On Belief, Part Three

Yeah, yeah, I’ll be back to nature photography or something really cool in the woods or water shortly – I’m just hashing some thoughts out. You won’t be failed for skipping this assignment. And while it can stand alone, it’s an extension of Parts One and Two.

One of the foremost arguments from a great many people, both religious and non (believe it or not,) is the social benefits that come from religion. Yes, faith may be a really poor way of viewing the world, but it provides a few positive aspects as well. Except that, I’m not really so sure about that. I may be biased, but before you jump to that conclusion, hear me out.

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On Belief, Part Two

Okay, I suspect I’ve given enough to support my point that very few people seem to believe (that was Part One). To be honest, I think it’s not a dividing line, but a gradient – levels of belief ranging from “Not at all” to “Established fact,” with most people falling well short of the upper end. Some grad student can figure out how to quantify belief if they like. So we come to the question of, “If people don’t believe, why do they profess to?” And I think there are a lot of answers to that.

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On Belief, Part One

There has been a bunch of thoughts along these lines kicking around in my head for a while now, and since Pharyngula and Weird Things both referenced a new study along similar lines, I finally started putting some of them down. This has to do entirely with religious belief and the effect it has, so those into nature photography and observations can skip this one if they like. Those, however, who don’t like the idea of religion being questioned are required to read on:

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On being mean

Recently, Greg Fish on Weird Things posted about yet another review of bloggers, most especially science and/or atheist bloggers, where the reviewer commented on the heinous use of sarcasm. This has been at least the fourth such published comment about the negativity of sarcasm, and I have to admit, I think it’s a case where the reviewer imagines a situation that doesn’t really exist.

Basically, sarcasm is considered both ineffective and unnecessary in their eyes, but I have a hard time believing this could possibly be true. I’ll admit that the initial reaction to sarcasm, if you happen to be the recipient or identify with their views, is far from “pleased.” Sarcasm is condescending, nasty, and disparaging. Mean. But this is not in any way the same as “ineffective.” On the contrary, snark is one of the fastest and most succinct ways of conveying one’s opinion that I know.

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Because I’m feeling guilty

I’m looking at the posts here and realize it’s been a month since my last one, which isn’t good. So to make it up to my remaining one (maybe two) readers, I’m going to throw up some quick stuff before I get to a much longer post picking on religion again.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing little more than experimenting. One a foggy night recently, I went out to try and accomplish one of the images I’ve planned for just such conditions. As is often the case with these experiments, they didn’t come out quite as intended, meaning I’ll have to try again when we get a nice nighttime fog. But something else that I tried on a lark came out reasonably well, I think, though perhaps not as strongly at this size. I’ve been toying with posting it to some ghost forums just to see how much it can stir up – and how few can actually figure out that it’s a simple, and common, photographic effect. Technically, not a double-exposure, since it’s only one long exposure, but when your model (in this case me) isn’t in position for the entire exposure, a certain amount of light shows “through.”

By the way, it is fairly simple to do a multiple-exposure with a digital camera (just in case you were wondering.) Simply lock the shutter open on bulb setting and place the lens cap after the first exposure, then remove it for the subsequent exposures. Don’t argue with me that it’s only one exposure – think about what “exposure” means and realize that it’s not referring specifically to a shutter trip.

As I was about to sit down to work on something tonight, it began pouring outside, and since we’ve had some nice warm weather recently, the frogs have come back out – someplace not far outside my window a treefrog started calling. I went outside with a pair of flashlights but still didn’t find it (little bugger got nervous as I got close and stopped calling,) but I did find a ladybug in not-so-typical conditions. I didn’t stay out long because it was raining too hard to do much photography, and both my jacket and the light camera bag are drying out now.

And finally, I spent some time a few weeks ago trying to shoot some images for a contest. I’ve never been much for contests, largely because they’re frequently a cheap ploy to get promotional images for free – check the rules and you’ll usually find that the photographer gives up most or all rights to the photos, regardless of whether any award has been provided. A local aquarium in Florida once solicited numerous images from the public for their calendar, and not only were they not willing to pay for any images (nor were they even holding a contest,) they wanted photos of some outright dangerous species like jellyfish and mantis shrimp, which I felt was piling irresponsibility on top of cheapness. Of course, they promised “exposure” to the photographer by printing their name with the image, woo hoo! “Exposure” does not mean, “listing the credit you should be obligated to give automatically,” and the value of such can be measured in… um, well, it can’t be measured, really, because it’s almost meaningless. Nobody sees a credit line and says, “I’m going to seek that photographer out to buy photos from!” Most people don’t even see the credit line. Get paid for your images, and you’ll even get that “exposure” on top of cash! You’ll also send a message to editors and buyers that you’re able to do business, and didn’t simply submit a lucky shot to a contest.

