Things change

Just a few posts ago, I featured some yellowjackets working on their underground nest. Today, I discovered I was not the only one who had found them.

Sometime in the last few days, something had dug up the opening into the nest and removed several large portions of comb, leaving them strewn about the ground nearby. It was a bit curious, because the excavation wasn’t very deep at all, amounting to only about 20 centimeters (8 inches) at most, and maybe the same width – it didn’t seem enough to hold the number of combs I found. But the yellowjackets were undeterred, and were very busy on the exposed portions of the nest. Note, to the right mostly, the multi-colored swirls indicating the paper shells of the nest itself.

From the looks of the damage, this certainly wasn’t any human’s work, and I got no impression of a large animal because the area of disturbed soil wasn’t significant, so my guess is a raccoon or opossum. It just strikes me as odd that they would tackle this. Yellowjackets aren’t honey producers, and the larva are fed by pre-chewed insects that the adults capture. These combs, all apparently older and empty, are just like paper wasps’ nests, and house only the eggs and pupae. While this might be an enticing meal, it seems like a tough one to obtain.

Most of the hymenoptera have really lousy night vision, much worse than ours, and thereby very much worse than a raccoon’s or opossum’s. They usually do not fly at night at all, even when the nest is threatened. But they’re more than happy to swarm onto something if it comes within reach, which may be why the layers of nest visible in my shots remains undamaged: the old stuff near the surface wasn’t hard to tear out, but when the nighttime marauder got to the active nest a little deeper, it encountered the standing guard. The photos above were from daylight (though flash assisted) – the image below was taken at night, showing the sleeping positions of the yellowjackets.

Yep, stick your hand in there, see what happens. I’ve had my fill of things like that, and don’t care to star in any YouTube videos just for your amusement.

When I went out to seek this shot, I did so very quietly and with the assistance of a bright flashlight. Not to see the bees as much, but to try and catch the return of the marauder. I saw nothing, however, and the nonagitated state of the bees would seem to indicate that the night had been quiet. Perhaps the raccoon or opossum had learned its lesson. Or was returning with a bee smoker…

Can I make an amateur naturalist’s lesson out of this? Perhaps I can. If there are areas you frequent, it sometimes helps to look around carefully and pay attention to details, because then situations like this become obvious, and you have some clue as to what is happening when you’re not there. This can provide an opportunity to return and catch sight of the drama that often unfolds at night, but also to illustrate a story even if you don’t see what actually happened.

Get back to me with Phase Two

Like many pursuits and interests, critical thinking involves a subset of information, discussions, and approaches, many of which don’t capture the attention of those who aren’t interested in critical thinking. I’m well aware of this, so often you’ll see me break the blog posts up with the “Continue Reading” tag, so that no one is forced to read a topic that doesn’t motivate them. It’s kind of silly in this way, for two reasons: the first is, nothing I post is even remotely forcing anyone to read it, and something else is a mouse-click away. Secondly, I think critical-thinking skills are important for everybody, so I’m perhaps defeating myself by hiding things beneath the fold, as it were. Just think of it as my way of being… accommodating.

But if you don’t continue, you miss the cartoon video…

Continue reading “Get back to me with Phase Two”

Can you see the light?

From time to time, I play around with infra-red photography, because it can produce some really cool effects, and also because there are ways to make it relatively easy. An old digital camera of mine, the Canon Pro90 IS, can not only capture infra-red light, it can focus it and calculate exposure reasonably as well. All that’s needed is an infra-red filter, such as the Lee 87P3, an inexpensive polyester sheet.

The reason this works is that most digital sensors can actually capture a certain range of infra-red (hereinafter “IR”) light normally, without any modifications. In fact, most quality digital cameras today include an internal filter specifically to block IR light because of this. I tumbled to it entirely by accident, when I noticed that foliage had a tendency to wash out in images made with this camera, as if the foliage alone was being overexposed. I already knew that foliage is one of the best reflectors of IR, so putting this together wasn’t a great leap.

