Of dolphins and dedicated driftwood

This brings us to the last of the trip posts – I think, anyway. I’m not promising that I won’t write about some curious aspect of something I noticed while away, but at least this is the last describing the rough details of the trip. Feel free to be relieved. In years past, you’d have to blame the babysitter to get out of sitting through vacation slides, but here you can duck out and I won’t even know it.

We left Pinckney Island, mentioned in the previous trip post, and grabbed a quick lunch, checked into our suite (provided by our friends – suites aren’t something that The Girlfriend and I spring for,) and dashed back out to keep our appointment for a dolphin tour. Such tours are very popular, at the very least, in the southern reaches of the Atlantic coast, and probably through the Gulf of Mexico as well, and they vary greatly. We’d opted for an inexpensive, shorter one, and perhaps this showed. We certainly saw enough dolphins, but I’ve known for a while now how hard it is to get decent looks at dolphins and manatees, much less good photos. Dolphins often treat surfacing as a mere necessity, not anything to take the slightest interest in, so they do so very briefly and with almost complete unpredictablility. The appearance may be as long as two seconds, often shorter, and since the most interesting aspect – their faces – leads that appearance, you pretty much have to be lucky enough to be pointing in exactly the right direction and quick on the shutter to pull off a decent portrait. I’m still trying.

The tour area was a small bay where the dolphins frequented, probably drawn by the fish that were in turn attracted by some food source the bay provided. I know of tours where the dolphins come right to the boat, most likely drawn by being fed frequently, but these are often frowned upon by more than just myself. Wildlife should not be treated as pets, and inducing habituation for the sake of tourists is a pretty dismal excuse. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), like any other species, can be aggressive, defensive, or simply clumsy, despite their “smiling” visages, so encouraging close contact is simply inviting issues. These tours, however, merely took us into their midst, making a careful attempt to keep us facing in a decent direction, but nothing more.

We weren’t far from shore, either, and the view was almost as good from there, though it appeared to be private beaches. There was plenty of dolphin activity in our area, and in every direction – we even got glimpses of a “baby” dolphin (years in wildlife rehab make me put that in quotes, since the more appropriate term is “juvenile,” it just doesn’t give the right impression.) Speaking of juveniles, the young children on our boat were a hoot, excitedly pointing out every last appearance, though occasionally they were a bit misleading. “Mom! Look!” they would cry, and as nearly everyone on the boat craned around to see where they were pointing, they’d exclaim, “Jellyfish!”

We weren’t the only ones out there at the time. Another smaller tour boat was doing the slow circle with us, about 100 meters away, and a fishing boat. A father and his young son got some nice close encounters on a personal watercraft at idle (yes, they really do idle,) and a mother and daughter in a kayak did as well. I’m only guessing they were parents and children, though – perhaps this is the replacement for the windowless van painted with “Free Candy!” on the side; “I’ll take you on the dolphin tour your parents won’t spring for!” One would have to have a patience for jellyfish to pull that off…

I, just barely, managed to snag a face, more by chance than anything else:

… but as for adding to my stock with some nice, sellable dolphin images, it didn’t really happen. Those, and manatee photos, are subjects more accessible to photographers with decent underwater rigs and scuba-certification, who have frequent access to the areas where either species lives. North Carolina is not a scuba state – even the coastal waters are murky with poor visibility, and one can just about write off the inland lakes and ponds because of sediment. After all the snorkeling I did while living in Florida, I’ve been going through withdrawal, and while I had the gear with me on this trip, it received no use. The possibility of surf snorkeling was there, and we did get a chance in the morning to do some swimming off the beach with little wave activity, but sandy bottoms are boring. Rocky or plant-heavy inlets are much better for seeing something interesting. The Savannah area wasn’t a good choice either, since sediment is stirred up by the major port traffic and other areas are wetlands marshes, next to impossible to gain access to (unless you like long slogs through deep mud.)

By the way, if you’ve noticed that much of what I’ve posted here previously has been macro work, that’s primarily because that’s what I’ve been having the greatest opportunities for where I live – there’s little in the way of useful landscapes, sunrise/sunset opportunities, and of course exotic wildlife. But macro is a field I enjoy, however, and so managed to fit a little in while on this trip as well. The southern states are also well known for lizards, primarily the anoles and skinks, and several lived under the porch of my friend’s house, like this green anole (Anolis Carolinensis.)

We’d planned to get down to the Hilton Head lighthouse at sunset, but scheduling that simply did not work out. So seeing as how our suite was on the beach, I ventured out near midnight to go for a moonlit walk on the shore, all alone because the rest of the party was pretty wrecked by that point. While this might sound romantic and idyllic and all that, it probably fares much better without the large number of teenage idiots attempting to surf fish with no idea what they were doing, or setting off fireworks, or simply sitting around with the boomboxes blasting – do you get the idea why I don’t like tourist areas now?

The night was partially cloudy with a decent breeze, which meant times with very low light interspersed with brilliant moonlight from a waxing gibbous. Looking out over the waves, I saw a great effect as the moon, shrouded from me by the clouds, illuminated the distant water with a curious glow, and I could watch this approach as the clouds moved. Unlike what you might imagine, there was no rush of the light’s approach ended by a sudden glare (even a dim one); instead, when the light was still hundreds of meters away, the ambient light near me would simply increase and I would be in full moonlight as it edged past the amorphous clouds. A very neat effect.

Returning to our rooms, I came in quietly and set the alarm to get up before sunrise, because that’s what you do – not to keep repeating this point for anyone who’s been reading a while, but the best light is near sunrise and sunset, so if you’re serious about nature photography, you arrange your shooting schedule around these whenever possible. I had planned on slipping out without disturbing anybody, but The Girlfriend heard the alarm and roused herself to come along while our friends continued snoozing, which was fine by me.

The teenagers were all gone by now, having drowned (or maybe they just went back to their rooms,) but the beach was far from deserted, now populated mostly by couples waiting for sunrise like ourselves, and here and there by joggers. Shore images, naturally, work much better without crowds, but you can get away with couples or solitary people, so you choose your framing carefully, which can be difficult. I eventually sidled up to another photographer and explained how I didn’t want to get in his shot, nor did I want him in mine, so I was going to shoot alongside him if that was okay. He just laughed, and hit me in the head with his Nikon.

I also did a bit of photography just behind some of the dunes, which gave a bit more foreground interest and worked well to block many of the people on the beach (little tricks, little tricks.) In one location among the beach grasses, with a little footpath through the dune, sat a long piece of driftwood which bore a brass plaque: “Reserved for Hilton Head Island Photography.” Cheekily, I perched The Girlfriend on this and did some of my own shots, ’cause I’m a rebel. Nearby, the beach grass had been carefully gathered up and held down by clothespins so as not to interfere with portraits. This did not help my impression of Hilton Head Island Photography, since these were a cheap substitute for the professional Beach Grass Portraiture Retainers available from professional supply stores for $128 apiece…

This was the last day of our trip, and a nice way to start it off – sunrise on the outward leg had been spent on the road just outside Raleigh, woo hoo. The Girlfriend maintains that it was the best trip she’s taken, and she brought back lots of photos herself and several additions to her sea-turtle-themed decorations (anyone in the area will be able to recognize her car easily.) Since I caught flak for being slightly negative about our Florida trip on the blog, I’m avoiding any comments about this one ;-)

How about a little fire?

A few other bloggers have eviscerated this article, and I’ve specifically avoided seeing what they had to say because I wanted to read the article first. Once I did, I found I needed to make my own comments. So while three of my four readers might already have seen those same bloggers, I’m taking the chance of sounding like a broken record by posting my critique of Be Scofield’s 5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion.

Scofield gets off to a decent start, really, by admitting that atheists on average know more than most religious folk, an interesting fact demonstrated by more than one exam on scriptural passages. And he says something I’m in total agreement with:

But of course simply knowing more than other religious people about their traditions doesn’t preclude holding to false beliefs of their own.

… which is a fine point and a good thing to remember, even if he only made the comment as lead-in to his top five list. Nonetheless, Scofield mostly remains careful to make distinctions rather than overgeneralize, and certainly makes an effort to be fair, for which I give full credit.

