Book Review: Your Inner Fish

In a previous review, I talked about a book that dealt with the concerted efforts by creationists to discredit evolution, and the book was specific to the goal, but not aimed towards greater familiarization with evolution itself. Enter Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin, which tackles that aspect more specifically.

Shubin opens with some background of fossil hunting, leading quickly into the recent find that his team is best known for: Tiktaalik roseae, a species from 375 million years ago that shows critical evidence of the grand migration of animal life from the seas onto land. Tiktaalik was a targeted find, in that Shubin’s team knew that an intermediary stage between finned animals and ones with supporting limbs (tetrapods) should exist, in a particular timeframe, and likely found in areas that used to be estuaries and rivers. After having found a tantalizing fragment in a road cut in Pennsylvania, they approached the problem systematically, searching for geology that would fit all of their criteria, and mounted several expeditions to a remote spot on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, a Canadian territory. They found exactly what they were looking for, proof of careful planning and the predictive power of evolutionary development, while also relating just what fossil hunting entails, which includes patience, experience, and a meticulous attention to detail.

But Shubin is at heart an educator, which is more than simply a teacher or professor, and Tiktaalik serves as a springboard for much larger topics. Beginning with the appearance of a new limb form that holds for all mammals today, Shubin lays out an exceptionally detailed account of numerous traits within various species, including humans. He gives a great accounting of the scientific method as hunches and suppositions are subjected to careful testing, as well as building on the findings of countless scientists of the past. Through careful explanations with consideration of layman’s terms over scientific, he provides a wealth of information showing the commonality of many species, leading irresistibly to shared ancestry. The reader learns of the difference between not just the appearance, but the functions, of reptile and mammal teeth, and a key point where the two diverged from the ancestors – and how this can be told from the wear pattern on a solitary tooth. Indeed, anatomy plays a key role in determining the functions of fossilized animals we can never hope to see moving on their own, as bone thicknesses and even the shape of skull fragments tell tales about flexibility, diet, and nerve branch similarity to species currently in existence.

There is a fascinating section on embryology, where the initial development of diverse species such as sharks and hominids, of which humans are classed, bear a striking resemblance. While this is an indication of a common ancestor close to 400 million years ago, Shubin ensures that it’s not left at that. He also talks about genes and how they have almost identical functions in many diverse species, and how this was even discovered. In one experiment by researcher Randy Dahns, a gene called Sonic hedgehog (no, really) was grafted onto a specific section of a skate’s embryo during a key period in its development, resulting in the development of rudimentary digits – fingers – in the skate:

Not only did the rods [finger bones] end up looking different from one another, they responded to Sonic hedgehog, much as fingers do, on the basis of how close they were to the Sonic hedgehog bead; the closer rods developed a different shape from the ones farther away. To top matters off, it was the mouse protein that did the job so effectively in the skates.

The whole section details the specific job that genes play in embryological development, even down to the shape and position of “thumbs,” and most especially how those genes work exactly the same even when transplanted into diverse species. The body plans of nearly all species on the planet use many of the same exact genes to get started. Shubin also returns several times to the enigmatic bones of mammalian ears, which have ancestry in a wide variety of skeletal forms and developed gradually from jaw and skull structures to specialized instruments for wide-frequency hearing, for those species that would most benefit from such.

While the book is certainly not adequate to explain all that we know about evolution, and indeed doesn’t actually talk about the mechanisms of selection, it is overwhelming when presenting the evidence that this has indeed taken place. The reader who comes away from this book unconvinced is only guilty of abject denial. Other readers, without a distinct background in biology, might actually be startled at the number of factors that Shubin relates, tying us together with our distant aquatic ancestors (and further) in appropriate recognition of the title. One missing facet that I would have liked to have seen addressed, personally, is the predictive power of this knowledge, and how it applies to modern medicine and biology to show that it is not merely historical background, but functioning and active science. While this may have been outside of Shubin’s expertise, it would have been a powerful addition to the book.

Because of the amount of information, I wouldn’t recommend this book for adolescent or young-adult readers overall; while adequately illustrated, the text is just a little dense, reflective of the meticulous way that scientific progress is made. This is not to say that the book is hard to read – Shubin couches things in everyday terms, and avoids using scientific jargon where it is unnecessary. At the same time, he provides the subtle message of how science progresses, including the background stories of our previous, now-abandoned theories and how new findings changed them. Besides the evidence for evolution, the reader also receives some indication of how we establish and correct our knowledge base, and how much of this has happened in the past century. We are in a golden age of discovery, and it’s fascinating.

Shubin also touches on a constant mistake of the media, that of referring to fossil species as “links,” missing or otherwise. The fossil record provides only pinpricks of life from any given period, and species do not cleanly develop in a line, but branch off, spread out, and often die off. Tiktaalik, then, might be a direct ancestor, but the probability is exceptionally low. It is instead evidence of species developing a new body plan that allowed life on land to develop, and may simply be one of dozens or hundreds of species that came ashore over a period of thousands to millions of years. That’s part of what the genetic record supports: so many species have such similar backgrounds that the development of weight-supporting limbs, for instance, might have taken place several times due to the same genetic changes, or small variations thereof. It’s a bit as if human descendants in the future, with no knowledge of what we are like now, found chimpanzee, gorilla, orang-utan, and human remains – only one leads to those descendants, but all have much the same structure.

Much of the charm of this book is the ability, within every chapter, to make the reader blink and say, “That’s cool!” It is an excellent example of why science should be more popular in this country, and why it’s so useful. But it’s not simply about popularizing science; it also shows the painstaking research and careful experiments that go into it, and pays homage to the countless people who have contributed, in large or small increments, to what we know today. The reader comes out of it with a wealth of understanding, and a newfound respect for the process and practitioners. Definitely worth the time – it’s a very memorable book.