But what is IR light anyway? Well, all light is simply energy in the electromagnetic spectrum, as is radio waves, microwaves, gamma rays, and cosmic rays. What we tend to call “light,” or sometimes “visible light,” is simply a particular range of wavelengths that our eyes are sensitive to, running roughly between 390 and 750 nanometers. Many light sources are not restricted to this range, however, and our sun is a good example. Wavelengths outside of this range are not detected by our eyes, but are still there – infra-red starts above 750 nanometers, and ultra-violet starts below 390 nanometers. Go even further, and it becomes one of those others that I mentioned above. Microwaves, such as those used for cellphone communications, are merely much shorter wavelengths of the same kind of energy.

IR photography simply involves blocking most of the wavelengths we consider visible, but letting through the near infra-red spectrum. Of course, you need a medium sensitive to IR light as well, which can be digital (and tends to produce more consistent results) or special films. But there’s a lot less IR energy than visible, in effect making the IR world more like twilight, so long exposures are needed to get a decent image, and the greater range of wavelengths blocked by your filter, the longer it needs to be.

Foliage is a remarkable reflector of IR light, so leaves in bright sunlight come up very bright. But the sky, nice and blue to our eyes, does not suffer from Rayleigh scatter in IR wavelengths, so clear skies turn up very dark, and get brighter with humidity because water does reflect IR. Thus the dark sky and white clouds. And because there is no Rayleigh scattering, indirect sunlight, clouds, and shadow all make IR light extremely dim, so the best results are obtained from brilliantly sunny and clear days (with maybe a few puffy clouds for sky accents.)

Other things reflect IR differently, so experimenting is best. Our skin, for instance, reflects a moderate amount of IR in comparison to foliage, so in a properly-exposed photograph, people look pretty normal, which can make a nice juxtaposition among the ghostly trees and dark sky – provided they hold absolutely still for the whole exposure time, which often goes into several seconds. Yes, a tripod is a must, and a remote release recommended.

Now, here comes more science trivia. Our sun puts out a wide range of energy in a curve, hitting a high peak at about 500 nanometers – yes, smack in the middle of what we call visible light. The thing is, we could see in lots of other conditions, and see entirely different things, if our eyes had a different or wider range of sensitivity to wavelengths. But they’d have to be more efficient, since our eyes now can detect only the wavelengths coming in with lots of energy – this is, of course, no coincidence, but a simple evolutionary advantage of utilizing the greatest available resource. Other species, however, can see different ranges, or with more sensitivity. Many fish can see in certain ranges of ultra-violet (UV) because it penetrates further into the water, and bees use it to spot healthy flowers, which produce a different reflection pattern in UV. Birds have a much more detailed range of color vision than we do, seeing more color overall – where we could tell no discernible difference between 500 and 500.5 nm, for instance, birds can. And they also have a range of UV they’re sensitive to, because it is reflected in plumage to varying degrees and can indicate the health and robustness of potential mates.

But why does it look black & white? Shouldn’t it look, well, red, or very red? With some filters, some color does indeed come through, but this tends to be visible light that is allowed to pass by the filter’s composition. You need to be aware that neither digital sensors, nor the light-reactive chemicals in film emulsion, react to color in any way – both only react to light intensity. To achieve color, you basically need to filter for that color, just like putting on colored sunglasses. For film, it’s different layers of emulsion set into a colored gelatin. For digital, it’s actually a micro-screen of colored filters over every pixel in the sensor. In other words, digital sensors have a dot pattern like a TV screen, but this is eliminated by algorithms in post-processing. IR light, however, corresponds to none of these digital filters, and trickles past all of them equally well in the examples above. Most likely, these colored filters block some of the IR light, which is part of the reason why exposure times can go so long.

