35 years ago, Viking 1 shakes hands with Mars

On this date in 1976, the NASA Viking 1 lander touched down on the surface of Mars, becoming the first manmade object to contact that planet. The US space program, until that time dealing largely with the moon missions, satellites, and Skylab, had now extended its reach phenomenally.

Now, I’m going to put a damper on nationalism in the interests of accuracy, for a moment. The Soviet Union had crashed a Venera probe on Venus just a wee bit earlier – like a decade. If it makes you feel better, they’d lost communication before contacting the surface so the mission returned no data, but credit where it’s due. Functioning probe missions had succeeded in 1970, still well ahead of Viking.

One of the things that distinguished Viking, however, was its ability to transmit high definition images back to NASA, and in turn (because NASA shares its images as a matter of policy) to the rest of the world. Now, you get to hear some of this from a photographer’s viewpoint – lucky you!

Your digital camera renders color by having a teeny little bit of colored plastic over each individual “pixel” sensor, in a standard pattern just like a TV screen. Digital sensors can only read light intensity (or brightness if you prefer,) not color, so each pixel has to be dedicated towards a particular color by filter. What this means, however, is that red pixels only represent 1/4 the resolution of the camera. The camera software, once the image is captured, interpolates the color of each pixel in the finished image by comparing the intensity of each color in the pattern against one another, and then changing them to try and represent “true” color. Of course, it matters a bit just what color filter is over the pixel in the first place, and what settings for images the user has chosen – high contrast, more saturated colors, and so on. The long and short of it is, there is no particular way to tell what the most accurate rendition of an image is.

Most astronomical cameras do not have color ability built into the sensor; instead, they have color filters within the lens arrays that can be switched at will, and creating a full-color image takes at least three separate exposures that are transmitted separately back to NASA. But there can also be additional filters, for more colors, infrared, ultraviolet, and so on, allowing the camera a lot of versatility. It’s not going to get updated next year, after all. A small aside, too: development of a satellite, probe, or lander requires the coordination of every component, its weight, power needs, ability to transmit data back, and so on. Because of this, new developments and upgraded hardware rarely ever make their way into a space vehicle under construction, so the digital sensors within are often very far behind the abilities of the current consumer cameras, and would typically be considered seriously obsolete in comparison.

Image courtesy of redOrbit.com

Personally, I’ve spent no small amount of time in scanning slides and trying to adjust them to appear the same on the monitor as they do on the light table. And I live on the planet where the images were taken! When the atmosphere is entirely different and vital information about the environment is determined by what’s showing in the images, calculating what the most accurate color rendition is becomes a matter of no small debate, and the application of some pretty advanced science. Seen here at the base of the antenna arm, the lander has several color targets within visible range of the cameras, which provide known baseline colors (and resolutions) to help calibrate the resulting images. In a way.

The color register on another planet should be different, from the sunlight being filtered through a different set of gases in the atmosphere. As I mentioned earlier, this color cast is something that you may not want to correct for, most especially if you’re trying to see what the planet is like. But it does present some issues with figuring out how to interpret the color channels of the images. On earth, the lander may be white (at noon, anyway) but on Mars it probably never gets brighter than pale apricot, and during a dust storm, who knows what color the light turns? Figuring this out is what makes the technicians’ jobs interesting.

At the time, one of the prime questions that Viking was supposed to answer was regarding the possibility of life. Nobody expected to find little green men, but the speculation about ice and organic compounds made it clear that the possibility was real. The landscape of Mars also gave distinct indications that some time in the past Mars had featured a more hospitable atmosphere, meaning that traces of past life might also exist. Of the four different methods that the lander possessed to try and determine answers to these questions, three came up negative, and one positive. Later analyses, with better understanding of the nature of the atmosphere, still haven’t actually resolved the question; the possibility is still there, and we may have found evidence of it. Not anything really compelling like bacterial traces or microorganisms, but the chemical aftereffects. In fact, Viking may have actually damaged the traces it was trying to detect.

This is part of the challenge of investigating things such a vast distance away. The tests have to be planned well in advance and incorporated into the lander, and obtaining new samples usually takes another mission. The sudden insight – “What if we tried this?” – requires a decade of planning and a few million dollars to implement, or the ability to find a way to deduce or infer the answer with existing data. Impatient people don’t get assigned to work planetary probes.

Today, and tomorrow, marks another anniversary by the way, but I’ll refer you back to an earlier post for that one. If you’re confused, bear in mind that the mission was run by Universal Constant Time (UTC, or Greenwich Time) and the delay between landing and EVA meant Armstrong actually stepped out the next morning ;-)

Just look at it

As I type this, I’m picking grit and yard debris out of my navel, the cost of getting down to a necessary level to obtain shots like this. So I want you to take a good look at this in consideration of my efforts, even if you don’t like snakes.

Worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) are found across much of the US, but only if you know where to look. They’re very secretive, typically burrowing under leaf litter and rocks to hunt their food, which they resemble to no small degree. It’s actually easy to mistake one for an earthworm, from their size, body shape, and coloration – while this is a nice close shot, the eyes are so subtle they often appear not to have any. The head and tail taper almost exactly like a worm’s body, with no visible narrowing at the neck and a blunt tail. Even their habit of wriggling when handled can convince someone it’s a worm, if they fail to notice that the skin is quite dry and the body firmer than an invertebrate. Those paying attention may observe that, when disturbed, these snakes can shoot for cover in a manner far more directed than most earthworms.

