Small improvements

Flower opening animatedAbout a week ago, I noticed that another of The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog’s flowers was of the type that opens each morning (when the conditions are right,) and started planning to try again to capture this. Naturally, the weather went to yuck for the next few days after that, but I watched for the promise of a clear warm morning and got set up early when it arrived. I learned that the flower (whatever it is – I’m yielding to laziness again by not looking it up) responds more to temperature than sunlight, and defiantly stayed closed and motionless for the 90 minutes and fifteen frames that the camera was dutifully snapping away before the day warmed sufficiently. After I packed up, of course, the flower bloomed.

So, as seen here, I tried again the next day and was a bit more successful. Scattered thin clouds made the light highly variable, most noticeable at the very end when the final frame is shot under haze, lowering the contrast and making it seem as if I’d altered the photo (I mean, beyond the resizing and format changes to make an animated gif [pronounced "fig"] in the first place.) This time I went with auto-exposure, but under-exposed a stop to keep the flower from getting bleached out, knowing the meter was reading more of the background than the flower itself – I should probably have gone for only 2/3 of a stop under, though. While a gentle breeze may have been at play too, the motion of the flower is not my doing at all, and why it was waving around is beyond me – the sun certainly did not move that far to support the idea that the bloom was following it. Yes, I could have been better at leveling the camera when I set up, but at least I kept the shadow of the tripod out of the pic this time.

Okay, okay, I stopped being lazy – I think these are Tulipa turkestanica, or Turkestan tulips, but that’s just a tentative identification (I wasn’t the one who planted these.) But I do have a positive ID on this next pic.
Tulipa greigii repelling water
You have to appreciate the texture of these leaves. This is a Tulipa greigii, or red riding hood tulip. The leaves spread about 10cm, so the central blob of water is about 4cm, or 1.5 inches – I’ve never seen a surface so repellant to water, and I’d love to view it close enough for detail, but that would take a microscope I think. This isn’t the first time I’ve photographed the peculiar edge effect either, where it seems the only place water will actually adhere, and I can’t tell you anything more about it. I’m a photographer, not a botanist; I can tell you why the light looks the way it does and what f-stop was used (f16,) but the nature of leaves has to come from someone else. Or you can buy a print and I’ll look it up for you.

hiding Theridiidae spiderToday was apparently a great day for the arachnids to venture out. At times, the light was just right and the yard could be seen crossed by numerous strands of web from the spiders ballooning to new locations, and I actually had two different species suddenly appear on my arms – dog knows how many might have landed on my shirt where I couldn’t feel them (or my hair – I said that just to creep you out, even though it’s as likely as anyplace else.) The butterfly bush, sprouting just two new leaves of the season, was heavily rigged with lines from this little spud, some species of Theridiidae I believe. Likely the same species found here, on a plant not a dozen meters away – probably not one of the ones pictured in that post, but quite possibly a relative. I found all the webbing and started looking for the responsible party, suspecting it was one of last year’s newborn green lynx spiders, and the increasing number of web strands and a tangle of protective canopy pointed out my tiny subject. That’s one of those tricks if you’re looking for arachnid subjects: the webbing is densest in the high-traffic areas. You can see the shelter out of focus behind the spider – this is shot aiming almost straight up. For scale, I can tell you that this one is even smaller than the green lynx spiderlings (Peucetia viridans,) and I can provide a photo of one of those on my thumb. We’re talking tiny here.
green lynx spiderling on thumb
The biggest difference is, the lynx spider will get significantly bigger while the Theridiidae won’t – it might even be an adult. Well, okay, that’s probably not the biggest difference from an entomological standpoint, so let’s just say that this scale comparison isn’t going to last for long. The lynx spider may achieve a body length slightly longer than the first joint of my thumb, big enough to be ‘skeery’ (due to the prevalence of arachnophobia, this should not be considered a scientific description, since the word has been applied to widely disparate sizes of spiders.)

