The secret to finding things

You can always find what you’re looking for, provided that the definition of what you’re looking for is vague enough.

I received a call from a friend the other night, one I haven’t talked to in a while. He’s in a new situation: he lives on a farm bequeathed to him by a friend of his when she died, on the provision that he takes care of the farm and animals. Nice setup, but it came with no small amount of responsibility which he seems to be handling well.

At one point, he asked me if I believed in ghosts, and upon hearing that I didn’t, he asked me what I thought about several experiences he’d had. There were a couple of minor ones, like a gate on one field that was typically opened downhill and took some effort to open uphill, that he was pretty sure he had never opened uphill yet had found it in that position on two occasions. Another experience was distantly hearing the doorbell, distinctly enough for him to start tracking it, even though the doorbell doesn’t work.

cemetaryBut his main one was, admittedly, curious. After some bad behavior from one of the former owner’s dogs, he began disciplining the dog (not, by his accounts, in an unacceptable way) and was interrupted by music from the music-box urn containing the former owner’s ashes. To give him credit, he admitted that the urn rested among items that would have been disturbed had the table been bumped or vibrated, and that later attempts to get the music box to begin playing again failed.

Mysterious, perhaps, when presented in this manner. But when I asked him some more specific questions about what he did and didn’t do, he openly admitted that he wanted to believe there was a spirit of the former owner there, and in fact, had felt this compulsion, as if he was being watched over, ever since moving onto the farm.

I had to stop him there and point out that this was hardly mysterious – the value of the farm is not inconsequential, and the bequeathal stipulated that the animals be cared for. There wasn’t any reason to suppose this “compulsion” was anything but honest conscience. But more telling was the idea that he wanted there to be a supernatural explanation, and this is probably the hardest thing to overcome when dealing with assessing things in a critical manner. Desire leads, very rapidly, to confirmation bias, where experiences like the doorbell and the gate are indications of spiritual intervention. He was unable to tell me why such a spirit would play around with the sounds of a distant doorbell, or what the gate opening the opposite way was supposed to mean. They were simply things he noticed that were out of the ordinary that therefore supported the notion.

Now, I now this guy well, and it’s safe to say that while anyone could easily fail to notice that they’d opened the gate uphill on more than one occasion, it’s even more likely for him – keen observation is not what springs to mind when you get to know him. And the doorbell? This wasn’t a case of him telling me that the doorbell had definitely sounded, but that he thought he’d heard it, twice. So that tends to leave the skeptic asking, “What exactly did you hear, and how loudly?” and of course, if the doorbell’s been broken, does he even know what it sounds like? Broken simply means “not working when it’s pressed,” too – loose wires, bad connections? Alternately, wind chimes, TV, radio, glassware tinkling? How many types of sounds imply “doorbell” because of two tones, the second lower in pitch than the first?

Many people would say at this point that this is grasping at straws, or that I haven’t proven the wind chime theory. And this is one of the more amusing arguments that skeptics meet regularly: if the mundane, ordinary explanation has not been firmly established with clinical trials, then it’s okay to start considering the supernatural ones. Um, no. Start with, wind chimes and rocking glassware are proven to exist – ghosts are not. The odds favor wind chimes or rattling vases by a wide margin, right from the start. And, to take this further, let’s say we’ve effectively ruled out wind chimes, glassware, and all other mundane explanations that spring to mind. Are ghosts okay then? Well, that’s kind of hard to say – what kinds of sounds do ghosts make, and why? How do they make them? Do they make them in response to certain things? Let’s face it, the body of evidence (heh!) for ghosts is, um, nonexistent – we have stories, and that’s really it. If we assume spirits can affect the material world in certain ways, why a doorbell? If you were to find yourself, after your death, observing the living and trying to communicate to them, what would be your first choice? Second? Third? How far down the list do “doorbell” and “gate” come?