Below, some examples of different IR filters on the same camera. At left, a filter allowing only wavelengths above 950nm, well past our ability to see. At center, one allowing wavelengths above 720nm, which intrudes into the visible spectrum and begins to get affected by the color filters in the camera. At right, a sneaky trick – using a black piece of developed slide film as a filter, in this case Provia 100F.
Wait, slide film? Yes indeed. The emulsions on many slide films block most visible light but let IR through, so a black piece of slide film can work. Because of the size of most lenses, you have to go with medium-format or large-format film. The Canon Pro90 IS has a 58mm lens filter size, so I was able to use the blank leader of 120 film which is 60mm wide, mounted in an old UV filter ring.

This leads to another fun trick. Light sensors in other areas are also sensitive to IR light. Slave strobes, for instance, are strobe units that respond to a sudden flash of light (or sometimes aiming them abruptly into bright sunlight, as I’ve blinded myself discovering.) So they fire off when they detect the camera’s strobe unit, and because light travels so fast and electronics introduce only tiny delays, the slave provides additional light to the image. They can be handy to have, since they can throw light from other directions without requiring any kind of wiring or radio linkage.

But let’s say, when shooting normal situations and not IR, you don’t want light coming from the camera, only from the slave set off to the side. Then you block the on-camera strobe with a piece of black slide film, which blocks the visible light but lets the IR trigger the slave. Cool, right? Just one of those quick and dirty tricks to make fancy lighting a little easier. Radio triggers are expensive.

Getting back to IR filters, you should note that all three images compared above have radically different exposure times. When shooting film, you’ll be advised by the manufacturer how sensitive the film is to certain filters (though you’re out of luck using slide film as a filter – the best I can say is that the Provia 100F used above probably lets an additional stop through over a 720nm filter.) With digital, the camera might set its own exposure correctly, or it might require some playing around.

Let’s not forget another tricky thing. Okay, we know that lenses bend light, and looking at illustrations of prisms, they can bend different wavelengths (colors) by differing amounts. Camera lenses are optimized to try and correct this rainbow effect – in visible light. But IR is outside of what they’re created to handle, so to even focus properly, you introduce some issues. Using film, for instance, you can’t focus with the IR filter in place, because we see only visible light, so you have to focus on the scene, then place the filter. But the lens is focused for visible light, and IR gets bent much further, so the lens is now out-of-focus for IR light. You need a lens with an IR mark (only some lenses include this anymore), and you adjust focus according to this mark.

See the red line by the “4” on this focusing ring? That’s the IR pointer. Once focused without the filter in place, you then shift the focus ring from its alignment with the center pointer (here, pointing at the back of the “5”) to line up instead with the IR pointer. You can’t trust autofocus in most cases because the IR filters don’t let through enough light for the sensor to get a decent contrast reading. The Pro90 can achieve autofocus, but it struggles with the 750nm filter, and is very balky with the 950nm filter – conditions have to be very bright and contrasty for it to lock on.

Want to know if your digital camera can produce IR images? There’s a simple trick, for those where the LCD can be used as a viewfinder. In relatively dim light, use the LCD viewfinder and have someone point a TV remote (any kind should do) at the lens and press any button. If you see a flicker of pale light from the front of the remote, you’re seeing the IR pulse they use, and your camera should be good to go – just find a filter!

Many Canon EOS film cameras are hampered in shooting IR film, because they use an IR light to count sprocket holes when advancing the film – this will fog the bottom edge of your images. It’s not a hard thing to shoot wider and simply crop this out, just be warned of the problem.

Unless you’re using film, you will almost certainly have some color cast to your images, even the ones that look B&W. You can simply eliminate this by converting to greyscale, or tweak this for good effect. You will probably also find that contrast is low, so boosting it afterward is recommended – play around with the levels until you achieve what you like best. The farm picture above has been converted to greyscale and adjusted in contrast to keep the midtones where I liked them. In the forest road photo at top, I left the color in and tweaked it, very slightly, towards cyan – it’s subtle, but it contrasts nicely with the page background color.