What I like about this is how the lighting brought out the glassy smoothness and the delicate intricacies of the fitted scales, illustrating a trait that helps them cut through soil and debris with ease. Once their head disappears under cover, they can appear to have stopped moving until the tail abruptly follows, so deceptive is their motion. Completely harmless to anything thicker than macaroni, I’ve never known one to even attempt to bite, but they’re very good at vanishing. Once I was done with my photo session, my model here slipped under the grass cover almost magically.

Watch your tongue. And ass.

Did you ever wonder, since alien visitors seem to have this thing for sexually examining humans and cutting out cow tongues (because, of all the organs that prove interesting to study, the tongue certainly tops the list,) do they ever abduct insects as well? You’d think they’d have to, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, I was playing around with a new softbox attachment, intended for handheld macro work, and while it needs some tweaking, I really like the result. Having an overhead light source looks much more natural, but typically this is hard to do and still retain some mobility. This rig, however, hangs right from a hotshoe-mounted flash – it needs a little bracing, because it’s weight that’s hanging over the front of the camera, but it’s completely portable and allows a great deal of freedom of movement. The shadows are managed and there are no overbright highlights – check the glow in the forward part of the eyes, which is the illuminating surface being reflected. Direct flash is useful for getting detail, but it often provides poor shaping and texture rendering, and has a harsh look. The softbox allows for more artistic approaches, and lets the camera get very close to a subject without having the shoe-mounted flash blocked by the lens, or simply firing over top of the subject.

Watch for more examples soon. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep an eye out for tiny UFOs beaming up bugs.

But how? Part four: Religious belief

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 4

For this topic of the series, I’m going out on a limb, because this is largely personal speculation, and I’m the first to admit I have no educational background in any of this. There are writers out there who have examined this in detail, but I have yet to read any of those works, so this is me talking out of my ass. It’s a blog – chill. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about a curious question that crops up from time to time: how come so many people are religious?

If we accept the premise that there is no supernatural force guiding our development, now or in the past, then we should by rights have little reason to keep expecting supernatural entities – in other words, from an evolutionary standpoint religion makes no sense, yet a whole lot of people accept it and follow it, well, religiously. There should be a method of explaining this in naturalistic terms in order to be consistent, shouldn’t there?

Continue reading “But how? Part four: Religious belief”

By the way…

… if you hang around any of the same blogs that I do, you may have noticed that there’s been a certain topic of discussion/debate/frothing rant recently, involving Rebecca Watson initially but soon assimilating Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Hemant Mehta, and Ebon Muse, among others. I think it now bears the name, “Elevatorgate.”

The posts are in the dozens, I suspect, and the comments well into the thousands. Lest you believe I have remained unaware of the topic and lost in my own little world, I reassure you that I’ve been aware of it almost from the very start, and have refrained from commenting anyplace, and especially from introducing it here.

You’re welcome.

High dynamic range

One of the traits of photography, regardless of film or digital, is that it does not capture the range of light intensity that our eyes do. This makes photographs display increased contrast, and often it destroys detail or color rendering in either highlights or shadow areas, or both. It’s one of the trickiest things about obtaining a proper exposure, and frequently requires some careful adjustments or supplemental lighting. This is most especially true with images showing both sunlit and shadowed areas, or when aiming into the light.

At top is a recent example from our trip to Hilton Head, two images taken a second apart. You can see that they’re aimed slightly differently, and this meant that the camera was obtaining an exposure reading from areas of intensely different light levels. The sky takes on a nice, rich and detailed appearance in one, but loses all foreground detail, while the other washes out detail from the sky (both, by the way, taken without compensation on Canon’s Evaluative Metering setting.) This is typical, and represents the choices that photographers have had to make for decades, even with newer films and digital sensors.

There are tricks that can be used to help alleviate this, but often the result is unnatural-looking and awkward. There are lens filters called graduated neutral density, which are basically tinted through half of the glass, the remainder being clear – the tinted half goes over the brighter portion of the image and is used to reduce the light level closer to that of the darker portions. The problem with these is that one rarely has a nice straight horizon, and when it is present, the fuzzy line between the tint and clear portions of the filter would show unnatural transitions in the resulting image. Most photographers left such filters alone and simply avoided the situations that suffered from too much contrast, watching for conditions that alleviated the problem.

Another way to control contrast was done in the darkroom with techniques called dodging and burning, which means selectively lightening or darkening, respectively, the portions of the frame that required it. This was (and is, for those who still pursue the wet print, which is really quite fun) useful only when the negative captured the necessary details in the first place, but since the issue was the limit of film’s dynamic range, you can’t reproduce detail that does not exist in the negative. If the bright areas have bleached out too far, there’s nothing to work with.