The rosemary bush that several of the lynx spiders have made their home, at least for now, also plays host to several specimens of sheetweb spider. These make a horizontal, very dense base web, often pulled down into a rough bowl shape, and a tall enclosing structure above, less dense and distinctly triangular in shape. When coated in early morning dew, they put me in mind of a sailing ship, with the base web forming the hull of the boat and the upper structure serving as the rigging. Often these webs are most easily spotted in dewy conditions or during a misty rain, and several times the snows of the season pointed out how many of these spiders were actually living on the bush. Yesterday and today I got a few images of one, proving that they have already started feeding, in this case on an eentsy little leafhopper. I’m fairly certain this is a filmy dome spider, Neriene radiata – probably twice the size of the lynx spiders right now, but also unlikely to get a lot larger.
Neriene radiata feeding in web
What I’m pleased about capturing, in both images, is a particular detail of the web. The haphazard nature of the sheet is clearly visible, as are some of the anchor lines that draw the sheet taut and downwards, providing the bowl/hull shape and coincidentally illustrating the warp of spacetime at a black hole. If you didn’t get that, some day you will…

If you think the sheet looks too dense to allow the spider to slip through to the other side, you might be right. I just looked closely at the original image, the top one of the composite above, and I’m almost positive the leafhopper sits above the sheet while the spider sits below, reaching through the surface to feed. If this is typical, it implies that the spider does not bother wrapping its prey but counts on the venom to immobilize it instead. I’m going to have to keep a close eye on these now to see if this repeats, but that’s going to be a little tricky – the webbing defies easy depth-perception and it’s hard to tell which side anything is on, while the locations that the spiders have chosen for their lairs, purposefully I imagine, do not allow a wide range of camera positions. We’ll see what happens.

More true than true

I am contrite over not posting much (and the complaints are pouring in,) but between several projects, bid sinuses, and no motivation to write, those last two largely being related, I just haven’t been able to get anything out. I have a few things in draft form, just not too close at the moment.

Meanwhile, zefrank returns with another True Facts video, this time about The Octopus – despite the footage he uses, he seems to think there is only one specimen of any animal he informs us about, for some reason. Maybe he’s picking one that is the quintessential example of the species. Isn’t ‘quintessential’ a great word? Use it in a sentence every day and you’ll automatically feel better…

As I’ve remarked before, zefrank’s definition of ‘true’ is not exactly Oxford’s, yet closer to it than the usage of ‘true’ by UFO proponents, alt-med enthusiasts, and the religious.

When I was in Florida and ‘maintained’ a saltwater tank, I would have loved to have had an octopus, if only for a day or so for photos, but I really didn’t have the equipment for it – they’re high-maintenance critters. They remain on my list of things to encounter personally, one way or another, but until I’m actually doing scuba trips this is unlikely, except for the local Chinese restaurant (“alive” is one of my incredibly specific criteria, demanding as I be.)

Anyway, more will be along shortly.

Rediscovered

pearl crescent on spearmint flowers
While skimming through images in my folders, I came across this pair taken back in 2012, and decided to feature them to appease all of the people who started coming here because of the bugs, who now have nothing to see during the cold months. You haven’t been forgotten.

On the spearmint flowers this butterfly, likely a pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos,) was holding a little too still – they might often pause and sun themselves, occasionally fanning their wings slowly, but won’t typically allow this close an approach. Not to mention that the wings aren’t held in a natural position. The faintest clue can be seen to the left of the butterfly if you look close, but the real explanation came from lying on the ground below and shooting up from underneath – this next image still sparks the memory of a damp shoulder obtained from not using a ground pad when I got the shot.

white-banded crab spider captures pearl crescentIt will probably help if I explain what you’re seeing here, since it’s an odd angle and much is obscured. The most noticeable aspect is the pale, dimpled abdomen of a crab spider, most likely a white-banded crab spider (Misumenoides formosipes) – its cephalothorax (head) is partially hidden behind the butterfly it is gripping. You’re seeing the butterfly tail-first from below, the abdomen out-of-focus in the center of the shot since I was after the spider; one wing goes into the top right corner, the other down the left side. Not the best illustrative angle, which may be why I never bothered to feature the images back when I got them, but there’s a real limit in many situations. The spearmint plants were not very tall, and to get a perspective that showed the spider at all required shooting almost straight up from flat on the ground, with no opportunities for other angles. The lighting is deceiving, since it comes solely from the flash – in ambient sunlight this would have been in deep shadow. Trying for anything else might have resulted in disturbing the subjects, which could have made the spider discard its meal and scamper for cover.

The spider probably has a grip on the thin neck of the butterfly; this seems to be a very common trait of spiders, likely because it provides the best access to internal fluids. Arthropods don’t really have blood vessels, but instead an open circulatory system – this means the ‘blood’ (actually hemolymph) runs freely throughout the body cavity. Yet there are still organs that ensure that the hemolymph reaches the head, and it might well be this that the spiders tap into; it could also be that their venom works most effectively when applied here, eradicating struggling quickly. I’m not an entomologist, so this is only speculation, but the grip in this area is something I’ve seen dozens of times.