* * *

No, I did not abuse the book for the illustrating image – this is simply the wonders of Photoshop.

Compensation: It doesn’t refer to those giant lenses

After a recent post, someone remarked about the effect I showed in one of the illustrating photos, reminding me that this is one of those photography techniques that’s much easier to implement than to explain – and I know, because it’s the hardest thing I’ve had to teach students. So here goes an attempt within a post, on the subject of exposure compensation.

One key part of decent photographs is having the proper amount of light reach the film or digital sensor. It’s called exposure, and it’s controlled by three things: the shutter speed, the aperture opening within the lens, and the sensitivity of the film/sensor to light, as indicated by the ISO. Today’s automatic cameras have some pretty sophisticated ways of measuring exposure, but there’s still one consideration the photographer has to make, and this is that the camera has no idea what it’s looking at – it simply measures light coming into the camera. If you break down the majority of photographs, you’ll get an average of light reflectivity from them, which unsurprisingly is a middle tone – we are surrounded by subjects that reflect light in moderate levels rather than extremes. Grass and foliage, clothes and buildings and cars, painted rooms and the various bits of furniture and knickknacks within, all have a tendency to be not too bright and not too dark. Mind you, I did say tendency, and in many cases where there are greater extremes, these can balance one another out. The upshot of all this is, even when the light is very bright (outdoors on a sunny day) or very dim (under streetlights at night,) you still tend to have an average middle tone when properly exposed, so when the light comes in to the meter, the camera sets the exposure to bring this light to a medium level. This is usually referred to as “18% grey,” and you can even get pieces of cardboard colored like this to help set exposure in crucial circumstances. If it helps, picture a grey shirt under direct sunlight and under streetlights. Even though the light levels are drastically different, the shirt is still grey and should appear that way in both photos.

A small side note: most meters don’t read colors and only measure light intensity – it really doesn’t matter what color the light is, only how bright it is. Nikon is one exception, with some of their higher-end models, but I honestly don’t know how significant a difference this makes. Suffice to say that I have heard no one enthusing about the advantages, and I have never cursed not having color sensitivity in the meters of my Canons.

So, when the light comes pouring into your camera before you actually snap the photo, the camera measures it and sets exposure to render it into a nice middle tone. The problems arise when the subject is not a nice middle tone. Such examples are snow, sand and water, surrounding sky, and white walls for the brighter side, and commensurately night skies or background darkness, dark wood paneling, and deep shadow for the darker side. We expect all of these to be either bright or dark, but the camera usually doesn’t know this (some metering systems are fairly clever in comparing the focused point within the frame against the surrounding area and figuring exposure for your focused subject, but they’re still fooled sometimes.) So the camera goes for the mid-tones, and either darkens your snow and sky too much and makes them grey, or brightens your wood paneling and distant unlit backgrounds too much and bleaches out your subject.

I used to work in a photo lab, and the two most common circumstances that virtually always wrecked exposure were kids in the bathtub, and the prom/formal dance shots. Bathrooms are usually pale and reflective, with few items of a darker nature, so the camera rendered these too dark, not knowing they were supposed to be bright. And of course dances, with no light from the background and even the subjects dressed in tuxedos and darker dresses, are supposed to be mostly dark, but the camera tried to make it brighter, generally blowing out the happy couple’s faces into over-exposure. Consider also how bright the sky usually is, so birds (often a tiny subject) against the bright sky usually end up silhouetted against an expanse of grey or deeper blue.

Enter the thinking photographer. “Aha!” says he or she, “this scene is brighter than average, and it should be! So I have to outthink the camera and foil its evil plot!” Or something to that effect, anyway – you may not be as dramatic as I am. Faced with a bright scene, the photographer sets exposure compensation, purposefully telling the camera to over-expose the scene. It’s not really over exposing, it’s actually obtaining the correct exposure, but we’re dealing with a simple microchip here that doesn’t know snow from grass. So you correct its mistake.

How? Well, it varies by camera, so there isn’t a simple answer, other than to find out how to do this in the manual. Most of the SLRs, digital or film, usually have a wheel that you can adjust after getting an initial exposure reading (often by half-pressing the shutter button) to change exposure, and this is indicated in the viewfinder and/or in the LCD window. See a bar with a ‘plus’ at one end and a ‘minus’ at the other? That’s your exposure compensation indicator – simply move the pointer towards the plus end for over-exposing (bright scenes) or the other way for t’other. Other cameras may have you do this with the menu buttons on the back, and this option is usually represented with a “+/-” symbol of some kind. Hold this down and spin your wheel or push your rocker switch, and watch for the same change in the LCD indicated above.

This is 2/3 stop overexposed, leaving some texture in the snow but still making it bright - note the pure white highlights

How much? This is even harder, because it depends on the scene. Snow in bright sunlight, for instance, usually requires anywhere from 2/3 of a stop to 2 full stops to look properly bright, if there’s a lot of it in the scene. Beach scenes a bit less, maybe 1/2 to 1+1/2 stops over. Objects against bright sky? To keep sky color, usually 1/2 to 1 full stop. The prom? Usually 1/2 to 1 full stop darker – you might be surprised how much a tuxedo reflects. If you’re wondering what “stop” means in photography, I have a new page about it here.

If you’re using digital, you can afford to waste shots, so try several variations. This is called “bracketing,” where you adjust exposure from the camera’s recommendation and often go on either side of the guessed exposure, three to five separate images – one of them will usually get it right. By the way, tell your subjects you’re going to do this, lest they relax after the first one and the next few frames have weird faces in them. Also, be sure to wait for the flash to recharge if needed.