Enter the digital darkroom, and a technique now included in many programs called high dynamic range (often abbreviated HDR.) The basic method of HDR is to take two examples of the same scene at different exposure settings, one that captures the brighter areas (highlights) and another that captures the darker areas (shadows.) A tripod is recommended, since the images should match as close as possible, but the resulting images are digitally blended to capture the best of both. Many software packages offer this now, but I’ve done it here manually since I’m using an older program (Adobe Photoshop 6.0) that’s been serving me just fine.

Blending the details just right is actually tricky, and easy to screw up (like in the image above.) Sometimes the results are fine for those who aren’t used to evaluating images, but are plainly visible to anyone that’s had to cope with disparate light levels, and are distinct evidence of digital manipulation. In other words, don’t think everyone is going to be fooled. Having been shooting since before digital existed at all, I’ve watched the change of attitudes towards this with some amusement. When it first arrived on the scene, many photographers treated digital as a gimmick, permitting a “bad” photo to be corrected without having to learn proper photographic techniques. In a way, this was true, but not even close to the extent that it was disparaged for it. A good starting point was necessary, since digitally correcting a truly bad photo takes its own set of skills, one possessed by far fewer people than could simply take a good image in the first place, not to mention a whole boatload of time. But as I’ve watched, HDR has started to become an “acceptable” technique among professionals, rather than a gimmick.

Now, I’m torn on the issue, personally. Generally, the resulting image represents something not seen in nature, presenting light conditions that really don’t exist, and often cannot. In these times when removing people, trash, or distractions from a scene can cost a photojournalist their career (not just their job,) it seems hypocritical to freely accept a blatant technique of selective imaging. And one of the skills that I’ve learned, and teach, is to work with the light that’s there, or find ways around it. The really good images from the top photographers are often the result of careful planning and being on location for just the right moments – it’s what makes those images special. The prevalence of altered images makes these accomplishments cheaper, and indeed hurts all really good images. It takes virtually nothing anymore for someone to cry “Photoshop!” at an image, even one that saw no such editing, because the media is saturated with alterations, and this makes those special efforts barely worth it anymore.

At the same time, how much different is this from selecting highly saturated or low contrast films, or using fill-flash and reflectors, all common traditional techniques? At what point does an image cross the line from representing “reality”… or has it ever? When I scan even a film image, is correcting the color cast that the film displays cheating or not? Who should judge, and what criteria should they use? Personally, I treat editing very seriously, and only do subtle color and contrast tweaks overall, things that could be done routinely in the darkroom without special preparations. I occasionally do more serious work, and have liked the results, but in my mind they are always gimmicks, and achieving the effect without software is much more satisfying. And, I always represent manipulated images as such.

Now, a quick lesson. What makes the bad image (to the right of the text, above) not work? Notice the apparent light levels from the sky and the waves, which almost seem to match. The water takes on a glow from “within,” because it obviously cannot be reflecting the sky. Reflections in water are always darker than what they’re reflecting. Even the glitter trail, the reflection of the sun in the wet sand, is brighter than the sun itself. Especially telling is how the clouds right on the horizon get lighter and less contrasty, for no apparent reason. This is what a graduated neutral density filter often looks like, or too abrupt a transition between the blended frames (the culprit here.)

Alternately, the better version (on the left of the text above) seems much less unnatural. The transition, the blend between the two images, actually extends from middle of the cloud pack down to the clump of beach grass on the left – this kept the waves more accurately dark against the sky, and made for an almost invisible transition. The sand getting just a little darker with “distance” (actually towards the center of the frame, vertically) seems completely natural. But, did you catch the faint doubling of the couple in the frame? ;-) (This would have been easy to fix, but I liked the subtle telltale for my purposes here.)

Let’s look at a different example, one that, to me, is more acceptable to use. Feel free to argue with me about it if you like ;-)

You may recognize the dragonfly, and I did mention that I purposefully took several frames just to experiment with this. The difference in exposure between the left and right frames is roughly three stops, which is significant. I chose to blend three frames for this because of the difference in the background light levels – notice the rich green low in the center frame, but the highlights get blown out too much. At the same time, the depth-of-field in the image on the left is actually too high, making the background speckled rather than blurred.

So with those, you can see what got used from each in the resulting image here. Notice how the background blends easily and, while there’s still a blowout of detail into pure white, it’s much less noticeable and harsh. The wing details remain present and sharp, and nothing has gone too dark. Now, in these conditions, I would have been unlikely to get the depth-of-field looking this way, since the depth needed to get the wings on both sides would have rendered more detail from the background, but this is hardly something that jumps out even at experienced photographers and editors. Capturing lighting like this in nature is difficult, since bright sunlight falling on the dragonfly would be necessary to keep it so close in level to the background, but such light would increase the contrast and the shadows of the bark. I could accomplish it easily with a strobe unit and softbox (I had the strobe, and even used it for one image in the other post, but not the softbox.) The result doesn’t look unnatural, and doesn’t represent impossible conditions, even if they would be rare. Still, I prefer to leave the HDR to others.