Another example is provided by the same species of spider from this past summer, an image I dug out while writing this post – yes, they can change their coloration to match the flowers they conceal themselves within.
white-banded crab spider with bumblebee
Unless it’s very early morning after a chilly night, bumblebees never hold still, and certainly not in this position, so it was a dead giveaway that something else was happening. At least, it is to anyone who takes a moment to think about insect behavior – this was in the NC Botanical Garden, and plenty of people were walking past and paying no attention to this tableau at all, though some of them might have been there for the flowers and not the bugs. I know, right? There’s no accounting for taste…

Missed it by that much

Sunset in Tycho
There are a few minor photo challenges that remain in the back of my head, waiting for the right opportunity to tackle them – some of them are inconsequential, hardly anything to catapult me onto the pages of National Geographic or even The Daily Mail. This is one of them.

I mentioned before that I’ve long wanted to capture the sunrise on the central peak of the lunar crater Tycho, which takes some pretty specific timing, not all of which is within my grasp; despite the length of lunar days, the ideal moment may still occur when the moon is out of sight behind the Earth. But it also occurred to me that perhaps I could get sunset instead, and so I’ve been keeping this in mind too.

A brief bit of the physics involved. Tycho sits very close to a central position on the moon, when seen from our vantage point on Earth, so sunrise and sunset therein will take place at either the first quarter (half moon, heading towards full) or last quarter (half moon heading towards new.) This means the sun is either leading the moon into our sky by roughly six hours, or trailing it by the same amount – it has to be shining on the moon from the side (again, according to our vantage.) So the moon will rise about six hours behind the sun for Tycho’s sunrise, and be visible for half of our day and half of our night. For sunset, the moon rises six hours before the sun and, again, be visible for half the night and half the day.

This means Tycho sunrise might be captured in the evening before midnight, but sunset has to be well after midnight – in this case, around 4 am for the moon to get high enough not to be obscured by trees, or dimmed by thicker atmosphere. I was up pretty early this morning (I have a weird sleep schedule anyway) to get the shot above.

And yet, still missed it. Tycho can be seen as the darkest crater about one-fifth of the way up from the bottom, sitting right on the terminator (line of shadow) – not that big crater, but the much smaller one that looks like a hole. The entire crater floor, including the central peak, is shrouded in shadow, and the sun is only hitting the top edge of the far wall. I had been out the previous morning, and the shadow was well away from the crater, so this morning was the best time I could arrange, but it was too late.

Branches over amber moonI even took a quick look at the images I’d gotten soon after moonrise, when it still wasn’t free from obscuring trees, and there’s no indication of the peak in those either, so it seems sunset on that peak occurred while the moon was someplace below my horizon. At least I tried.

Now, if I was much more capable of math than I am now, I could possibly calculate the exact time period when the peak will remain in the light while the crater floor is shadowed. I’d also have to be more obsessive than I am now, so it ain’t gonna happen. I imagine someplace online, someone has already worked it out, but I’m going to yield to laziness right now. Snark all you want – I was out twice in the wee hours of the morning, ice crystals crunching under my feet, just to get these images. For nothing. Nothing!

But here’s another perspective. While on the moon, there is no Earthrise or Earthset – not in most fixed locations, anyway. The moon is tidally locked with Earth, meaning the same side faces Earth all the time – mostly. There’s a slight wobble. But anyplace within Tycho, the Earth remains high overhead. It changes phases, just like the moon does for us, but there’s never a dark night in Tycho. When the sun is below the horizon, the Earth is at least half full, and when the Earth’s phase drops down to a crescent or less, the sun is high in the lunar sky. A ‘full Earth’ occurs in the middle of the lunar night, and a ‘new Earth’ occurs during lunar midday – this means that Earth goes through all phases in the course of one lunar day/night cycle, which averages 29.5 Earth days long.

The classic photo of Earthrise, taken by Williams Anders during Apollo 8, occurred because the Apollo spacecraft was orbiting the moon – that’s the only way to see this. Almost. There are some locations on the moon that do see Earthrise, just by the barest amount, because of that aforementioned wobble (technically, “libration.”) From our vantage, they sit in a narrow band that marks the outer circumference of the moon, the limits of what we can see from Earth, and the libration means that the Earth peeks just barely above the horizon once a lunar day. While the far side of the moon, never seen from here, also never sees us.