Oh, yeah, the contest! Anyway, this one has much more reasonable terms, so even though I have plenty in stock, I also started looking for potential shots that would fit their criteria better. Along the way, I was experimenting again, this time with infrared. I’ve talked about infrared on the site here and here, and I like trying to see what I can produce with it. Digital sensors can usually capture infrared light, but it some manufacturers filter it out. You can do a simple test and aim a TV remote into the lens and see if triggering the remote results in a tiny light in the digital image. If it works, then you can get an IR pass filter that blocks most visible light (like, in the case here, a Lee 87C polyester) and start playing on sunny bright days. Have a tripod, because there isn’t much infrared compared to visible light, so you’ll need long exposures (there’s that word again.) But you’ll see that foliage reflects the most infrared, and the sky and water reflect the least. You’ll probably end up with a nearly B&W image, because the color filters on digital sensors let IR pass almost equally (if that didn’t make sense, maybe this helps explain it a bit – look at the sixth paragraph.) In this case, I enhanced what little color was there and tweaked it a bit, producing an effect I really liked from the background trees. It didn’t fit with the contest guidelines, but I like it for its almost-spooky quality. It becomes perhaps even more interesting to know that this was a brilliantly sunny day and was not taken in shadow at all.

I discovered something else, too: apparently even long-dead leaves retain their ability to reflect infrared, so they stood out nicely on the water. I’m pleased with it.

Too cool, part five

This one has actually been sitting around for a while as I got up the desire to type it out. I figured I’d do it as a follow-up to Darwin Day. What you’re looking at here (or will be, as you stop reading and gaze at the image) is the caterpillar stage of the spiny oak-slug moth, which is a pretty horrendous name so let’s just stick with the scientific Euclea delphinii. Apparently, in most cases the caterpillar is much brighter in color, but here it’s remarkably well camouflaged to appear as a spot of lichen on a tree trunk. And since this is the size of a fingernail, it’s not hard to imagine how easy it is to miss.

What brought it to my attention, though, was the same thing that allows us to spot other species despite their camouflage, provided we make the effort: the symmetry. Bi-lateral symmetry (that is, mirroring details on either side, like two eyes, four legs, etc) is actually a very common thing among living species, having established itself way, way back in the evolutionary timeline. Even species so dissimilar to us as jellyfish display this trait. It’s dictated by something called Hox genes, and without it, species would probably appear a lot more random.

Obviously, if the patterns of this little guy were randomly distributed, rather than so distinctive, it would have an even better form of camouflage. But to do this, the Hox genes would have to be very selectively inactive – enough to allow for color patterns to be asymmetrical, but not enough to produce six legs on one side and two on the other. That’s a very specific mutation. Moreover, for natural selection to favor it, it would have to generate some advantage (or, be common enough to carry while otherwise not being disadvantageous – neutral traits can continue too.) While we might think that asymmetry would help a lot towards not being recognized by predators, there isn’t much evidence that many predators are likely to recognize symmetry as a telltale. The color and the fuzzy shape may be enough. However, there are some other factors too. Many birds can see a much wider range of colors than we can, so even asymmetry might be a very minor factor against not matching the shade of lichens very closely. And this says nothing for how effective those little spines might be (I didn’t try to handle it,) or its scent or taste. So perhaps asymmetry simply didn’t have enough selective pressures to evolve.

Some species do display some asymmetry though, albeit limited. Here, a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokeson) displays some mismatching patterns at the spine, and apparently the southern subspecies (A. c. contortrix) can display patterns that don’t even connect at the spine. Now, here’s something interesting, because it seems it’s not a common trait among the other variants in other parts of the US, just among A. c. contortrix in the southeast. I haven’t found that anyone has studied this to determine why this might be (grad students, feel free to use this suggestion, just remember me when the book royalties come in,) so I can only speculate. But the predatory species of birds would be different between a copperhead and an Euclea, and it’s possible that a species of raptor in the southeast might have better eyes for asymmetry than other raptors where the other subspecies of copperhead can be found. Or this might be way off the mark, and it’s actually influenced by diet or habitat. Myself, I favor blaming the longneedle pines.