And you may have been waiting for me to explain the bright streaks, or figured it out on your own: yes, it’s a car going past during the four second exposure, with its headlights on. The car didn’t reflect enough light to do anything in the areas it traveled through, but the headlights were distinctly brighter, even in IR. I should have gone for eight seconds…

Two other examples of IR photos can be seen here and here. Finding the right conditions for a good image is trickier, but the results are worth it. Keep watching this space for more examples as I play around some more.

Do you want to know why?

In the same discussion I mentioned a few posts back, a particular quote from Christopher Hitchens came up, which was basically, “Religion poisons everything.” This kind of statement is fairly hard for many people to accept, and it is often treated as hyperbole, senseless exaggeration to make the case seem stronger. But I maintain that there is, instead, a veneer of respectability laid over religion, to the point that criticism of any aspect is often considered extreme, if not taboo. It is a veneer that is decidedly not warranted, and does in fact hide from us the damage that can be done. And is done. I present an example to you, one that is not unique in any way.

Continue reading “Do you want to know why?”

More from the neighbors

Early this evening, as I spoke on the telephone while standing on my upstairs patio, a “conversation” from the trees across the driveway drew my attention, and I cut the call short. While I couldn’t see anything, some very soft “wheet-a wheet-a” sounds were emanating from quite close by. Naturally, I grabbed the camera and started tracking the sounds, and eventually caught site of the birds seen above.

Common Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are found throughout North America, but tend to be shy, and being woodpeckers, prefer to stay within wooded areas. Their territorial call is a sudden sharp whistle, descending in tone, but what these two were using might best be described as the squeak of someone scrubbing glass, sharp but quiet initial note with a fainter followup, repeated regularly about twice a second and with varying pitch and volume. As they did this, they bobbed and twitched at one another. Since these were both males, as determined by the mustache mark alongside their beaks, I suspect this was a territorial discussion – another photo that I have, unfortunately not sharp enough to show anyone, shows raised feathers along the crest of the head, another dominance display. My best guess right now is that these are siblings from this year’s brood trying to decide who could lay claim to this part of the woods.

What allowed me to get these images was mostly my curiosity at the faint repeated “wheet-a“s, and remaining alert to any movement when searching the area. Their coloration, especially in partially shaded conditions, is very subtle, and you’ll most likely identify them by the flash of white at the base of their tail at the back (what birdwatchers call the “rump”) as they fly from one trunk to another. Shown here perched, they will just as often alight on the trunk itself and remain upright, which is of course their feeding/foraging position.

Another image that I caught shows off the lovely fawn coloration of their heads a bit more, as well as the red patch at the nape of the neck and the pointed tips of the tail feathers. Most woodpeckers use their tail as a brace and springboard for pecking, so the shafts of those feathers are likely quite strong. The breast feathers, with their spots, are very distinctive even when found by themselves on the floor of the forest. They’re fan-shaped for maximum coverage and heat retention, so rather than each spot belonging to only one feather, every feather has a collection of them – you’re seeing fewer feathers here than you might imagine.

I have a fruit-and-nut wreath birdfeeder to put up, but that’s hardly a natural setting for photos, so I might start getting creative by breaking it up and forcing the bits into crevices in prime photography areas. This will give woodpeckers and nuthatches something to do and allow me to use the best light and backgrounds, and still get natural-looking images.

One of these days I’ll get a decent sound recording system aimed for outdoor use and start podcasting the neighbors’ conversations. Donations, of course, are gratefully accepted… ;-)

Frustrations, part four

So this afternoon, noticing the massive activity at a yellowjacket’s burrow in my yard, I decided to try and get some nice close shots of their work. That would be called, “foreshadowing,” in English Lit classes, wouldn’t it? Ah, not in the way that you’re thinking…
Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons) are generally ground-nesting wasps, known to be the most aggressive in the area. Disturbing the nest, which is usually an unobtrusive hole in the ground, can cause them to swarm, and most especially so if you kill one of their number, which releases a scent that alerts the others. I have run afoul of this before, being stung over a dozen distinctive times in a frenetic couple of minutes. The advice is, “Don’t slap them,” but this is a bit hard to follow as they’re stinging you. Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets do not lose the embedded stinger on the first sting, but can nail you repeatedly. As I discovered then, spit on and clean off the spot where you smooshed one before it attracts more to the exact same spot. The stings can start itching madly at odd times for several days after the attack, by the way…