If you saw the caveat that the lunar day averages 29.5 Earth days in length and wondered about it, that’s another curious aspect of the orbital mechanics, and a demonstration of relative measurements. Picture the sun, moon, and Earth laid out on a grid, surrounded by stars. For now, we’ll consider the sun fixed on the grid among the stars, while the Earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits the Earth – the Earth, at the same time, is rotating to produce its own day/night cycle. The moon is rotating itself as it orbits the Earth, but mostly keeps one side facing Earth – its orbit and its rotation are synchronized, except for that libration.

The moon completes a full rotation, measured by that grid, in a little over 27 Earth days – but because it’s riding along as Earth orbits the sun, that isn’t enough to complete a day/night cycle on the moon; the Earth is almost one-twelfth of the way along on its own yearly orbit of the sun, and so the sun angle is slightly different now, and it takes another two days or so to complete that light cycle. Yet, this varies, because Earth’s orbit around the sun isn’t a perfect circle, but an egg-shaped ellipse with the sun off-center, and as it draws closer to the sun, it actually accelerates in its orbit a little, slowing back down as it draws farther out in the course of the Earth year. The moon is dragged along in this acceleration/deceleration cycle, so the lunar day changes length slightly in this time too.

Makes you realize how much we’ve simplified terms like “day” in the face of the physical actions of orbits and rotations. Astronomers have lots of specialized terms to pin down what, exactly, they’re referring to at any given moment.

From a better source

I posted about this before, with my own feeble efforts in illustrating, but here’s a better version, courtesy of Bob King at Universe Today: Sirius, UFO trickster extraordinaire. It features a brief but very cool video.

Note also the image in there of Kenneth Arnold with the sketch of what he saw. In case the name is unfamiliar, Arnold is the guy who sparked the UFO ‘craze,’ and established the term ‘flying saucer’ by being misquoted – he said that the objects flew like a saucer skipped on the water, but as you can see, he didn’t consider them to resemble anything at all like a saucer. Remarkably, though, from that point on many people began seeing saucer-shaped craft. Imagine the odds of that.

Arnold’s description of the shape of the objects also changed in later years – still not into a saucer, though. Undoubtedly, the aliens suppressed his memory of the actual shape and substituted another; it all make sense if you try really hard.

Anyway, check out the post at Universe Today – it’s cool.

Man against nature

There’s nothing particularly deep about this one (and I hear you wondering how that makes it different from my other posts, and I’m ignoring you,) but it’s just a perspective that, it seems, too many people fail to grasp.

There is a surprisingly common concept of “man against nature” that keeps popping up, not just from asinine reality shows, but routinely in outdoorsy types who feel they have something to prove to… themselves? The world? I’m not really sure what the exact motivation is, to be honest, but the gist is this: you’ve proven some point by pitting yourself alone against the elements, one person isolated from all civilization, living off the land and your wits.

I’m fairly certain much of this is viewed as harkening back to our distant past, when we didn’t rely on grocery stores and raised livestock – when we had to hunt, forage, and fend for ourselves. The belief is that, if we demonstrate that we can do this again, we’re fit examples of the species and capable of dealing with whatever nature throws at us. In some cases, it’s viewed as being ready for the eventual collapse of civilization, the government, or high-speed internet access.

A quick note that’s slightly irrelevant to the main topic: there is no separation between ‘man’ and ‘nature’ – we are as much a part of nature as redwood trees and beluga whales. We didn’t get dropped on this planet by aliens, so everything we do is natural, and that includes roads and pizza parlors. However, we do have tendencies to view urbanization as ugly, which is fine, and the overall convention is that ‘natural’ refers more to areas that have seen little impact from Homo industrialus, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is any demarcation between human activities and ‘nature’ – and especially not that nature is some kind of harsh environment that we’re unfamiliar with.

There’s a more direct point, though: There was never a time when humans survived as individuals. The evidence for group, social behavior, as in tribes or foraging parties that cooperate to thrive, goes back well into the fossil record, crossing over numerous species distinctions into the point where the evidence is too sparse to make any judgments – at least several million years, and if our cousins the great apes are any indication, it goes back to before we split away from them, since they have the same behaviors. We never faced ‘the elements’ as individuals. And by extension, none of the traits we’ve developed in all that time reflect any need for individualism at all.

