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.

Weapons for peace

While reading The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan (I told you more posts were coming,) one of the distinct impressions that the reader cannot help but receive is that Carl Sagan thought nuclear weapons were/are one of the most irresponsible creations of science – and this comes from a man whose main message is promoting science. He makes several points about who has the responsibility for weapons of massive effect, and while not presenting a conclusion, it seems clear that he feels scientists have to be aware of what they bring forth.

This is a debate in and of itself, one that rages on. Technology alone is neutral – without someone to wield it, it means nothing. But does anyone who creates the process, or applies it to weaponry, bear the responsibility of how it is used? Should the various scientists of the Manhattan Project, constructing the first atomic bomb, have rebelled against their orders in the face of the great damage that could only be done with nuclear weapons? Or does the responsibility for their use lie with those directly charged with the weapons’ deployment and activation, the military? Putting it another way, does the scientist bear the weight of predicting how human nature will handle the power and potential detriments?

I’m not posting, however, to talk about that – I tend to avoid debates where personal opinion is the only factor that can be presented. Instead, I’m going to raise a question, one I admit that I don’t have an answer to, in order to provoke some examination. And the question is this: Did nuclear weapons provide, and in fact directly cause, a period of peace in the latter half of the twentieth century?

First off, I am well aware that it was hardly “peaceful” then – the US alone engaged in a ridiculous number of military actions. Ostensibly, many of these were for “humanitarian” reasons, and doubtlessly, some certainly were. Others, viewed through sources other than Wikipedia that do not feel obligated to define “neutral” as “unoffensive to Americans,” see a large number of these actions differently. And this says nothing of all of the other countries busy duking it out in that time period. However, we were in a situation with two massive superpowers vying for greater control of Europe. I’m sure many people will protest, “But the US wasn’t trying to control Europe!” Unfortunately, the idea of American imperialism is still a hot topic, which certainly raises some honest questions for a country that finds itself so innocent and upstanding. The US has military bases in 63 countries. How many military bases for any other country can be found on the US continent?

“But we were there holding back the Soviet Union!” Yes, I’m sure. And the Soviet Union was there holding us back, if you were to ask them. Bear in mind, much of the info our leaders provided us about falling behind the Soviets (i.e., the Missile Gap) we now know was utter bilgewater – we were virtually never behind the Soviets in weapons, and usually well ahead. So who’s right? Either way, what you’re looking at is the idea that expansion was a serious consideration between the US and USSR after WWII. And both held thermonuclear weapons ready at hand. Thousands of them.

Curiously, no strategic nuclear weapons have ever been used since the two dropped on Japan at the end of WWII, and the evidence for even tactical (smaller, battlefield-intended) nukes is haphazard at best, not standing up well to critical scrutiny. There were a few tense moments, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis – ones that many people believe were a mere sneeze away from mutually assured destruction. The general public viewpoint has always been that the two militaries waved these weapons around wildly like a psychotic holding hostages, and there was certainly plenty of saber-rattling from politicians – some of it more for the sake of their own countries than someone else’s (see Ronald Reagan, Armchair Warrior.)

But, to go back to the most prominent example of close calls, what happened when missile bases were discovered being built in Cuba? Did the US immediately, and effortlessly, hit those bases before completion with an airstrike? No, we immediately fired off a series of exchanges with Khrushchev et al in the USSR to hash things out, diplomatically. And reached an agreement: no Soviet missile bases in Cuba, no American missile bases in Turkey – something that was largely unknown to the public for years. It was these US missile bases on their doorstep (also convenient to the Middle East) that the USSR was retaliating against in the first place. No ultimatums, no combat. Lots of bluffing, but the progress was made peacefully. Contrast that with the US behavior towards Iraq. Lots of negotiation there, right? Or did the US react forcefully because the threat was so much bigger? No, the US took off on a valiant pre-emptive strike against a country that, it turns out, was well known not to pose a threat. Funny that.

It may be a case of, when the weapons become big enough, the idea of using them balks even the frothiest of power-hungry politicians and warmongers. Especially when the war economy stands to receive little benefit from it (I hold no illusions that human life plays any part in such considerations.) Even the use of small tactical nuclear weapons is considered to be enough provocation to escalate a conflict. The Soviet Union failed to expand further, and faltered under its own economic shortfalls. And the US remained confined to the Western Hemisphere for the most part, with little playing about in the Middle East. While it may seem that WWII provided a lesson about global warfare, the various military actions that have taken place since then don’t really support that idea.