There is another technique that can work, too. Many cameras have the ability to lock exposure, meaning you get an initial meter reading and then retain this when you re-aim the camera. Sometimes this is linked to keeping the shutter release half-pressed, other times you may have to do this with an additional button often marked with “*” [asterisk.] To use this, you aim away from your bright or dark scene to something else that is average, and obtain and lock your meter reading there – the best example for this is capturing the sunset, where you can aim down at the ground without sky in the picture, lock that exposure, then tip the camera back up and snap that shot. Often you don’t have to point all the way down, simply get less of the sky in the image. Sunsets usually benefit from being darkened, since it makes the colors richer, but they still should be fairly bright. It takes practice, so experiment. But this technique is often the quickest, and can be done with less fiddling on some cameras.

Finally, always, always, always be aware that you just changed your camera settings for a special circumstance, and change them back when you have the shot. The large number of frames you shoot the next day will probably be better without the compensation. Coupled to this is the practice of always, always, always reviewing what the camera is set for the moment you take it out. It’s easy to get caught on this, so make it a constant habit. It’s better to remember to reset the camera to average settings before you put it away, so it’s ready to be whipped out when the UFO goes past or the skateboarder hits himself in the goolies. And if you get in the habit of both (checking when you put the camera away and when you take it out, I mean, not something weird with alien genitals,) you’re doubly ensured that you’re not taking images with exposure compensation in place when you don’t want it.

Another example can be seen here. Both the bird and the sky were very bright. While I wanted the bird to look white, I didn’t want to bleach the feather detail away into pure white, so I only compensated by about 2/3 stop over what the meter suggested. Note that the top of the bird’s head and the throat have lost detail, but only in small areas, while the underside of the bird has gone almost completely black – the hazard of using high-contrast slide film in bright light. If this had been a black bird and I didn’t compensate for the background sky, I would have lost all detail from the feathers. It takes experience to know what situations call for it, and how your camera will react (especially in different metering modes,) so practice!

Almost made history

A few years ago, I took a weekend photography trip to the Outer Banks of NC with a friend, and among others, took one of my favorite black & white photos seen here (and twice at least on this blog.) But I haven’t told the backstory, and how I nearly made history, until now.

While wandering the beach at Buxton, just south of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, we came across a small placid tidal pool sitting behind the main dune line, and I started wandering around it looking for decent compositions. I had actually been down to the very edge of the water with no difficulty and started wandering up the slope away from it when the sand became abruptly soft and I began to sink in. This was no big deal – I encounter this all the time when wandering in muddy estuary areas, and the trick is to shift away quickly before you sink enough to submerge your footwear. Of course, you head for more solid ground.


Only in this case, it didn’t work, with each step, I found softer footing, and as I frantically tried to get out of it, sank below my knees into what appeared to be normal beach. I ended up scrambling up the slope on hands and knees to avoid putting my weight straight down on my feet, and even left a shoe behind. In the pic at top, you can see where the footprints at right, only dipping a few centimeters into the sand, vanish entirely at left to be replaced with small sodden hollows of hideous-smelling muck where my deep holes had filled in after I drew my legs out – note the nearby splashes of mud from yanking free.

I point out once again that I was going uphill, and this occurred on a slope actually higher than the firmer footing I had at the water’s edge. This is not something anyone would expect to find, most especially not as deep as it seemed to extend. The mud underneath was quite stinky, appearing to have been there a while. It occurred to me afterward that I’d had my first encounter with quicksand. It’s not what the movies have made it seem to be, and was potentially caused by a spring or undersurface channel in the area. Thus, the tidal pool may not have been tidal at all, but the surface effect of the water seep alongside of it. The consistency of the muck indicated that silt or clay was probably present as well. The upper layers were clearly normal sand, maybe to a depth of 10-20 cm (4-8 in) but beneath was heavily saturated swamp.

Had I, of course, not had the presence of mind to wallow and flail frantically and gracelessly like the advanced life form that I am, I may well have disappeared beneath the surface, never to be seen again until paleontologists discovered my fossilized remains thousands of years from now, pondering over the strange possessions I had strapped to me, and speculating on the nature of the god “Canon” that was emblazoned on my totems. Either that or they probably would have thought I was just an idiot. Truth be told, though, quicksand is unlikely to result in total submergence, because it does have its own buoyancy, and equilibrium would have been reached long before my head went under, so they would have found only my legs after the rest had been taken away by scavengers.

Afterward, I wandered to the “edge” of the unstable area to get some pics of the aftermath, and sank in again, only not as far this time. I also managed to retrieve my shoe by spreading my weight out and keeping most of it upslope. Later, as we sought a motel room for the evening, I stayed in the car with my overly fragrant trousers so as not to send people screaming from the lobby, then rinsed them out in the room sink later on. The previous day, I had been wandering in a coastal bog area that had been burned off to prevent the buildup of gasses and fire hazards, and had gotten the light-colored pants from that day marked up with ash. That represented the only two pairs of long pants I’d packed, which meant getting dinner that evening in shorts. Since an unexpected cold front had moved in, I was rather uncomfortable in shorts and sandals as my pants and shoes dried in the room.

My friend, always ready to catch me doing something stupid, provided me with a portrait featuring the Hatteras lighthouse in the background, which I should probably sell to a calendar publisher. But it also serves to show the conditions and the slope, as well as the camera beltpacks that I’d slipped off to retrieve my shoes, visible at right. And to highlight the weirdness of it even more, I’ll say that I was further downslope, just a little ways around the perimeter of the pool, when I got the nice B&W pic.

In my memoirs this will undoubtedly become a bit more dramatic, and will likely take place in deepest jungle far from help, where I will extricate myself with the help of my trusty grappling-hook gun. Later on, I will escape the clutches of a deadly man-eating gorilla by remembering exactly where the quicksand could be found. And there will certainly not be silly little photos to illustrate it. I’m fine with talking about it here because my memoirs will not be published under the name of “Denelsbeck” – people want author names they can pronounce, maybe like “Dugong” or something. Al Dugong. Naah, people will simply mistake me for that guy that gets killed in nearly every part he’s played.