So we move onto the myths, counting down from #5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism. Scofield relates, accurately, how some prominent atheists maintain that even moderate religious belief allows for extremism to be present or grow, in essence stating that even a mild belief system can foster the damaging aspects of rabid fundamentalism. Scofield finds this to be exaggerated, and draws several analogies:

Are the people who casually smoke marijuana in any way responsible for the death of someone involved in a violent heroin drug trade? Is a social drinker of alcohol creating the environment that leads to alcoholism? Should they be shunned for supporting conditions that cause tens of thousands of alcohol-related unwanted deaths? Is a pediatrician responsible for Nazi medical experiments simply because he or she participates in the field of medicine?

Let’s get that last out of the way first, since it’s a terrible example of a Slippery Slope fallacy and doesn’t even make sense (and Scofield even provided more, just as far afield.) The other three are more on target, but demonstrate an oversimplification of the issues that misses the thrust of the debate. Change the second question is a small way, to, “Does a culture that permits and even glorifies alcohol lead to alcoholism?” Does this sound a lot more like what religion actually does, and if so, what now of the answer? Scofield hopes to draw a parallel between the actions of an individual and religious belief within a culture, but obviously this is hard to support. Religion is not, and has not ever been at any point in human history, a personal choice kind of thing; if it was, there would be far fewer people decrying it. But when there are active movements throughout the US to teach it in schools, enforce it through laws of the states, and define or take away individual liberties based on some supposed divine authority, to then try and compare this to personal preference or action is juvenile at best, but I’m going to go for incredibly dishonest myself.

Scofield may want to label such actions as “extremism,” but the amount of support for these is not coming solely from radical churches and individuals – it’s pretty pervasive, and can be traced by state, not by (as one might expect) proximity to a radical church. One could ask whether Scofield thinks the various senators, congresspeople, and state representatives who support bills against gay marriage are considered “extremists.”

Regardless, there’s another point in there that’s completely missed, which is how moderates actually respond and react to extremism, something I’ve brought up numerous times before, here and elsewhere. Our culture is deeply involved with the idea of religious people being “good,” and rarely makes the distinction between the label and the actions thereof. It takes no effort whatsoever to find plenty of people finding ways to defend priests and churches caught deeply involved in unethical and criminal acts – this is not done by people who can distinguish good from bad in the slightest, but only by those who want to blindly defend the label of “good.” Those that consider themselves moderately religious are virtually never seen speaking out against extremism, most especially from their own particular tenet of religion, and, like Scofield, become quick to defend religion from a standpoint of the good it does rather than accepting any blame for the bad.

I could list example after example, but to state my point simply, the more rational and tolerant uses of science, religion, medicine or government cannot be blamed for the destructive and harmful uses of them.

Of course, right off I’m going to ask what the rational use of religion is, which is one of the points that is made often by atheists; you cannot consider it rational if it has no premise to base rational thought upon. As soon as you go outside scripture to say something like giving aid to the homeless is good from a sympathetic, societal point of view, you have eliminated religion as the pre-eminent cause of such altruism anyway.

There is also the recognition, conveniently ignored here, that religion is an ideology, and as such, doesn’t really compare in any way to science and medicine, and only vaguely to government in the broadest of senses. Ideology can guide science, medicine, and government – it does not stand as a body of knowledge, but as an instigator of value itself. It can, most certainly, be blamed for destructive and harmful uses.

Further, what Scofield dodges with this analogy is that a cultural dependence on supernatural causes and beings allows for the more obvious abuses thereof. Religious folk are very fond of claiming that we have no way of knowing what might lie outside our immediate physical senses, but somehow this does not slow them down into supposing and even asserting what this must be. And once you’ve opened the door to unprovable assertions, you make these permissible to use by others. Religion relies on a special exemption: not only we are allowed to believe in ethereal concepts, we are actively encouraged to, and requiring some kind of supporting facts for a standpoint is considered blasphemy, sometimes literally. In this way we have created a culture of reliance on, and deference to, imaginary ideas. Yes, they are indeed imaginary – there is absolutely no way anyone could examine the pantheon of religious belief and find any consistency whatsoever, much less testable facts, so what else could it possibly be called? And it is this point that the more prominent atheists have made. Nowhere else in our culture, or any culture, is someone allowed to dodge providing support for their viewpoints or proposals by invoking unknowable sources. When people do this with topics such as alien abductions and government conspiracies, we consider them cranks. Why do we allow this inconsistency to continue?

Scofield continues with #4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God, which would seem to be in response to the point I made above about imaginary ideas. True enough, the dictionary definition of religion is rather broad, and plenty of people chose to interpret it as they see fit, sometimes merely as “spirituality.” In practice, however, what anyone hopes to accomplish with this kind of argument is exactly what I pointed out above: exemption from examination and proof (as well as granting importance to their emotions.) While the majority of people behind any movement such as denying gay marriage or women’s rights will be theistic, specifically christian or muslim, apparently addressing the majority reliance on an unprovable source of authority means that atheists are finding “easy targets.” And despite his desire to refer to dictionary definitions to make a weak point, he misses the exact same point with atheism, which by definition means “non theism,” and theism doesn’t refer to spirituality or vague earth consciousnesses, but only a singular, active god. In reality, though, most atheists are such because they require something concrete, not to believe in, because belief is considered a corrupt crutch on thinking, but to actually provide some reliable effect. As such, every vague definition of “religion” that Scofield would like to wield falls flat. Not much of an argument for a top five.

Taking the bronze is #3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior, which is a favorite among many.

A common way for atheists to denounce religion is to simply list all of the horrors that have been done in the name of religion and then say, “Look how awful religion is!” Religion becomes synonymous with all of the bad things done by religious people. But is religion the cause of bad behavior or simply a mitigating factor?

Scofield then goes on to extensively quote Christopher Hitchens as saying, very clearly, that bad behavior is a human trait, only exacerbated by religion. I can’t help but think that it might have been better to actually demonstrate that the myth exists, rather than quote a prominent atheist debunking it, but at least he’s not avoiding the evidence of contradictory viewpoints. The discussion about religious violence has progressed far beyond religion as a root cause for decades now – the question has long been, “How much does religion encourage, allow, or condone violence?” One must ask, if they have any sense whatsoever, why religion is so very frequently found inextricably tied up with violence throughout the world? While correlation is not necessarily causation, correlation is a very distinctive indication of relation, and one that bears careful examination. To ignore that a lot of people throughout history have been moved to violence by the belief that they are doing something “good” is nothing but abject denial.

Of course religion is also a very powerful re-enforcer of our most beautiful, inspiring and profound aspects as well. It can inspire the best and worst in us.

Scofield seems to want credit for bringing up here that religion is indistinguishable from ordinary human behavior. There is a distinct point, however, that gets conveniently ignored every time such arguments are used: religion is specifically supposed to be a force for good. If it isn’t, why fucking bother? And that’s where we find atheists pointing out how often religion fails to inspire good deeds. There is a difference between saying “religion makes people bad” and “religion fails to make people good,” but this distinction is lost on people like Scofield (or, more likely, ignored in favor of an easier argument.) There is no shortage of people willing to give religion credit for all the good that people do, and even for the medical advances and expertise that science has provided, but this is very selective. When someone dies in a pointless way, religion is not to be blamed (or, occasionally, we’re supposed to believe there’s a higher, yet still good, reason.) This is nothing but confirmation bias, like a child proudly proclaiming their superiority when they successfully called a flip of the coin.

And we return to myth #5 as well. The deference to religion, the belief that it just might explain how the world really works, leaves us with absolutely no answer whatsoever to religious terrorism. We cannot pronounce a suicide bombing or the beheading of a heretic as “bad” whenever a religious motive is claimed, because we have a culture that glorifies religion and allows it to exist without rational support. True enough, many individuals decide on their own what religion is “real” and thus all others are false, but there is no way to establish this in a reasonable way – it can only be arbitrary. Humans need a method of establishing “good” and “bad” outside of the realm of religion, to which religion must defer and be subservient, if we are to have any expectations of countering extremism.

So far, our best point was at #5, and we’ve been going downhill ever since; Scofield does not break this trend with #2. Atheists are Anti-Religious. We see here that Scofield can indeed determine what atheism actually means, and this little point is one that occasionally crops up on forums.

Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion. It is simply the assertion that god does not exist, nothing more and nothing less.