We have enough difficulty with history as it is. The underlying factors and motives behind certain actions of world leaders, the true sequence of events that were unrecorded, determining the authenticity of multiple conflicting accounts… history is, as often as not, the story arrived at only through general consensus. It’s even worse for future speculations, such as what might have happened if an assassination attempt had succeeded (or not.) So it’s little more than wild guessing how things might have turned out had nuclear weapons not been invented. There remains a distinct possibility, however, that another massive conflict may have taken place in Europe, or perhaps the Middle East, because the reasoning behind it would have been balancing the cost of lives and materials from a conventional conflict against the potential gains. One side can generally win a land or sea battle – this is almost certainly not the case with a nuclear exchange.

I feel very confident saying that nuclear weapons were inevitable. Once the binding energy of atoms was understood, the method of releasing it could not be far behind. Much fuss is made about the stockpiling of weapons, which does indeed pose a risk – but not half as much as the idea that only one nation on the planet might have nuclear capability. While we might like to believe that it is the ethical consideration of the victims that prevents the use of such firepower, it is far more likely to be the consequences of retaliation – witness the number of people who immediately bring up the option of nuclear strikes when smaller countries like North Korea appear less than cooperative. It may be that these weapons remain quiescent only as long as they remain balanced among potential opponents. It is little wonder that many nations quickly chose to align themselves along either NATO or Eastern Bloc lines, to gain the protection inherent within.

My goal here isn’t to condone or even excuse nuclear weapons, only to examine them with the knowledge of how nations act. Having grown up in the cold war, and watched at least one president who seemed prepared to welcome Armageddon, I’m quite familiar with the anxiety over their potential. But what we perceived at the time, and what was really happening, might be two entirely different things.

As a final note, “nuclear” is pronounced “new-KLEER” and has only two goddamn syllables. Look at the fucking letters.

More than meets the eye

When I took a quick look outside tonight thinking I was hearing rain (it was actually the bubbles in my Pepsi can, but that’s another post,) the moon was peeking through a thin layer of high cirrus clouds and producing an effect much like the above image. However, the shots I took just now don’t look like the image above, because that one was taken under rather specific conditions.

Before I get to that, let me point out that the nice, ominous stormy colors seen in that shot are actually a moon corona, seen incompletely. Ice crystals high in the atmosphere diffract moonlight in a manner similar to a rainbow in sunlight, but with some important differences. A rainbow only occurs directly opposite the sun (some say your shadow points to the rainbow,) because the sunlight passes into the raindrops, bounces off of the back, and reflects back to you, skewed by the angle it enters and exits the raindrop at, which is what breaks up the white light into its component colors. It is often said that the sun has to be lower than 42º in the sky to make a rainbow, but that’s not exactly true – it applies to standing on a planet that blocks visibility below 5-10º. You can, however, easily see a rainbow at noon while flying in an airplane if there are clouds beneath you, making a nice ring around the plane’s shadow, and some hikers and mountain climbers can see this when they’re just above the clouds. I once had the memorable experience, too brief for me to capture on film, of exiting a high cloudbank in a jetliner and seeing a sideways rainbow projecting from the cliff-face of clouds from which we’d just emerged.

Sundogs, moondogs, and moon coronas are a little different in that they’re deflecting off of the sides of the ice crystals as they pass through, rather than bouncing off of the back. So they surround the light source instead of being opposite it. You’ll notice that there’s an indistinct ring of the colors around the moon in the image; the orange is outside the blue, and both are muted by the low light levels. Because they’re interrupted by cloud densities the effect is much richer, appearing to be the colors of the clouds rather than a simple diffractive ring.

Now here’s why I didn’t capture the same effect tonight. The moon reflects a lot of light, more than most people think, and it overwhelms everything else in the sky for photography. Getting something surrounding the moon during a full nighttime shot is next to impossible – even something as seemingly bright as a moon corona. Film and digital simply don’t capture the range of light like our eyes do. So, you resort to tricks, like getting the shot before full darkness when the ambient afterglow light in the sky can illuminate the surroundings. Or in this case, by choosing the timing carefully to have the moon largely obscured by denser clouds. While it might appear that the moon is in a bare patch of sky, it is actually hiding behind a finger of cloud stretching diagonally from upper left to lower right – that’s what the dark patch is. The moon still shone through, but greatly reduced in luminance while the corona was less obscured. You’re actually seeing two layers of clouds here: the upper layer produces the corona, and the lower layer of fast-moving fluffier clouds are producing the shapes and misty appearance. Tonight, I didn’t have these thunderstorm remnants decorating the sky, so I had a choice: get a detailed moon at proper exposure with no corona visible, or get the corona but blow the moon way overexposed and without detail. Getting both was out of the question unless I wanted to composite two separate images, and I consider that cheating and rarely engage in such stuff.