But wait! The music box urn containing the owner’s ashes! Yes, that’s how I’d communicate! (No, I’d probably type an e-mail while they watched, but that’s just me.) It started all by itself just as he was disciplining the dog! That’s pretty damning! (Okay, sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Well, let’s back up a second. One thing I did indeed ask was, “Did you wind the music box up again, let it play until it stopped, then try to get it to start spontaneously?” No, this had not been done. I regrettably didn’t ask if this was the first time he’d disciplined the dog, though, and I wish I had – that kind of question points out confirmation bias pretty handily sometimes. I did ask if he tried disciplining the dog again, to see if it started the music box again, but he hadn’t done that either – he was already too convinced.

And therein lies the biggest stumbling block. The music box starting at that time can certainly be coincidental – they run on spring tension which gradually releases, and can start again once resistance is overcome through vibration, changing temperatures, et cetera. But is there any chance of him accepting that if he wants to believe otherwise? Not very much at all.

And of course, this is where so-called psychics, ghost hunters, and various other opportunists come in – usually with a fee, imagine that. Seriously, how much skill do you think it takes to face someone who wants to hear they’re being visited by spirits and say, “You’re being visited by spirits”? And how often do you think they’re asked to show how they actually know that? Not often, you say? Not ever, you say? You’re probably right. Because we’ve got this saying, as humans – quit while you’re ahead. Stop asking questions before you get to the answers you don’t actually want to hear – that’s how “truth” is actually defined, after all: “What pleases me.” It seems funny that we can’t face circumstances that aren’t as we wish, even when it means knowing how the world works. Reality is such a drag.

So, my friend resides in a haunted house, wary of doorbells, gates, and scolding the dog. Makes me wonder what the ghost will disapprove of next.

Learn from your mistakes

This is just a stupid quick post. I’m doing updates on the website (you know, the parent site that this blog resides within), and while trying to find something, I looked up my own name in Google Images. Unfortunately, my website doesn’t come up very often.

The reason? My name isn’t associated with the site in too many ways that Google’s search engine will find. Sure, it appears on almost every page – but as a jpeg image of text, which Google won’t find. It’s also in the page tags, but Google has this little criteria: If the page tags aren’t matching the text within a page, it drops significantly on the “match” level. And I rarely include my name on the pages themselves.

So take it from Al Denelsbeck: Al Denelsbeck says, if you want your own name – in this case, “Al Denelsbeck” – to be able to be found in search engines, make sure to put your name (e.g., “Al Denelsbeck”) within the text of the page. And be sure to thank Al Denelsbeck for this tip.

Too cool, part four

There’s very little I can add to this, so I’ll send you over to an entry in Carl Zimmer’s blog, about a bird with curious wings.

This is probably no more complicated than evolving adaptive coloration or planting things on your body, but it’s a fascinating concept nonetheless. Birds developed an audible signal for communication that seems to work pretty well for them, but this is a species that developed an alternate method of doing so. To my untrained mind, this would seem to be a longer method to evolve than vocal cord variations, and one must wonder why this species departed from the norm (I believe it can still sing.) I mean, there’s a benefit to talking and eating at the same time, one I’ve wished I had, but I doubt that’s the key here. I can also speculate about the high frequency doing something for cleaning the feathers, but that’s little more than blind guessing. Still cool, though.

Flashback, part two

It’s funny. Just a few days after typing up the previous post, I received another reminder of my shelter days.

Continue reading “Flashback, part two”


Courtesy of The Girlfriend just recently came a much-needed reminder, that the things that motivate us shouldn’t be shallow or related to money. And it brought back a memory of something I’m particularly proud of. This isn’t bragging (I don’t think), but a success story that I try to remember when I’m not feeling too hot.

Continue reading “Flashback”

Too cool, part three

Actually, this one was not part of my original Too Cool™ lineup, but it deserves to jump in line.

Courtesy of National Geographic posted by icheesman found through via Mental Floss (link addiction can be cured – please contribute today!) comes a video clip of an utterly fascinating natural phenomenon that I talked about previously: bioluminescence.

There’s a part in there where you can see the shape and the swimming motion of the fish, which is strikingly similar to the effect I saw when I watched the dolphins (who were a bit faster.) Not only that, but see the little shrimp? Yes, you’ve seen them before, or at least, you have if you’ve been poking around the photographic gallery of my site enough.