By the way, while I don’t really consider this a knockdown or particularly compelling image (I hate that the wings closest to us disappear among the bark,) I wanted to point out something to you. See the dark patch of the middle background? I intentionally positioned the camera in height so that this would fall between the wings, rather than touching or overlapping them. Very subtle, but it’s little interactions between the subject and background that can affect how well the image comes off, so keep your eye on such things. It was a simple matter to bump the tripod up a little to accomplish this, and it works much better. My students hate it when I’m this nitpicky on their images (I’m the same with my own,) but while I don’t really believe in the “perfect image,” I think trying to get as close as you can is the only thing that makes one improve.

Feed the tuna mayonnaise!

Okay, so let’s think about something a second. Several species of wolf and fishing spiders (what my friend referred to long ago as “Big Honking Spiders”) carry around egg sacs with them as they go. This is almost certainly so that the young are protected from birth, because the same species are seen carrying their young around on their backs for a period of time. It is safe to assume that the newborn spiders have an instinct to stay with their mother, and thus they can probably tackle food together that they would never be able to capture as individuals.

We know that birds can imprint readily on whoever feeds them from birth, and spiders have much teenier brains, so it’s safe to assume that their “pile on mom” instinct is extremely primitive.

So, what if you took an egg sac away from the mother and waited for it to hatch? Would the young pile onto whatever was handy in the area, like your hand, especially if you had hairy hands? Would they then remain with you for a period of time, and you could carry them around with you wherever you went? Wouldn’t this be cool?!

Think about it! You could pretty much ignore mosquitoes on summer evenings, because as soon as one landed, kazap! Spider food! No one would hit you up on the street for money. And that doofus that always thinks shaking hands is some kind of competition? Let’s see what kind of cohones he really has.

I bet you could even train them to do tricks, or fetch dropped objects. And since spiders can balloon, how many would it take, do you think, to carry you aloft?

I’m surprised no one’s tried this.

[If the title confuses you, you need to learn your classic movies, but Google is your friend]

The root of all wobble?

Several years ago I used to hang out on UFO and paranormal forums, seeing what kind of evidence was being put forth and the reasoning behind the beliefs. I’m fond of saying that if I had been pursuing some kind of psych degree, I had the ingredients for several theses right in front of me – there is, without a doubt, a curious standard of thinking that becomes very noticeable when dealing with subjects such as alien visitation, conspiracy theories, paranormal activity, and similar topics. Not everyone displays it, but those that do are usually unmistakeable. When skimming through Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World recently, I was in Chapter 11, “The City of Grief,” which is made up entirely of letters from readers. These were received in response to a widely-published piece critically examining alien visitation experiences, and one letter in particular exemplified this trait, even though it’s an extreme example:

Thanks to the Supreme Court… America is now wide open for the Eastern pagan religions, under the aegis of Satan and his demons, so now we have four-foot gray beings kidnapping Earthlings and performing all sorts of experiments on them, and are being propagated by those who are educated beyond their intelligence, and should know better… Your question [“Are We Being Visited?”] is no problem for those who know the word of God, and are born-again Christians, and are looking for our Redeemer from Heaven, to rapture us out of this world of sin, sickness, war, AIDS, crime, abortion, homosexuality, New-Age-New-World-Order indoctrination, media brainwashing, perversion and subversion in government, education, business, finance, society, religion, etc. Those who reject the Greater God of the Bible are bound to fall for the kind of fairy tales which your article tries to propagate as being truth.

First off, yes, I know this person has been selling their medications to stay abreast of the fashion in tinfoil chapeaus, and I’m not going to consider them typical. Yet the topics within this brief screed are fairly common, and the attitude more common still. I feel the need to point out that the writer of this manifesto hadn’t read Sagan’s article very carefully, since it was openly skeptical of alien visitation. Regardless, there are several aspects, commonly seen, that I wish to speak about, and while many of these can be put down to actual mental illnesses, I think it’s unfair and judgmental to dismiss the majority of circumstances in such a manner.

1. A preponderance of threats. Very few people who are involved in subjects like alien visitation consider such occurrences to be good things; a certain number treats them from a neutral standpoint, neither good nor bad, just something that’s happening. But a noticeably large percentage of those claiming visitations are real do so from the standpoint that this is a bad thing, that there are real threats to individuals and society. No small number (I cannot provide statistics – I’m not sure anyone has tried to tally such) appear seriously agitated over the prospect. This doesn’t seem unreasonable on the face of it; aliens with untold abilities that seem intent on kidnapping humans would certainly be something worth fretting over a little. And the same can be said for most conspiracy theories, ghosts and poltergeists, and various other topics. The curious aspect comes when you try to examine the evidence with them, or Borg forbid, point out that the likelihood of such things being true is very low. The defensiveness may start up immediately, and you can find yourself dealing with emotions as strong as if you just denied Johnny Depp could act.

Sure, the argument can be made that such an approach is calling someone’s integrity into question – the same can be said for disagreements in politics, religions, und so weiter. Yet, these beliefs are a cause of no small anxiety in the believer, where they should be ready and willing to entertain the thought that they’re worrying for nothing. One doesn’t often engage in fierce arguments with someone afraid of flying when you point out the statistical improbability of air crashes – they want to believe you, despite their fears. It shouldn’t actually be a struggle to relieve them, much less a personal affront. If you examine that letter above again, you can be convinced that the writer is dealing with near-constant anxieties, but when you engage such beliefs, you encounter an attitude that seems to only indicate that they want to remain this anxious, beyond the idea that they’re defending their own integrity. I’ve seen it too often before to consider it just an emotional reaction.