Any way that you look at it, little things like patterns can be the tip of the iceberg, indicating a much more detailed genetic and environmental history than the impression such mundane camouflage leaves us with. And if you’re into wildlife photography, remember to stay alert for the patterns.

Happy Darwin Day

Today is the 201st anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and now considered an unofficial holiday. It is intended to recognize the contributions Darwin made to science, most especially the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Most people simply refer to this as “evolution,” but that technically falls a little short of the mark – evolution can refer to anything that changes. It’s the “natural selection” part that defines what Darwin kick-started.

It’s kind of a funny thing to celebrate, really. Most of the scientists that have contributed remarkable amounts to our base of knowledge have no such day. James Clerk Maxwell, who demonstrated the properties of electromagnetism, has no such day. He was the first to show that electricity, radio waves, and light are all part of the same spectrum of energy and properties, which impacts everything from the computer you’re reading this on, to the microwave oven you heated the Hot Pockets you’re snacking on, to the GPS network that feeds the little voice in the car that you’re not driving right now. Einstein? Absolutely amazing body of work, most of it theoretical until science caught up with ways to test it, and incidentally has a hand in that GPS you’re not using. Pasteur? Galileo, Archimedes, Aristotle, Hubble, Hawking, Nye? Nope, no days for them.

So why Darwin? Was it that he made this tremendous intuitive or intellectual leap? Not really – he was more the meticulous type, and built a body of evidence for his theory over quite a period of time. Was he particularly far ahead of his time? Nope – he actually rushed to press with “On the Origin of Species” to beat out Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, who was working on exactly the same thing (later, they lectured together.) “Rushed to press” is kind of a relative thing, since he’d been working on the concept for 17 years – I said he was meticulous. Was it because it had such a huge impact on the various fields of study that it pertained to? Partially, perhaps, though Einstein and Maxwell have him well beat, and I’d even argue that Hubble changed his field more that Darwin.

In fact, what Darwin produced was, in some ways, inevitable. He was simply an investigator, and followed where the evidence led. Natural Selection was already waiting to be discovered. Worldwide travel, worldwide communications (albeit much slower then,) universities and the scientific method, and even the printing press all collaborated on his work, and gave him the opportunity to see how universal his concept was by comparing the findings of countless others who hadn’t quite made the intuitive leap. I don’t want to denigrate him, because I’m fascinated and humbled by what he accomplished, but I feel much more so by the others that I’ve mentioned above.

Darwin is noticeably controversial, though. More religious nutbags attack him than any other scientist, by a huge margin. Why? Apparently, because he claims the scriptures wrong, if you were to ask most of the rabid nitwits. But he made no such claim, he merely demonstrated how much of nature does that on its own. Facts are the culprit, and they don’t claim, they prove it pretty impressively. In fact, most fields of science all contribute to that – geology, biology, physics, astrophysics – you can keep the list going for quite a while, methinks. Geology, by the way, established that the earth was much older than any scripture claimed long before Darwin published anything.

Is it because he’s worshiped as a demigod by science, even though he was wrong? Um, it’s safe to say, “no,” to that one, since most scientific fields have the most rigorous systems in place to establish how accurate anything is, and Natural Selection has stood the test of time and abuse quite well. Bear in mind, Darwin speculated on a method of living beings automatically passing on information to their progeny decades before we had even an inkling of what DNA was. Darwin isn’t worshiped any more than Pasteur is, and doesn’t even have a process named after himself.

Maybe it’s because he says we came from monkeys? But he didn’t, and that’s actually a dishonest twisting of the theory that’s propagated by all those religious folk who claim to be ethical and moral. We have a common ancestor with the great apes, which isn’t saying that we came from monkeys any more than it says monkeys came from us. This has been corrected literally thousands of times in the past, which certainly isn’t enough to cause any religious retard to stop using it. Why let simple facts get in the way? We also share a common ancestor with every living thing on the planet, by the way – monkeys aren’t special, or singled out by any branch of biology.