This video is worth watching several times to see all the details. Catch the water jets of the cuttlefish as it moves around, and of course, don’t miss the stingray. One thing that the video displays very well, but perhaps isn’t described adequately, is that it takes a certain level of disturbance to get the dinoflagellates to fire off. When I witnessed this in Florida, waves splashing against rocks first drew it to my attention, but none of the fish movement within the water produced anything. It was only when the action became desperate that it became visible – I occasionally watched startled fish swim away from me with a streak of color, but otherwise it was dark. Thrashing my hand around certainly showed it, though.

Also, recognize that much of the video is shot at high magnification (the shrimp is probably only 2.5 cm long or so). I never saw individual points of light, and dinoflagellates are not discernable, even in bright light, to the naked eye. What I saw was just a haze of color. Just unreal.

And funny, I never really thought about the bioluminescence as a survival trait, but it makes sense now. Whales will eat them as part of the huge collective term “plankton,” but mostly the predators of such little species are slightly larger species like the grass shrimp and the porcelain crab, which serve as meals for even larger species that would have no interest in the dinoflagellates. In this case, the defensive mechanism seems to be more of a benefit collectively than individually, for two reasons. One, it takes an actual disturbance to light up the dinoflagellates, by which time they may already be eaten. And two, I imagine no small number of them get ingested by accident when something scarfs a shrimp down. Overall, more might survive by the reduction of predators, but the ones that have actually sent the warning, as it were, do so from being at a much higher risk. It works, but less efficiently than many other defensive mechanisms.

And as a small aside, that link above also features the camouflage behavior I talked about in my previous post, as well as hognose snake bluffing.

Too cool, part two

There are times when I regret not going to college, and finding out more about some of the things that interest me on a regular basis. But then I think about it, and realize right now I can concentrate on certain topics without having to satisfy some requirement for things I couldn’t care less about. So I guess the glass is still half unbroken, or something like that.

Anyway, say hello to a common spider crab (Libinia emarginata) that can be found in Florida waters, among many other places. [The blotch in the left foreground is a slipper snail on the aquarium glass]. They’re shy, and their pincers are tiny and good only for feeding, so they utilize defensive camouflage, but in a totally cool way. They have the ability and instinct to obtain pieces of seaweed and plant them across their upper carapace with the help of a strange texture on its surface, and in this way, they blend into their typical habitat of seaweed-covered rocks. My specimen here, caught by hand and photographed within a fish tank, also sports quite a few small anemones, those ghostly white fringes all over its back. Whether it actually planted them itself or they simply liked it as a host, I cannot say.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot I cannot say about this one, but I’m trying to locate the answers to my questions, and plan to update this post when I have them. You see, simple coloration camouflage I understand. Simple behavioral traits, like holding still, I understand. But this is something different. Here we have a species that not only has a specialized physical trait, Velcro-like hooks in spots on the chitin called setae (which may even provide a preferential surface for anemones), but a specific behavior too, one that doesn’t seem to serve a combined or translatable purpose. You see, in order to get the seaweed to stay put, the crab actually chews the ends into a fray that catches on its setae, then puts the seaweed in place. Some studies have shown that it knows what seaweeds are more repugnant to its predators and preferentially chooses them. It has also been shown that this is more prevalent with the younger, smaller crabs, and that both the surface and the behavior disappear as they get older and less threatened by predators.

spidercrab-1Evolution can be a convoluted thing, and the processes that lead to the forms we see now aren’t always easy to determine. The process of choosing select seaweeds, preparing them with a compatible surface, and placing them on its body has the deceptive appearance of reasoning and foresight, something that is undoubtedly lacking – crab brains aren’t very complicated. This is an ingrained process that’s been selected for over a very long period, but just how do you select for it?

