What was I thinking?

So, one of the images in my slide collection is seen, full-frame, at left – this is the small cascade of a feeder stream that leads into Window Falls at Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina. And yes, it appears I didn’t concentrate on keeping the camera level.

Now, I’m not sure this is really the case. When taking long exposures of running water, they can be deceptive. Water splashing sideways – in other words, seeing the cascade from an angle rather than dead on – can appear to be leaning when it all blurs together, and the rock strata can certainly be layered at an angle since uplift and tilting occur frequently. I do occasionally miss leveling the camera perfectly, even on a tripod, but this is a bit extreme. And I don’t remember inducing the angle intentionally to cut across the frame or make a tilted composition.

The trees in the background are no help at all – they support both ideas, since some of them obviously are leaning significantly. I’m just not sure which ones. The series of slides that I took all feature this vantage and angle, since I only changed the zoom setting for the other shots. That’s one of the things that supports the idea that this image is not leaning, since I can see taking one image at a “creative” angle, but not a series. By the way, this is another reminder to take multiple images of a subject, using the zoom and different shooting angles or perspectives to appreciate the possibilities a subject might provide.

Ah, but wait! I have another frame from further back that shows the cascade in the background with some helpful people standing nearby! That should answer the question.

Or maybe not. The women (I don’t know them) aren’t really supporting either angle, and when I tried tilting the image to see which angle looks most accurate, either one works. The woman on the left has her back arched, possibly against leaning forward, while the woman on the right could be leaning to see around the outcropping. The rock strata makes things even worse. The foliage seems to be supporting the original angle from above, but since this is a mountaintop, it could be leaning over from winds and erosion at the edge of this cut. While the top image was definitely taken on a tripod, this one was likely shot freehand candidly. This image was really no help at all. Maybe gravity is all messed up – I seem to recall this happening in various places around the world…

(Please don’t comment to correct me on the various gravity “anomaly” tourist traps – that was tongue-in-cheek.)

I’m now almost bugged by this enough to have to return and confirm just what angle this landscape sits at, maybe shooting a plumb line just for proof. Anyone that wants to clarify this issue should feel free to help me out – this is at the top of Window Falls, hiding behind the little porthole in the rock that can be seen from the finished trail – that’s what the one woman is taking a photo of, but I’m edge-on to it here. It’s only mildly tricky footing to reach this point off-trail. I have no idea of actual compass direction, but supposing that I’m facing 0° (North) with both of these images, Window Falls sits behind me to the right, traveling over the lip facing roughly 120°.

Or maybe I can get my buddy to chime in, since he was there too and has his own images. October 29, 2005 if it helps, dude ;-)

UPDATE: He bit ;-). JL Kramer was also present for this trip, and took his own pics of the same cascade, seen here at left. We see that I did indeed have the camera tilted, just not half as much as it appears. Kramer’s photo matches the angle that I have in the second pic (but has a much nicer composition than my first – the foreground rock is a great element,) so it appears I wasn’t meticulous about leveling the camera. I’m not terribly surprised – there was nothing to align it against or with nearby, but still…

Notice the tree trunk at top, just right of center. This was essentially growing at the top of a huge break in the rock strata that defines this section of Hanging Rock, and may have been leaning from either erosion or the wind, or both. The notch that this cascade sits within is part of a jumbled mess that, only a few meters to the right, drops off suddenly to create a gorge, and the cliff that Window Falls tumbles over. As falls go, Window Falls isn’t remarkable, but the nearby Upper and Lower Cascades are a bit better. I’d love to see them in freezing weather, but the trails to reach them would become so treacherous that I’m almost positive park access is denied during such conditions.

Equinox, schmequinox

When I lived in central New York, I used to laugh at the idea of Groundhog’s Day: “If the groundhog sees its shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter.” Seriously, half the freaking country considers mid-March an early spring. And the same held true for the Official First Day of Spring falling on the Vernal Equinox (March 21 or thereabouts) – we could almost always expect a good snowfall sometime after that point.

But we’ve had a couple of lovely days here recently, and while the grass is still brown and trees have not started to bud, I’ve been able to find some nice signs of “spring,” especially if I kept my sights low – in this case, down at the ground at the macro scale. While one of my two lens issues will soon be resolved, I decided to try another avenue for closeup and macro work. The 80mm macro lens for the Mamiya medium format camera isn’t intended to be used on any Canon EOS cameras, but mating together a body cap for the EOS and a rear lens cap for the Mamiya makes them fit together just fine, and the Mamiya has a auto/manual aperture switch that overcomes the lack of aperture control from the EOS system. Exposure is far from automatic, but this is simply one example of what can be accomplished if you’re willing to experiment. Both the flowers above and at right are barely visible while standing directly over them, measuring less than a centimeter at most. I don’t even know where to begin to look these up, so if anyone wants to chime in and tell me what these are, I’d be more than happy.

Finding these has been good, since I’ve practically been going through withdrawal without anything interesting to shoot. The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks in the area have been courting, doing a lot of calling to stake territory and pausing at optimal vantage points throughout an area in pursuit of a mate, and I’ll probably feature a few pics of those shortly – I’m aiming for something more dynamic than merely perching against a drab sky, which is what I’ve captured so far. So while that quest is ongoing, I took to turning over some rocks to see what could be found.

The snails haven’t ventured out into the open yet, and rarely do even in the best weather (which for them tends to be very humid and out of direct sunlight,) but they can be convinced to pose a bit if you place them in the open and have a little patience. They’re also hard to identify if you don’t have a decent reference and are simply putting search terms in Google, so once again, chime in if you know your gastropoda. This specimen is about 5-7mm across the shell, and the shell aperture has three “teeth,” two on the outer lip and one centrally against the inner shell, making it seem awkward to try and squeeze past.

What surprised me the most, however, was coming across several members of the species Storeria dekayi, otherwise known as the common brown snake. These should not be confused with the various species from Australia bearing that name, since these are very small and not venomous, unlike every species of animal found in and around Australia save for some of the earthworms (and those are just a matter of time.)