However, that is the real sticking point: if we were made in god’s image, god at some point in the past looked like a single-celled organism swimming in a sea of muck. That’s what the hullabaloo is all about, when it comes right down to it: we have no link to the divine, and we were not created for a grand plan, and we are not living on a planet created especially for us, and we are not lined up to receive a grand reward once we expire. That’s all. Simple human vanity causes all sorts of indignant responses. And that’s why we recognize Darwin – because so much of our “culture” gets into a hissy fit when they’re told they’re not special, and spends inordinate amounts of time trying to spread abject denial. Darwin Day is, unfortunately, a rather pathetic commentary on our species. Imagine having “Gravity Day” or “Thermodynamics Day” because insecure little folk with big mouths can’t accept that the world isn’t stroking their ego the way they want.

I, for one, find the concept of Natural Selection absolutely fascinating, and thinking that the abilities I have now all built up over a very significant length of time is pretty damn cool. I’m not bothered by mortality at all (I think immortality would be incredibly boring,) and I’m not concerned with playing a part in any plan favored by the petty and emotional gods in the scriptures. Investigating the world leads to so much knowledge and fascination, and I almost feel sorry for the people that don’t want it to exist.

Almost. Mostly, I think they’re pathetic.

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! Happy Everyone in Science Day, too! Go out and experience something real.

Misplaced efforts

Sometimes, you have to sit back and look at our culture, because it’s going to be a really amusing read many years from now if most of this stuff hits the history books.

I was commenting to my boss the other day about a music video (that’s two site links, to get proper credit) that pays homage to a webcomic that rewrote an advertising jingle from the Discovery Channel. What’s most notable about it is that it features numerous web personalities (I have no better overall term for these), that someone had to contact, videotape them singing (or get them to send in their own recording) and sync into a video. And they all did it because they knew the webcomic. Not to mention, are bona fide geeks. I’m talking about people like Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer (“I love the whole world” in front of the picture of Saturn and the Earth), Miss Cellania of her own blog and Mental Floss (I’m pretty sure that’s her in the middle at the first boom de yadda), Neil Gaiman the author, Wil Wheaton the actor (Wesley Crusher from Start Trek TNG, which might make you wince, but he’s much less annoying himself), and frankly a whole lot of people I don’t know, but have to find out.

Anyway, if that isn’t a good enough example of our weird culture, maybe this is:

I have a spam filter on my commenting system because, unfortunately, that’s about all the comments I get. Most get blocked, but some come through for moderation. And I have to admit, they’re trying much harder now to wiggle their way in. Listen to this:

“You put together a great position with what you explained. A great number of people have to read your article to allow them to get a greater point of view about this issue. It was great of you to provide great information and encouraging arguments. After reading this, I know my thoughts are pretty certain about the matter. Keep up the fantastic job!”

Trust me, that’s not one of the better ones I’ve received. Such effusiveness! Such loquaciousness! (I knew I had a thesaurus for a reason.)

And yet, a total miss, because it’s a comment on this post, where I rambled on about, well, rambling on. It’s one of the most meaningless posts I’ve made, at least in the bottom three (feel free to open the voting on that one.) If there’s a point I made in there, it escaped even me.

Of course, spam has a reason, mostly to attempt to spread links around, and often viruses (I use that term to mean all of the variations like worms and trojans, don’t get technical on me.) The link embedded in this one, which I will not click or repeat, seems to be for an iPhone app.

That’s another swing-and-a-miss! I detest cellphones at large, and think the iPhone is a senseless toy. And many, many people are expending a lot of effort writing inane applications for it to try and collect even more money from people who think they didn’t waste enough on their toy. All that, however, is topped by the efforts spent by spammers to try and get me to advertise/propagate their shit on my site. And someone is actually paying for that.

I’d like to think that one day our descendants will look back on the business practices of this time period and wonder how we got so far off track. I’m a little scared that they’ll look back nostalgically and wish they could return to such “better values.”

I told you I'd be back

As threatened, I did indeed get out and do some more night shots, both during the snowstorm and after it stopped. We got a significant amount here for NC, roughly seven inches in my area I think, and the temperature peeked above freezing only for a couple hours today. It’s made standing outside late at night/early in the morning (whatever you call 4 AM) interesting, to say the least.

Above, an experimental shot. I’m not really sure what to think about it, so I’m going to solicit a few opinions on it.

Last night, as I was going to bed, I noticed the light pouring through the blinds was pretty bright, indicating that the sky had cleared and the nearly-full moon was out. Naturally, with a full snowfield, I couldn’t let this pass, but the roads were too treacherous, so I stuck around and did my photography locally. As I’ve said earlier, the full moon can provide a lot of light, if you let the exposure out long enough – this one is three minutes at ISO 100, f8, slightly brightened in post-processing. I like how the sparkles showed up.