So, if you’re wondering why your shots don’t always look like the ones you see in magazines, it might be because there are more factors at work than you realize. Balancing light levels within photographs can be very tricky, and from having experimented with some studio and “product” photography, I can tell you it takes no small amount of work to achieve the nice subtle effects – even the photo of the softbox rig at the bottom of this post took two lights to get the detail I wanted, and it’s not ideal – there’s only so much effort I’ll go into just to illustrate a blog post ;-)

At right, another image showing the moon corona more distinctly, but losing all detail from the moon – you’ll notice the streaks of the clouds as they blew across the sky during the long exposure. Both of these images, by the way, were taken the same night as the one from this post on composition. I hadn’t planned on doing night photography that evening, and in fact had a movie lined up to watch, but you learn very quickly when you’re pursuing nature photography that when the conditions are right, take advantage of them, because they may not return again soon. That impulsive change of plans when I saw how the sky was behaving added a few dozen varied images to my stock, ones I may not have had the chance at again for, perhaps, years. Don’t procrastinate!

Book Review: Last Chance to See

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwadine is a curious book format. Adams, best known for his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, writes with a distinctively quirky style, outside the box and off the wall, and he is supremely capable of taking the reader completely off guard with a simple concept. This applies well to comedy science fiction, but to the topic of environmental activism, with which this book is involved?

Yes, indeed. Having been approached by Observer Colour Magazine to be one of the celebrity hooks in a feature about the endangered aye-aye, he became wrapped up in the topic and initiated an extensive world tour to view the plight of several high-risk endangered species. He openly admits he lacks the background of a biologist or naturalist, which is where zoologist Mark Carwadine comes in. Carwadine serves as the educated foil to Adams’ humble and sometimes naïve view of the species they examine, which is what makes this book so approachable. Rather than being preachy, it comes off as introspective and identifiable, with brief conversations between Adams and Carwadine serving to succinctly relate the issues that such species face. The book is accessible to everyone, provided they can deal with the occasional obscenity that helps define the various personalities encountered. But if you have a problem with “fuck,” you’ve probably already left this blog.

Unlike most collaborative efforts, the book is written almost entirely from Adams’ perspective, the exception being a brief Afterword by Carwadine. You usually don’t find books with two authors written in first-person narrative, especially with the other author appearing as a second-person character within. The byline almost certainly came about because Carwadine not only arranged the trips, he provides most of the scientific, biological, and behavioral content, and Adams simply chronicles the experiences with the addition of his own perspective.

It’s not just about the species, as Adams relates his difficulties with foreign travel and the myriad inexplicable hazards therein. The notorious British Dry Wit (TM) is in prominent display as he describes Madagascar’s independence from the French, or the Tanzanian snack bar situation. Even as he comes face-to-face with some of the species featured, he provides some seriously thought-provoking passages as he examines his own role in the whole affair. Other people’s accounts of interactions with animals, most especially exotic species, are often loaded with the concept of spirituality or emotional communication as the authors struggle to define their feelings of awe and wonder, and one is often given the impression that there must be more to interspecies encounters than we recognize. Adams, however, makes it clear throughout that these feelings are almost certainly our own, and that we have no idea what some other species may be thinking. The need to “relate” is simply a desire within ourselves, and understanding is impossible. On his encounter with a mountain gorilla:

They look like humans, they move like humans, they hold things in their fingers like humans, the expressions which play across their faces and in their intensely human-looking eyes are expressions that we instinctively feel we recognize as human expressions. We look them in the face and we think, “We know what they’re like,” but we don’t. Or rather, we actually block off any possible glimmering of understanding of what they may be like by making easy and tempting assumptions.

After the number of times I have come across the mistaken idea of species communication, I found this refreshing and commendable.

Instead, we relate to Adams himself, as he ponders the actions of mudskippers during a casual encounter, or the tourism surrounding Komodo dragons. Rather than placing blame, he provides in its place the concept that we, with our vaunted superior intellect, should be stewards within the ecosystem. And he brings a much-needed perspective to the reader by showing that those who are at the front of endangered species programs are special people, working ridiculously hard in a pursuit that is poorly funded and only vaguely supported. One of the exceptions to this, the Chinese national program to save the Yangtze River dolphin, is shown to be exceptionally progressive, making it both ironic and heartbreaking that this species is the only one featured that appears to have vanished now, becoming extinct in the years since this book was written.