This is useful only to people who lack the ability to think on their own so badly that they need everything rigidly defined for them. There are definitions for Democrat and Republican too, and what those parties are actually supposed to be in favor of – who really fucking cares? Does it actually apply to what most Democrats and Republicans support? Should there be some kind of effort to coin terms referring specifically to anti-theism, anti-deism, a-spirituality, and whatever else someone wants to be pedantic about? Maybe I’m a vastly superior exception to most of the human race, because I can read, and thus determine what attitude someone has from the points that they make; but I suspect this ability is more prevalent than that, and handy-dandy labels aren’t really needed.

Scofield here demonstrates something that crops up way too often from religious apologists, and often merely from everyday religious folk as well: that everyone else is stupid and needs help understanding simple concepts. I have made the point myself, several times, that I’m more into critical-thinking (or skepticism if you like that label) than atheism, since it covers topics unrelated to religion as well, but it doesn’t stop me from using the term atheist, nor do I think I’m drastically misleading people this way. Am I also anti-religious? Yes, from the standpoint that it is used to determine cultural standards and ideal behavior; no, from the standpoint of what someone wants to believe on their own without dictating terms to others. What’s the label for that? Who cares?

The downward spiral actually lessens a bit with #1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”, but still doesn’t rescue Scofield from poor arguments. Instead, we start to get wrapped up in value judgments:

Many atheists often claim that they are wrongly accused of not understanding the differences between religions. “Of course we do!” I’ve heard them say. But yet this is meaningless unless they are willing to treat these differences differently.

Scofield then goes on to quote Greta Christina, who talks not about the differences between, for instance, buddhism and christianity, but on the common factors that get them labeled as religion in the first place. The point is valid; reliance on immaterial, unprovable, and untestable assertions is a pointless way of attempting to choose what works for people.

Now, you have to recognize someone who quotes just one person, attempts to redefine what it is they’re saying, and then lists this as a myth that atheists are prone to. You recognize them, naturally, as someone who really can’t find a decent argument, and all he needed to get to was five:

For example, by using the term “all religions” she conflates a church attending atheist Unitarian Universalist with a Bible believing, homophobic theist. The venerable Vietnamese Buddhist religious leader Thich Nhat Hanh becomes synonymous with Pat Robertson simply because they are both religious leaders. Dr. King is in the same category as Osama Bin Laden.

No, she said nothing of the sort, and claiming that she did is fatuous. What she was talking about was the basis of religious belief, as she clearly outlined, and thus, each of those figures is equally corrupt in claiming authority and justification for their actions, as opposed to using reasoned and/or scientific or biological facts in their decisions. This does not mean that what they do with this belief becomes exactly the same, and this comparison is shamelessly opportunistic (much like Pat Robertson.)

But again, I feel the need to point out the subtle argument here. Scofield is clearly trying to make a distinction between “good” religious behavior and “bad” religious behavior, but religion cannot, by definition, be qualified that way – religion is the force for good and/or “truth,” as we are constantly reminded. As such, there can be no “bad” religious behavior unless we deny that religion bears that definition. Once we do, of course, we have to consider good and bad from another standpoint, such as what works best for society as a whole, whereupon religion becomes just another political movement. The authority of supernatural guidance or spiritual knowledge cannot hold up for all religions – they are irreparably contradictory, and so one must seek a method of determining which is more “true” than the others, something that has been going on without progress for a few thousand years. Or we can simply go with what works better for people, and use that as a sole (and perfectly functional) authority, and have done with all of the failures of religion that Scofield has been kind enough to outline above.

Misdirection and misunderstanding of useful values is nothing new, and neither are Scofield’s arguments. About the best that I can say is that he may not have intentionally exploited this, but might actually have been honest in intention, if not exactly on target. Then again, who cares? Whether you’re intentionally lying, or innocently misinformed, when you offer bad information makes no real difference.

Amusingly, Scofield makes several points about lumping religious people together throughout the article, but never realizes he attempts to define atheists in exactly the same way. Atheism isn’t a goal, cause, or movement – it’s a standpoint. Whether some statement is made by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina, or anyone else really doesn’t matter to me, nor to many atheists I’ve encountered – what matters is what anyone says, and quite frankly, everyone should be following this guideline. While we sometimes find that we (the human “we”) determine that most things expressed by some individual are intelligent or insightful, we sometimes invert this to mean that this person will thereby always be intelligent and insightful, changing the value judgment from the idea expressed to the person expressing it. But it should forever remain on the ideas alone, recognizing fallibility as a human trait, and keeping us alert to distinctions rather than abdicating thought.

For those who missed the significance of the title, it’s a quote from the Wizard of Oz, as the witch sets fire to the scarecrow. Despite Scofield wanting to highlight atheist strawmen with this article, there was no evidence that he had the ability to identify them in any way. Or hoped to misdirect the reader away from his own – one or the other.

My kind of exploring

On this recent trip, we actually got into three different wildlife refuges, although none of them at an optimum time (and all of them in South Carolina.) Nevertheless, we managed plenty of sightings and a few photographs here and there. I am, for some unknown reason, having a hell of a time getting the slide scanner to lock onto the colors, so these images are less impressive than they should be, and I apologize.

On the drive down, we stopped at Santee National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Marion near Summerton, SC. This has easy access off Interstate 95 and is well-marked. We were there at midday, not the best of times, and the heat seemed to have kept many critters less active. I was on the lookout for water moccasins, something I have yet to capture on film in the wild, but we saw only a few lizards, deer, and a raccoon that scampered off before I could retrieve the camera from the bag. I have no doubts that there would be lots more to see, judging from the area and their visitor’s center, but we were on the outward leg of our journey and not going to tarry long.

A few days later, we checked out Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which is actually just over the border into South Carolina from Savannah. Many of the trails and the vehicle drive were closed due to maintenance, so we saw only a tiny fraction of the area, and were delayed getting out of the house on both days we visited, so again, not there at optimum times. Despite the fact that we were only accessing the walking trail (between sections 7 and 8) and kept that to a minimum because of the heat, both times we were greeted by American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) almost as soon as we got out of the car – quite literally on the second day. Seen at the top of this post, one gator turned and headed straight for where we stood, plainly obvious on the bank – there is no doubt in my mind that people have been feeding them. It halted before it reached my “return to the car” line, apparently because we weren’t actually exhibiting any signs of offering food. I make it a point to maintain safe distances and practices with wildlife, knowing all too well that they can be provoked into protective or territorial behavior by cues we’re not familiar with. Someone might have an impression of the “intrepid” nature photographer braving danger to get that really cool shot, but that’s a stupid nature photographer, and needs not be encouraged. If you’re that close, you’re not only putting yourself at risk for a mere photo, but interrupting the natural behavior of the animals and providing a bad example for others. People often consider nature photographers to be naturalists in their own right, knowledgeable about habits and behavior of their subjects and thus a good person to emulate, but owning a camera with a long lens does not grant automatically this knowledge.

The most common subjects we saw in this refuge were the purple gallinules (Porphyrio martinica,) where the males displayed rich, iridescent blue/purple coloring, but the females a very drab black. About the size of bantam chickens, we had arrived at fledgling time, and numerous mothers were out with their chicks showing them how to forage for food. Most areas of the walking path were shrouded from the adjoining channel by tall cattail reeds, and it often required shooting through a screen of them. The gallinules frequently called to one another, as well as maintaining quieter clucks to keep the chicks oriented with their mother. The Girlfriend and I had witnessed the same thing in the NC mountains with the wild turkeys there; the mothers provide a near constant series of quiet, muttering calls which don’t carry very far, which the chicks know to keep within earshot. These calls are faint enough to avoid attracting attention from greater than 15 meters (50 feet) or so. If the chicks stray beyond hearing range, they frantically start a louder call to try and find mama.

The screening cattails meant that we only saw birds on the opposite side of the channel, though the soft (and sometimes loud) calls told us we were often only a few meters away from ones on our side of the channel, but totally unable to see them. It is frustrating to know you’re close enough for much better images, if only you could see through the foliage. A kayak would have provided a view of both sides, though it’s unlikely the presence of such a vessel would be ignored. I have never lived close enough to a good location to construct a floating blind, but I have made up my mind that the next place I live will be in easy proximity to a lake, at the very least. A nice wetlands area would be even better…

Late in the trip, we ended up going to Hilton Head Island. This wasn’t in the original plans, but our friends treated us in order to coax us to stay a little longer – they felt guilty because of their intrusive work schedule, I think. I normally avoid touristy areas, since I’d rather be farther away from people, but I’m game to explore anyplace once. We had to wait to check into our suite, so we backtracked a little and checked out the refuge we passed on our way onto the island. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a small place mostly made up of tidal flats, just a little turnoff between two causeways and not terribly promising in appearance. The path was a gravel road that seemed at first too open and exposed to offer much in the way of viewing opportunities. Not too far along, however, we came across a mudflat area that could have kept me busy for a while.