So what was I doing trying to get closeup photos of a nest that was seeing roughly 40 ingresses and egresses a minute? Well, not irritating them, for one. I used an extension tube on a 75-300mm lens to stay about a meter from the opening, and tried to time my shots for insects just leaving the ground. This is far harder than it sounds – yellowjackets appear at the mouth of the opening and are airborne in a flash, taking less than a tenth of a second to cut across the entire photo frame (which was far larger than shown in these tightly cropped images.) I’ve had plenty of practice, but I have an awful lot of empty frames.

When doing this, the air around was sometimes filled with their buzzing, and I had several land on me momentarily. I was sitting still, however, and made no aggressive moves, so as far as they were concerned I was nothing more than the branches near the nest that they occasionally lit upon. With lots of tries, and running the batteries almost dead in the strobe unit, I managed to get a few frames of merit, including the one below. Just before takeoff, a worker appears in the mouth of the opening with a dirt clod to carry away, clearly busy expanding the underground warren. This explained at least some of the frenzied activity I was seeing, and the dropping temperatures may be contributing, since they do not handle freezing conditions well and were likely trying to dig deeper before these occurred, where the earth would retain more heat as the surface cooled.

Should I have really wanted lots of detail shots of an insect in flight, this is the wrong way to go about it – the depth-of-field is way too short and the area for the wasps to be in too large. To control this, some insect photographers set up a rig where two infrared or laser beams cross at a particular point. These beams are linked to light sensors and into a device to trip the camera shutter – both beams have to be broken to fire the camera, so the insect has to be in a precise location. Since this is still unimaginably hard to achieve in three-dimensional space, another factor is occasionally added: a tube that empties out right near the crossed beams, just outside of the camera’s view. Insects are introduced into this tube and gently blown along it to exit by the crossed beams, so that they stand a much greater chance of passing through the key focus point. This is how the studies of insects in flight are often done. When time is money, you do whatever you can to increase the odds. As I’ve shown at top, you can indeed catch insects in flight without special rigs, but you’ll notice the shadow behind the wasp – it was barely airborne at this point, and I shot 86 frames trying for this, with only a handful of sharp images.

Disrespect my authoritah!

In a discussion on religion a short while back, I got to hear one of the more amusing arguments that has been forwarded frequently, apparently (somehow) in favor of religion: that atheism is simply a rebellion against authority. This argument has so many levels to it that I figured it deserved its own post.

Continue reading “Disrespect my authoritah!”

On composition, part five: It’s the law!

Yes, I know, I just did a composition post. But the last one got me to thinking, and this one is more than simply composition. Bear with me.

The compositional guideline in photography that everyone learns quickly is the Rule of Thirds. Simply put, and illustrated above, you break the frame into thirds, a tic-tac-toe board, and then place your key elements on the lines, or for preference, on the intersection of the lines. Horizons should not be in the middle, but offset to one of the two horizontal thirds lines. Instead of placing your subject smack in the middle of the frame, you get a more pleasing composition by utilizing this rule.

Except, it’s not really a rule, and most decent photographers know this (and explain it too.) There are plenty of times when you shouldn’t use it, and lots of good compositions that would be worse if it was used. While I cropped the image above to meet the rule exactly, the ratio that I actually use for prints is mildly different. And it’s not really clear how much variation you can have before the “pleasing effect” fades too much.

So, let’s get something out of the way first. What I personally recommend is to consider placing your subject off-center. A subject placed in the middle is thrown in the viewers face:Here it is!” While placing it off-center says, “Here is a scene with a strong subject.” It allows you to show setting, establish mood and time of day, and gives the viewer awareness of the background, foreground, or surrounding areas that can make a story or idea complete. Place your horizon to emphasize the element most interesting, be it sky or foreground. So, break the rule as you see fit. Try it out, but use your judgment on where to place your subject(s).