2. Privileged knowledge. Indicated above in the line about “educated beyond their intelligence,” this frequently-seen aspect is one of the commonalities within visitation/conspiracy discussions. The believer holds an intellectual high ground by being one of the few who knows what’s really happening, unblinded by the propaganda that keeps the populace docile (if you’ve even seen the word “sheeple” used seriously, you know what I mean.) This one’s fairly easy to understand, since it essentially makes the believer special, a cut above the rest, without the reliance on the typical status indicators within society such as intelligence, success, money, et cetera. Additionally, there’s a bit of the hero thing going in that, when the shit hits the fan and the aliens (or government) finally decide to stop hiding and start harvesting or whatever, the believer knew that this was coming all along. I don’t think I’ve seen it extend to having a game plan for this event, but at least they can say they told us all so, I suppose.

3. Putting the pieces together. Like the connection between the rapture and the kidnapping grays in the letter above, another common thread is the fitting together of disparate details. This is fairly easy to understand as well, when you recognize that we’re a pattern-seeking species, so when a believer finds something that doesn’t seem to quite ring true, like the peculiar appearance of the collapsing World Trade towers, they then seek to link it with something else to support their idea. This is a symptom of an underlying drive, it seems, to find the hidden stories. It’s not just a facet of conspiracy-mongers; plenty of people seek the hidden meanings in poems and literature, songs and films, even biology and astronomy. This is fine – it’s an important aspect of gaining knowledge. But like the difference between avoiding being wrong, and avoiding the recognition of being wrong, the drive to find hidden meaning can be misplaced or misapplied. Sharp readers may point out that I could be guilty of this right now.

Further, this drive often seems to result in elaborate machinations in order to support the original ideas. I readily admit, the collapse of the World Trade buildings 1 and 2 seemed odd, more controlled than the toppling of the stories above the impacts that one would expect. But to take this curious fact and then try to expand it into an elaborate conspiracy involving countless details, moreover ignoring all of the factors that damage the conspiracy idea, takes a certain desire to confirm the suspicion, to seek support for an idea that really doesn’t bear logic in the first place. If the buildings were rigged to collapse, why bother with planes, and all of the additional subterfuge required to implement that portion of a plan? Years earlier, a car bomb had been set off in the parking garage in the basement of one of the very same towers, an easily disguised method of bringing down the buildings (and one which would have created many, many more “martyrs” from employees who could not escape, if that was the goal.) A smaller plane loaded with a thermonuclear device could also have been used, requiring far less in the way of staging than using commercial airlines, additionally bolstering the idea that terrorists actually had WMDs. There are countless ways it could have been done much more effectively, had the US government truly been seeking an agenda. Such aspects, however, are routinely ignored.

4. The screen door. Yeah, I’m coining my own terms now – watch for them in the mainstream literature in a few days. One could argue that a screen door is either open or closed – open to let air through, closed to the passage of people, a secure barrier only as long as people respect it. The same can often be said of visitation and conspiracy believers, who often pride themselves on their open minds and willingness to accept unorthodox proposals. At the same time, they can be very resistant to accepting evidence contrary to their beliefs. There is a certain irony in the letter above when the writer mentions the “perversion and subversion in… religion” while wholeheartedly accepting the concepts of “born-again” (one of the lamest ideas ever to be promoted so widely) and the rapture. The same can be said for those who maintain that the Illuminati/Bilderberg secretly control the world while never recognizing that power is rarely shared and such cabals would be subverted from within almost immediately. They seem to equate “open-mindedness” with “bucking the common trend,” not with “examining all proposals with equal judiciousness.” Another way of putting it is the difference between being open to the possibility of something, which means little, and being open to evidence of such, which is a critical distinction.

Again, this is a fairly common trait called confirmation bias, and appears in behavior everywhere, not just among conspiracy theorists and fringe believers. Fox News wouldn’t have a damn thing to report on without it. But it gets raised almost to an art form when speaking of alien visitation and government conspiracies.

The curious part, to me, is how all of the above traits seem to come together so often. I believe many people consider conspiracy theories and such to be relatively rare in a populace, too insignificant to be worth examining, but there are a surprising number of such people out there, and not just sitting in their mother’s basement – the number of PhDs that contribute is eye-opening, as anyone who reads the letters in response to skeptical articles can see. And while I’ve named the typical cases such as alien visits, WTC, and Bilderberg, we can’t ignore the Birthers, JFKs, Protocols of Zion, crack as a method to impoverish blacks, fluoridation, and for that matter, even innocuous things like healing crystals and astrology, which lack only the first trait I outlined above. The frequency of these traits being connected is almost disturbing.