Adams also displays remarkable descriptive powers, able to invoke the desire to visit these places (or, sometimes, avoid them) with decidedly un-clichéd passages, such as describing the fjords of New Zealand as a land that makes one want to burst into spontaneous applause. Without even knowing what kind of landscape he’s referring to, this would be an engaging description, a talent I’ve personally found matched only by Gerald Durrell. This book is a travelogue of distinctive locales and people, with almost a sideline message regarding endangered species, and remains memorable throughout. To be fair, Adams does portray the various people he meets in light of their idiosyncrasies, which gives the impression that everyone he encounters is eccentric. While an entirely different impression might be garnered from another author meeting the same people, it does make for entertaining reading. It’s hard to say if this is intentional, or simply a facet of Adams’ approach towards the people he meets, defining them in light of their differences, not similarities. One of the things it provides to the reader, however, is the difference in perspective that everyone carries. As an example, while on the island of Komodo, the dangers posed by three-meter man-eating lizards and the largest density of venomous snakes found anywhere in the world has the entire party on edge except for Carwadine, the zoologist, who is clearly enjoying himself. I’ll also add my own perspective, from having worked in animal-related fields for several years: animal people are indeed, on average, more eccentric than normal.

Once, when asked what my dream job would be, I suddenly realized it would be to do exactly what Adams has done: travel the world and examine various species in detail, and bring it home in a way that makes the reader not only present in spirit, but feel what the author does. It is well known in zoological circles that the more visually appealing species get greater attention, regardless of their scarcity or ecosystem importance – pandas are a great example. Adams and Carwadine, however, make the reader aware of this aspect, and highlight the various factors that can result in a species vanishing. In the US, we are probably most familiar with the idea of species being hunted to extinction, but for many, it’s the fragility of the ecosystem that presents the greatest danger. Animals that have evolved in specialized environments are the most vulnerable to changes within the system, and isolated systems are especially delicate. Komodo dragons, while actually maintaining a stable population count, live in a very tiny and specific section of the world, one which can be changed almost effortlessly, even by the accidental introduction of another species.

Another message becomes clear, too: While greater public awareness is necessary to gain support for such efforts, it comes with its own price. Eco-tourism, and just the desire to personally encounter such rare species, can put them into a situation where they are severely affected by the attention. What this means is, in the process of trying to protect them, we may be doing them greater harm. This is the sobering realization regarding my own desires to write a similar book – is it driven more by selfish need, the drive to personally experience a “contact” that I disparaged above? Are well-written accounts like Adams’ and Carwadine’s enough to get us active in support programs, or do they instead provoke more instances of, “I was there,” that add up to damaging environmental impact within places like Mauritius, Komodo, Zaïre, and the Galapagos? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but the question itself provides a secondary, much subtler message: Enjoy the books, nature programs, and feature articles regarding the species, and help keep observation at a safe distance. Our sacrifice, in avoiding the personal encounters, is their gain.

It is unfortunate (at the least from a nature photographer’s perspective, which might be a teensy bit biased) that the one thing lacking in this book is a set of images that evoke the same feelings and mood as the prose does. Adams actually addresses this, explaining that the opportunity to bring along a professional photographer had disappeared, so the color photos in the book are Adams’ and Carwadine’s. Nevertheless, they still provide enough to punctuate the travels and encounters – and quite frankly, images that could do justice to Adams’ distinctive style are a tall order. For those wanting more information about such efforts and species, however, the book was the starting point for many video programs by Mark Carwadine and the BBC, some of which can be found in the book title link above. Adams, unfortunately, passed away in 2001 before he could participate in such expansions of this work.

Even if animals are not your thing [GET OFF MY BLOG!], this book is one of the better approaches to conservation efforts. The message remains much subtler, subsumed in the travel-journal styling, and the accusatory tone practically nonexistent; Adams writes as a person sharing the traits of the human race, and avoids polarizing the issues. And if you’re a fan of his other work, you’ll easily see that he leaves nothing behind when switching into autobiographical mode – indeed, he adds something, a self-deprecating, thoughtful aspect only peripherally available in his fiction. Whether your bookshelf includes quirky styles, travelogues, autobiographies, or animal-related themes, this is a good addition. It’s a book to share, so have more than one copy. It’s worth it just for the story of trying to find a condom in Shanghai.

Habitat and habitant

Whenever I speak to people about wildlife “encroachment” issues, such as beavers damaging expensive ornamental trees or copperheads found in their yards, I always remind them of one crucial factor: if there’s a habitat, it will draw the animals. Case in point: this little butterfly.

The weather’s been getting colder here in North Carolina, and often falls just to the point of frost at night now. The trees are dropping their leaves, and no one has to mow their lawn anymore. But there’s still a couple of hardy plant species that are flowering right now, and this means something is around to pollinate it, in this case either a Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) or a White Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus albescens,) probably female. I would have thought such species would have winged further south some time back, but this warm afternoon proved me wrong. There were only two small spindly plants putting out flowers about the size of your fingertip, yet they still received attention from this nectar gatherer. Without it, the plant might never have germinated this year.