Now, the bigger question: Why does this even work? The answer is, no one knows. There are a couple of concepts that seem to relate, the foremost being something called the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio, a simple mathematical relation used in art and design. The Rule of Thirds isn’t a match for this, but hews fairly closely. The Golden Mean has supposedly been used since ancient times in architecture, art, and various odd areas – I say supposedly because the cases that people have made for great works of art following this closely, for instance, usually turn out to be fudging the numbers by a significant margin.

And then there’s the Fibonacci Sequence, another mathematical ratio that, when applied two-dimensionally, also strikes fairly close to the Golden Mean and the Rule of Thirds, but seems to appear in nature surprisingly often. The most common illustration of this is the nautilus shell shape that appears as you increase a curve, um, Fibonaccially (whatever,) but it is also supposed to show in the placement of leaves around the circumference of a stem, allowing them the maximum amount of sunlight without blocking leaves directly underneath. Very cool, really, but in reality, this varies widely based on the type of plant, size of leaves, and environmental factors. The argument seems to be that nature has demonstrated a mathematical formula, indicating some connection between nature and math, but it appears more to be a case of bearing a passing resemblance than supporting a natural law. A lot of people like mathematics because of its precision, but mathematics is really an abstract, and doesn’t apply well to the natural world. In order to use it, you have to choose arbitrary definitions. Two oranges are always twice the weight of one orange, right? No, that’s ludicrous.

The thing is, none of the concepts does anything to explain why we find such measurements pleasing to the eye (or, in some cases, ear or touch.) The various mathematical formulas were created to match (more or less) this very common tendency for humans to respond to certain layouts, but it’s clear we’re not concerned with the exact numbers. There is something fundamental at work deep in our minds. I originally toyed with the idea that our two eyes were the culprit, having something to do with visual range, overlap, and our desire to assess surroundings. A subject right smack in front of you gains all of your attention, but can be threatening, while one offset allows you room to see something else, to escape, and so on. Sounded good, but it failed to explain vertical compositions, and would likely have led to a dislike of them entirely if it were true. Pop psychology is rarely useful ;-)

Seen here, a composition that I find very strong doesn’t align terribly well – the sun reflection falls on one of the lines, but well away from the intersection. Many other shots that I find well-composed, including most of the examples in my composition series (use the Categories link in the sidebar to see more,) meander away from these proportions noticeably. Either it is far from exact, or my judgment sucks – your call on that one ;-)

Would knowing why we tend to prefer a certain layout answer anything about us? It’s hard to say – while most of the traits we have now have some bearing to our evolution and survival, a few things are simply artifacts of our development. I doubt it’s the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but I can’t get over my curiosity about it.

Book Review: Demon-Haunted World

This is the first of what will be only an occasional contribution, since I have planned these for a while but appear to be slow in completing them. More, however, are on the way…

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is probably the most well-known of Carl Sagan’s books, and is almost considered a handbook of skepticism and critical-thinking. It’s hard to say whether this was intentional or not – Sagan was always a huge promoter of critical thinking, but by its own admission it is a science book. From my standpoint, however, it should be recommended reading for anyone with a teen reading level onward, regardless of one’s views towards science, or even their misgivings about it. In only one place does the science that Sagan enthuses over actually involve something like equations, and he’s patient enough to explain them without forcing the reader to comprehend the values – this is about James Clerk Maxwell’s sudden discovery, through what was really a mathematical experiment, of the nature of electromagnetism and its relation to light and radio waves. “Relation” being rather the wrong word here, since at that point they were found to be the same thing, a discovery that has enormous impact on everything we do today.