To some extent, popular media is to blame, in sensationalizing and disseminating such ideas until they become reinforced in the public mind – the Kennedy assassination being the greatest example. At the same time, this wouldn’t work half as well as it has if the market didn’t exist in tie first place. Yet it becomes a downward spiral; Richard Wiseman, attempting to publish in the US a badly needed book examining paranormal activity, could not actually find a publisher willing to print it, and this is a book already published in the UK and written by a known author. We are unlikely, however, to see any conspiracy theorists latch onto this abject bias from publishers.

I admit that I’m an armchair dabbler in evolutionary psychology. We can understand many of our behaviors and thinking processes in terms of how they provide some benefit, to our ancestors in the past and even to our current lives. Granted that many of these are hard to prove because such aspects of brain activity cannot even be detailed now, much less within fossils or the genetic line, but they can help explain why we engage in the behaviors and reactions that we do so often. The collection of above traits, however, still eludes me – I’m not sure why they come together so frequently. While I try to tie posts up, this one I’m going to leave hanging, and anyone that wants to provide input or open a discussion is more than welcome.

Does it seem weird?

So this morning I was checking out a new area for nature photography near me, supposedly before the day got too hot (I was wrong.) I wasn’t in search of any particular subject matter, just whatever opportunities arose. When I stumbled across (well, not literally) a dragonfly perched low on a tree trunk right alongside the path, wings still not dried from its new molt and transformation from larval stage, I sat down and start taking photos of it. For forty five minutes.

Many normal people might say, “Forty five minutes? On one dragonfly?” while nature photographers (and their long-suffering significant others) will shrug and say, “That sounds about right.” When you come across an interesting subject, especially one illustrating some trait or behavior most people don’t get to see, you make sure you get plenty of decent frames, and you explore the possibilities of angles, lighting, background, and so on. You may wait, patiently, for the behavior to unfold or the conditions to change favorably. Part of my time was spent anticipating the sun breaking through the leaves to fall onto my subject, bringing out a little more color and lowering the contrast between the sunny background and the dragonfly, until then in shadow. I also got out the strobe unit and experimented with lighting levels that looked relatively natural, and angles that brought out the best facets from the wings – which, as I watched, slowly extended from vertical to horizontal, over the course of perhaps twenty minutes; I could see the tips twitching from the fluid being pumped into them.

Even though I was traveling with the “light” kit, I was prepared, having with me the tripod, macro extensions, strobe, off-camera cord, and IR remote release. These let me do detailed closeups with a high depth-of-field and balanced lighting, with the tripod and remote allowing me to use exposures up to three seconds without worrying about camera shake. Yes, it is frequently a pain to be carrying all of this stuff, even though I often carry more. But there’s no substitute for much of this, and handholding the camera isn’t an option for most macro work and at least half of the high DOF shots, even with pushing the ISO way up. Not to mention, the higher the ISO goes, the lower the quality of the image. The rule is, if you don’t have the stuff you need, you don’t get the shots, and for subjects like mine here, that’s an opportunity wasted that I have no idea when I’d come across again (and if I was once again traveling too light, I’d miss it then, too.)

So carry whatever you can, realizing that without certain types of equipment, you can’t capture certain kinds of photos – you have to judge on your own what you want to carry versus what you can afford to miss. And don’t let yourself be influenced by people remarking about how much shit you bring along, or how long it’s taking you to get “a picture.” But yeah, nature photographers travel alone for a good reason, often enough ;-)

I also did a number of frames to play around with high dynamic range (HDR) photography, which I’ll talk about in a later post.

But how? Part three: Complexity

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 3

For the next part of this series, we take a look at one of the more interesting aspects of the religion/evolution debate, that of complexity. This one is much more the victim of misunderstanding (and intentional misinformation) than the previous two, which require the effort to see things from a different perspective more than anything else.

While the concept of complexity has been brought to the forefront by the intelligent design movement, it’s long been one of those things that makes many people wonder how simple evolutionary processes can produce it – or, too often, categorically deny that this is even possible. Single-celled organisms are one thing, but just looking at the myriad processes in our own bodies is enough to make one wonder how such interacting, interwoven, complicated things can come about without guidance. And unlike many religious arguments, I actually identify with this one because it has some legitimacy – the level of detail is astounding. But it’s not enough to find it hard to believe, therefore impossible; that’s a thinking/debating fallacy called an appeal from ignorance, paraphrased as, “I don’t get it, therefore it makes no sense.” If one runs into something that’s hard to understand, this is actually a call to examine it in detail, rather than dismissing it as bunk. Not everything in the world is easy to understand, or can be explained in a paragraph or two, and I’m not going to do it justice in a blog post. I can provide only the overview, but hopefully enough of one to demonstrate that it is indeed possible; it is up to the doubter to be honest with themselves and find out more detail as needed – preferably from a source that doesn’t have an axe to grind. You know what I mean by that.

First, let’s get “irreducible complexity” out of the way. This is the rallying cry of the intelligent design movement, and a clever one, in that it seems to convey its meaning without explanation. Except that, when you ask what exactly it means, you actually get two different answers, and these change as the situation warrants. The first answer is: it means if you remove any portion of a complex organism, it fails to work, therefore it could not have evolved over time – the example given is that of a mousetrap, which will not work as a mousetrap if you remove any portion of it. The second answer states that an organism is irreducibly complex if you cannot trace back the origins of some aspect to a simpler, less complex source.