Humans like to try and make the distinction that we are separate from other animal species, and most especially, that other animals should recognize this. So there are often concerns about what wildlife is doing in our yards, as if they recognize property boundaries – it’s what we call “anthropocentric thinking.” But wildlife, and even domestic animals, go where they want, finding food and shelter as the opportunity strikes, because the concept of “possession” is strictly our own. What we might consider a carefully arranged landscaping job or vegetable garden might simply be an opportunity for lots of tasty food or great nesting materials to them. And why not? We certainly don’t hesitate to cut down their home trees, plow up their food sources, and put parking lots in their hunting grounds. The way I see it, a few carrots in trade means we’re getting off cheap.

Some species seem to adapt very well to our progress. Chimney Swifts gained their name from using chimneys as nest sites, instead of their usual hollow trees, and many species like the crawlspaces under houses to live within, often unsuspected since we’re not too active at night while they are. The convenience to some quality food is hampered only by the cans we tend to put it in. Redtailed Hawks frequently take advantage of our roadsides, replete with handy perches and well-mown verges, tailor-made for a heavy hawk species on the lookout for foraging rodents. And the rodents are pleased to find unique food items like french fries there. This interaction, though, also leads to a large number of raptors being struck by cars, lest one get the impression that roadside trash is beneficial.

Over the summer, the single potted salvia I maintained as a hummingbird attraction played home to a couple of Common Grey Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor,) which seemed quite pleased with the water reservoir in the pot, and the fact that my lights at night attracted plenty of food. I shot no small number of photos of them and watched for their appearance daily, but at the first signs of colder weather they moved on. I’m hoping that they return in the spring, and am considering plans for a proper frog pond and bird bathing area.

It takes almost no effort at all to see some interesting things, since wildlife will find a niche and occupy it, so even the heart of the cities can provide opportunities to spot animals and their homes. This is a great thing for kids to get involved in, but they need some encouragement and guidance from their parents. Many parents don’t tackle this because they don’t have the answers to all the questions kids have, but this isn’t a good reason at all. First off, it’s physically and mathematically impossible to have the answers to all questions kids have. More to the point, however, is that this is a great opportunity to show them how to learn on their own. The internet contains loads of useful information, and a few choice books are always good additions to your library. Parents themselves often get a kick out of what is discovered as they help answer their children’s questions, and this counts as that “quality time” that everyone is on about, much better than soccer practice does.

If you’re a parent this holiday season, consider replacing one of the video games or electronic devices on your child’s gift list with something that encourages exploration: books, bug examination boxes, a simple microscope or telescope, an exploration journal, or something of that nature. Include with this your own plans to use them together. Kids already have the drive to learn about such things, so take advantage of it. Just remember, with this experience, to emphasize the “look but let them be” aspect, and discourage the idea of wild animals as pets. They really don’t make decent pets at all, and it’s frequently detrimental to the animals themselves.

Have fun!

We appreciate the help

There’s a rather interesting effect I’ve been noticing for a while now, and I like it. The popularity of blogs and discussion forums online has taken over where the print articles, editorials, and occasional letter to the editor used to reign. Opinion has now become a much easier thing to express, and a more common thing to encounter.

I can see your eyes widen with incredulity from here – not at the idea that people can express opinions where they couldn’t before, but that I would actually like this. You’re thinking of YouTube, Facebook, and the comments on So I’ll clarify and say that I’m talking about opinions, not offhand comments, and in forums where discussions actually take place, rather than sniping. I’m talking about mostly blogs, but also the increasing number of online periodicals that are allowing comments. Yes, many of these get their share of insipid, anonymous graffiti (and there’s more than enough to share,) but they also get their share of reasoned, careful posts and rebuttals, and these are something new in the dissemination of information.

What many people never realized, never knew about, was that there’s an undercurrent of misinformation that’s been present for a long time, spread with the intention of maintaining support for a viewpoint. Mostly, this is religious, but there’s other areas that see such tactics, like alternative medicine, alien visitation, and politics. I’ll concentrate on religion for the most part, just recognize that this applies to other topics as well.

Churches and (especially) religious youth groups have been spreading a lot of intentional misinformation for decades now, and actually have coordinated, specific programs, scripts, pamphlets, books, and even children’s videos dedicated to the pursuit. Don’t believe me? Check out the Index to Creationist Claims, a website that addresses the most prevalent cases, or simply Google “Chick Tracts” – seriously, if you’ve never heard of those, look them up, because they’re very popular.