Once again, the fiddler crabs were in evidence, and I don’t say this lightly – it was the largest collection I’ve ever seen. The number of them was so great that one could be excused for imagining they were only stubs of plants or something, and being diminutive and off the trail a short ways, they could be totally missed if someone wasn’t being alert. I suspect I’ve mentioned before that I like crabs, and could have spent no small amount of time right there – I also could have gotten really filthy doing so, trying to get up close to a subject standing not two centimeters tall that liked soft mud. Decorum won out, however, as the patience of my friends and the prospect of getting back into their car covered in black mud prevented me from indulging in my native instincts. I still spent a few minutes chasing them and watching their antics.

Male fiddlers have a dominant cheliped (“claw”) that can be either side, but always outweighs its opposite by a wide margin – they earned their common name because they wave this in both warning and mating displays. The species – these were most likely mud fiddlers (Uca pugnax) – live in small holes dug into the sand or soft mud, and feed on little bits of organic matter in the mud, either vegetation or scavenged animal matter and plankton. While they need to keep their breathing apparatus moist, they’re not an aquatic species like a blue crab and can handle being out of the water. The eggs are released into neap tide to be carried away, and the young live on plankton in deeper water, before coming back into tidal zones as adults. Handling them, if you’re quick enough to catch one, is easy, since the chelipeds are rarely large enough to do more than pinch a bit, and mostly they just try to sidle away shyly (unlike the very aggressive aquatic blue crabs, for instance.) They’re also a subject you need very little patience for; scare them into their burrows with an incautious movement, and you only have to wait a minute or two before they venture out again.

A little further on, we watched a pair of American white ibis (Eudocimus albus) foraging in the same kind of area and tried for some useful compositions, unaware of what waited a little further up the trail. We were just thinking of turning back, partially because of the heat, partially because we hadn’t planned on being in the open so long and hadn’t applied sunscreen, when we came to what I think was identified as “Osprey Pool.” In an earlier post, I enthused about Venice Audubon Society Rookery in Florida, but I’d never heard of Pinckney Island before, and they have their own version. June seems to me to be too late to find nesting birds, especially in warmer southern states, but nobody apparently told the white ibis that – they were nesting in abundance, and much easier to photograph than at Venice as well.

Countless other species were raising their young there too. A couple of fledgling tricolor herons (Egretta tricolor,) seen at right, were flying heavily from perch to perch and making a ridiculous amount of noise, upset because their mother was trying to convince them to find their own food. A few anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) youngsters could be seen, and we spotted double-crested cormorants, great egrets, wood ducks, black-crowned night herons, and at least one example each of little blue and green herons. The activity was constant, one of those situations where you can only look in one direction at a time and thus know you’re missing something in another (that’s why there were three of us shooting.) Since The Girlfriend’s camera was being balky, she used my digital while I shot film, and so she got to be a bit more serious in chasing subjects – it convinced her to invest in her own DSLR now (and will have a significant upgrade over mine.) Among three cameras we have several hundred images, and could have remained there half the day, if we didn’t need water and shade. Next time, it’ll be a picnic lunch, I’m sure. And much earlier in the day.

The pond was little more than a moat around an island, and I’m not really sure where the fresh water came in. We were never more than a few hundred meters from the tidal flats, though, and an opportunistic alligator was in evidence here, too. It had chosen some duckweed to skulk about within, and had surfaced from underneath rather than swimming into it, resulting in a nice coating across its head, increasing its camouflage – I have no doubts that this is an instinctive habit. While there, it heard a mother gallinule hiding in the reeds of the island, and if I can judge from the different nature of her calls, she knew quite well the gator was there, and was telling the kids to stay close and hidden. We only got the barest glimpse of her and the young in the reeds, but the gator nosed up to the very edge of the water pointed directly at her location, hoping for a snack from an incautious fledgling. Some might consider the gator to be the villain in this scenario, big nasty thing feeding on cute little fluffy thing, but that’s the natural order – the gallinules themselves feed on insects and frogs as well as aquatic plants, and this is no less, or more, cruel. It is merely the food cycle, no emotions involved, and our attempts to pin some kind of value judgment on any of it is inappropriate and misleading. Just observe.

Again, I’m not in a hurry to check out Hilton Head again, being too developed for my tastes, but I will certainly try to return to Pinckney Island and spent a lot more time there. Our visit was longer than intended and far briefer than it warranted, and serious birders and nature photographers should include it in their list of locales. The benefit, of course, is that you can then crash and eat on Hilton Head rather than in a tent someplace ;-)

Ghosts and ironwork

Two posts about the trip, and we’ve only covered one day, but now we’ll step up the pace a little bit. Naturally enough, when visiting the Savannah, Georgia area, we tooled around in historic downtown Savannah. I’m not much for chasing historic areas and visiting old buildings, and I don’t do the tourist thing too often, so if you’re looking for a comprehensive travelogue telling you all about the city, you need to be looking elsewhere (I imagine you can find a travel blog or two someplace.) But there were still some things that struck me about the place.

I currently live in a town that has some historic sections of its own, but this is night and day in comparison with Savannah. We have a couple of older buildings and cemeteries (one of which is almost completely trashed,) but that’s about it. Savannah was a more prosperous city, being a trading riverport, and maintained this level of income to this day, so an astounding number of the buildings downtown are in great condition and date to colonial times. They also realized that this was a tourist draw, and so keeping or restoring the buildings is an investment. While modern life takes place in the heart of the city, it often does so in classic structures. They have also maintained some of the original roads down to the riverfront, and many of the iron gaslights. In fact, ironwork abounds in the city, and my speculation is that this was a status symbol of the time, the colonial equivalent of a Lamborghini. The well-to-do flaunted their success with iron facings, accents, gates and lamps, much of which remains today.

The main road through the city, separated from the river by only one row of buildings, sits roughly two stories higher than the river, so you have to actually descend sharply to remain at “groundlevel,” and in many places this is by original stairs and alleys. We take for granted the building codes that make stairs uniform in height and angle, and this becomes remarkably clear when you take a flight built before this standardization and try not to fall ass over tip. Choosing the original roads is virtually no better, since they’re paved with large round ballast stone – you understand that “cobble” and “hobble” probably are related words as you attempt not to twist an ankle. Yes, they do provide safer access down to the river, but that’s for weenies.

We opted for a trolley tour, which has its merits. While open and not air-conditioned, something that is quite noticeable this time of year, the driver provides plenty of details about the buildings and history while freeing you from the efforts of driving in downtown, and this is no small thing. On top of the fact that the streets are a little narrow and naturally busy, Savannah has this little trait created centuries ago, that of putting a park where a normal streetlight would be. So instead of a grid layout, imagine taking roughly every other crossroads and planting a square right at the center, then detouring the roads around this. You do not drive straight through this section, but spend a lot of time turning right, left, left, and right to get back to your original direction of travel. On the other hand, Savannah has more trees than any other city I’ve seen, and they are ancient, huge, and as mentioned, dripping with Spanish moss. Letting someone else drive is much better, and the trolley tours are such that you can disembark at various stops and rejoin a later trolley, getting a chance to walk around, eat, shop, and do all the touristy things. For our own part, this included rescuing a baby bird dangling from its nest in the City Market, which is the art gallery and café section of the town.

Yes, of course I’m noticing the wildlife anyplace I go – you really didn’t expect else, did you? This applied to a couple of evenings later too, when we watched flying squirrels flashing from tree to tree in the twilight, too fast and unpredictable for me to capture on film (silicon, whatever.) We were downtown to catch an historic ghost tour, departing from the gates of the cemetery seen here. Tours are Savannah’s raison d’être it seems, and Savannah is considered the most haunted city in the US, so we couldn’t pass up a ghost tour – we’d already been by several of the haunted buildings on the trolley tour, but on a sunny day this doesn’t have the right atmosphere. So we selected a candlelit walking tour in the later evening.