Shuffling off his mortal coil

There is a reason, perhaps, why these birds are almost extinct:

The unlucky photographer is Mark Carwadine, who you might remember from an earlier book review, and of course Stephen Fry leaping catlike to his aid. You might be puzzled as to why Carwadine, um, held still and thought of England, but truth be told, a basic rule of wildlife observation is to not disturb or interrupt natural behavior. It also helps to have the self-control not to startle or potentially injure the animal by reacting as we normally might, and it might even prevent defensive attacks. Not the mention that Carwadine probably knows good theatre. There are limits, however.

I have to admit, British television has much better nature and science offerings than US television, where we apparently consider it informative to watch some yutz eating bark and bugs. Check out Last Chance To See on the BBC for more entertainment.

I stumbled across that last clip, by the way, after following links to this next one:

This is an American perspective, I suspect, but the various dialects are what makes it work so well. Ta!

Lessons on communication

First Pharyngula, now this. Over at his blog, Phil Plait opted to take time from his oppressively busy schedule to once again congratulate Chris Mooney for another accomplishment, this time getting onto the board of the American Geophysical Union. There’s really nothing wrong with this, and Plait can do what he likes. But Mooney doesn’t exactly have a good reputation in the blogohedron, since he’s got this nasty habit of being bratty, arrogant, and clueless, a terrible triple threat. If you want to see details of these traits, four of those blogs in the sidebar (Butterflies and Wheels, Pharyngula, Weird Things, Why Evolution Is True) will net you a bundle with the simple trick of putting “Chris Mooney” in their search fields. I have my own posts regarding Mooney and accommodationism, his pet obsession.

In light of this, the responses to Plait’s congratulatory post didn’t exactly go the way he wanted, as a few people expressed their opinions of Mooney’s attitude and abilities. This caused Plait to come in defensively and make a left-handed accusation that these were unwarranted, causing all hell to break loose. After numerous commenters made it clear that Mooney’s behavior was hardly defensible, most especially regarding that situation I linked to in his name above, Plait allowed as to how he wasn’t aware of any of it, and promised to look into it deeper.

Initially, this is commendable – he admitted ignorance of the situation, and pledged to remedy it. But it does seem hard to believe, with the number of times that he’s promoted Mooney, including over some inane things like a sophomoric campaign to promote science by posing scientists with rock stars (no, seriously,) that he would remain unaware of a major meltdown not only on Mooney’s own blog under the same publisher as Plait’s, but chronicled in detail on several other very prominent blogs as well. And as I remarked, it seems a bit disingenuous to consider Mooney accomplished in science communication without being aware of what he was actually up to, and how poorly this was coming across to a significant number of people.

Unfortunately, upon Plait’s return, he ended up recognizing Mooney’s reluctant and inadequate apologies (for what amounted to gross incompetence for a “journalist”) as appropriate, and excused the banning of numerous commenters from Mooney’s blog under the idea that they were being mean. His example? Ophelia Benson, of Butterflies and Wheels over there to the right, referred to Mooney’s blog as a “slum” when her comments were ostensibly “held for moderation” (never to appear) while other commenters had no issues posting comments directly calling her a liar. This, mind you, came about when she actually questioned Mooney on his standpoint.

Yes, you heard that right – “slum” is, according to Plait, a worse offense than “liar.” I guess most of my posts on this blog should rate fairly highly, then. Should you think that portions of the story are missing, and perhaps that Ophelia Benson was being far more offensive than claimed, you’re welcome to visit her own blog, where she is under no restraints but her own, and of course the comments she leaves elsewhere, most especially at Why Evolution Is True.

Plait made no comment on Mooney’s inability to handle any criticism whatsoever, inability to respond to simple questions, senseless blaming of scientists for their poor “framing” of science issues to fundamentalists, and lack of a useful plan to implement his accommodationism. He made no recognition of Mooney’s pathetic elevation of an unsubstantiated e-mail story to a blog post, proudly demonstrating his point that atheist scientists are big meanies to religious scientists – only to find that it was complete fiction from a disreputable source (yes, this guy actually refers to himself as a journalist, another nail in the coffin of that term.) He missed Mooney’s petulant “Well, it could have happened anyway!” assertion, given apparently in Mooney’s defense and not, as many see it, as a whiny excuse for not having any evidence whatsoever. Plait even failed to mention that Mooney received a major grant from a religious foundation pledged to promoting religion in science publications. His various commenters missed none of these, however and missed none before Plait’s return with excuses.

I’ll be the first to admit (yeah, this far down in the post) that this is a relatively minor drama in the grand scheme of things – but then again, so is everything else. You’re welcome to seek out a blog that comments on TV shows if you like ;-). The kicker in all of this is, Plait used to be someone who promoted critical thought, and various attendant practices therein like getting all of the facts, not playing biases, holding yourself to a standard, being fair and unscrupulous, and so on. Both he and Mooney can actually be excused for being wrong – a point made by several commenters (who understand what fairness is.) The issue isn’t with mistakes or bad information or even abject ignorance – the issue is how such things are handled, corrected, and presented. If we want critical thinking to be accepted and adopted, we need to hold it as better and more useful than partisan politics. Plait’s not-pology in favor of his friend Mooney smacks an awful lot like US Representative Joe Barton’s apology to BP when the current administration held them accountable for that little fuckup in the Gulf. It’s also curious that Plait has supported Mooney in other questionable circumstances, claimed that accommodationism is a useful thing, and popped his pointless “Don’t Be A Dick” speech right after the debacle on Mooney’s blog. Coincidences do sometimes happen – and sometimes they don’t.