While I’m rather unimpressed with the originality of anyone who names a species “brown snake,” I’m fond of the snakes themselves. Found under rocks and leaf litter, they’re a bit secretive but there’s a spot where I can find them dependably. I didn’t expect to see them active this early, and truthfully they’re not really active yet – several were found clustered under rocks that were absorbing the bright sunlight, warming themselves while remaining perfectly safe from everything except impudent nature photographers. They’re totally non-aggressive and easy to handle, and will often remain very still and count on their camouflage to protect them – when that doesn’t work they resort to finding cover rapidly. They’re also quite small, only a little larger than large earthworms and often mistaken for “babies.”

If it helps, here’s another view of my model, clasped gently in my left hand while the right juggled the camera. My little finger is the background (looking disturbingly aged from this close,) and the green line spanning the crease of the first joint is a measured 4mm – an average pencil measures 7mm. Even if these snakes were venomous, there wouldn’t be anything they could actually bite except maybe your earlobe. Since their diet is grubs and worms, it’s safe to say there isn’t any other species that pales at the sight of a brown snake, so it’s embarrassing that too many people freak out at the mere sight of a snake and feel inclined to kill them. It’s like being scared of fish.

We’ll almost certainly get another spell of cold weather here, but right now I’m enjoying the break and anticipating the arrival of more photo subjects. Really, I have to move to a tropical rainforest or something…


I threatened that I would have more on this topic, and I don’t issue empty threats. Herewith, a little trivia about a curious structure: the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

With the race to the moon came, naturally enough, a significant infrastructure to support the endeavor, and the most visibly prominent part of this in this area of Florida is the building used for final assembly of the impressive Saturn V booster that carried Apollo on its way. Standing 110 meters (363 feet) tall, the Saturn V needed a very big building to be stacked together within, especially since it was built atop the Mobile Launch Platform and driven, upright, to the launch pad, and needed a launch gantry that stood even taller. So, 122 meters (400 feet) for the gantry and another 14 meters (45 feet) for the launch platform and crawler means you need one hell of a garage door. At that time called the Vertical Assembly Building, this big plain block structure is visible for kilometers from across Florida but is deceptive in appearance, because it stands alone and has absolutely no features that provide any scale at all.

Shown here getting ready to receive an external tank for the space shuttle orbiters, you can’t really get much of an idea of the size, and in fact even the external tank is tricky, but if you look at the yellow brace near the top end of the tank to the right, at the base of that brace is someone in blue standing right alongside the tank. Clicking on this image will open the full-resolution image in another window, by the way, if you would like to see the detail (photo courtesy of NASA.) And at the base of the VAB, that open door is wide enough for the external tank soon to pass through. The forced perspective is tricky, isn’t it?

But that’s not really enough either, so look at the crossbar throwing a shadow on the face of the building, about 3/4 of the way up in the center. Have a nice close look:

Those little pixels just barely visible now provide an impression of what they really are: a couple of men on a scaffolding on the side of the building (doing what, I’m not really sure, but better them than me.) Now do you get an idea of the scale? The blue starfield portion of the American flag painted on the side of the building is the size of a basketball court; each stripe is the width of an average road lane. The VAB stands 160 meters (526 feet) tall, not quite half the height of the Empire State Building, but four times the volume. Even more interesting, it is 55 meters (180 feet) higher than the highest ground elevation in Florida – yes, the state is very flat; swamps don’t tend to pile up very high.

Inside it’s just one big open space, with several powerful cranes to assemble the various launch vehicles – the Saturn V initially, but now switched to the shuttle orbiters, an era that ends in a couple of months with the last space shuttle launch. It is highly likely that it will continue duty with the new line of space vehicle, whatever that turns out to be (the lack of contingency in the program is appalling, but I’m one of those who refuse to put the blame on NASA – Congress is the body that approves all plans and funding.) In the right conditions, clouds form inside the building due to the humidity and temperature differential, something that would probably not happen anyplace other than Florida, the nation’s sauna. Outside, you can see the square shape from quite a distance away, a child’s toy block in the middle of an empty carpet.

The northern part of the island that holds the Cape is Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, which I’ve mentioned before, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to change my shooting angle when photographing wildlife there to prevent the building from being in the frame (or, in this case, I simply decided to use it as a distinctive setting.)

When watching the night launch of Mission STS-113, I missed an opportunity I really didn’t know I’d have. Both the shuttle launch pad and the VAB are floodlit for night launches, and my viewing angle placed them only a short distance apart, easily able to be seen together with even a moderate-angle lens. Rockets heading into orbit always seem to be falling back towards Earth as they transition gradually from vertical to horizontal and start following the curve of the planet, but that evening the orbital path lay almost directly away from me. As the shuttle dwindled to a point of light and discarded the Solid Rocket Boosters, only the main engines remained to be seen, and the arc was very tight, almost a straight up/straight down affair. It disappeared from view only a little above the horizon, and directly above the VAB. Had I known and been prepared, I could have had a spare camera set up with a wide angle lens, capturing the entire arc from launch to vanishing, pad to VAB. Nuts.

But I have to give James Vernatocola credit for composing this great shot of the arc with the foreground details.


Respect. Oh, sweet baby rhesus, how that word is abused! From my own warped point of view (or at least, from my perspective based on the media I choose to examine,) this is perhaps the key word to define the past decade – not because it was particularly respectful, but because that was what everyone thought they deserved and decried not receiving. The ’80s were considered the “Me” decade; the ’00s might be considered the “Respect Me!” decade. I would like to think that this will pass in the next decade, but we’ll just have to see.

People don’t seem to understand what the word actually means. They demand respect for their views, for their practices, for their lack-of-respect for others. But respect does not translate to “right,” as in, the rights someone may have as a human, as a citizen, whatever. In the US, for instance, we have the right to follow whatever religion we choose – and frankly, no one can enforce or deny what we personally believe, obviously. But this does not mean anyone must respect that belief. Anyone has the right to believe what they want, and everyone else has the right to believe they’re ignorant loons. That’s how rights work.

