Pluto’s posse

I’m not following the latest breaking astronomical websites like I used to, so this news is a little old to those that do. But recently, astronomers confirmed that Pluto has another moon, bringing its total to four (counting Charon, known since 1978, and Nix and Hydra discovered in 2005.) For the time being, this one is simply called “P4” until a name is agreed upon.

It was found when the Hubble Space Telescope was doing survey images of Pluto to map out the area as best we can, since we have a planetary probe on its way there, the New Horizons probe (definitely a cool site there.) Pluto is so remote that we have only smidgens of information about it, and New Horizons is going to expand that by thousands of times. Launched in 2006, it will not be making its rendezvous until 2015.

Now, a quick illustration. P4 is estimated to be between 13 to 34 kilometers (8 to 21 miles) across, the size of a moderate city, or Atlanta’s airport. Being able to spot it from Hubble’s orbit around Earth is much the same as sitting here in central North Carolina and being able to see a penny – in Chicago. The best resolution images we have of Pluto itself, which is about 2,390 km, are only a few dozen pixels across themselves. We’re actually kind of vague on P4’s size not just from the smudge it makes on the image sensors, but because we don’t know how reflective it really is. If it’s highly reflective, it’s among the smaller measurements, but if it’s low in reflectance it can be at the larger end. It is supposed to be much the same reflectance as Pluto and the other moons, since they’re all assumed to be from a collision many millions of years back, and thus composed of the same elements. But this isn’t known by any stretch, and P4 could be an extraneous body from the Kuiper Belt captured into Pluto’s gravitational field. That’s part of the fun of working at this kind of distance from a subject.

There are tricks, however. We had a few guesses at how much light Pluto itself reflects, which would make its diameter different depending on each, but then pinned down its size pretty accurately by watching Charon eclipse it, as well as watching it eclipse a distant star. Corroborating methods like this help a lot, but New Horizons is going to make all of that look like scraps of paper.

The probe is taking so long to get there since it is limited on the fuel it can carry, as well as what its mission is. New Horizons used an orbital pass around Jupiter to serve as a free slingshot, accelerating it without fuel, and will be coasting most of the way to Pluto now. The mechanics of launching probes and such is responsible; Earth’s gravity has to be defeated for every milligram we send into space, and this includes fuel as well. The more fuel, the more fuel is needed just to move the fuel, and a process of diminishing returns comes into play. It doesn’t take much before you’re looking at a bigger launch vehicle, of which our options are limited, and it can actually reach a point (with something much larger than a probe, anyway) where the fuel is not efficient enough to boost a certain quantity out of earth’s orbit. In other words, one can’t just keep building bigger rockets, at least until we discover a fuel source that provides more bang for the gram.

Once in space and at a sufficient speed to reach a target before the batteries run down or mankind turns into another species, such probes can coast – there is too little in space to provide drag and slow them down, of course. But this works a little against the goals, too, and it shaped the profile of New Horizon’s mission. Fuel would also be needed to slow the spacecraft and put it into orbit, like Cassini is in around Saturn, and this wasn’t available, either, so New Horizons is instead doing a flyby, passing Pluto only once before continuing onward to study other Kuiper Belt Objects. This is part of the reason that Hubble is scouting the territory: the more we know ahead of time, the better we can plan activities for its brief time up close.

There’s another reason, too. Light, and by extension radio waves, takes over four hours to reach Pluto from Earth, and the same amount back, so “real time” instructions to the probe just ain’t happening. The instructions need to be planned in advance and sent to the probe, and there’s a distinct limit on how many changes can be made based on new information from the probe itself. For safety’s sake, there also needs to be enough time to get confirmation signals from the probe, so we’re sure it received everything without dropping out portions (and there’s no cell towers around.)

There’s yet more planning involved. In order to use that orbital assist trick around Jupiter, the locations of Jupiter, Pluto, and Earth in their orbital paths had to coincide so that the probe could be aimed correctly and not have to waste fuel and time zig-zagging across the solar system. While we tend to think of the planets lining up like they’re diagrammed in astronomy textbooks, in truth they’re all tracing their own orbits and can be widely varying in both distance and direction. Our window of opportunity to use these mission parameters was pretty narrow, and we would not have had the opportunity to do this again for three hundred years. When I first heard that Congress had voted down funding the mission, I was livid at the stupidity – you don’t put off exploratory missions for three centuries. Apparently, wiser heads prevailed, because funding was restored and New Horizons was able to be launched before the window closed.