Someone could make a point about having clouded judgment regarding friends, or putting friends first, but these don’t fit either. Plait had ample opportunity to be aware of how his regular visitors viewed Mooney, and plenty to see the same from the general public response to Mooney’s various contretemps. And he is perfectly free to choose the friends he has, for whatever reasons. But on more than one occasion he’s gotten distinctly defensive when comments about Mooney in a negative light were left, in response to Plait’s comments in a positive light. Just because you run a popular blog doesn’t mean anyone reading must agree with you – that’s arrogance. And he should feel free to place friendship in front of blog readers – in fact I encourage this (my apologies to the five of my followers.) But doing so publicly and with noticeable disregard for his readers is another thing entirely, and still another to openly expect your readers to agree with you. To one recent negative comment about the “Rockstars of Science” advertising campaign mentioned above, Plait chimed in with,

Also, you may not be aware that I think the Rock Stars of Science is a good idea too. And I did something you didn’t: said exactly why.

My response is, so what? Others don’t agree with you. To all appearances, Plait seems to think that if he expresses his own opinion (with reasons!), that settles it.

Worst of all, both of these guys supposedly promote, “science communication,” but Mooney has never demonstrated that he even knows what the term means, and Phil has been falling further and further off the radar. To this day, he still hasn’t clarified what “Don’t Be A Dick,” was supposed to mean (I’ve made more posts clarifying that matter than he has, much less countless other bloggers out there,) and while he has at least gotten a new science show on Discovery, no small accomplishment, it rings too much like a Mythbusters clone and skips over far too much of the science itself in favor of explosions and poorly-explained demonstrations.

The thing is, science communication really isn’t that hard, and I’ll present several ideas in an upcoming post (there’s another book review coming first.) But blaming scientists, putting faith in a poorly-conceived methodology, and appealing to the lowest common denominator doesn’t cut it. Neither does turning a blind eye to all of these faults and trying to justify your standpoint with feeble excuses. And if your friend is largely unpopular, maybe you need to face the idea that there are very good reasons for this, and perhaps you’re not seeing them yourself. Another key aspect of critical thinking is considering how it applies to yourself as well.

* * *

Thanks to Ophelia Benson for the correction of some misinformation I had repeated, and for some further info into the whole sock puppet meltdown.

Too cool, part six

Sometimes I just kick myself for being stupid. At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne does a post on one of the most remarkable of animals, and of developed forms of locomotion: the Paradise Tree Snake, the only snake that flies.

Now, this wasn’t news to me, since I’d seen a brief mention in a book years ago, but then, before I started blogging, found videos of the research that was being done. I saved one (Fast Video Download plugin for Firefox – if you’re not using it you’re a peepants) and come across it from time to time in my folder, but for some stupid, stupid reason never decided to do a post on it. So Jerry once again beats me to the punch, and includes some nice details on the manner in which they launch and glide. Go read it, even if you don’t like snakes – this is one of the coolest things you’ve ever seen..

Pay close attention to that video clip. In the slow-motion sequences where the snake can be seen undulating in the air, look at the background. Notice the lateral blur – this little bugger isn’t simply controlling its descent, but maintaining a remarkable glide ratio for forward, directed movement. I’m sure you know about flying squirrels and sugar gliders, and perhaps even heard about the Draco genus of flying lizards, and if you’re really into your cool animals you know of the various flying frogs. None of these truly “fly,” in the sense of propelling themselves through the air like birds, bats, or insects, but all of them perform glides in much better ratios (that is, lateral movement compared to descent) than simply controlling their fall for a soft landing. The snake earns props for the coolest of them all simply because it possesses no special body structure to catch the air, but simply works with what it’s got. Many snakes can flatten their bodies for certain purposes, like cobras and hognose snakes, so this is just an extension of this talent.

One thing I wish they’d stop putting in videos like this is unnecessary sound-effects. You’ll notice that the monitor appears to make gulping, hissing noises every time it appears, something that it almost certainly does not engage in routinely, and possibly doesn’t even do at all. The ridiculous habit of having to add “appropriate” sound effects for every animal shown is something that directors need to break themselves of. For instance, having handled hundreds of snakes of all sizes since I was eight, I can tell you I’ve heard a snake hiss only four or five times – you wouldn’t suspect that from the times you’ve heard it on TV and movies, would you? Also note that the descending scream you may associate with eagles, heard every goddamn time one appears on screen (and often when they don’t) is not an eagle’s call at all, but a Red-tailed Hawk’s. Bald Eagles sound like overgrown canaries, not terribly majestic.


This video shows the mechanics of flight a little bit better, especially the launching, and also allows you to see how small these snakes really are – they rival in size the Rough Green Snake found here in North Carolina, a pencil-thin shoelace of a reptile occasionally seen in the header image at top. It’s a shame the translation of the researcher into the native language of the source drowns out the English he’s actually speaking.

One more item to remark on. You’ll note the difference in style between the video Coyne features and the one above. Coyne’s is more dramatic, an apparent slice of the snake’s life, but as I’ve posted about twice before, this video is certainly staged (no fault of Coyne’s, of course.) Operating high in a jungle canopy where both of those species can be found is exceptionally difficult, and having enough cameras in position to capture all angles of the drama would be remarkably fortuitous. Note the director’s popular focus-shift redirection of attention from the threatening monitor in the background to the snake in the foreground – yeah, that’s something that you’ll capture naturally, with good framing and good lighting and an appropriate lens to allow such a shift. Uh huh.