If you’re at all familiar with this blog, you may be anticipating my dismissive, skeptical reaction, but believe it or not I was a good boy. As expected, these were simply accounts of what others had experienced in many locations around the town, and not statements about the existence of ghosts nor the attempt to experience them ourselves. I have no problem with good fun, and am not terribly concerned with whether someone is curious about the accounts and experiences – inquiry is just fine in my book, and in fact preferred. The caveat that I make is that it is reasoned inquiry, not committing to any presumed existence or lack thereof, but able to determine what decent evidence really is, and able to look for alternate explanations of phenomena rather than settling for something that seems “positive” and ignoring all else. Waving around an electro-magnetic field meter means absolutely nothing if you have no idea how often EMF occurs nor why ghosts in particular should emit or disturb them (hint: my computer monitor produces beaucoup EMF, as does any electrical device with decent amperage and low shielding.) And of course, photography is even worse, usually capturing far less light than our eyes can, and only occasionally modified to image spectra that we do not see ourselves, like near-infrared and ultraviolet. You did, of course, see the “ghost” in the cemetery photo here, on the grave markers themselves? You can see more here. I can assure you that we did not see any of these with our naked eyes, simply because they’re reflections inside the lens array of the cameras themselves.

The tour itself was interesting, but not as dramatic as you might expect – other ghost tours and noisy buses going past don’t lend themselves to the right kind of atmosphere. We did not go into any of the haunted buildings – most of them are in regular use as inns or offices, and while some such tours undoubtedly exist, they’re also probably a lot more expensive. I amused myself by attempting several long existing-light exposures as we went along, sans tripod since I didn’t desire the encumbrance, so I braced where I could to try and reduce camera shake. In one such image, I discovered the secret of the historic ghost tour, seen here. I thought it meant it was a tour about historic ghosts, but our guide’s right arm seems to indicate that I was mistaken. Always check the fine print.

The empty sleeve effect even looks great at full resolution, and not half as fake as many feeble attempts at double exposures. If you’re wondering, it was merely catching (unintentionally I admit) our guide waving her arm during the 1/5 second exposure time, so that it blurred into indistinction – she otherwise held still enough to appear mostly sharp. I have plenty of other blurred photos, including one with a remarkably creepy effect from her facial movement, but since everything else is blurred it’s not half as interesting in appearance as this one.

The nature photographer part of us was not left behind at all, and later in the trip we got out to chase some critters. I’m not using the royal “we” in this case – The Girlfriend did no small amount of her own shooting, even though she doesn’t pursue it like I do. Now that my slides have returned from the lab, I’ll be sorting and scanning while I select some further post topics, and will be back shortly.


So, not long after I put up a post about deconstructing arguments, I find an example about arguments that really don’t need it, because they weren’t even constructed in the first place. Over at RichardDawkins.net, we get to see a classic example of what passes for journalism these days, where some nitwit named Giles Fraser attempts to address a non-issue and derive some kind of non-statement from it, without ever bothering to understand what it is he’s writing about. Clueless journalists, however, aren’t the topic of my post here, any more than saying the sky is blue. At comment 6 following the article teaser, we have someone making the reply:

“What is the reasoning behind humanism? Why should we attach value to humans who are just a collection of molecules, according to the atheistic worldview?”

… which not only means he couldn’t even be bothered to look up “humanism,” but that he believes atheists deny the existence of emotions as well as gods, as if there’s some connection.

I have to admit, I have never seen any such statement from or about atheism, not even close, and nothing that can possibly be construed this way, from even any tenet of philosophy. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution makes no statement or inference to this effect – about the best that can be said is that humans are only one of many related animal species, distinguishable in no significant way from the rest of the animal kingdom. This has nothing to do with emotions, since many species possess them, but there does seem to be a prevalent misunderstanding that every species except humans operates as an automaton, slave to their instincts and “feeling” nothing.

I’ve faced this same style of argument personally, most amusingly following the complaint that most atheists never addressed the more “nuanced” aspects of religion. There are definitely times when I wished that I could discuss religion with someone who actually examined their arguments first, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The amount of time that is wasted over a debating point that’s a construction of fallacies, ignorance, and outright lies is frightening.

Perhaps the commenter is basing his opinion on misconceptions of Nietzsche’s ideas – too many people feel he espoused both nihilism and immorality, never grasping the idea that this would only be the case if one felt morality and purpose came solely from religion. Or maybe the commenter thinks Ayn Rand’s absurd idea of objectivism forms the backbone of atheist attitudes. The idea that Rand, and perhaps Nietzsche, were atheists somehow makes them atheist role models to those who can’t be bothered with details; humanism has little to do with either of them.

Regardless the misconceptions about humanism and atheism, the basic alternate viewpoint proposed by many seems to be that emotions are what defines our contact with the divine, not just something that sets us apart (supposedly) from other species. I honestly don’t know where this comes from either – I’ve found no scripture, no tenet of faith, not even a popular homily (such as “life begins at conception,” which is far more recent in origin than most suspect) that provides even the basis of this idea. Anyone that has spent any time at all around other species can see that emotions aren’t saved for humans. Nor are they all that hard to understand, any more than an orgasm is, or feeling tired after exertion, or hungry when it’s been a while between meals. It almost pains me to have to point such things out.

But emotion is tied very distinctly into religion, as well as most aspects of new age thinking, and plays no small part in the art world either. Feeling emotional about something is what makes it significant, apparently, and I’ve heard this given as the “proof” of a god more often than I can count. As I’m fond of pointing out, this line of argument must mean that sports have some kind of cosmic significance, since you often don’t see better examples of emotional extremes anywhere else.

And this is why I promote critical thinking above atheism, or alien conspiracy debunking, or anything else; being aware of what constitutes a good argument, and what destroys an argument, simply makes for more reasoned decisions. This is also why we have the scientific method that we do. Feeling strong emotions in connection with rather inane and pointless subjects like “The Pennant” doesn’t really support the idea that these are transcendent in any way; seeing excitement, distrust, or frustration from a family pet means you have to explain these in some way other than “emotions” if you want to keep believing these are things that only humans possess. Watching someone wax rhapsodically over the wonders of tofu or the music of Jimi Hendrix is only another nail in the coffin. Every theory is only as good as the amount of time someone has spent examining the supporting factors, and searching for those factors which effectively disprove it. If such counter-argumentative factors are as easy to find as this, then obviously not much effort was made to ensure that emotions are both human and transcendent.

We have a remarkable, and fairly common, body of knowledge about emotions now – the portions of the brain that activate during certain emotions, the endorphins released, the link to memories, and even the stimulating effects from foods such as chocolate. While we may not have a complete understanding of how the brain works, it’s not like we don’t know what emotions are or where they come from. To connect them to some kind of transcendence makes no sense.

One could argue that strong emotions must have a purpose, and this would work for either an evolutionary or theistic viewpoint. But it’s an example of falling for misleading wording. “Purpose” and “function” are not necessarily the same thing. Most especially, “purpose” is usually taken to denote something that was intended, or consciously guided. But something can have a function without a purpose, like a tree. Moreover, when used in relation to natural selection, it shows a further misunderstanding: selection does not provide solely for function, and it is possible for any species to possess traits that serve no purpose, or which function in non-specific manners. The entire concept of natural selection is that it isn’t guided at all, and relies on survival and reproductive advantages. I’ll address this some more in a later post.

Strong emotions very often provide an advantage, and as such can be said to have a function, but “advantage” is another tricky word – it doesn’t mean “all the time,” or that every time we feel particular emotions there is good reason. We have aggressive, protective tendencies too, using the emotion of anger to ward off predators and protect our families – but fighting over a parking spot has only the tiniest of connections to this, and is pretty pointless from a survival standpoint (or any other.) Emotions can and do spring up from weak causes. Ever cry over a movie? Why? It’s a freaking play, an open lie on the face of it! It does not become mystical because we reacted – it simply exploited our traits towards sympathy. If we can feel affection towards an actor because of the part they played, or hatred towards a politician solely because of their party affiliations, obviously emotions aren’t exactly a foolproof method of divining importance.

Don’t get me wrong – emotions have their uses, and are at least partly responsible for the cultures that we have established. They’re pretty effective in their own way. But the same can be said for any tool, any function, any species on the planet (except fire ants) – this does not make any of them particularly special or potent. Most especially, if we are to make claims of great importance for feelings, we should at the least establish that they’re not so trivially easy to fool, manipulate, or provoke with pointless events.