I mentioned “Kuiper Belt” a few times and you may be wondering what that is. Basically, it’s the sawdust left over when you make a planetary system. Clouds of interstellar dust form into disks, and ever so slowly, mutual gravity causes a star to form at the center while planets form further out. The larger planets attract nearby bits of matter and incorporate them, sweeping clean the space in their orbital area, but at the outer edges of the system disk, things are too spread out to attract each other well, so they tend to stay scattered and small. The Kuiper Belt is very much like what the original disk that eventually formed the planets was like, except with fewer gases (more easily attracted to the larger bodies) and with more ice, because of its distance from the sun. The Belt serves as the source of most of the comets we see here from Earth, “dirty snowballs” of ice and grit that had been orbiting happily way out there until some other body passing nearby dragged it by mutual gravitational pull, like two magnetic balls passing close to one another. With the angle of momentum altered, the comet now progresses on an elongated elliptical orbit deeper into the solar system, generally getting realigned as it gets closer to one of the larger bodies, which isn’t always the sun – some comets actually whip around Jupiter instead (or crash into it.) Of course, far more get re-aimed in virtually any other direction and trundle off into deep space…

In four years, we’re going to be getting fantastic images of the distant edge of our planetary system, which is going to add a lot to our knowledge about how the solar system formed, no doubt confirming a few theories as well as trashing a few. That is, if the probe can find it. When New Horizons was launched, Pluto was still a full planet, but in the intervening time it has been demoted to dwarf planet, which might defeat the probe’s programming. I wonder if Neil deGrasse Tyson thought this through carefully…?

On composition, part 10: Foreground elements

So, you find yourself (wait, isn’t that a goofy phrase? Like you might have lost yourself, or perhaps been paying no attention, look down, and whoops, there you are?) in a scenic location, faced with a gorgeous view, great lighting, and a cooperative sky. The photo is made for you, isn’t it? All you have to do is take it. And this is the thinking of countless people when they travel to common locations.

There are definitely things you can do to improve on a great scene, however, and one of them is to include a foreground element. It’s hard for me to say why this is, but having a focal point in the foreground of the shot, obviously closer to the viewer than the majority of the image, provides a lot more character. With wide angle views like this one, something “at your feet” puts the viewer in the picture, making the depth much more apparent and letting them feel able to step into the scene themselves.

Finding such an element, or selecting one, is a trick in itself. For this shot, the large leaf actually provided the idea to do the scenic, and made me aware of the channel of the sky mimicking the riverbed. But perhaps more often you’ll see the potential of the scene first, then try to compose it with something in the foreground. It should be topical and appropriate, of course, though there’s something to be said for anachronistic elements, too, like a old doll in thick woods. It should draw the eye enough to make a focal point, which allows it to be smaller and not dominate the frame if necessary. If it can work with the lines or other aspects of the frame, all the better.

Sometimes, getting lower to the ground enhances the foreground element, and making it loom larger than the distant background elements is a compositional style itself. This can make something small and subtle become attention-worthy, accentuating the idea of discovery, and bringing this idea of disparate sizes and scale to the viewer.

Here, the gravestone with the flag is the foreground element, balancing the tree on the right and providing a line leading into the image, as well as some depth that wouldn’t be there with the background gravestones alone. The flag adds just enough draw to make the marker the focal point, but it is subtle enough to let the scene itself remain the subject of the image. One almost gets the impression of isolation from that headstone, separated as it is from the bulk of the others, but it makes a great anchor for the way the rest is framed.

Alternately, you might want to make the foreground element the primary focus, and let the background become more subtle or simply a setting. Old Well on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus is a well-known landmark and probably the most photographed item in central Carolina, certainly in Chapel Hill, so I decided to approach it a little differently while I was there with a student. Its color and shape are instantly apparent, no subtlety here, but being out of focus makes it a setting rather than a subject, and we look instead at the sharp flowers. The tallest flower gains dominance in the frame, assisted by placing it between columns and against the shadow of the dome, and the color leaps out, even on the overcast day, contrasting significantly with the remainder of the frame. One might argue that this isn’t really a foreground element, rather the prominent subject, but the known disparity of sizes between foreground and background, as well as the enhanced distance from the short depth-of-field, makes this up for grabs I think. The upward angle means we’re down lower than normal, putting us in close among the hedge and almost disdainful of the tourist attraction (this probably illustrates my whole approach to photography pretty well.) (“Well,” heh.)

While this doesn’t have anything to do with the topic of my post, there’s a further subtle element that comes out in a larger version of the image, which can be seen if you click on this one. The recent rain is still apparent on the flowers, fitting in with the sky and lighting and adding just a little atmosphere. If the sky had been bright and sunny, the viewer would likely believe the water drops were due to a sprinkler rather than rain – environment does matter in the image.

It isn’t paramount that a foreground element be included in every scenic shot, and doing so would likely get your images into a rut. But there are times when it adds much more to the scene – if in doubt, try shooting both and see what garners better reactions. But at the very least, always keep such elements in mind, and consider how they can enhance your composition.

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

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.