The color of magic

The photo that I couldn't capture in the previous post

Okay, that was a shameless Terry Pratchett reference, but c’mon, I’m working alone, here. Editors are supposed to come up with the headlines…

A very key element of nature photography is doing a lot of shooting in the early morning and early evening, dawn and dusk. These are often called the “golden hours” and extend from roughly 45 minutes before sunrise (first light) to an hour afterward, and an hour before sunset to 45 minutes afterward. There are several reasons why this time is so good, other than the obvious sky colors from sunrise and sunset. In the morning, the air is usually still, the dew is present, and the night animals are occasionally still visible while the day animals are just getting active – if you like songbirds, this is your time. Another factor is the fact that both film and digital cannot capture the range of light levels that our eyes see, and thus images are increased in contrast from the actual view we’re looking at. During the bright midday hours, the contrast is very high to begin with, so it’s very easy for photos to become so contrasty that highlights, such as white snow or people’s foreheads and cheeks, can be “blown out,” overexposed to pure white without any detail, while shadows go in the opposite direction and lose definition in the darkness. You can adjust exposure to compensate for one or the other, but then make the opposite side much worse.

Dawn and dusk, however, have more light scattered from the atmosphere while the direct sunlight is filtered through a greater amount of air, reducing contrast greatly and softening shadows. Even more useful, however, is the color of the light. This is something that I spend time pointing out to new photographers, because it makes a significant difference to photos, but many people don’t consciously realize it. Light has character, properties that say something about the conditions and environment of the photo’s subject. That “golden hour” gets its name from a small play on words – not only does it produce photos worth more than other times, but it actually produces gold (or amber, bronze, or orange) colored photos. The very same colors we see in the sun and the sky color the subjects as well. Photographers refer to these as “warm” colors, and the opposite end of the spectrum, when light goes towards blue, as “cool” or “cold” colors. The latter is understandable – when the sun goes behind clouds, it cuts out much of the red spectrum and the light goes blue-grey, and the air temperature gets colder.


The thing is, we recognize this subconsciously, even if we never seem to notice it in the photo. Most viewers would have no problem considering these two images as taken at sunrise, but if you asked them how they knew, they might not provide a good reason. Our brains often translate the colors into what we expect them to be, so the snow is “white,” and not, in both of these cases, actually a pale yellow-orange. Even more interesting is the fact that the snow in the shaded portion of the above image comes much closer to matching the hue of the sky than the snow in the sunlit portions of the image. When you do photo editing, you start to be come more aware of the actual colors versus than the perceived, something that I imagine good painters utilize as well.

These colors tell us a lot. The warm yellows, oranges, and reds are more inviting to us in nature scenes, at the least telling us the skies are clear even when the sky isn’t visible. Two examples can be found here and here, and my Coastal Gallery gives examples of using the golden hours to make the sky more interesting.

Now, a quick side note. The phrase “color temperature” refers to the color-shift that very hot things go through as they get hotter, and is actually inverted from the way I’ve used it here. You know that molten metal, rock, and glass all glow, right? That color actually indicates a specific temperature, and it’s the same for each – molten metal that’s the exact same shade as molten glass also holds the exact same temperature, and this even applies to the surface of stars. Red and orange things are actually cool, in relation to what they could be, and red dwarf stars are among the coolest to emit light. When things get hotter, they go towards the blue end of the spectrum. We refer to color temperature of light sources in a unit of measurement called “kelvin” (k) and the higher the kelvin, the bluer the light. So photographers also know that 4000k lights are “warm” yellow, while 6500k lights are “cool” blue. Strange but true, and it all comes from our associations with things like warm fires, partially because virtually nothing we burn actually gets blue-white. If it did, we’d tend to be much further from the fires…

Getting back to using light for photography, there’s a couple of other subtle things that come from the golden hours. The first, also visible in most of these examples, is the light coming from a lower angle, sidelighting the subject rather than coming from above, and this can also serve to highlight textures and give a bit more depth and shape to the subject. Studio photographers use this all the time with extra lights to define their subjects’ shapes better, while direct, on-camera flash units do a bad job and flatten the shapes – this is what produces the old saying, “the camera adds ten pounds.” It’s not the camera, it the lack of defining shadows to enhance shape.

The second, very subtle factor, is that the yellow/orange tones contrast nicely with blue skies, making both colors more distinct. In this image, shot towards the sun, the sky has bleached out to white, a standard effect of that viewing angle. The yellows of the snowy branches become very subdued, and you notice the blue of the shadowy snow lower in the photo a lot more. But the photo in the middle of this post was taken only minutes earlier, but facing 180º away. The sky becomes the deepest blue in that direction, and the colors the richest. The sky contrasts nicely with the yellow cast on the snow and it becomes much more vibrant, even though the contrast range (the difference between highlights and shadows) is greater in this image.

So, if you want more compelling nature images, get out early. And be aware that light changes very rapidly in these conditions – the sky colors, most especially, will transition in minutes or even seconds, and the rising or setting sun will track sun patches and shadows across your subject quickly. If the sun isn’t illuminating your subject the way you want, be patient – it might change in the next few minutes (the sun and moon move their own width across the sky in a mere 150 seconds, two and a half minutes – another useful tidbit.) It may be hard getting up early enough, it may be cold, but the impact on your photos is well worth it.

Stay tuned, and I may be back with a blog post (or page link) for making your own chart for rise and set times for both sun and moon. It’s a handy thing to have, especially when you’re at nice scenic locales. It’s also good to have a compass and know how to use it, so you can plot the direction the light will be coming from, or where the moon will appear above the horizon. Good planning leads to great photos.

Not far enough south


While most residents of the northern climes of the States have seen some winter storms already, they tend to run very few here in North Carolina, and often not until January. The Girlfriend and I were paying no attention to the weather reports today and so were taken by surprise when the fairly heavy, wet stuff came in this afternoon, more so by its accumulation. The temperatures had been too high earlier, so it didn’t really stick to the roads, and was mild by the standards of any damyankees (of which I am a transplanted one.) Having spent time in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida, I have to say I prefer Florida – I don’t like cold winters and treacherous driving, and can cope with the heat much better.