Let’s emphasize these time frames a little. ‘Lucy’ (Australoptihecus afarensis) existed 3.5 million years ago, was likely fur-covered, possessed only rudimentary vocalizations, and stood half as tall as we do today – and shows distinct evidence of tribal behavior. The split from chimpanzees runs at least 7 million years ago, and the split from ‘lesser primates’ such as gibbons, which also have social behavior, goes back 15 million years – over four times further back than Lucy. To all evidence, our distant relatives were cooperative long before even leaving the trees.

Moreover, there are virtually no ‘higher’ species that survive as individuals either – some of the big cats are largely solitary, but most others are still social, as are virtually every ungulate and herbivore to be found. It is extremely likely, in fact, that the big cats were a strong factor in keeping our ancestors from being solitary, since we were no match for them until we developed both pack hunting and, especially, weapons.

So the idea that we should be able to go out on our own and survive is, to be blunt, total horseshit. It reflects a completely unrealistic idea of what our past lives were like, and what we were ever expected to face. It is even less a measure of our fitness than choosing to live in the forest canopy without ever touching ground – we likely lived like that much more recently than we lived as solitary creatures.

This isn’t to say that anyone cannot tackle this as a challenge, but it’s no different from any other weird challenge to see if it can be done, like tightrope walking across large chasms or eating three-dozen hardboiled eggs in two minutes – entertaining to the easily amused, but ultimately pointless. Those who have attempted the solitary survival exercises and didn’t survive, however, didn’t fail at anything more than an unrealistic goal – not having skills that we never had isn’t exactly surprising.

There remains an emphasis on having such skills in the event that we find ourselves alone in the woods somehow; it’s not hard to find survival courses (and once again, television programs) dedicated to teaching these skills, completely separate from the idea of camping or hiking to enjoy the environment. Sure, whatever, but the chances of someone unprepared abruptly finding themselves isolated in the woods are minuscule – we might hear stories about those it’s happened too, but this is more a reflection of our curious media than the likelihood of it happening to any one of us, and compared against the general population, the chances of it occurring are even less than of winning any given lottery, itself ridiculously rare. There really aren’t that many circumstances where it can occur. Meanwhile, the chance of driving one’s car into a lake are thousands of times higher, and how many people know how to handle that?

Xtreemkooldood pursuits, like mountainbiking up towers and wingsuit surfing or whatever, are by themselves rather questionable – there’s really not much that’s being proven by them, especially not ‘fitness.’ It helps to know what the word even means; it has nothing to do with physical strength, endurance, or accomplishment, since nothing in our lives requires us to utilize these. If we survive and reproduce, we’re ‘fit’ as far as biology is concerned, and about the only aspect that might have any bearing at all on this is impressing the opposite sex enough to win out in the sexual competition – naturally, that’s if we aren’t just seen as obsessive, self-absorbed, or immature. Even then, there are probably easier and cheaper ways to accomplish this.

And if we really want to tear into the idea of ‘fitness,’ it requires examining what we might want to accomplish with it. Biologically, the ‘goal’ is reproduction – except this isn’t a goal, it’s just the tendency that emerges from natural selection. It doesn’t reflect what might be best for us, only what propagated the genes most effectively; it does, quite frequently, lead to extinction as well. If we would prefer not to follow that path, our fitness depends on seeing where we can improve on what selection has produced – for instance, recognizing that judicious use of resources is better than overextending ourselves – and planning rather than waiting on beneficial changes. Our cultures can spread ideas and attitudes faster than anything genes can promote, and will do a hell of a lot more for us than knowing how to skin squirrels. Just sayin’…

Succinct

That’s the best description, though ‘slick’ works pretty well too. Professor Ceiling Cat brought these to my attention: four new short videos from the British Humanist Association, each addressing one of the main philosophical issues of life, if I may be so dramatic; to be more specific, issues that humanism handles a hell of a lot better than religion does. Simple, direct, and surprisingly complete – and, moreover, narrated by Stephen Fry, which is like getting extra provolone on the pizza. All four are quite good, but I’m featuring the one I resonate with best, a message I’ve made efforts to communicate numerous times before.

Underlying this question, and the other three addressed in the videos, is a simple concept: that we evolved to consider these important, because they all affect our survival. Confidence in our senses and surroundings, the fear (and thus avoidance) of death, the interaction with our fellow tribal members in a mutually-approved way, and naturally, the general improvement of our well-being. There’s really nothing complicated, or even deep, about it at all. It’s just that centuries of religion and philosophy have embedded in our culture the idea that these must be much bigger than all that, that there is some rule to the universe or intent from a creator that reflects the strength of our feelings about them. But that’s just ego, the importance of the individual, coloring our perceptions – another evolved trait.