Romantic interlude

A few weeks back now, a horde of unidentified caterpillars descended on flowering trees of a certain species in the backyard, devouring leaves at an alarming rate. I naturally took the opportunity to add to my photo stock, including some interesting compositions. This particular one always strikes me as enigmatic, for some reason. Seeing the two of them working towards each other on the same leaf puts me in mind of the spaghetti dinner scene from Lady and the Tramp. Somehow, I think the eventual face-to-face (or whatever it is caterpillars have) encounter would have been considerably less charming.

While a few were observed to have made it to chrysalis stage, most seemed to have disappeared rapidly, I suspect due to the influence of the titmice raising young nearby – more than once I spotted the adults with larvae of similar appearance clutched in their beaks, delivering food to the hungry offspring. Current films can be quite creative in how many different ways of thwarting romance are mustered up, but so far as I know, none of them have included being seized and fed to another species. I want to see Tom Hanks charm his way out of that one. If you’re a Hollywood producer, I get 4% of the gross and ten points…

Not gonna happen

I’m, very slowly, catching up on some of the blogs (mostly there in the sidebar) that I was reading semi-regularly before I went out of town. Even before that, I’d slowed down a bit, so “catching up” is not going to happen, and some of the more interesting posts that I might have commented on are well past their sell-by date now. One at Friendly Atheist featuring a clip from Dan Savage, however, caught my attention because it’s the same thing I’ve been saying for a while now:

First off, Dan can turn a phrase, I have to give him full credit for that. And he has a great point – christianity doesn’t have a firm definition; nor, for that matter, does islam, judaism, et al, making them all interchangeable for my topic here. This allows the followers to do largely what they want and consider themselves faithful. However, when atheists uses the term “christian” (“muslim,” etc.) we are often taken to task for lumping moderate, tolerant religious folk in with the frothing fundamentalists who probably just need a good laxative (or electroshock therapy.) I’m rather divided on the issue, myself (favoring electroshock – no, sorry, I mean the moderate/extremist thing); while I make it a point to judge individuals as individuals and not as labels, I can’t deny that many of these same individuals don’t bother to make the distinctions themselves, and will happily use the labels to describe themselves when it appears that this will be seen in a positive light. They only decry the labeling when some other interpretation of “christian” is in effect.

I don’t really care, one way or another – I just wish they’d settle it amongst themselves, as Dan suggests. Lots of people want to wave the christian flag but there’s no agreement on what army this actually represents. If you find that some self-professed christian blowhard doesn’t represent what “true” christianity is, take it up with them, not with me for using the same damn term they use themselves.

But, I’m well aware that this isn’t going to happen. First off, the issue isn’t with what christianity really is, because nobody actually knows – look at how many different ways this is interpreted. For ideologies that represents “truth,” as I am so often reminded, the followers seem to be all over the map (this is why I like science much better – it pins this shit down.) Let’s be real, “religious” is generally taken to be a synonym for “good,” which is one of the few common denominators among the various interpretations of any particular religion. You get people protesting only when their religion is demonstrated to be intolerant, racist, bigoted, hateful, xenophobic, elitist, and so on – all words that don’t really fit with the idea of “good.” But this cannot possibly be the fault of christianity, no no, so it’s really evidence that some of the people calling themselves christian are just posers.

No self-identified christian, however, can afford to take it up with the posers. What can they possibly say? “Real christians don’t hate homosexuality!” Except that it really is right there in the scripture, such as a couple of passages in leviticus as well as others. Such sources conflict with the ideas of tolerance from new testament passages, certainly, not to mention the various “judge not” bits and the overall idea that the omniscient deity has a reward and punishment program already in place. Things bog down pretty quickly when one attempts to use scripture as their authority, since all of it is ridiculously contradictory and vague. Basic logic tells us that “truth” cannot be self-contradictory, so the only argument that can come up is that at least some (heh!) scripture is inaccurate, if not entirely fable. Well, fine, it’s not the first time that’s been advanced. So… how do you tell the “true” parts from the fable? Which of two contradictory passages can be determined to be the one that should be followed?

Well, that’s what keeps theologians busy – for twenty centuries and more, now, though you might have noticed that they haven’t agreed on any answers yet (maybe they’ll make it by humanity’s end – too bad if you died before the guidelines had been set.) Most religious folk, however, haven’t the faintest idea what kind of theological support there is, or is not, for their position, and simply notice the bits that agree with what they were already thinking, conveniently ignoring the rest. When “the rest” rears its ugly head, they really have no way of dealing with it. When you base your worldview on following scripture as the inarguable word of the deity, because it’s much easier than bothering to make a logical case and also allows you to be as bigoted, homophobic, and intolerant as you want to be, you’re kind of in a bind when the scripture says something that you don’t want it to.

Which is why agreeing even on what “christianity” means is never going to happen, and why religion will never be a force for peace; scripture can only be followed selectively, and fails completely when any effort is made to tie it in to demonstrable reality – you know, like a round earth, evolving animals, and light coming only from stars. In fact, it usually sits so alone in its assertions that theologians seeking to resolve those contradictions can do nothing but refer to scripture itself with circular arguments, since external confirmation isn’t possible. It’s like Trekkies arguing over stardates.

Immoral atheist that I am, I figure it’s easier to earn a “good” label by doing those things that we routinely consider “good.” Granted, some people can’t instantly tell this because I have no icon to wear around my neck denoting my certifiable goodness, and they would have to perform the difficult feat of actually paying attention to what I do – this is asking a lot, I know, since thinking is so hard. It gets easier with training, though.

UPDATE: I no sooner post this and start cruisin’ the intersnarl, when I come across a nice take on theology in today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Note that hovering over the little red dot in the lower left provides a secondary comic…

Poking around

So, after the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, we poked around Jekyll Island a little bit. This was a day trip and we weren’t staying long, so there wasn’t enough time to do a proper exploration of the place, and while I normally would dig in and wander off into the hinterland, I was with friends who weren’t all into exploring. So our target was the north end of the island, where the island was eroding away into an old oak forest which gave it the name Driftwood Beach. It was appropriately named, decorated with elaborate tangles of dried grey trunks and branches in many places, while perched on the inlet end where wave action was practically nonexistent, at least while we were there. I would have loved to have been there at sunrise or sunset, because this is the kind of subject that benefits from low angle, contrasty light and deep sky colors – most beaches do, but driftwood and rocky beaches especially. That wasn’t going to happen on this trip, which was a shame, but you work with what you get. Sometimes you’re simply scouting locations, planning your return during more opportune conditions, which is why I recommend longer photo trips whenever possible. The weather won’t always be ideal, and some areas or subjects benefit the most from multiple visits. You may find that this image is nice enough, but it can be even better, and pursuing that is what makes the better photographers.

When you travel to another climate area, such as the sub-tropics, you enter into not just another set of weather patterns and average temperatures, but local flora and fauna as well – obvious, perhaps, but sometimes I forget that this means some of the more subtle things. I’m notorious for finding fire ant hills, and since I’m always in sandals in areas like this, I find them the hard way – as I type this, there are several welts still on my feet, and one toe looks like it’s recovering from trauma. I would have no compunction against hastening the extinction of such species, regardless of the consequences, and I can generally find something good to say about anything.

But that wasn’t the only abuse my feet took on this trip. Taking my friend’s cue and wandering off the trail a short distance, we both ran afoul of another hazard to unprotected feet – my collection here was gathered when I stepped over to help her with her own, so she kindly took this picture after her own was removed. That’s the kind of gal she is. While they don’t look like they were embedded in more than the sandals, I had three deeply lodged in various places on my foot, and luckily had my pocket knife. Instead of attempting to grasp the little caltrops, I simply slide the blade between my foot and the bulb and pried them out gently. I made it a point of reminding my friend how much my foot still hurt, long after it had stopped, because that’s the kind of guy I am ;-)

The entrance to this beach featured a small bridge over a wetlands channel, and I ventured down there briefly. The peatlike, boggy bottomlands are greatly favored by fiddler crabs (genus Uca – there are far too many species for me to pin down which I was seeing,) and they were having a grand old time down there in what appeared to be a mating frenzy. Doing justice to this would have resulted in getting more than simply muddy, so I settled for a few quick shots and moved to catch up to the others. If crabs creep you out, don’t wander into marsh areas anyplace in the southern US, because the ground is absolutely alive in some areas and appears to be moving on its own, something that only video will do justice in portraying. Fiddlers are harmless of course, and will dash away to avoid contact, so walking in such an area poses no danger of encounters or crushing them. But the widespread shifting of what appears to be solid ground is eye-bending at times, because one often doesn’t notice them until they move.