The first doesn’t often appear anymore, because it makes no sense in and of itself. If you break something, it doesn’t work as it did before – well, duh! Not to mention that it applies to designed things as much, if not more so, than it does for evolved organisms. And we, wonderfully complex as humans are, can function just fine without many aspects of our bodies, such as arms, legs, eyes, kidneys, portions of the brain, portions of the digestive tract, and on and on. All of this is needless misdirection, however – evolution has nothing to say about the necessity of any particular aspect of an organism, only how they came about in the first place. Since it is undirected, we should actually expect to see some extraneous details, and we do – look at your fingernails for a quick example. So the salient point really is, could such details have come from simpler beginnings, which is where the second definition of “irreducible complexity” comes in.

To establish this, however, we would need to show that such details (blood clotting and bacterial flagellum are the most frequently forwarded examples) do not have a simpler form, or some kind of ancestral example. But to really establish irreducible complexity as a valid concept, we would have to show the spontaneous appearance of some detail with no ancestral or base version visible in other organisms or the fossil record. This is a little tricky in the two examples given, since neither the clotting chemicals nor the bacterial flagellum show up in the fossil record, because such things cannot fossilize. So we would instead need to show that the components do not show up in a different form in other current species, and/or that other species do not use a simpler method of blood clotting. I probably don’t have to tell you that both of these examples have indeed been disproven as irreducibly complex, because simpler, source, and variant organisms have all been found and showcased. Nowhere to be found is anything that spontaneously appears in the fossil record, but even if it did, this wouldn’t really constitute proof – the fossil record is not a unbroken line of changes, but spot samples of life from various periods. It cannot be used to establish firm lineage because it is far too sporadic, so even a spontaneous appearance could simply mean we haven’t found the transitions yet. Real proof would only be the sudden appearance of a trait in an existing species, and more than once, as well.

Another point that is often missed in here is that, under the idea of an intelligent designer, change of any kind is completely unnecessary. Competition among species, adaptations, speciation, extinctions – all pointless, or at the very least evidence of gross mistakes. Intelligent design is a concept that tries to borrow the legitimacy of our scientific knowledge of species, since this knowledge is undeniably present and useful. Scriptural descriptions of animal “kinds” simply do not match what we see every day, and offer no recognition whatsoever of the myriad extinct fossilized species that we know of. The weight of the evidence rests solely with science, which even allows us to produce vaccines in rapid order for each year’s new influenza strains. People know science works and still want its authority, thus intelligent design is an attempt to disguise religion as science.

Ignoring all of that, we still have to deal with the idea that something complicated can come from something simple, most especially with nothing but natural laws guiding it. There are a few key factors to this: change/mutation, duplication, and time.

Most people have no problem accepting that small changes might occur in, for instance, a newborn: birthmarks, extra fingers, cleft palates, hair color, and so on. We know mutations and genetic drift can occur, often benign, so it means we can accept that reproduction is not free from error or change. These changes have a source, and it’s the DNA, which serves as the control center of developing cells, sometimes referred to as the instruction sheet even though this is a little misleading in itself. Changes in the amino acids are not only possible, they’re relatively common, and more than once I’ve read that the average number of mutations in any human is 100 or so. Even without mutations, there is the gene-mixing of sexual reproduction to consider, though this even has some variations to choose from because of genetic change. Can you find a genetic trait that you have that neither of your parents have? I myself have wicked bad sinuses, several problematic allergies, and weird knees, any of which could be genetic mutations, and who knows what’s going on inside?

But those are changes to existing structures or functions, and not increasing complexity, aren’t they? Unless they result in duplication, such as the polydactylism (extra toes) that is often seen in domesticated species, like the Hemingway Cats (great podcast there.) Duplicating genes is even easier, and the duplicate is often inactive – its job is already being done by the source twin. This isn’t an increase in complexity either, it’s just an unnecessary redundancy – until the duplicate changes.

A small aside here, since another of the misleading challenges to complexity is called the “increase in information.” Deniers maintain that changes to DNA do not result in increasing information, so the complex organisms we have today could not spring from the single-celled organisms that life would likely have started from. And duplication of a gene or sequence is not an increase, only redundancy. But “information” is interpreted poorly, since information within DNA is nothing but combinations of amino acids (like words are combinations of letters.) While neither change nor duplication is an increase in information, a duplication that then changes is – both steps are required, but it’s not like this is impossible, simply rarer than either step alone. It’s hard to believe this is treated as a major stumbling block, but the arguments against complexity are motivated by something other than basic science.

Now we get to the selection part. Many people have a tendency to think of this as directed to some extent, that nature is selecting the parts that work best and eliminating the rest, but that’s not quite accurate. All genes get passed on to the reproductive process, such as the egg or sperm, and will make it to the offspring unless blocked by a stronger gene from the mate, or dropped out by the same kind of changes that produce mutations. The question is, does the individual, the parent, make it to reproduction? This is where selection actually takes place. If the change to the individual from the genetic variation hampers its ability to survive to reproduce, or to be selected as a viable mate, that genetic variation may not pass on. So harmful changes/mutations have a tendency to get weeded out by selection, but beneficial or neutral changes tend to get passed along. Using the Hemingway Cat example again, those extra toes don’t generate a particular advantage, but no disadvantage either, so they can continue in the genetic line.