Part of the reason I chose this particular video as the one to feature is because it also addresses the frequent reaction to this information. Very often, people really don’t like hearing that they’re less transcendent than they believed, that their lives and emotions are just an emergent property of thousands of years of evolution, rather than a part of something important. The feelings are too strong to be dismissed so cavalierly. But emotions aren’t really proof, are they? They’re capricious and remarkably easy to manipulate, which we can recognize when we stop to think about our reactions when we watch TV or read a book or, bitch please, worry about who won what vapid sporting event. Useful answers are the ones that explain and predict the circumstances of our world, and the analogs of these emotions that appear in other species, the portions of the brain that alter how these emotions appear and are expressed when triggered by drugs or damaged, and just the bare logical sense of traits that reflect survival skills, all point to us being on the right track with this simple explanation. Thousands of years of revelation, of philosophy, of scriptural pronouncements, all together did not produce the amount of useful information that the last fifty years of empirical science has.

And I have to point out something directly, because it’s surprising how many people miss it: this does not change anything about our lives except for our own attitudes. We did not suddenly become lesser beings, god did not suddenly vanish, the superimportant meaning to the universe (that nobody seemed to know anyway) did not just fall apart. Nothing’s changed – life still goes on as before. But now, perhaps, we’re a little bit closer to not wasting quite so much time and effort on vast misconceptions fostered by our egos. As that paragraph above implies, we can actually do more important things when we stop trying to reinforce how important we are.

Spring and equinox and all that jazz

Unidentified leafhopperShocked as I am to report it, the calendar event of the vernal equinox and the weather coincided quite well – the skies cleared and the temperature got into the twenties (or the seventies, if you prefer,) so I did indeed get out to chase a few spring subjects. It was exceedingly few – it’s still a little early for spring in North Carolina, and more so with the temperature fluctuations we’ve had this year, but there were a couple of things to be found. The most interesting one is shown here, having attracted my attention by waggling when I was doing a close examination of the rosemary bush for the resident green lynx spiders. If it had held still I would have missed it easily, since it’s but a few millimeters long and wonderfully camouflaged as a dried rosemary leaf. I have yet to identify this, other than as a ‘leafhopper,’ which really doesn’t narrow things down too much, but I can at least pronounce it a juvenile, due to the undeveloped wings.

My model here was reluctant to hold still, or even remain out in the open, so I have few really detailed images. It possesses a few physical traits to remind me of a jagged ambush bug – it has several elaborate flourishes in its chitin, including a lower ‘face’ plate that looks like it’s intended to prevent rocks from striking the oil pan – but the proboscis leads visibly well back under the abdomen like a typical leafhopper and those legs are positioned more for jumping than grasping, so I doubt this is a predatory specimen.
Unidentified leafhopper
Here’s a slightly better look. The dark plate on the back about midway along the body will later develop into wings, and below/behind the well-camouflaged eye you can see the typical leafhopper antenna – interestingly, it has a groove immediately behind that it can fold into, something that the ambush bug has as well. In some of my images, those whitish spheres along the edge of the body don’t actually look attached, but more like pollen that it’s been nosing through – or, perhaps, globules of rosemary oil that the leaves exude, which makes even casual handling an aromatic experience.

molted exoskeleton and fingertipI discovered the evidence of a recent molt, likely today’s, on the underside of a nearby rosemary leaf. The image below illustrates the scale fairly well, since that’s my fingertip in the background, but also visible are the white spheres that can be found on the leaves – whether these really are what decorates the leafhopper, or its camouflage just resembles this, I am unable to say. Just full of info today, aren’t I?

Scrounging around in the yard, I found a few other examples of insect life, but nothing too exciting – some woodlice and centipedes under rocks where they could gather a little heat from sunlight absorption, a couple of early colonies of ants, and the same (I’m almost certain) black widow that I photographed last year, significantly larger in girth and likely to produce an egg sac soon. She has a nice protected shelter underneath a wooden box that no one is likely to mess with, and I’m inclined to let her remain there, even with impending young that will spread out on their own. Black widows (in this case the southern variant, Latrodectus mactans) like dark, quiet nooks, and just about the only place they could find like this is the crawlspace under the house that no one ever goes into. This species has lived in the area for a long time, and wiping out her or her egg sac really won’t make any difference. Moreover, I’m the only one who ever gets into the habitats they like, and I’m well aware of the possibility of running into them and fine with it. It is a considerably lower risk than fucking with your phone while driving.

aconite bloomJust for the counterpoint, I sought out the aconite flower that I’d photographed encased in ice only three days ago, none the worse for wear it would appear. This (and the other images soon to follow) represents barely visible color in the yard, which is primary dormant grass, mud, and the sporadic patches of wild onions. With little growing, the rain and melted ice doesn’t get soaked up by anything and the ground is like a sodden towel – I use ground pads at this time of year to do low-level photography, because I’d get sopping wet otherwise.