As I type this, I have two long exposures from a few minutes ago sitting in the EOS 3 (film camera) waiting for the roll to be finished and developed, and one still exposing on the Mamiya out in a clearing in the woods behind my house – I’m going for a two-hour exposure. Does that make this live-blogging? I suppose it doesn’t count, since I’m sitting warm and dry inside while the camera stands alone in the woods.

By the way, a little word of advice for starry night shots and such: wait until very late at night. Aircraft cutting through your shots take away a lot of the appeal (unless you plan them). Eight PM is not a good time. Generally, by midnight in most areas the flights have halted. I wanted an earlier start tonight because the moon is rising and I didn’t want its light in the sky this time. Even on what seems to be a perfectly clear night, moonlight scatters from the air and causes too much sky glow for good star photography.

Earlier today, I got out and chased a few shots as well. An important thing to remember as you’re doing snow (or beach) shots is that the camera meter wants to make the scene an “average” brightness. When you have snow or bright sand and water, the camera will darken this down to middle tones if you let it, so always adjust to overexpose the shot. It’s called, “exposure compensation,” and for snow, generally 2/3 to 1 full stop is useful, depending on what you’re after. Bleaching out the snow to pure white destroys the details. So unless you’re just using it for a setting, I’d recommend keeping it bright but not white. This shot is 2/3 over-exposed from what the camera calculated, metered from the snow in the foreground. Unfortunately, at this size it doesn’t carry the details as well, so you can just make out that the rabbit trail continues on the other side of that broad shadow.

If the long film exposures turn out halfway decently, I’ll come back and show them off, and give another example of what good film can do to star colors. Meanwhile, I’ll close with a shot from the storm, where the flash helped show conditions just a wee bit better.

And it begins

Everyone has been in a frenzy here in NC over the approaching storm, which is supposed to deposit anywhere from 4 to 15 inches of snow on us, and it’s off to its start now. I realize this isn’t impressive by northern standards, and since I used to live in New York (the state) I’m not impressed either. But you also have to consider that no one knows what snow tires are around here, and there are virtually no snowplows, and power lines are hung by minimal standards (meaning, “not up to the weight of a coating of ice”.) So, it might get a little interesting.

I actually look forward to this. Winter in NC is boring – the only evergreens we have around here are longneedle southern pines, which are ugly trees, pretty mangy looking and very drab. The rest of the area is dead grass and bare trees – essentially, grey. About the best that can be said is that the low humidity tends to keep the skies clear and blue, unlike New York, which typically gets socked in for several months of overcast skies. When a break does occur and you get clear skies, it’s because there’s a wicked front pushing in and it’s generally colder than hell. I guess I should be happy that the winters aren’t that cold here? Naaah, not really, because I’ve spent winters in Florida too, where winter jackets were needed only occasionally.

The snow was falling as I took these pics (less than an hour ago as I type this), though it’s hard to tell because the long exposures that I needed for the night shots meant the snow moving through the air wasn’t still enough to show up. At top, the background light comes from my neighbor’s porch light, while the foreground branches are illuminated by an LED flashlight that I played across them during the exposure. The road shot above was simply ambient light, with some helping glow from the car headlights. I used a plastic bag over the camera to keep it dry, and listened to the hiss of the snow against the plastic. Facing in certain directions meant fumbling with the bag to ensure the light breeze didn’t carry it away – one of those things about nature photography is how much even mild breezes can mess with your photo. Ever try to take a tight macro shot of an insect on top of a long plant? Effective sharp focus is measured in centimeters or even millimeters, and plants can sway a lot more than that. It’s a common superstition that removing the macro lens from its pouch will cause the wind to kick up. Tonight, when I would normally have considered it very still and quiet, the bag told me otherwise as I had to keep wrapping it around the tripod knobs to keep it in place.

And even though it was full dark without bright lights shining towards the lens, I fixed the lenshood in place too, for good reason. It kept the snow from hitting the lens and putting water spots in my shots. Some idea of the usefulness of this can be seen here, where the lower lip of the hood collected a tiny snowdrift while I was shooting. A quick shot in the mirror once I came inside was necessary, reversed for the blog just so it wasn’t too confusing.

So, stay tuned, and we’ll see what kind of interesting landscapes are produced by the snowfall. Maybe if I’m really lucky, we’ll get clear skies before the snow melts and I’ll go for a star exposure over the snowfield.