Should, however, those cats start swimming for some reason, those extra toes now provide a distinct advantage, as would webbing, longer legs, more body fat, and many other traits. Now, the change becomes not only an increase in complexity, but potentially a benefit over other examples of domestic cats. If their food, or greater chances to mate, came from the ability to swim, the extra toes would almost certainly start to appear more often, since those possessing them would pass their genes on more often. The swimming example is simply one that I made up that would put those extra toes to good use, and while it could be argued that cats would never have to swim, it’s actually an interesting example; they live on a small island, in hurricane central, so the chances of their environment changing to the point of less land and more water is actually quite high. Those toes would help with muddy areas too, just like snowshoes work in snow, so it becomes very easy to see how such simple changes can become useful in certain circumstances, and this is exactly how speciation occurs.

And that’s where the last element of time comes in. Genetic benefits are only tendencies, not changes to species – it takes a large viable population to maintain a genetic change throughout enough individuals and generations to create a species change. Unlike the idiotic rantings of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, individuals do not produce offspring with abrupt changes, much less different species altogether; speciation takes place from very small changes built up over long periods of time (and usually isolation from another population, which might offset the genetic changes with their own lack of the same.) For instance, lions and tigers, though separate species, can interbreed, since they have not been geographically separated long enough for their genes to fail in making viable offspring, but in a few thousand years, perhaps only a few hundred, this change will almost certainly take place. Random genetic changes, unmixed between the two different populations, will eventually prevent lion sperm and tiger egg from producing a viable fetus. Small changes can and do add up, assisted by the advantages that they provide to their host species.

We don’t do well in dealing with long periods of time – we have a hard time grasping them. But 3.8 billion years, the length of time we’ve had since the first cells produced evidence of their existence in the fossil record, is long enough to accomplish many, many things, even with tiny steps. Homo sapiens left Africa about 100,000 years ago – that’s 1/38,000 of life’s history on earth, and in that time we’ve expanded across the planet, changed languages several hundred times (if communication by abstract symbolism wasn’t actually created within that time – there’s no way to tell,) and developed racial traits appropriate to our climate, like darker skin in the equatorial areas and thicker bodies in the arctic. All of the genetic changes that we call “races” among humans occurred since that migration. Counting a generation as an average of 18 years (reproductive age, and I’m being generous,) that’s over 5,000 generations. Remember that figure of 100 mutations per human, average? Some of them are bound to produce radical changes. Yet, Homo sapiens is still largely considered the same species that left Africa – Australopithecus afarensis, otherwise known as “Lucy,” is roughly 35 times older than that, and still remains in the most recent 0.1% of life’s history on earth.

While we’re at it, let’s clear up “species” as well. The bald truth is, we developed the original concept of species because it was visibly obvious – cats are obviously not dogs, and so on. But from a scientific standpoint, species can only be defined from the differences between two examples, mostly their ability to reproduce. There is no point, no recognizable change, where a species “crosses a line” and becomes something new, and in some cases biologists actually struggle to determine whether two examples are really different species or not, such as the great blue and great white herons. When we gained the ability to read DNA, we found that appearances could be deceiving, as in the case where the elephant’s closest relatives are manatees, dugongs, and rock hyraxes – not hippopotamuses or rhinoceroses as one might suppose.

“Transitional forms,” as that video clip demonstrated (I apologize for that, but Comfort and Cameron are the most astoundingly bad promoters of creationism,) is another aspect grossly misunderstood. Nobody in their right mind ever proposes one species turning into another existing species; what the evolutionary change provides for is an entirely new species. Religious apologists proclaiming that the world contains no “combination” species are simply demonstrating their profound ignorance, dismally, since this information is readily available even online. If you really want to see a transitional species, look no further than penguins, birds that cannot fly but swim exceptionally well – preyed on, no less, by sea lions, mammals that lack feet anymore (though their skeleton betrays the ancient evidence of them) that also swim better than they walk, yet still have to breathe air, not water. Both of these species, and many more besides, are completely pointless and inept from a design standpoint, and would be much better off with traits that fish have, like gills and scales. They possess the traits that they do because selection makes them work from the changes that the species have undergone in times past. Smaller wings does not do much for flying birds, but they offer an advantage to swimming birds. Fins would be better, but fish have had a much longer time to specialize in their swimming appendages, so penguins and sea lions cope with modified limbs from times when they were flying or walking species.

The funny thing is, none of this is guesswork or supposition, since the genes show traces of their lineage in many ways – two of the books that I’ve reviewed, Your Inner Fish and Why Evolution is True, talk about this in detail and cover this much better than I have here. People that have received a decent background in evolutionary theory have no issues with understanding complexity whatsoever – but not enough people have received that background. While this should be one of the many basic concepts taught in schools, we have numerous religious folk who simply can’t have that, and enact all sorts of methods to try and prevent it.

There are some interesting implications surrounding that, too, but that’s a topic for its own post.