In fact, let me segue off into a side topic while here. In the yard, I use carpet tiles to toss down, since they’re about 60cm square and have a durable, waterproof rubber backing, but these are way too bulky to carry around in the field. There, I use carpenter’s kneepads or a small auto floor mat, a thin square of polyethylene (or something – plastic, anyway) that rolls up tight enough to either wrap around a tripod leg or stuff into the pocket of cargo pants. What I really need are waterproof pants, but even I will only go so goofy looking – not to mention that everything I’ve ever seen makes more noise than bubble wrap in a daycare center. I suppose I could always check out those latex bodysuits that are available in, um, ‘specialty’ shops, but what would probably work best is cutting up the ground pieces from an old camping tent. While not as durable as a floor mat, they’d be considerably easier to carry around.

red dead nettle flower laughingI don’t think the red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum,) among the first plants up in the spring, copes well with repeated freezes, since it’s barely making an appearance this year – this is one of the very few examples to be found throughout the yard. But it seems to be amused anyway…

(Okay, I doubt anyone has gotten the same impression that I have, so I’m going to illustrate it for you and then you won’t be able to get it out of your mind. Not only does this look like an open, braying mouth, but the orange pollen head up there reminds me irresistibly of buck teeth – turning this into the classic depiction of a country yokel, hyuk hyuk hyuk. I apologize for doing that, but add that this is typed in a very insincere way and you can tell that I’m not sorry at all.)

I often wonder what pollinates these early bloomers, since I can only occasionally spot a flying insect whenever these appear each year. I used to think, for instance, that daffodils were wind-pollinated, but it seems very few flowers actually do this. It also stands to reason that those that do would gain no benefit from bright colors, scents, or nectar of any kind. With this inviting alleyway and the pollen head positioned to anoint the back of a foraging insect, it’s obvious that something must perform the spread of genetic material for these flowers – I’ve just never seen what. I could always stake out the blooms until I see the culprit, but I’m afraid my curiosity will not demand that much patience – it’s not exactly a burning question.

CrocusPollenI close with a tight macro shot of The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog’s crocus, which I may try to get out tomorrow morning and make another attempt at an opening sequence. I just happened to like the detail of the pollen, but I can’t even tell you why. Maybe it has something to do with being a hue that we’re naturally attracted to. Perhaps I have bee genes, though I don’t recall coming back inside and doing a little dance after finding these, so probably not (I’ll let you try to get that image out of your head as well.)

In any event, I’m trying to make the most of it, because the cold weather is forecast to return in just a few days. The flowers are coping with this better than I am, I suspect…

Thanks for the guidance

I was about thirteen or fourteen, I believe, when an uber-religious friend talked me into attending the summer camp his church recommended, with assurances of countless activities including water-skiing and nature hikes, the kind of stuff all summer camps promise. There was almost none of this, even less than most camps produce, and instead there were numerous christian indoctrination sessions – this came as no surprise to me even at that age, and I willingly admit I was ridiculously naïve when younger (save the comments until the end, please.) But I will credit it for something crucial to my outlook now, something that they certainly didn’t intend.

In one of their evening bible sessions, the counselor was discussing the story of David and Goliath, and at one point provided this little gem: “It is said that David took three stones with him, [it was five, but bear with me] and many take this to mean that David was unsure of himself, that he had extras in case he missed. But David had absolute faith, because god was with him – he knew he only needed one stone. The reason he took three was that Goliath had two brothers, who David would have to slay as well, and so he had a stone for each.”

Now, this church was adamant that the only true, correct bible was the King James version, and so that was the only one we all had in our possession – and it’s pretty clear that no such brothers are mentioned in the slightest. It even trashes the narrative, since Goliath was the Philistines’ champion, and his death caused a rout – David wasn’t about to go find any brothers in the circumstances, nor would there be the slightest need. I remember suddenly thinking: Hey, wait. We all have the same book, and that isn’t in here. So where is the counselor getting this information from? They don’t make a Teacher’s Edition bible. And with that, I knew he was making it up.