You may want to argue that it isn’t intentional, or perhaps isn’t coordinated. I’ll tell you to look at it closer. Virtually all of these little bits of information have been countered long ago, usually long before you were born, and yet still get used by churches. These are things like, “man descending from monkeys,” “just a theory,” “the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” “how can so many people be wrong,” and “Hitler/Stalin was an atheist.” I’m present on enough discussion groups to see the trends, and know that there’s actually popular approaches at given times – the wielding of the term “scientism” went through a phase last year, punctuating a more common rant against “materialism” – this is the idea that it’s a scientific approach, mind you, and not the psychological concept of gratuitous possessions. I’ve talked about this concept before.

What the discussion forums bring to the table now is the ability to address all of these, usually in detail, and occasionally with the contempt they deserve. The church youth who have been fed these during their adolescent years in a sheltered, controlled environment suddenly come across the distinct reasons why they fail. They’re introduced, sometimes harshly, to the nature of what science really is, and what it has investigated; to what evolution is and how it works; and to logical fallacies that they never realized existed.

Moreover, it happens publicly. Many people who see these arguments don’t bother addressing them, because they feel that “you’ll never convince the devout.” While this is a frightening thought in and of itself – are there that many religious fanatics out there? (yes) – there’s another point which they don’t consider, which is that there’s a certain number of people reading along as well. Let’s face it, you’ll rarely come across a discussion or argument where one party goes, “Wow, you’re right, and I was wrong” – it just doesn’t work that way. The best you can hope for is to plant the doubt and let it grow on its own. But while you’re doing this in a forum, lots of other people who may not be quite as fanatical but have heard the same misinformation are following along.

It’s fairly well known now that church membership, for most denominations, is dropping, while “unassociated” and “atheist/agnostic” populations are rising. And the churches see this too, and have redoubled their efforts to combat this, on occasion rather vehemently – the current pope compared atheists to Nazis, something he apparently felt qualified to speak on from his time in the Hitler Youth. What they’re not realizing, and I get quite a kick out of, is how much they’re throwing their bullshit into stark relief. In mere minutes, gross misinformation is called out, highlighted for what it is, and trashed resoundingly – very publicly. The more such attempts are made, the more the churches are shown to be manipulative, deceitful, and dishonest. Those youth told in their church groups and in handy dandy little pamphlets how physics has so much wrong, or how ancient geology can be explained by the great flood, bring such topics up triumphantly and find out that none of these points is even vaguely supportable. Many of these people, perhaps the sharper thinkers, realize that the church led them astray, fed them lies, and (let’s be blunt about it) tried to brainwash them.

For my part, I love this help! While the pope undoubtedly thought he was shoring up the crumbling walls of catholicism with his atheist/Nazi remarks, what he really accomplished was making even fundamentalists aware of how badly he was grasping. Just mentioning “Nazis” in the same discussion as “catholics” opens that rather nasty door to just how complicit the pope was to Hitler’s programs, and just how religious Hitler actually was. Suddenly, there’s the opportunity to remind people of the anti-semitic background of Europe at the time, and the bare and simple fact that Hitler did not work alone, but with the complicity of millions of catholic and protestant Germans.

So, as someone who espouses critical thinking and careful examination, let me extend my thanks, and my welcome to those arguments! By all means, bring up Darwin’s repenting on his deathbed, and how micro-evolution might be real but macro-evolution isn’t. Stump us all with the avowal that everything must have started somewhere, and how Einstein and Newton believed in god. Come in proudly with that special information your priest or church vouchsafed to you, and be confident, triumphant, and even condescending if you like. It makes for much better reading when you find out the truth.


That’s really all I can say right now. Just, “Ummmmm…”

It’s too late to suggest this, but this script better have some great catchphrases, regardless of how good the movie actually is. Otherwise it’s a completely wasted opportunity.

Odd memories, part four

Every once in a while, some random event in my life makes me remember an encounter from, wow, over 20 years ago now. It sits indelibly in my mind as do those things that must certainly be of some radical importance, and it only remains upon me to gain the understanding of what this importance must be.

A friend, whom I shall simply call, “Wendy,” since that is coincidentally her name, and I were attempting to visit a discount outlet in Syracuse. I had never been, and Wendy was fairly sure she could remember how to get there. I will totally ruin the literary foreshadowing by keeping this story very far out of the realm of literature, and besides that simply by saying we got lost as you expected, but don’t feel too clever with yourself since no one tells a story about traveling straight to their destination without incident.

After eventually determining this without much doubt (the lost bit, I mean,) we decided to go ahead and ask directions. Since we were in a quiet and semi-residential section of the city, it took a couple of minutes before we finally located someone within easy calling distance on the sidewalk, so Wendy rolled down the window and hailed him.