It’s easy with adaptive traits like color. The harder it is to see a species, the harder it is to find it and eat it, so the ones with color that more closely matches the surroundings get eaten less and reproduce more, passing on those color genes. Simple. But a behavior that also relies on a specialized physical trait is something else, one that’s hard to work backwards from (and that, so far, I have not found answered by research.) I could perhaps see that the setae might have snagged seaweed by itself while the crab moved through a mass of it, and thus the crabs that grew rougher spots on their carapaces gained a camouflage benefit from the incidental adherence of stray vegetation. So, how did it evolve a behavior to place chewed stems on its back? I could spend a lot of time speculating, and have, but it hasn’t led anywhere convincing, nor do I think my guessing is meaningful in any way. We know, through roughly 150 years and uncountable hours of research, that these kinds of things develop in small increments over long periods of time. I just find it fascinating the traits that have been produced by the process, with only a few basic rules to produce them.

Let me give you an example – followup

There was probably a few things missing from my previous post on the Perimeter article from Wired, so this is part two. If you haven’t read the first, you either should, or skip this one too ;-)

Continue reading “Let me give you an example – followup”

Let me give you an example

Since I’m sure you’ve read everything on this blog by now (snerk!), you already know I’m in favor of critical thinking. But, you may ask yourself (you have my permission), what does this look like? How is it applied? Directly to the forehead? Under a full moon? Far be it from me to let unasked questions go unanswered, so let’s do an exercise with a recent article from Wired Magazine. This is long, so I’ll get into my stride (read: frothy rant) after the jump.

Continue reading “Let me give you an example”

Too cool, part one

Welcome to the first of a new topic, one I’ve been meaning to get to for a while. So far, I have two others in the queue which will show up before too long, so keep watching. This is my way of illustrating one of the reasons I got into nature photography in the first place.

The other day The Girlfriend and I checked out the local botanical garden while they were having a sculpture show. I can get vaguely interested in exotic plants, but usually spend my time chasing insects and lizards, and this was no exception. After a couple of hours, I’d packed away the camera equipment and we were heading out when I glanced down and noticed a little bit of chaff on my shirt. But it looked familiar, and as I watched, it confirmed my suspicions by creeping along my sleeve. I plucked it off and handed it to The Girlfriend, then dug the equipment back out.

tinybugger1As odd as this might look, most of what you see isn’t really part of the insect at all. This is the larva of a green lacewing fly. At this stage they’re predatory, meaning they eat other insects, mostly aphids. The cluster of junk on its back is molted exoskeletons of other insects – what kind, I haven’t been able to identify. Perhaps aphids, perhaps other lacewing larvae, spiders, or even preying mantis. It serves as camouflage, making a tasty insect (I’m assuming, anyway – something must find it palatable) into a dry bit of chaff. And, it serves an additional purpose, in that anything that does recognize it as food stands a much better chance of getting a mouthful of detachable skin (no Goldmember jokes now) instead of the juicy, nutritious insect.

My attempts at getting a good shot of it on The Girlfriend’s hand were cut short when it began biting her, so I popped it into the extension tubes – the only enclosed thing I had, since I was shooting with the digital and had no film cans handy. Don’t try telling me you’ve never done this. Back home, I used a branch as a set and started taking dozens of shots to try and capture the detail. Not only was the little thing so small that focus was difficult, and not only did it remain hidden under its trashheap, but it decided holding still was not the way it rolled. When your range of effective focus is measured in not more than three millimeters, this makes for a fun evening.

Yet, I still managed to get some interesting detail, like the long lashes on either side. These are appendages of the body that are there to support the debris. Once it pupates into the flying adult these vanish, and to the best of my knowledge they serve no purpose other than to support external camouflage while in this stage. Stripes and patterns to try and blend in? How plebeian! These guys grow a scaffold and construct a hunting blind on it, using only the very best of recycled materials. Considering the minuscule size of the insect’s brain, I have to imagine that a large portion of it is taken up with this instinct to build the structure it carries around. And apparently it works – just not against inquisitive photographers.

tinybugger2In case you wanted a better idea of the scale, here it is again, held by the chaff between my thumb and forefinger. And yes, just so you feel better about me sacrificing The Girlfriend in the name of bug pictures, it got its own chance to gnaw on me too. Lucky for it I hadn’t found it earlier when I was looking for some insects to feed a shy lizard.