seriously, hang onto that link – there’s nothing better to cheer you up when you’re down than baby animals. Yes, I’m referring to the kids with that ;-)

This was a promo to announce the Walking With Dinosaurs tour in Australia (unfortunately, shameful autoplay video at that link – never, ever do this.) When the tour came into this area of the US, there was no way in hell we were going to afford it at that time, which is a shame, because the effort put into it is astounding. It’s impossible to say whether the behaviors and movements displayed are accurate depictions of species from millions of years ago, but from our perspective with the species alive now, they certainly look realistic. In an age when no movie company seems capable of producing entertainment without hosing around the CGI, clumsily and shamelessly, seeing what can be done with live action is refreshing.

Hiding in plain sight

Right alongside our front walk sits a cluster of flowers that I planted from seed to assist with hummingbird photography – I’d rather have shots at natural-looking flowers than feeders. Unable to find either plants or seed for varieties I knew were hummingbird attractors, I grabbed a bag of “bird and butterfly mix,” which wasn’t an ideal choice – absolutely nothing that has grown has been of the faintest interest to the hummers.

But a couple of days ago I noticed something strange about one of the flowers I passed constantly: it had stray petals showing up in the central pollination area, which eventually struck me as “not right.” Stopping to take a closer look, I induced some movement from this cluster. Ah.

Seen here, a curious species of inchworm has decorated itself with cuttings from the flower, allowing it to sit in an area that couldn’t be more noticeable and eat peacefully. The camouflage was so good it took several minutes to actually determine what kind of insect I was even seeing, and as you look close at this image, realize that the paler portions are the inchworm’s own skin – everything else is planted on. Most times the worm kept its head buried down into the flowers, and it took several minutes to get this shot as it changed position.

Inchworms are actually larval stages of butterflies and moths, and initial research indicates that this is most likely a wavy-lined emerald moth (Synchlora aerata) larva, since it appears to be the only species of Synchlora known to do this. You might compare this behavior to the spider crab that I featured earlier.

I took these photos at night, which was both a blessing and a curse. A curse, because the wind had kicked up and all of the plants were swaying unpredictably, making even focusing hard. A blessing, in that the temperature had dropped significantly, so not only was I no longer sweating like a sumo, I wasn’t in danger of sunburn. Plus, there’s a lot more activity at night.

I have gotten to know not only several species of insect, but individuals as well. A spotted orbweaver spider (Neoscona crucifera) lives in a tight nook under the porch overhang by day, to emerge at dusk and recreate her circular web every evening, recycling the material by eating it each morning before she retreats into hiding for the day; I have to remember where she likes to be each night so I don’t walk through the web. Two large female praying mantises used to occupy the pampas grass in the yard, until one lost the territorial battle to the other – I found this out while the loser was half-eaten by the victor (I knew some, only some, species did this as mating behavior, but not as rivalry.) I see the winner every couple of days, and know that an egg sac is imminent. I’ll have to watch for it when I cut back the pampas grass in the winter, since if I have the species right, the egg sac will overwinter and hatch new young out in the spring.

Another mantis occupies the small bush right alongside the flowers shown. I’m fairly certain this one is a male, judging from the size and body shape, and for a couple of weeks I didn’t see him at all, until I encountered him again last night. The bush is only a meter across and globular, so not a large area at all, but he avoids the heat of the day by remaining deep inside, to emerge at night when things get cooler. The deep color of his eyes is typical of their night mode, but finding out what exactly is at work here has proven difficult. It seems clear that the green pigmentation during the day helps camouflage the mantis, and the curious “false pupil” that they exhibit, which makes any person seeing them think irresistibly that the mantis is looking right smack at them, may help warn off predation by birds which are often sensitive to eye contact. I’ve observed that behavior numerous times while rehabilitating raptors – staring is considered a threat, and far worse than talking (which shouldn’t be done either, but we rarely think about eye contact.)

Anyway, those dark eyes presumably help with night vision, otherwise why should there be any change? But what change is actually taking place isn’t clear, though there are some indications that the reduction in pigmentation allows more light to come into the eyes obliquely, making mantis vision less precise but more effective in terms of light-detection. The same source of this info also threw out another curiosity: while I thought that the mantids would be hunting more at night, since that’s when I see both them and prey species active the most, this may not be the case, and night activity is strictly sexual. I’m not sure about this, since they may have only meant the particular species under study, and my photo subject here seemed to be exhibiting stalking behavior. This tied in with the visual resolution that was related in the paper as well: most insects with compound eyes seem able to see only one “spot” from each facet (actually a rudimentary eye in itself,) and create an impression of their surroundings from this collection of spots. This isn’t all that different from us, where we have a collection of spots from each photoreceptor cell in our eyes, but we can focus, while insects have no way to perform this function. So what they respond to are changes in individual spots, making movement and shadows the primary way of spotting prey and danger. Since my night vision isn’t all that hot itself, I was relying on a flashlight, which threw shadows with every move – my photo subject here was displaying some quick, precise movements which put me in mind of chasing down prey, though I was seeing nothing to capture myself. This may have been because he was seeing the shifting shadows and misinterpreting them.

I encountered one more known resident last night. If you remember the ambush bug from a few weeks back, this is a continuation of that story. Later visits turned up a second one nearby, while the flowers were all dying off, so I collected the new one and transplanted it to this flower patch which was much more active. Initially, I placed it on the same flowers as the inchworm, but it abandoned my choice within the day to reappear two days later on the same species it had occupied when I found it (I stand corrected!) Then it had disappeared for a while, only to be spotted again last night. It stands out like a sore thumb against the petals and flower center, but blends in quite well with the base where it likes to spend its time during the day, so I’m surmising this is primarily a night hunter as well.

All of these, and several other insect photos from last night, were collected in an area smaller than a bedroom, one of the reasons I pursue so much macro work. I barely have to step outside to see a wide variety of both species and activity, and now know several well enough to recognize them on sight, and learn some behavioral traits from them at the same time. None of this requires any special travel, blinds, or even preparations to observe, and everything seen here was spotted on decorative plant species in groomed areas of the yard. It’s a safari right under our noses.

So if you have kids that keep bringing home bugs to show you, introduce them instead to the art of observing in place, as well as web research on what they’ve found – you think I knew any bit of this when I got the photos? Hell, no – I’m not educated in the slightest. But I feel obligated to find out, especially when I’m showing them off to you, so it means that I keep expanding my store of knowledge just because I keep looking for interesting photo subjects. Don’t discourage this in your kids, and in fact, get them a journal to keep observation notes (I think I just found another post subject.) It’s a behavior well worth fostering.

The information age

I was just sitting here a few minutes ago answering e-mail, and felt something shake the chair I was in gently, as if a strong gust of wind had shaken the house, but if there was a sound, it was at the edge of hearing. Went outside to see what might have caused it, but found nothing even remotely likely. I thought I might have had my first encounter with infrasound.

…Until The Girlfriend called from a neighboring city and asked if I’d felt it too. Okay, that’s not infrasound. A quick web search revealed a 5.8 magnitude quake hit central Virginia about five minutes before I felt it. If you want to see comparative distances, think “Raleigh NC” for where I am when looking at the map.

I hope the damage, and especially the injuries, are at a minimum at the epicenter. I sit here amazed that I could find the answer so distinctly within ten minutes of the actual event. When I was growing up, I had to rely on the TV news and radio, and might have heard nothing until 6 PM. You kids have it lucky…