Respect, however, is a personal quality, an opinion, a value judgment. One does not demand that an opinion favor them, or that everyone agrees to the same values. Respect is earned, despite the impression we might have culturally – for instance, the forced respect of military hierarchy (which isn’t actually respect, but discipline,) or the respect we are expected to have for community leaders or even the elderly. Respect isn’t even provided by laws – the best that they can provide is protection, but they only imply an attitude of respect.

Our culture is a bit confused over this issue, though. Still laboring under the supposed virtue of “political correctness,” we tend to hear people calling for respect and we pause or even give way, instead of the very simple and appropriate response, “You don’t demand that from me, buddy boy! Show me you’re worth it!” But we’ve gotten so far away from this now that people with some really whacked ideas and practices gain far too much attention for holding an opinion and thinking they’re special for that. It has really come down to the vain idea that one person holding an opinion supersedes anyone else holding an opposing one.

Such an attitude, however, destroys the very meaning of the word. Respect used to be something sought after precisely because it was a measure of accomplishment, of regard. You gained respect because you showed that your views were more appropriate, beneficial, or intelligent than average, because your skills exceeded most expectations, because you succeeded where others failed, or even because you demonstrated some self-improvement. It held importance because pleasing a majority of people meant you could provide the greatest benefit to society, or recognized that collective advances work better than individual competition. It was a measure of cultural selection, reinforcement of the benefits of cooperative society. We wanted it because we have internal drives to seek social elevation – that’s how our species works. To think that respect should be reduced to an automatic deference, to the mere recognition of individuality and opinion, actually denies that individuality in the first place.

This isn’t what those demanding respect actually want, though. They really do want to be elevated above others – they just don’t want to work for it.

This is a trap we can’t afford to fall for. No one has to respect another opinion; no one should be held from disagreement. Our ability to separate the bad from the good is the only thing that can possibly work to advance us, in either big or small ways. If someone has a dissenting opinion, this has as much right to be heard as any other.

Even more importantly, we often have a hard time speaking against the perceived majority – we don’t want to isolate ourselves among a group of adverse opinions. But think what happens if everyone feels that way – how do you know what majority opinion even is? If one person speaks their mind, and everyone else stays quiet because they don’t want to stand alone in dissent, you achieve a majority of one with all others abstaining. That’s ludicrous.

While it may sound hypothetical, this happens all the time. In discussions centered on fundamentalists and anti-social practices, I have seen an untold number of moderately religious folk take offense, avowing that they do not want to be lumped in with the fundies. And while I appreciate this sentiment, I find it particularly tiresome – because those same moderates are nowhere to be seen when fundamentalists, always regarded as an insignificant minority, define the path that religion takes. When Westboro Baptist Church parades around redefining both “intolerance” and “fucking asshole,” I have never seen any religious figure, no matter how prominent, speak against them. When some religious leader makes reprehensible opportunistic statements about disaster victims deserving their fate, in a crass attempt to capitalize on human suffering, I have never seen moderates lambaste the practice. When a politician stands up and blurts some pandering religious platitude, I have never seen any religious person of any level remind anyone that political office requires a neutral stance on religion. However, when treated with the lack of respect that necessarily follows from remaining silent in the face of religious impropriety, they cry that they did not support those actions, and apparently carried dissent in their hearts.

If I had more than four people reading this blog, I’d attempt to coin a term: “closet respectable,” referring to those who hold standards that they simply will not display or communicate. It reminds me of the “boyfriend in the next town” that high-school girls seem to have fairly frequently, the one no one ever gets to meet.

We cannot afford to treat respect as a right, as a bumper sticker rewarding non-accomplishment. Remaining silent in the face of what we disagree with produces nothing of any benefit. Being afraid to stand out merely lowers our standards of society. Respect is earned, and it should be a challenge to meet its criteria. If we fail to seek honest respect, we’re not providing any benefit, to others or even ourselves. And if we do not hold that bar of respect high for everyone, we allow our society to sink further toward mediocrity, failing everyone including ourselves.

If someone thinks they have respect because of their title, such as “christian,” “Democrat,” “white,” “male,” “supervisor,” “owner,” “high-salaried individual,” “doctor,” “feminist,” and so on… they’re almost certainly not thinking of respect in its intended definition. If they feel they’re respected by others holding the same titles, they perhaps need to ask if this is truly respect, or simply the lip-service paid by others just to garner the same attitude back towards themselves, mutual self-congratulation. And, of course, if this “respect” within their title is enough.

If we want honest respect, we should be prepared to cultivate it, raise it, groom it, and nurture it – always being aware that it comes from other people. The secret is to make them happy, and proud to bestow it upon us. We do not steal it from them, or take it as taxes; we receive it in trade for being respectable. If, of course, we are not receiving it, what we are offering is not worth it.

I hate it when I’m slow

A few years ago when living in Florida, I kept a journal about wildlife observations, which included no small amount of speculation on what I was seeing. It’s interesting to look back through it and see how certain things solidified as I found our more information or made subsequent observations, and I’ll probably feature some parts of it in posts later on.

On occasion, this blog will reflect it too, like the sudden dawning I had yesterday on a post from a few days back. At the end of that post, I surmised that the value that we place on tradition was so powerful, it seemed almost like an evolutionary trait. The dawning came when I realized that it was, and we’re already well aware of how it works. Kindly note that I have confirmed none of this, and will gladly (well, maybe not gladly, but willingly) retract it if someone comes along and tells me how I’m talking bollocks.

Understanding human behavior sometimes comes when you break it down into core actions, rather than the assigned properties with which we view such behavior from minds that enjoy dealing in abstract concepts – in other words, if you think of us as mere animals (which we are.) “Tradition” then becomes an instinct to follow past examples, or to reduce that even further, to copy our parents. That this is an evolved trait seems abundantly obvious – it’s how we learn to talk, and to parse the nuances and rules of language. It’s how we know what to eat. If we didn’t have this drive, we’d take forever to develop, or really, may not develop very well at all. Independence doesn’t work that well when you’re not very functional for the first stages of your life.