I didn’t head out this evening to look for nice scenic areas, since dinner was almost ready and I like seafood chowder, so I did a couple of quick night exposures locally. The image above, not exactly an artistic expression, was lit by the various streetlights in the area, as was the overcast sky. I tried doing some closeups of a snow-covered branch with berries, but there was the tiniest of breezes and the exposure times were too long to prevent blurring (20 to 40 second range.) So we’ll see what snow remains tomorrow in the daylight, and whether I feel like looking for photogenic areas. As a nature photographer, I should have a much better attitude about using the weather conditions, but winter makes me grumpy.

Define, “poisons everything”

I talked a little bit about this subject in an earlier post, but a couple of things I’ve come across recently reminded me that it can stand a bit better detail. Part of this comes from a concern I’ve harbored for a while, one that has no small difficulty in establishing whether it is legitimate or not. Bear with me for a bit while I lay this out.

John Shimkus, a member of the US House of Representatives, is running to head up the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a position in the US Government which would have strong influence in deciding energy policy and enforcing restrictions on energy providers. The trouble is, Shimkus is not only a creationist, he’s not too clear on what his position in government is actually supposed to be, as he quoted biblical verses during a House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing back in March 2009. No big deal? Actually, it is, because what he quoted was intended to support his claim that god wouldn’t destroy the earth so we could safely ignore global warming. You can see the video of it here (note, for giggles, the woman behind him who looks up suddenly when he mentions genesis – I’ll leave it to you to decide just what her reaction actually expressed.)

Now, Shimkus is a fucking loon, so this may simply be par for the course. But he does actually hold office, and had to be elected to get there. So this means a significant number of people actually felt he was not only capable of crossing the street without holding someone’s hand, but competent enough to vote on policy decisions and represent his state. Further, of course, is the whole crazy idea that people in government actually recognize their role in governing, which has jack shit to do with religion in any way, shape, or form. And then, of course, there’s this inconsequential little thing where he was in a hearing on scientific matters with a whole hell of a lot of potential impact, where quoting biblical verses has about as much relevance as imitating Captain Jack Sparrow. The bible, and in fact one of the very books he quoted, also imparts the exceptionally useful information that light came before the sun and all animals were initially vegetarians. You can of course find other tidbits of scientific importance within, such as creating striped lambs by having sheep fuck where they can see striped poles, the sin of wearing clothing of two different materials, and of course the proscriptions against having anything to do with women during their “unclean” periods. It also advises the proper way to beat your child.

Does Shimkus actually believe this bilgewater? Perhaps, perhaps not – it could simply be shameless pandering to the religious voters. But if this is the case, he clearly feels such a thing is influential enough to bring up during a hearing on environmental impact, wasting time that could be better spent, I dunno, dealing with environmental impact? So he would actually dick around during a House hearing to suck up to religious nitwits who must be more impressed with his piety than his scientific awareness? Either way, it’s not exactly an encouraging sign.

Lest you think I’m simply attacking religion, let me point out something. During a House hearing, he should quite simply have been censured for interrupting the discussion with tripe. Had this occurred, though, no small number of people would have been up in arms about religious freedom, attacking religion, and various sorts of martyr bullshit, none of which actually applies to this situation. Shimkus can follow any damn religion he wants, and can even drive any damn car he wants. But he has a job to do, and moreover, the hearing had a specific topic, so staying on that job and topic should be a bare minimum requirement of holding office. Does this seem unreasonable? Apparently, it very often is when the subject of religion comes up – you’re not allowed to quell any religious ejaculations, regardless of their relevance to the matter at hand, oh no!

Even that is not the issue I’m addressing here, though. The issue is, how much is this kind of shit affecting our future? Global Warming is a serious concern, one that can have overwhelming impact to all cultures, societies, and countries across the planet. It’s not a political issue, it’s not a religious issue – go back and read those again, just to get the point. Science, once again, is simply a methodical process of learning, and not another facet of influence or debate. It is a way to find out what the world (indeed, universe) actually holds, not what we’d like to believe. Gravity works whether we believe in it or not, the earth revolves around the sun regardless of whether you actually know this or not. Science does not dictate, it explains. It even predicts, and has been doing so since it was even recognized as a process. That’s why we fucking use it, and why it accomplishes so much. And why it works in every culture in the world, and exactly the same for each. Thermodynamics has precisely the same function in Iran as it does in the US; the greenhouse effect works the same in every society, completely impartial as to whether you are a christian, jew, muslim, pastafarian, or atheist. Funny that.

Too many people simply cannot accept this, though, and think science is out to get their religion, and take away their security blanket. I’ve pointed this out before, but it should make you wonder how mere scientists can wield the power to destroy god, shouldn’t it? Even so, let’s look at this from the overall perspective of what the world is, or more specifically, what people think it is. If someone honestly believes they were created in god’s image on a planet made just for them, obviously they’re not accepting the findings of science very well. So does this also mean they won’t even consider the idea that we can damage the planet to a point that it will harm us drastically? Seems likely, doesn’t it? Is Shimkus’ idiotic interruption of a House hearing a symptom of a grave danger to us as a species?

To be even more blunt, can we, as a species, actually destroy ourselves because we’re too vain and insecure to let go of a cherished yet nonsensical belief system? Is this really the way we want anyone to die, as a victim of inactivity because we prefer to believe in something counter to experience? Does it sound pathetic when phrased that way? I certainly hope so.

Consider the demons that torment us with headaches. Consider the retribution that so many have suffered because they sinned, and god smote them with disease or burned their land in the fire. What? You don’t believe demons cause headaches, or that fire and disease are caused by sin? No fucking shit. It wasn’t religion that led us here, was it? No, religion led us to believe the stuff about demons and sin, but scientific understanding brought us away from such superstitious horseshit. Every time we wash our hands, we deny what we once fervently believed. When we visit the doctor, we blithely disregard what scripture tells us about illness. We abolished slavery and granted women equal rights (at least in this country,) because science made it clear that discrimination was baseless. You see, overwhelming evidence does occasionally triumph over ancient stories – and nobody seems to have a problem with these, do they? But we still don’t have our striped sheep.