He was an elderly man, dressed in rumpled clothes and bearing an umbrella, who I might possibly describe as “African-American” except that I have no idea whether either of these terms is accurate, so I will settle for “black” instead. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I had developed an affinity for the older black gentlemen and their distinctive manner of speech and storytelling, something I won’t try to emulate here because I simply cannot do it justice. Suffice to say that it doesn’t matter what the story might be, the value is all in the delivery. He stopped when called, stooped slightly, and when challenged by Wendy to provide us with direction to Ra-Lin’s, he pondered for a moment, peering off down the street ahead of us as if recalling the ancient legends.

“Head straight on up this road,” he began, emphasizing the directions with dramatic movements of his hands as if he was willing his golf ball towards the cup, “and turn left at the light. Stay straight, through maybe three, four stop signs, straight, straight, straight,” chopping the air to keep us from veering to either side, “and go under the bridge,” with a swoop that indicated we might actually have to burrow. “Head on up to the light, and then just… follow t’ crou’!”

Now, this isn’t an attempt at his dialect, because if I were doing that the entire passage above would be written very differently. Instead, this is my rendering of the words he appeared to use. Neither of us was sure if he was actually saying, “Follow the crowd,” or not, and asking him produced only the assurance that we had heard him correctly. Wendy thanked him, and I started to put the car in gear.

“Wait!” he bade us, suddenly reconsidering. “You go up this road, and turn left at the light, the stoplight,” he said, perhaps thinking we would get confused with some other electric filament along the way and crash through a bank or something. “Stay right along that road, straight on, straight on, and go under the bridge…” emphasized because vaulting the 690 overpass with my peppy little Datsun 200SX was certainly a distinct possibility – this is not long past the era of The Dukes of Hazzard, after all. “Get to the light, then… follow t’ crou’!”

It wasn’t lost on either Wendy or I that he had actually repeated his previous directions, and had reiterated the last vague part exactly as he had before, making it no clearer the third time around. We thanked him, and once again I was putting the car in gear as he stopped us again, excitedly.

“I am going to San Francisco!” he told us loudly and exuberantly, despite the fact that he was facing East. He whipped the umbrella around his head in a gesture that would have decapitated anyone within four feet. “Around the world in eighty days!” And then, he bent low to bring his face to our level sitting in the car, perhaps to allow a straighter air path for his next expulsion, rather than requiring his breath to make that tricky right-angle turn at the back of the throat. “I… AM… GOING… TO… AFRICAAAAAAA!

The sheer defiance of this statement was unquestionable, and he was certainly quite happy to inform us of these plans, perhaps daring us to suggest a swimsuit along with the umbrella. Wendy, at that time working for the airlines and thus requiring the type of always-cheerful plastic demeanor that you find nowadays only in Human Resources, wore a smile you couldn’t shift with a brick. I did my best to emulate her, nodding appreciatively at the gentleman’s gleeful grin and murmuring through clenched teeth, in a way I would describe as sotto voce except I don’t speak French, “Roll the window up, Wendy. Roll the fucking window up, Wend…

We bade him goodbye and moved on without incident or further travel plans, as he waved happily to us with a huge grin that suggested he knew exactly the effect he had provided. We made the next turn and I pulled over into a parking lot so we could laugh ourselves sick without risking other traffic, occasionally repeating his itinerary to one another through the tears. Eventually, we drove on, and followed his directions (indeed, remaining under the bridge despite temptation) until they’d petered out with the enigmatic “crou'” to be followed. Sitting at a light and wondering, “What now?” we spotted our destination half a block away to the right. It bears mentioning that we’d gotten to this point by driving along Crouse Ave, and the place was very crowded when we got there, so either way he was accurate.

Even now, twenty-some years later, I can look at the map and know almost exactly where this helpful gentleman was, and also that I can get back to Ra-Lin’s effortlessly. Given that, I certainly hoped he enjoyed San Francisco and Africa, because he undoubtedly got there.

Sampling of the season

While I have unfortunately been unable to get out and do justice to the autumn season around here, I feel obligated to at least get a few examples up. The biggest issue I have right now is with trying to get my digital images to adequately represent the colors that I’m actually seeing. The sky in particular has been remarkably clear and rich in color, but the digital camera simply isn’t capturing the right range of color, and this requires a bit of tweaking to try and correct.

Conditions like this cry out for slide films like Fuji Provia and Velvia, which provide deep contrast and vivid colors where digital has a tendency to wash out and either overexpose or lose saturation in certain color registers. But it takes a while for slide films to get back, and I’m planning to do a proper film session shortly, with both 35mm and 645 in a setting that begs the attention, so right now we’ll go with what I have from the past couple of days.