We can see this in other species, and this is the part that made it click in my head. Back in Florida, there were muscovy ducks that lived in the pond at the apartment complex, and I watched them raise a few broods there. Everyone knows the folklore about ducklings and the first thing that they see upon hatching, and following around some other animal they think is “mom,” but the reality is, birds do imprint on behavior too easily, a trait that wildlife rehabilitators have to be aware of lest they raise a bird that does not know it’s a bird, and cannot cope on its own in the wild. Ducklings, like many other species, know instinctively to take their cue from momma, and will copy her behavior automatically. When she preens, they preen, all together.

It’s remarkable to observe, because the ducklings don’t appear to be watching their mother at all, and the sudden onset of preening seems almost simultaneous, but momma always starts first. And no, the two in the back aren’t lacking this behavior, but if you watch birds preen, they do brief sessions and pause, taking a moment to ensure that predators haven’t started closing in while their attention is elsewhere, another instinctual mechanism. I just happened to catch them during this pause.

Considered from this angle, it’s easy to see why “tradition” even became a concept in the first place – it puts a name to the instinct to follow behavior and learn from others. It’s another example of the interesting organs that our brains really are. We have automatic functions, like breathing and pain response, and we have subconscious, instinctual functions, like being aware of danger and seeking mates, and then we have the deliberate functions like cognitive thought. But the cognition part relies on the other two, and we have a hard time distinguishing deliberate (“rational”) thought from the instincts that we have. In fact, we’re very often in denial of the parts played, since we tend to feel that only “animals” (meaning everything but us) rely on instincts, but we vaunted humans do everything deliberately – the whole “free will” concept. It’s total vanity, of course, as only brief reflection will demonstrate, but it’s an insidious belief.

It gets worse. When we fail to recognize that subconscious, inherited behavior plays a large part in our thinking processes, we fall into a trap of believing that everything we do is part of a rational process – we intended to do it, and will even make up excuses as to why we engage in such instinctual behavior: “rationalizing.” The ugly catch becomes that we purposefully avoid engaging the truly rational part of our brains to overcome instinctual behavior that may not apply to a particular situation, simply because we deny that we have such instincts. The failure to recognize it can lead to remaining a pawn of it.

Much of what we have built our culture around is extensions of such instinctual traits, the attempts to take vague urges and feelings and embellish them into important social structures. Tradition is of course one example, and much earlier I pointed out that space exploration might even be another. Facebook actually takes advantage of our desire to build a community of “friends” without any of the effort involved in actually maintaining what we once considered a friendship – it’s prompted by the very name used, “friend,” rather than, “someone I once knew, or maybe someone who knows someone I knew, that clicked on a link in hopes of reciprocation” (SIOKOMSWKSIKTCOALIHOR for short.) We have such a strong desire for social reciprocation and cooperation that we actually get frustrated when life isn’t fair, and think that if bad things happen to us, there must be a reason. Even the trait of curiosity, of determining how things work (which I’m engaging in right now, and hopefully you are too) leads us to believe, all too often, that the entire universe has a reason, when we don’t even have a reason for fire ants (rotten little bastards.) When we think that something has to be the case, perhaps we need to stop and think about whether there’s a distinct rationale behind such a standpoint, or if we favor it because, at some point in time, it helped us survive to think that way.

And now, I ask a sneaky little question: how many people stopped to read this post because of the picture of cute little ducklings? What might you suppose was at work in that case?

[I readily admit that this was not planned, and the duckling behavior memory really did lead me down this road, but I realized how it might work while writing the paragraph above.]

Breaking with tradition

[Originally, I wrote most of these thoughts as a separate article to try and get published, but since the concept of actually getting paid to write has vanished anymore (I knew I should have gone into throwing balls around,) I might as well at least make it public. Granted, a blog is a version of “public” much like the notice of intended demolition of Arthur Dent’s house, but anyway…]

Let’s talk about tradition. Such a simple word, but almost amazing in what it can convey. In virtually every usage, it conjures up an aura of respectability, of culture. Practices handed down through generations, techniques or languages or clothing or entertainment preserved, sometimes painstakingly, from older origins. Just uttering the word in response to a question is almost always a perfectly sufficient answer: “Why? It’s tradition, of course!” Even religion pales before the explanatory power of the word, and in many cases, relies on it. How many words can you think of that communicate so well and require no further support?

But here’s the funny part of it all: ask someone why. Why is “tradition” so complete an answer? Why do we hold the concept of tradition up so highly? And do you get slightly uncomfortable even asking that question? If you imagine asking that of some friend or family member, does their potential response make you cringe? I think most of us would have little difficulty finding someone who might respond rather sharply to such a question. And that, in and of itself, should make us more aware of the power of the word.

Merriam-Webster has this to offer as the primary definition of tradition:

…an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom).

That sounds almost too simple to invoke the response in ourselves that it usually does. Tradition is respect for our forebears, and recognition of our cultures. It is preservation of rituals, and continuation of the “line” (whatever that line may be). It is the bearing of the torch, the survival of something we identify with. Well, now, that’s all right then – survival is important, the prime goal of life itself. No wonder it’s such a powerful word.

Until, of course, you compare this concept against the things we normally associate with tradition. Turkey dinners for the holidays? Well, now, I suppose survival isn’t really in question there – soylent green could work as well (perhaps that’s a bad example when we’re talking about survival). Wedding ceremonies? But more and more people are participating in less traditional ceremonies these days, sometimes none at all. Cultural dress or dance? Can we honestly say dancing or neckties or frills have anything to do with survival? From a practical standpoint, is there much of anything in traditional practices that would be detrimental if we ceased to observe it?