The fiddlers weren’t the only crustaceans in evidence, as the thin-stripe hermit crabs (Clibanarius vittatus) liked the submerged portions of the driftwood. Here, one that I’d caught wanders back to the surf as The Girlfriend does some ground-level portraits with my old digital camera, which seems to have finally given up the ghost on this trip (as a quick aside, my first serious film camera is at least ten years older than this digital and still going strong, and I have several which are much older still.) And of course, now you know what The Girlfriend looks like.

Georgia, and most especially Savannah, is known for its Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides,) and this epiphytic bromeliad drapes the trees in huge quantities, giving them a charming, somewhat prehistoric air. The plant is almost completely innocuous, feeding entirely from the air and humidity and doing no damage to anything else in its vicinity – even its weight is negligible, and some southern companies use it as a quaint packing material for local crafts. Up close, it’s simply strands of twisted thin vegetation, completely dry and pale grey in color with a hint of olive. The only negative effects are that it hampers the growth of the host tree at times by blocking some of the sunlight, and may contribute to storm damage from its greater wind resistance, but I would think this is minimal because it pulls free easily and is unlikely to exert much drag on tree limbs. It is, naturally, something that must be photographed while in the southern states, and this example here remains my own favorite. On Jekyll Island, several areas of thick woods take on a delightfully untamed appearance from the twisted trunks and the thick moss, but in maintained, mown areas it simply adds a rustic, aged charm to the trees.

I will, most definitely, be returning, both for the Sea Turtle Center and the photographic possibilities of the island, since I haven’t done it justice yet. I’m sure there are a lot more critters to be seen, and a few sunrises and sets need to be examined on those beaches. I recommend that you check it out yourself if you get the chance. Just stay on the trails…

Doing it right

I’m back from the trip, having extended the stay by a few days, and found that you all began tearing up the comments while I was away. I guess I expected no less.

The Girlfriend and I spent some time with friends in the Savannah, Georgia area, and got around a bit to check out some interesting items in the vicinity. The first thing we visited, and thus the first I’ll talk about, is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. Having worked with wildlife rehab and visited several centers devoted to such, I can easily say this was the most impressive, and well worth a visit if you’re within even a few hours of the area. If you’re into turtles or wildlife, involved with rehab in any way (even as a donor,) or simply want to see something different, this should be on your list.

Started just a few years back in 2006, the center is housed within the old power station buildings for the island, through the cooperation of the Jekyll Island Foundation, which maintains the historic portions of the island. The Foundation recognized the attraction of a decent public wildlife center, as well as the need to educate people on the species that routinely nest on the beaches. But there’s more to it than that, too, since the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is far in advance of any rehab or education center I’ve visited save for the NC Zoological Park, and it’s obvious a lot of emphasis has been placed on the outreach portions of their mission. I can’t stress enough how important this is; non-profit organizations run on public support, and the only way one can forge ahead with funding is by creating and maintaining a compelling public presence. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that think that directing their funds towards development and education would take money from actual rehabilitation services, and this is complete nonsense, bordering on the ignorant. Development funds are an investment that, properly managed, pays back hugely, and this center is a prime example of how it works. This is evident even before you enter the building, from the parking lot with bus unloading areas to the “Walkway to Wonder” brick entrance, positively loaded with engraved messages from donors.

Inside, the education area has plenty of interactive and engaging exhibits, and as a model-builder, I can vouch for the effort that went into these. The entrance ticket serves as a prompt to have visitors check out stations around the hall, receiving an embossed seal from each that reveals another aspect of turtle life – it’s amazing how much attraction such a simple thing like a surprise seal provides, since there are multiple unrevealed embosser choices at each station. Big screen TVs roll video loops of excellent footage, including such things as testing of turtle excluders in commercial fishing nets (a real example of which stretches overhead in the vaulted ceilings of the old power station,) and the sand writhing as newborn turtles emerge from buried nests and make their frantic way to the ocean.

But to one side sits the observation window, where visitors can observe the rehabilitation technicians and veterinarians actually administering to patients in the adjoining medical room. Because turtle eyes are sensitive to bright light, there is no flash photography permitted, so be prepared and boost your ISO a bit to allow sharp images. The staff throughout the center are not only helpful, they’re directly engaging, offering advice and interesting tidbits as well as taking a distinct interest in the visitors. Even the rehab technicians will bring patients up the the glass for a brief good look before returning them to their housing. Little things like that do a lot for creating a positive experience, as opposed to the demeaning and snotty attitudes I’ve seen from some rehabilitators, who seem to feel the public is just there to make them suffer. No, seriously, this is a trait I’ve encountered frequently. The “public,” either through indifference or well-meaning ignorance, does indeed contribute to lots of wildlife issues, but for some reason many rehabbers seem to think this is intentional, and take it personally. If this is your attitude, let me help you out right now: get the hell out of the business. The “public” is what makes wildlife rehab actually work, and annoying them isn’t going to gain any funding. It’s nice to be at a place where they recognize this.

Attached to the main building sits the big enclosed pool area. Sea turtles, naturally, need large tanks of clean and maintained water to recover within, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center provides a public hall down the center of their facility to let visitors see the patients. More clever touches were evident here: mirrors were set above some of the tanks, allowing a better view of the residents, and the education interns are fitted with microphones wired into a PA system (or if you’re British, a tannoy) that could be heard throughout the chamber. Each tank bore the resident’s name, and info stations on the rails provided the background of their injuries and treatments. Questions were welcome and encouraged, and the raised platform allowed a little better visibility of the patients. We were lucky enough to be there for the feeding time presentation, which a staffmember kindly alerted us to. The fee for all of this, by the way, is less than you’d spend for lunch.

Even the gift shop is impressive. Nicely laid out and with a wide variety of interesting items, from t-shirts and decals to fantastic artwork, it’s another aspect that shows what a bit of effort can do for a center. Proceeds, of course, go towards funding the center and its efforts, so even somewhat unreasonable prices are excusable, but actually the items were very competitively priced. Even here, the staff noticed visitors’ interests and volunteered pricing information or fetched an item to be examined. Sometimes little things like this go unnoticed, and I want to emphasize that it’s a nice touch, and I’m pleased with their attention to this.

Since we were visiting the area briefly, we didn’t get to see any of the educational programs, or take part in a turtle walk – the center does not stand alone. But we’ll definitely be returning, and in the meantime, I can only urge you to check it out, most especially if you’re involved with wildlife rehab in any way. Make sure you thank the staff you see there, too – non-profit organizations don’t exactly provide competitive salaries, and most people working there are volunteers. But it’s through their dedication and efforts that such centers exist, and a lot of turtles owe their health and well-being to this drive. And by all means, check out the website, which also reflects this effort.

A lot of the images I shot on this trip are actually on film, so more details about what we got up to will wait on the processing (I ship it out since the local labs have stopped handling slide film.) As a teaser, I can just say that it’s good to go back to the sub-tropics from time to time.

But how? Part two: Designed just for us

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 2

This continues a new trend that I began here, where the concepts that support a religious (or at least, in this case, deistic) worldview receive critical examination. The topic of discussion this time around is the Anthropic Principle, or (sticking to the way it is normally wielded) “things are too perfectly suited to life for the universe to be random!”

First off, the fact that this has a scientific-sounding moniker is what causes some of the problems, but it isn’t exactly a scientific principle (at best, it is philosophical,) and in fact, there are several variations of it. It’s also rather contentious even among its supporters, so holding it up as evidence that science supports a divine creator shows a poor understanding of the overall issue, much less the various discussions of individual aspects.

The aspect that is sometimes referred to as the weak anthropic principle essentially states that what we see in the universe is what we can see; the parts that seem encouraging of life forming are what we notice simply because those conform to the senses that we developed. In other words, we’re aware of gravity because we need it, and the catalytic effects of liquid water and oxygen because life as we know it could not have formed where it doesn’t exist. This is, in effect, the opposite of how the anthropic principle is often used by religious apologists, because it makes it clear that the only things we’re likely to see is what favors us – a universe with the conditions for life is where we will reside and thrive, as opposed to someplace that was directly hostile. Kind of a “duh!” argument, and completely ignoring that our existence in a hostile environment would be far better evidence for divine intent.