More compelling, however, is Sagan’s examination of our everyday world. He builds his cases carefully, keeping the reader captivated with concise writing as he gently steers to his target by eliminating the other choices. Sagan, especially in this book, is a humble yet enthusiastic writer, who asks more questions than he answers, yet asks the right ones, never telling the reader what must be the case yet allowing them to eliminate the other options. In this regard, he mimics one aspect of the scientific method, in that he tries to determine if any other conclusion might fit as well, if not better, which would throw the initial conclusion into doubt. In this way, science tests itself and weeds out alternative explanations.

To me, the most distinctive parts of the book are where he examines the witch hunts of Europe before the Enlightenment, chronicled through writers of that time. If, like me, you knew only of Salem during that period, these chapters will be shocking – Salem was a drop in the bucket in a time of senseless and inescapable persecution, based on a corrupt belief system and meaningless assertions. We’d like to think we know better now, but Sagan manages not to couch it in terms of past ignorance, but compares it with present assertions, demonstrating that we are not immune to such behavior unless we make the efforts to ask the hard questions and demand support for claims. Indeed, he makes direct comparisons to alien abduction accounts and the questionable methods of investigating such.

Sagan goes into great detail regarding the famous abduction case of Betty & Barney Hill, relating facts that most accounts somehow miss. These facts, far from being extraneous, have direct bearing on the reliability of the testimonies, and provide an eye-opening experience into the world of UFO investigation. It becomes evident that some conclusions are reached not through weight of the evidence, but by other means – wish fulfillment, perhaps, or pre-existing biases. And while many people find no surprise at this, Sagan takes pains throughout the book to demonstrate that such behavior does not belong to “fringe” beliefs alone.

Another fascinating read are the samples of public opinion, snippets of responses he had received in the mail following the publication of chapter excerpts in Parade magazine. If the reader is still dubious about the need for thinking skills in this modern age, this cross-section of American opinion certainly helps drive the point home. The responses from a high school classroom are particularly disturbing. It’s one thing to hear, or even believe oneself, that much of the public is ill-informed, but seeing the examples of it always has a greater impact.

It is here that he introduces what has become known as the “Baloney Detection Kit,” a list of practices and common fallacies that serve admirably to sort out the accuracy of any claim, and that form the basis of all critical thinking. It is difficult to imagine a situation where such practices would not serve a useful purpose – but there are plenty where they were, and are, desperately needed. Sagan includes a simple story in a footnote, one that demonstrates the fallacy of, as he calls it, “observational selection” – counting the hits that confirm your hypothesis, and ignoring the misses:

[From pg 214] My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers.

So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
I guess it’s a general who’s won many consecutive battles.
How many?
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
What fraction of American generals are great?
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 – which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles – purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles …?

Another striking thing about this book is the sheer number of places you can stop reading and contemplate an introduced idea. I have myself taken advantage of this with a blog post, and will likely do so again soon. Sagan is succinct, able to explain his point with clarity and without additional verbiage or redundancy, and thus covers a vast array of topics and ideas – so many that it’s impossible to do justice with a brief book review. I was struck with the thought that this could serve almost as a textbook, with work assignments or essays based on aspects of each chapter – and what a remarkable class that would be. If you are a “thinker,” this book is a buffet.

Through it all, he does indeed promote science – not as the idea of learning valences and calculating vectors, but as the practice that serves virtually all of our advances as a species. He realizes that science has a bad reputation in the US, and indeed much of the world, and suggests ways to counteract this. His own writing, the delight in discovery and the fascination with how things work and where this leads, shows that he knows it can be done, and that we all have to eliminate this idea of science as “hard.”

Towards the end of the book, he apologizes for devoting a couple of chapters to politics, but even here Sagan cannot become polarized. The reader dreading the polemic of political parties today will find themselves cringing for nothing – Sagan instead details the careful considerations and knowledgeable backgrounds of our founding fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson, and the efforts they put into crafting the documents that govern this country. The fact that this bears no resemblance whatsoever to our current political figures is damning all by itself, with no input given or necessary by Sagan.