Sure, there’s an argument for preserving a culture. Tradition is what keeps alive many of the facets that define a culture to begin with. But again, is this more the power of the word than the importance of the culture or practice? We know rain dances are just a reflection of culture rather than a method to ensure adequate sustenance for crops. If we’ve never seen a rain dance, are the chances high that we will be at a disadvantage because of it? If we no longer know how to properly dye the family colors, can we reasonably say that the world is poorer for it? Those colors could be considered a representation of the family heritage, a coat of arms if you will, or they could simply have been the hue of ochre that came from the local clay. Had the family been given the choices we have now, maybe they wouldn’t have chosen those colors at all.

Looking still deeper, in many cases tradition is a matter of belonging, of marking the distinction of a particular group of people. Our family, our tribe or village, our land, our country – sometimes these are kept alive simply through the traditions that have been passed along, and often these traditions are the last remaining distinctions long after the other boundaries have vanished – “this is the way we did it in the old country.”

But there are two interesting factors behind this idea. The first is that, things change, for good or bad. It could be argued in many ways, but one is that change occurs because the “old ways” are no longer functional, needed, or wanted. Tradition, in such cases, is a resistance to change, but it may be against the tide. Respect for the old ways is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps respect for ways should be tempered by recognizing which ways are respectable in the first place. “Tradition” isn’t particularly meaningful in and of itself – there is a difference between a song that records the history of a culture, and a song that speaks simply of lost loves, or even holes in buckets.

The second interesting factor behind the community idea of traditions is that “community” not only speaks of togetherness, but of separation at the same time: those who are not part of the community. The second message behind, “We are the ones who wear the blue and black,” is, “…and you are the ones who do not.” This may seem to be a dramatic take on tradition, but family colors were exactly the way that clans told one another apart on the battlefield. Often, this idea has become lost in time, and the tradition does not recognizably reflect its bloody origins anymore. But in such a case, what is the tradition we’re keeping alive in the first place?

Right now, numerous cultures embrace traditions that, from an outsider’s standpoint, may be anything from ludicrous to abusive, even self-destructive. Respect for tradition, in such cases, may be radically misplaced – “tradition” is hardly an adequate argument for racism, mutilation, poverty, poor health, or countless other detrimental effects. Some cultural ideas do indeed deserve to die out and vanish in the mists of time – change can be for the better. But we can’t see this if we are swayed by the power of a word without wondering what lies behind it.

I had a little more to the article than this, but this point allows me to go on to the thought that stirred this post in the first place. Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a recent post regarding the definition of “New Atheism,” (well, kind of – Eric doesn’t stay to narrow topics,) and within, he talks about examining the histories of scripture and its foundations as divine inspiration:

And then he goes on to quote Irenaeus to the effect that the church did not create the canon; it was instead acknowledged, conserved, and received — as though, in other words, from the very hand of God himself.

But this, quite evidently, simply will not do. We still go back and back, and when we get to the end of a chain of traditions, we find someone with a pen! A human being, just like you and me! So the church, just like the Muslim authorities, took some human writings, no matter how fenced round with sanctity, and then elevated these writings to a stature they simply do not and cannot possess.

Which is where the two ideas came together. The original scribes almost certainly did not run out of their house waving a manuscript wildly and claiming god gave them this great idea for a book. Instead, older writings were selected by church authorities as reflecting divine inspiration (while, as Eric points out, others were not, in a rather arbitrary manner.) But the acceptance of such scripture by the general public, then as it certainly is now, relies on this value of tradition. The strong drive to elevate and indeed revere older sources of wisdom is precisely what gives them value and authenticity.

This idea is supported in three ways. The first is, this is exactly why religion remains active today. Virtually no one chooses their religion, or is ever convinced by reading scripture that it must be accurate – the amount of excuses for the inaccuracies is evidence of that. Instead, people (usually in childhood) are told that scripture reflects the will of the supreme being, and of course, they get to see the elaborate support structure that has grown up around it, the reverence that others place upon it. With no small number of older artifacts and icons, as well. Which is more compelling and interesting: a nice new modern church, or an old church with ridiculously outdated architecture? You know what I mean: the traditional style.

The second way that this is supported is with the histories of the texts themselves. Most of the abrahamic scriptures consist of retelling – almost none of them are contemporary, and even those portions claimed to be from disciples, for instance, show signs of having been written long after the events they relate. The most powerful stories are all historical, in that they do not tell what happened “today,” but many years (centuries!) previously. In fact, the explanation for the age of these stories is often that they were retold with perfect accuracy as oral tradition. This is plainly ludicrous, but such is handwaved away by saying that this tradition was important (which somehow makes it superhuman, it seems.)

And finally, there’s this nasty little fact that many facets of religious scripture have close counterparts in previously existing religions, such as the moses and bullrushes story and several different versions of resurrections. The date of christmas and most of the traditional practices thereof predate christianity (scriptural details point to a spring birth for jesus,) but they were co-opted precisely because they were already traditional. It was easier to morph the whole belief structure into a characterization of previous beliefs than it was to instill a new structure against the power of tradition.

Isn’t that almost frightening? Tradition isn’t just a word, it’s a wickedly motivating force. It raises the question as to whether this is a powerful cultural thing, perhaps one of the most powerful considering how many cultures it spans, or if there’s some kind of internal drive to respect older knowledge over seeking newer knowledge. Is it possible (or even worth speculating on) that there’s some form of evolved mental trait that causes us to fall for the concept of tradition? Tradition itself is difficult to justify rationally, and in all of the history I just outlined above, cultures have changed drastically, but tradition itself remains. It’s something to think about.

[Update: I did, actually – see the expansion of this speculation in the next post.]

Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”

Update September 2012 – This was one of the sample posts chosen for the podcasting experiment; click below to listen, if you like (it is identical to the text):
Walkabout podcast – Hooray! I scored a “Not Negative!”

There’s a common argument style that crops up in defense of most of the topics that critical-thinking addresses, such as paranormal activity, alien visitation, religion, alternative medicine, psychic powers, crystal energy, divination, astrology, and the health benefits of smearing yourself with feces. And it’s a very simple one, but fortunately many skeptics and critical-thinkers fall for it. Paraphrased, the argument is, “You cannot prove that [insert topic] doesn’t exist/work.” In other words, “You can’t prove that god doesn’t exist!” and “You can’t prove that the planets don’t influence our lives!”