Douglas Adams presented the idea of a (curiously self-aware) puddle of water looking at the basin it filled and thinking that the basin fit the shape of the puddle so well, it couldn’t have been an accident. This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in with invoking the anthropic principle, where vanity makes this very contemplation something that must revolve around us as a species rather than exactly what we should expect to find. Life will only exist where the conditions are right, just as fire will only exist where there is adequate fuel, oxygen, and a high enough temperature to start the process.

Life on this planet does indeed require a confluence of conditions, from a narrow range of temperatures to the ability for chemicals to catalyze and exchange energy, and several factors are key – remove any one, and no life can form. This seems, at first, to be very intriguing, but it requires careful examination as well. It is very hard to look even at the tiny fraction of the universe that makes up our solar system and think that we’re someplace special. Out of eight planets, 166 (known) moons, and countless asteroids and comets, we know of only one place where life has occurred – that’s not exactly encouraging for an “ideal” set of circumstances. Even on this planet alone, there is only a narrow shell just a few miles thick where life can be supported, from lower atmosphere to a fraction underground and under the surface of the sea, and the places where humans can survive are even fewer. We are, in essence, trapped within a tiny thin sphere, and venturing outside of it exposes us to conditions so hostile that we would die extremely quickly, due to everything from lack of air to large doses of unshielded radiation. Few people know that, had a solar flare occurred during any of the moonwalks, the astronauts would have died on the surface, none too pleasantly. We also can’t go very far underground, and that’s where most of the planet is. Earth is not exactly our home, just a attractor of the atmospheric shell on its surface.

So, if life in a tiny fraction of the known universe is evidence of conditions being “just right,” what if instead we saw life on nearly all planets and moons that we could observe? What if the conditions between planets did not suffer from inadequate pressure, or wasn’t bitterly cold and rife with stellar radiation? Is that less likely to be “ideal for life”? Funny, I’d consider that to be much better evidence for the argument, myself. This is one of the problems with such arguments – they rely solely on the bare fact that we exist, not that this seems rare, common, limited or abundant.

One can assign many different numbers to the conditions we have now, and make them appear to support whatever standpoint we like – this is actually a cheap debating ploy. How many forms of life are visible on this planet? It numbers in the hundreds-of-thousands to millions just for suspected species, in the trillions-of-trillions if you’re counting individual occurrences (like bacteria.) But what is the percentage of matter sustaining ‘life” in our known solar system? So tiny it can barely be expressed, and in fact, cannot even be observed from more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of our planet. What percentage of matter in the galaxy (not universe, mind you) is in conditions conducive to life? We have no freaking idea. So is this supportive of “ideal” or not? It’s easy to shift the influence of the argument simply by making leading statements, but this is only evidence of a lack of perspective.

There’s even more to the anthropic principle argument than this, however. Variations of the strong anthropic principle point out that the very nature of atomic physics, the four key forces that dictate how every last bit of matter forms, stays together, and behaves, are necessary for the universe as we know it to be here. Fractional changes of any one of these would mean that matter could not bind, gravity could not cause suns to coalesce, and planets would never form. Such things are just right to even make a universe as we know it – what are the chances? They must be so low as to be nonexistent.

First off, this is exactly the same as the weak anthropic principle – if such adverse conditions exist, or had they ever, there’s no way we would ever know about it, since we require those four known forces to be present before we can exist or function. We could make the same argument for light itself: without it, we wouldn’t be able to see anything! But plenty of species get by just fine without vision, and we evolved vision because that form of energy we call “visible light” is abundant. To say that it is “necessary” is arguing backwards – in areas where visible light is scarce, species have evolved other means of detecting their environment. And again, the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that we call visible light form a very narrow band of the spectrum of electromagnetism, of which we can detect virtually none on our own. Visible light just happens to be the most abundant to penetrate the atmosphere, so the easiest for most life forms here to take advantage of. We mostly ignore the other aspects because we don’t use them, but to then consider them insignificant in our calculations of “just right” is being incredibly self-centered.

Then there’s the “fractional differences” part of the argument: if gravity, or the strong atomic force et al, were just a teensy bit different, the universe wouldn’t be here. But we have no idea what kind of variation could occur, if any at all. We assign numbers to these forces, and can change the numbers, but this doesn’t mean the forces are changeable, nor does it mean such changes are either drastic or infinitesimal. We have never observed these being any different at all, nor even know where they came from. This doesn’t make them arbitrary. It’s kind of a nonsense argument, like supposing that unicorns exist and then breathlessly asking, “What are the chances?” Well, zero, to be honest.

No, that can’t be right, can it? But yes, it can, and this is where people constantly miss the boat. Orders of probability can only be calculated from things with known variables. You may have a one-in-six-million chance of winning the lottery, because that is the number of combinations possible from the little ping pong balls in the machine. However, if we have never observed any variations in something, there is only one order of probability able to be calculated, and that’s one-in-one, otherwise known as “guaranteed.” While this does not rule out something else actually being possible, it also doesn’t make it possible, and no order of probability can be assigned in the slightest. All we can do is speculate, and this relies solely on imagination, not on anything resembling science or mathematics in any way.

To then take such imaginative speculation and assign it a very low order of probability, and therefore claim that this is evidence of some higher being, is what we call sophistry at best – I myself call it utter bullshit. It’s not an argument, it’s a method of trying to justify a preconceived notion in an exceptionally pathetic way. We have never witnessed any variation in gravitational force based on mass either, which is good, because we use it for everything from weighing bananas to calculating successful orbits of planets and moons in our solar system (let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to Cassini.) Imagine if someone claimed that gravity could change any second, and we’d fly off into space, therefore we should all anchor ourselves firmly to the ground. We’d consider him an utter loon, wouldn’t we? But arguments such as, “if the universe was different, we wouldn’t be here, therefore god,” are just as fatuous. Pay attention, because this is one of the biggest failings of philosophy as I see it: the word “if” is not magical, and does not grant the possibility of existence. It is merely a factor in argument, pure imagination when you get right down to it. We only start talking about having real value when “if” becomes “when.”

There’s even another aspect that people continually misunderstand. Very low orders of probability, even if we have an accurate and useful way of calculating such, do not cross the line into “impossible” or into making a supernatural explanation even slightly more likely. If the chance of conditions being right for life were/are one-in-five-hundred-trillion, this doesn’t prevent it from having happened, and the weak anthropic principle argues that these are the only conditions we’d see if it did (again, “duh!”).

While we’re on the subject of abusing statistics and probabilities, there’s one aspect you’ll never see addressed: the probability of a supernatural, causative, and hyper/omnipotent being. If the chance of four forces being right for life is so low, how much lower is the chance for an extra-dimensional being with such inordinate powers? But this argument never rears its ugly head, for it is assumed that if an order of probability for random life is low enough, then a supernatural being becomes the default explanation. There is nothing that supports such an idea, however; no way that one can posit a “default” option. Even more interesting, if one allows for special conditions that give a supernatural being expansive powers and abilities, ones that we cannot witness or comprehend, such an argument can be applied to simple physical rules that shape the universe’s forces as well. This makes far more sense than a super potent being that nevertheless has thought processes so similar to our own.

It’s absolutely true that science does not have all the answers, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it never will. The mistake that is made constantly is believing that “we don’t know” is an opening for some other explanation such as “goddidit.” In fact, religious apologists (and countless vapor-brained new age nitwits) constantly remind us all to be humble and not assume that science can explain everything, never tumbling to the fact that they then attempt to explain things without even a vestige of evidence or reasoning – and worse, that these explanations all somehow put human beings in the bin of something special, rather than just another species on the planet. “We don’t know” doesn’t mean, “but we’re allowed to guess and consider it valid,” it means we don’t know. As we’ve demonstrated millions of times throughout history, the only way we find out is through careful examination, not wild-assed guesses based on emotional desires. Lightning is not from Zeus, Fulgora, or Tlaloc, and the claims in ages past that if we couldn’t explain it, then it must be one of those gods, certainly didn’t hold true. If we want answers, then we should seek them, not accept something because it’s convenient or self-validating. Life may or may not be exceptionally rare; the conditions that caused the creation of matter in the universe may or may not be highly unlikely. We cannot assign such properties without actually seeing some variation of them in the first place.

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