For some reason, this area is prone to leaf damage, blights or insect infestations or whatever, and finding a few nice, shapely leaves without spots and holes is actually challenging. Anytime from late spring on means I’m often being very selective about what foliage I use as a subject or background, because even out of focus, the subtle message is one of disease or trouble.

The color is an interesting trait by itself. There’s a theory being examined right now that says the red color of many species is a warning to predatory insects like aphids, allowing the trees to retain more of their nutrients heading into winter. The dominance of red colors among North American trees, as opposed to the yellows of Europe, may stem from the terrain in the different areas and the advancement of the glaciers. The big mountain ranges in North America, such as the Rockies and the nearby Appalachians, run north-south, which allowed herbivorous insects to migrate southward as the glaciers advanced down from the northern climes. In Europe, however, the mountains run east-west and formed an impassable barrier to insects as the glaciers came down, wiping out many species. So the trees in Europe did not develop the specialized resistance to insects over the time periods that the North American trees did, since those withstood the predation over a much longer period and had more chance to develop protective traits.

We’ve actually been a bit luckier this year, in that the typical fall storms and winds have been largely absent, so the trees are retaining their colors much longer – last year a gusty storm rolled through right at peak color and swept much of the foliage from the trees, trashing the plans I had to capture the colors. I can’t speak for other nature photographers, but I’ve spent many years making plans and having to change them for one condition or another, and that’s simply how it goes. You can’t predict, you can only go with the flow.

Guest Book Review: Framing Innocence

Once I completed the previous book review, I dropped the authors a courtesy note to make them aware of it. This led to some correspondence, with the result that Matt Young, a professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines and the author of several works, has offered a book review of his own. I am happy to host him as a guest reviewer, and while I have not yet read this book myself, I have more than a passing interest in the matter. In legal action regarding potential child pornography and abuse, the justification of “protecting the children” is frequently an emotional response, and may not take into consideration the traumatic and damaging nature of actions like protective custody, which can be invoked well before evidence is even presented. This has questionable merit for cases where guilt is well established, and is reprehensible when innocence prevails. Harming children (and adults) to save children, sometimes from absolutely nothing, is an action that requires critical examination.

So herewith, Matt Young’s review of Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response by Lynn Powell:

This is a book that should never have been written, because it details a prosecution that should never have been brought. Very briefly, Cynthia Stewart took photographs of her 8-year-old daughter washing herself in the bathtub and was prosecuted for obscenity.

I played a bit part in the drama — having inadvertently inspired the title of the chapter “Rorschach” — and I read the book not so much with interest as with growing consternation. For the first two-thirds or so, the book reads a bit like a novel, but then it unfortunately becomes anticlimactic, as you desperately want something dramatic to happen. Life is rarely like art, however, and the author was stuck with nasty facts. Very nasty facts.

The main character in the book is Cynthia Stewart, who is described as an aging hippie and who also appears both naïve and uncommonly stubborn (though some would call it principled). The best advice she got, which was unfortunately correct, was not to expect justice from justice system; she did not get it. Indeed, she and her family probably would have been bankrupted but for $40,000 in contributions.

The most interesting character in some ways is the guardian ad litem, the official appointed to look out for the interests of Stewart’s daughter. This woman looked for all the world like a right-wing anti-pornography crusading lunatic, but her commitment to truth and fairness far exceeded her anti-pornography zeal: she took one look at the photographs and pronounced them perfectly innocent. She did everything she could to protect not only Stewart’s daughter, but also Stewart herself.

The same cannot be said of the prosecutor, Greg White. White is somewhat difficult to get a handle on, partly because he refused to be interviewed for the book on what appeared to me to be a pretext. Nevertheless, he initiated a prosecution that the city attorney had declined and at least briefly subpoenaed an 8-year-old to testify against her mother. I thought at first that he had finally recognized that the prosecution was, at best, ill-advised but was too obstinate to back down. Later, though, he seemed genuinely bewildered that court-ordered counseling had not changed Stewart’s mind about the photographs. I do not know which was worse, but I came away with the feeling that the only perverts in this case were in the prosecutor’s office. White went on to become a US attorney and now is a federal magistrate.

I can think of several reasons why the photographs were not published in the book, some good, some bad. They were probably destroyed, but I do not recall the author actually saying so (and the book has no index, in my estimation, a cardinal sin for a nonfiction book). I think, however, that the reaction of the guardian ad litem and almost everyone who actually saw the photographs is convincing evidence that Stewart and her family were, well, framed by overzealous prosecutors. And, as the book details, she was by no means the only one. Let us hope this book provides an object lesson to all future zealots.

* * *

Once again, thanks to Matt Young for this guest review and the book image.