Now, I’ve addressed this before, most especially with the direct fact that one cannot prove a negative – no one can demonstrate that god cannot exist in some realm we haven’t discovered, or that the alignment of planets does not exert a force we have not found a way to measure. Sure, I’ll openly admit it! You won that round!

Except… what was just won? The argument establishes that [insert topic] might be possible, simply because we cannot actually establish “impossible” as a distinct certainty? Think about this for a second: it literally applies to everything that can be imagined. The universe is infinite, to most accounts, but certainly far bigger than we are going to examine in the duration of our species’ existence. The only thing such an argument really accomplishes is the admission that human beings are not omniscient.

Congratulations on that astounding conclusion! I’d award a cookie for this, but only if the debater is less than six years old. To everyone else, this is hardly a stunning victory. As an argument in favor of any particular topic or concept, it’s remarkably pathetic. I’m trying right now, but I haven’t come up with any way that the bar can be set any lower.

You may have noticed that I accentuated might in the phrase, “might be possible,” two paragraphs up. Because even that is a condition of knowledge, not physics. Anything that we have not established as “impossible,” because of our abysmal lack of omniscience, might still be impossible in our universe, due to laws of physics for instance. So we haven’t even determined “possible” as a fixed property.

Alternately, if you avoid the simple two-choice argument of “possible/impossible” and substitute levels of probability, even that dubious victory almost always vanishes. Probability requires evidence of at least factors within the proposed topic, so that something can actually be measured and statistically compared. You cannot rationally propose an order of probability such as “one chance in ten” without knowing how often certain results have actually occurred. Psychic powers, for instance, could potentially have an order of probability if we could measure electrical fields emanating from our brains (they’re actually there, but hundreds of times weaker that the fields emanating from the camera battery charging at my elbow,) and/or a way of detecting such fields by the brain itself, and/or some way in which future events produce or follow a force which is not constrained by time.

What we’re talking about with that is evidence – establishing positive support of a concept, rather than a lack of negative support. But hold on! This is using the concept of mathematics to apply to physical qualities. Does that even work? Is it rational to apply “positive” and “negative” aspects to the existence of phenomena or properties?

Technically, no. There really isn’t such a thing as a negative existence, and as we determined above, no way to prove non-existence. The best we can reasonably work with is “positive” (proven to exist) and “null” or “zero” (not positive.) Therefore, if you lack positive evidence, you’ve only established zilcho.

And that’s the argument. “You can’t determine a quality which doesn’t actually exist for [insert topic], so you have to admit to nothing!” Sure. Whatever makes you happy. Someone can even try this argument while taking tests, and not mark down any answers at all. “Ha! You can’t prove I had a wrong answer!” But I bet I can predict what the final score comes out to…

Too cool, part eight: It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it

Green herons (Butorides virescens) are cool birds. Small, subtle little guys, they tend to be pretty shy in these parts and not pose for photos all that eagerly – the shot above (and here) was taken at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Florida, a manmade preserve smack in the heart of suburbia at Delray Beach that has to be seen to be believed. Cross the boardwalk bridge from the parking area into the wetland proper, and the cacophony of bird sounds is likely to hit you almost physically, sounding like an overdone jungle movie. And like many such areas in Florida, the normally shy birds are acclimated to people and allow much closer approaches. Yeah, you thought nature photography was all about careful stalking skill and sitting for days in blinds? It’s also about finding the places where you can get closer with less effort ;-)

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has a post about green herons and their usage of tools, a very rare thing among birds. It seems some of them, without this being universal among the species, have taken to bait fishing by placing bread fragments on the surface of the water and waiting for it to be visited by fish, which is of course what green herons eat. Check it out, because he’s got video of this going on.

As I remarked upon over there, I’ve never seen this behavior myself, but I have seen white ibis, the birds also seen in the beginning of the video, performing this dunking maneuver, only to soften the bread it would seem. And I’ve cheated a little (just destroying all of your cherished beliefs about nature photographers, aren’t I?) and tossed bread into a pond in front of my camera to get egrets to chase the fish it attracted. Learning this behavior is an interesting bit of cognition for birds.

Yes, that's exaclty what's happening here...

It’s hard for me to say how this compares to other species and behaviors. Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) have apparently learned that, in Florida, five-gallon buckets often contain easy meals, since live-bait fishing is popular in that state and such buckets are used to house and carry fish like finger mullet. Fisherfolk learn to keep a lid on their buckets, because the herons can get pretty brazen about landing on fishing docks and helping themselves. I’ve also watched brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), who’ve learned that casting nets can suddenly come ashore bulging with effortless meals, mobbing the poor angler who was collecting bait for a subsequent fishing trip. Many years ago when milk in England was delivered to doorstops daily, I remember reading about songbirds who would pierce the foil seals on the tops of the bottle to obtain a drink (which was bizarre in itself – milk?) None of these are tools, of course, but they all show a certain level of learning behavior, not very far removed from tossing bread into the water.

Alternately, while this isn’t directly related, I’ll include a link to show just how large a fish a great blue heron can manage to swallow whole.

The most important thing you’ll ever read

While I pick on religion a lot in this blog, this is reflecting what I see as a greater need at this point in time; in contrast, a few years back I was quite active on UFO and paranormal forums, and have dueled over topics such as health foods, astrology, and alternative medicine. They all fall under the big umbrella of critical thinking, or to be more precise, they’re all wet precisely because they don’t.

The thing is, we as a species are notoriously bad about rational thought, and fool ourselves in so many myriad ways that at times it seems this defines us more than our intelligence does. Worse than this, however, is the open defiance of this concept, this curious failure of humans to recognize it when we are wrong, or to even consider the possibility. All of those topics I mentioned above, and many more besides (politics comes to mind,) are prey to this – it’s probably safe to say there isn’t a facet of human culture that is not. Which is why I promote critical thinking, and the foremost part of this is adopting the premise that we can always be wrong.