We are still fighting to understand, combat, and eradicate cancer. Once we thought it was the wages of sin, until we noticed that it seemed to strike rather randomly and impartial to anyone’s behavior (hint: that’s scientific observation.) Then we played around with the idea that it was caused by poisons, bacteria, diet, and many, many other things, eventually determining that it was our own cells acting in abnormal ways. As organisms, cancer cells have two distinct disadvantages: they cannot spread beyond the host, and as the host dies, so do they. Even when multiplying rapidly, they kill themselves. We know this occurs, we see it all the time, and we no longer question that it can actually exist.

The question is, are we as a species doing exactly the same thing?

That’s not supposed to be there

So, a few months back I posted an image of the night sky (duplicated at left) that featured a portion of the constellation Scorpius, and made a remark about two sets of twin stars in the image. I’m only an astronomy buff, and never really bothered memorizing the constellations because I consider them nonsense – the things that they are supposed to represent are ridiculous stretches of the imagination, and I have never made any connection to the figures. Anyway, this is only the excuse for something that I remarked on and failed to notice, which was that Scorpius had an extra star. By the way, Scorpius is the constellation, Scorpio is the astrology sign and Simpson’s character.

Scorpius can be seen at lower right, a string of bright stars curling around in a U-shape just above the horizon haze. The twin stars at the stinger end, upper left of the U, are correct, but the twin stars opposite, the brightest stars in the lower right corner of the image, are not. The uppermost star in that spot doesn’t belong. Well, okay, it does, but in a funny way. It normally isn’t that bright.

Lemme ‘splain. The twin stars at the stinger end are λ (lambda) and υ (upsilon) Scorpii, also known as Shaula and Lesath respectively, and they belong there (don’t get the impression I spit these out casually – I had to look it all up.) Then, there’s two sets of twin stars in Scorpius that only appear as one star to the naked eye and in photos like this. One twin is ζ (zeta) Scorpii 1 and 2, the lower right brightest star. Then there’s the bright star straight above it a short ways, exactly to the right of the stinger stars and forming the base of the tail, and that’s μ (mu) Scorpii 1 and 2. In the image below, which is a full resolution section of the full frame image at top, you can actually see the evidence of these twin stars, with a slight elongation to them because the exposure time is 24 seconds and the earth was turning. I apologize for the cruddy quality, but I was using a high ISO to capture this with as minimal movement as possible, and that means the image quality goes to shit.

The red pointer bars indicate the sneaky little interloper, the extra star that doesn’t belong. The exposure was too long for this to be an airplane or meteor, and it appears in several exposures. In that location, however, is a trio of stars, and the middle one is known as HP 82691, normally a rather dim star that would remain very low key among the brighter constellation stars. But HP 82691 is a Variable, a star that is not fixed in brightness. What I now believe I captured was HP 82691 at a much higher magnitude than average, enough to almost rival the bright pair ζ Scorpii 1 and 2.

How much does HP 82691 vary? I have no idea. Finding information on this star has been difficult, and the best I’ve come up with is “at least 0.2 magnitude” variation – from what I can estimate here, it seems much more than that over the base magnitude of 6.26, perhaps one or two magnitudes brighter. So any astronomers out there who want to chime in with some hard information, including the fact that I’m totally mistaken, feel free. I just stumbled across this anomaly while trying to find some other info about what I captured that night.

As a bit of trivia, there’s a type of variable star called a Cepheid, which has a specific relation between its period of variability and its intrinsic brightness – that is, how bright it actually is, versus how bright it appears to us here on Earth, however far away we happen to be. Henrietta Leavitt pinned down this relation in 1908 (yes, a female astronomer with a major contribution over a hundred years ago,) later refined by Ejnar Hertzsprung. Edwin Hubble, the telescope’s namesake, used this relationship to recognize that a Cepheid star in M31, now otherwise known as the Andromeda Galaxy, was a whole lot further away than previously believed, since he knew how bright it should have been, but didn’t appear to be because of the distance. This little discovery changed the concept of the size of the entire universe from just a bit bigger than our galaxy to, well, unbelievably huge. Our galaxy is simply one of millions.

While we’re at it, clicking on the image at top (or right here) will bring up a much larger version. Almost centered in the frame is the center of our galaxy, pretty much immediately to the right of the big blob of bright Milky Way (I was off a bit in the previous post.) Sitting a bit to the left and above the tail of Scorpius is open star cluster M7, and well above that and just a wee bit to the left, flanking the galactic center, sits a vague brighter blob known as M8, or the Lagoon Nebula. That I captured both of these in this relatively brief exposure is testimony to the clarity of the night, but if you want a better overall view, leave it to the experts. One of these days I’ll get serious about a tracking motor setup and get some better starfield photos on my own, though. A tracking motor turns the camera (or telescope) in the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation, allowing the stars to remain fixed within the frame and thus bringing up more faint details without streaking. Seems simple, but the tracker has to be precisely aligned with the celestial north pole, which isn’t quite Polaris, the north star. I have a decent telescope complete with tracking motor, an eight-inch reflector, but it needs collimating and it’s a bear to haul around and set up. The area I live in has too many trees and is a bit light-polluted, which can be seen in the images, so my astronomy pursuits are haphazard at best.

Image details: Canon 300D (Rebel) with Sigma 24-135 lens at 24mm. 24 second exposure at f2.8, ISO 800. July 3, 2010 at 23:40 EDT. The original image has been color-tweaked and contrast-boosted for web use.