Carl Sagan had a couple of gifts: one of reasoned debate without rancor; and the other of boundless fascination with the natural world. Both are exemplified in this book, without ever leaving his message behind. My challenge to anyone is to simply read a chapter – any chapter. If you’re not convinced, I’ll turn in my book reviewing badge. And if your child is tackling reading at the level of Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe, they’re ready for this book.

On composition, part four

Okay, I went a little longer between posts than I prefer, due to several things, so it’s time to get back into it. In recognition of my absence, I give you a compositional element: empty space.

A very basic goal in photography is simplicity – strive to include only the elements that help the photo and leave out anything extraneous. The idea is to give the viewer a strong focal point, and/or a strong message or impression, and nothing else to distract them. But the element I’m now talking about takes the concept one step further: you include a large hunk of nothing to convey its own message. This message can vary, but it’s important to know how to use it.

In the example above, there’s a lot of space to the right of the frog. This provides multiple meanings. Primarily, it’s the space ahead. When you have either a moving subject or a line of sight from your subject, in this case the frog looking directly right, you provide this space ahead of the subject rather than “blocking it in” with the edges of the frame. Too close to the side of the image and you are, in a way, standing your subject in a corner, and it can be unsettling to the viewer. But it also implies distance in this case, leading to the idea that the frog is not merely looking right, but entirely across the river, and this is enhanced by the position atop the rock, high enough to have a good view, it would seem.

While that empty space is not really empty, but instead very complicated and full of things, it’s also out of focus (more on how to achieve this can be found here.) This gives a greater feeling of distance while simultaneously minimizing the impact it has on the viewer – we can’t focus on it, so we’re simply not supposed to, and pay attention to the focused parts of the image. With this framing, this becomes not simply a photo of a frog, but the idea of the frog crossing the river, and the river as the setting also provides the goal.

There are a couple of very subtle elements in here, too. Frogs obviously jump, but did you get the impression that the frog could jump across the entire river, or was perhaps contemplating it? There are two things that may have contributed to that feeling. The first is that the frog has a natural arc in its body, up and to the right, and this is even continued from the rock below it, in the light and pattern (and notice that we never thought the arc went in the opposite direction.) The second one is the arc of the background tree limb, mimicking the frog and drawing its own path across the river. While the frog could never jump that far, we are given the impression that it could.

Sometimes, empty space is really empty, and doesn’t seem to say anything. But it does, if only, “There’s nothing around for miles.” The isolation implied by the blank water is as much a photo element as the main subject here, and provides contrast to the sharp, intense detail of the tree stump. The empty space counterbalances the stump in the photo, and the frame is actually split in half diagonally, with almost nothing but grey and white to the upper right, and all of the color and shade in the lower left. This lack of color, by the way, allows us to notice the tiny little green leaves atop the stump, where otherwise we probably could not have.

The image says, “morning;” it says, “quiet;” it says “lonely.” The texture of the stump is almost welcome against the emptiness, and the tiny new sprouts are a ray of hope, or even defiance. A couple of leaves aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re given emphasis by the juxtaposition of empty space. Life finds a crack and forces its way in.

The featureless grey humps of the opposite shoreline are almost extraneous, and could simply be cropped out, but they add a greater sense of distance. They’re so subtle they nearly escape attention, and (unlike the bright rocks to the right of the frame in the frog photo at top) they do not distract at all, but enhance instead. Any more detail and they might have drawn the eye away for a moment, to examine their shape for something familiar or interesting, and this tiny bit of distraction or curiosity, especially without finding anything of interest, could have lessened the impact of the image and thus should be excluded.

Do you have the whole mood and feeling firmly fixed in your mind now? Good. Because now I tell you that anything could be right outside the frame to the left, but it doesn’t exist for the viewer if it’s not included… unless I mention it.

Now, you’re wondering, aren’t you? And the mood has changed for the image. That’s kind of what happens when you have distracting elements, only the viewer never felt that mood in the first place. So choose your elements wisely, look around the entire frame before tripping the shutter, and ask yourself what each item in the frame does for your composition. A mostly empty frame really is okay, and sometimes far better than a full one.