Looking back, one thing in particular helped this aspect along, for me. In the early 1980s there was a magazine called, “Science 80,” only it reflected what year it was actually issued within, thus “Science 81” and “Science 82” as it went along, not the best of naming moves. It’s defunct now, and I cannot locate this particular article to provide credit, but it dealt with suggestibility and implanted memories. It featured a college study of eyewitnesses to a supposed crime, actually staged, with the criteria that a stolen item was described by the “victim” and later recounted to security guards by the eyewitnesses. The details provided about the item, in some cases quite specific, didn’t actually relate to the item the eyewitnesses saw – they had actually not seen an item at all, because there was nothing stolen. All details were supplied by the “victim,” or in some cases just imagined.

There have been a lot of studies about this, really, and it boils down to one very simple idea: our memories are not like recordings, able to be played back with fidelity, but extremely malleable instead. We can actually respond to suggestibility on an astounding level, and worse, have no way of differentiating this. There’s at least one study now that indicates how memory may be a single-use kind of thing, and we retain memories because every time we play them back in our minds, we rebuild them into a new memory. That one, of course, may have attendant details from the rebuilding. A good example is how we remember movie quotes, and the number of them that are simply wrong (“Luke, I am your father,” and “Play it again, Sam,” being two of the most quoted that never actually appeared in the movies.)

We also have a nasty tendency to color our experiences in terms of expectations, assigning traits or categories that are not supported by what we’ve actually sensed. Sometimes, this is influenced by something that we’ve never encountered ourselves, but have only heard about. It becomes pathetically easy to obtain ghost encounters from virtually any building or locale, but the darker and older, the better. All you need is to create a reputation with a few stories. I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by saying that every odd sound or visual phenomenon instantly becomes a ghost in such circumstances, but perhaps many don’t realize this is not something experienced only by those obsessed with ghosts – it’s something we can all be haunted by (a ha ha.)

And then, there’s the common experience of déjà vu [or just deja vu if the accents didn’t render], the distinctive feeling that we’re actually encountering a repeat performance, or a precognitive memory of what’s happening to us at a particular moment. Those that have experienced it usually find it very compelling, and I can vouch for that, but notably, it hasn’t been shown to be actually precognitive in any way. In other words, no one seems to have ever documented it, providing a written account that existed before the experienced event. Instead, it always seems to be this odd feeling of memory just as the event occurs. What this suggests, and studies have supported this, is that the feeling of this being a memory is the defining trait, not the actual existence of the memory. We get a stray feeling of, “Oh, yeah, I remember this!” but not because we actually do remember, but simply because the emotional response typically associated with memories triggered improperly – a false alarm.

The same can be said for many of those great ideas we have just before awakening, which fade away too quickly for us to remember them. Some of the people who have successfully retained them find they’re total nonsense in the light of full consciousness – it wasn’t the idea, it was the eureka emotion all by itself. Who can’t remember a dream, perhaps a lot of them, where emotional properties were assigned to items or events that didn’t seem the least related?

If we consider our minds as this great device for thought and experience, and that memories are indelible records of experience, we’re quite simply mistaken – this has been evidenced and indeed proven, time and time again. But many people never realize this. In fact, in discussions of UFO and paranormal events, the biggest influence by far is not eyewitness accounts, but the weight given to them. Even raising the question of whether the witness actually saw what they believe they did is usually considered impugning the witness, and can immediately get someone labeled a debunker, or closed-minded. The irony, that this failure to recognize the possibility of human error is more closed-minded than considering the possibility, is not lost on those urging critical examination.

The aspect of suggestibility is not only known to courts of law, in some cases it is actively promoted. Attorneys have their clients rehearse their stories over and over again, and this is not because their memory is so indelible. As it says in the study linked above and again right here (at the very least, read the first few pages,) even the careful use of certain words can influence the impression people have of events – smashed instead of bumped being their example when referring to a car accident. Often, this isn’t even intended, but a by-product of both popular opinion and media influence. In a high profile story in The New Yorker magazine, a father of three was convicted of arson and first-degree murder, partially on the testimony of neighbor eyewitnesses to the fire. But the neighbors’ testimonies changed drastically after news reports that the investigators were considering arson as a cause – before that, they had maintained that the suspect showed no indications of unexpected or remorseless behavior. And while such effects are well-known to courts, eyewitness testimony is still treated as much more trustworthy than it should be, because humans relate to the emotional aspect of the witness’ account, with little recognition paid to the fallibility. Since attorneys can benefit from this, they’re not going to be the ones who draw attention to the undeniably damaging aspects of it.

Only a few decades ago, there began a dramatic upsurge in repressed memory therapy, the practice of interviewing and sometimes hypnotizing patients to discover memories, almost always of childhood sexual abuse, that the patient had supposedly suppressed in horror and loathing. Hyped by the media and promoted by all those people who delight in scandal, it became a highly-regarded practice until a few huge settlements on mistaken cases brought attention to the well-known fact that hypnosis actually increases suggestibility, and therapists can influence a patient’s story. Far from revealing hidden records of past events, such therapy can be a fantastic tool for implanting false memories. Is it any surprise that certain therapists were known for their specialization in repressed memories? Is it a greater surprise that a very large number of their patients demonstrated, to the therapists, unmistakable evidence of past abuse, so much so that one made the astounding claim that repressed memories were present in up to 60% of sexual abuse cases? The fields of psychiatry and psychology routinely deal with mental health issues from the inability to forget traumatic experiences, but somehow this trait seemed to reverse when it came to repressed memory therapies. Eventually, the practice started receiving the critical examination that it should have had in the first place, but not before tremendous amounts of damage were done in pursuit of ephemeral “memories” treated as if they had the strength of physical evidence.

Exactly the same thing was at work in alien “abduction” cases, with a few prominent therapists promoting the practice while – and I know you’re going to be shocked at this – offering their services to help reveal such repressed memories. In abduction cases, the repression was supposedly induced by the aliens rather than the patient, but the gist is the same. For both childhood abuse and alien abductions, however, one very distinctive trait is that corroboration, in the form of physical evidence, other witnesses, and such, is virtually impossible. One should certainly be suspicious of therapies touted with a high degree of accuracy that cannot possibly offer any way of determining such.

I want to take a moment here to point out something. In many of these cases, perhaps most, the therapists were not actually trying to create false memories, and honestly believed they were helping their patients. What might have been at work is a combination of things. One simply being pride, in that the therapists felt vindicated and supported by the “positive” results of their therapy, and stayed with methods that seemed to work most effectively. The other is related; as trained professionals (most of them, anyway,) they may have felt they were aware of and unable to fall for the trap of leading the patient along. The possibility of the false positive wasn’t controlled for.

This really means that it’s up to us. We’re not perfect beings, and our senses and our minds are not infallible – in fact, they are prone to errors, so many that we cannot even be aware of where they might be influenced. We need to recognize this, and in fact remain suspicious of our very abilities to experience what goes on around us. It sounds a bit like I’m following the old Descartes argument here: “How can we be sure of anything?” But that’s ridiculously extreme, and like much of philosophy actually leads nowhere – what can you do with that? What I’m saying is that we can be fooled in many ways, so making some effort to support our conclusions is not only useful, it’s practically a necessity. Along with always bearing in mind that we still might not be right after that. Being wrong is okay, and in fact unavoidable. Refusing to realize this and/or correct ourselves is not. There’s an old saying regarding scientific research, to wit, that one needs to be even more suspicious of findings that support a favored theory, because we want to see this too much, and can easily miss the findings that contradict it. In skeptical circles, this is called confirmation bias – counting the “hits,” the positive evidence, and ignoring the “misses.”

Worse, this isn’t helped by belief in religious creation – it can be actively harmed by it. Feeling that humans are “chosen” creatures designed by a perfect deity doesn’t leave a lot of room to feel that we can make mistakes, despite the glaringly obvious evidence that we can. But recognizing that evolution shapes life largely by trial-and-error, and that humans are a product of utilizing old functions in new ways (a work in progress, if you will) allows that we may not always operate the way we’d prefer. It is, perhaps, a nod to the functionality of this process that we can recognize fallibility for what it is, rather than either being oblivious of it, or denying it because we’d rather not believe it’s true.

This might be unnecessary to point out, but convincing people of this when engaging in critical examination of certain topics is remarkably hard to do. People don’t like admitting that they’re wrong. Amusingly, it could be an example of that imperfect job that evolution does. Being wrong is certainly a good thing to avoid, for obvious reasons. But the emotional reaction within us that helps us avoid this isn’t specific enough – it doesn’t differentiate enough between trying to be right, or simply not admitting that we’re wrong. Too often, if no one actually catches us in a mistake, this is sufficient. It shouldn’t be, and we need to pay attention to those circumstances when we’re, in effect, in denial about actually being wrong, and concentrate instead on ensuring that we’re as correct as we can be. This is not the same as winning an argument, by the way, a mistake made far too often.

For skeptics active in debate, however, there’s another aspect to be considered right alongside this. That emotional drive against being wrong means that, even if we have produced an unshakable and irrefutable argument, our “opponent” (for want of a better word) is highly unlikely to concede – we’re not going to see a clear victory. The admission of being wrong is almost certainly going to be a private one, sparing the embarrassment of public recognition. We cannot, and should not, expect to see someone change their mind. Our only goal should be to present the most cogent arguments that we can, and leave it be. Let the seed grow. It can be frustrating, to be sure, but it also leads to a better process: simply presenting the case and stepping away, without the emotional investment of seeking a resolution or victory.

Of course, considering ourselves skeptics and critical-thinkers doesn’t absolve us of error-prone traits, either, and like some of the therapists outlined above, may cause us to drop our guards and feel we’re not likely to be caught. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that all of us are wrong, in one way or another, every day. It’s unavoidable. But the distaste we feel over this thought should be channeled towards correcting our mistakes, instead of avoiding recognition of them.

And by all means, don’t take my word for it. There are a lot of resources available to examine these topics in much more detail, and I encourage you to check them out on your own.

Just because, part four

I just wanted to throw this one out there, because I liked the effect. It was taken four years ago as an experiment, and came out differently than expected. Take a moment and see if you can figure out how it was produced.

I can provide a clue: Most times, TTL flashes operate by measuring the light that makes it to the exposure meter within the camera, and gets shut off when enough is detected. This happens remarkably fast, in a few ten-thousands of a second, so while the flash may look instantaneous to us, it is actually started, then halted by the camera when it determines enough light has been received by the film or (in this case) digital sensor. Except, when the subject is dark and insufficient light is being received, the flash can actually discharge the entire capacitor, which results in some light fading at the end of the exposure. Therefore, moving objects appear brightly lit at the beginning of the exposure, but get dimmer towards the end. This can result in streaking, with the apparent direction opposite of the actual.

Not enough? How about if I tell you I was aiming straight up?

If you haven’t gotten it with those, I’ll simply tell you I stuck the camera out from under the edge of the roof during a downpour and fired off a frame with the flash, which illuminated the rain. The closest drops showed the greatest apparent motion, appearing to be moving towards the center of the frame by the fading flash, when in actuality they were falling past the wide-angle lens. Some drops are well out of focus, others not so. The color effects, such as the red spheres to the left side, I haven’t fully explained, but may be illuminated by light passing through water droplets on the flash head, which was refracted into different colors of the spectrum. I would have suspected a more uniform effect among close drops, though, so maybe it’s the flash light refracting through drops suspended in the air, illuminating close neighbors.

You can click on the image for a slightly larger version. I haven’t done any editing on this at all except for resizing – no color enhancements or contrast changes. If you noticed some “dead patches” in the frame, these were most likely caused by water drops already on the lens, blurring the drops beyond distinction. Just a neat effect, and I was impressed with the amount of color that showed up.