In the same camp, we had a campfire story of some nice christian dude who worked at a railroad yard, who brought his young son into work with him one day. Like all good parents, he was paying no attention to his kid and discovered, to his chagrin, that his child was playing on the tracks right smack in the path of an oncoming passenger line. Switching the passenger train to another track would derail it, but letting it go would kill his son. With faith in salvation and god’s plan and all that horseshit, he allowed the train to plow over his son and thus spared all of the passengers, some of which were undoubtedly unsaved heathens, but so it goes. The point, I believe, was that faith in god meant you could kill your son without misgivings.

While the story had a profound effect on me as an adolescent, mostly horror, it only took a few days or so before I realized it was nonsense too – and this was long before I heard about the Trolley Problems, the well-known psychological examination of moral decisions using fictional scenarios, to which the counselor’s story bore a remarkable resemblance. Once again, these fine, upstanding baptists were lying their asses off to the kids in their control care – and, I have no doubt, knowingly as well. And that started a very long observation, still taking place, of how often religious folk exuberantly and hypocritically lie in their efforts to “spread the good word.” I always thought it was satan that was supposed to be the Prince of Lies, but maybe I missed the subtle nuances of scripture in that regard.

The worst thing is, this is rampant, and not just in brainwashing camps. It takes no effort whatsoever to find wild interpretations of scripture provided as doctrine, much less the countless instances of things just made up out of, if you’ll pardon the expression, whole cloth. Just about every time I hear some respected religious leader speak, and in almost every written article, I find something that is clearly not from any established source.

Now, one could argue that these might actually be examples of divine revelation, god expressing his thoughts through individuals – the kind of blanket statement that provides a nice counterpoint to cynicism, or so it would seem. The curious thing about open-mindedness, however, is that it does not go only one way; there is also the possibility that the person is outright lying, that the person is delusional, and even that some other non-corporeal being is using this person as a relay, for any variety of purposes. Most people urging objectivity manage to halt inquiry entirely at the option they most favor, hard as that may be to imagine, and it should be noted that this is no way resembles having an open mind – precisely the opposite, in fact. But even when practiced with rigor, having an open mind doesn’t actually lead anywhere, since there are thousands of possibilities to be considered. The counselor might have been telling the truth, and if so, David was confident in god’s existence – perhaps. It still remains a story, after all, its authenticity impossible to establish. Or the counselor might have been lying, which means he was trying to propel his agenda by imparting falsehoods to impressionable adolescents – the ability to recognize such, by the way, will certainly come in quite useful later on in life.

Such speculations about divine revelation falls flat when it comes up against the clearly fictional stories passed along as fact, endlessly forwarded through e-mail, such as this list. Whoever first kicks off any of these chains quite clearly knows they’re fabrications, while indisputably geared towards a religious agenda. This entire resource was created to counteract the pervasive attempts to subvert, denigrate, and deny established science – take a look at the list of creationist claims being addressed there (and for preference some of the sources cited within,) and try to fathom how much effort has been poured into the act of, as it is occasionally known, “lying for jesus.”

I don’t have to belabor the fact that not just all major religions, but all societies we know, are pretty dead set against lying, dishonesty, falsehoods, and so on. But what’s most stunning about this is how often we are all assured that religion is responsible for inspiring, instilling, and maintaining moral behavior in people – many people even insist we would be savages without it. This moral guidance is quite possibly the biggest lie of them all – and the competition is stiff.

There are a lot of avenues of examination that can be followed with this, and some of them will come up in later posts. Right now, I’m going to come back to the personal angle, which is the effect it had on me – and, I doubt I’m alone in this regard. Seeing the amount of intentional deceit perpetrated in the guise of ‘moral superiority,’ I realized at a young age that trust was actually a stupid thing – it invites abuse. The edifice of respectability that has been built up around religion (and, indeed, many other things discovered later on) is an elaborate disguise, hiding the true nature if we’re gullible enough to fall for it all. You could call this an epiphany if you like irony – it’s certainly not the kind those counselors were hoping to provoke. But, sometimes, it’s the conniving little shits that provide the best lessons.

A thousand words

cryogenic aconite
I think this is the probably the best single image representation of this winter’s weather that I’m likely to achieve. I never spotted this winter aconite flower before the freezing rain came, but was lucky enough to see it afterward.

Not quite as much rain this time, so no issues, though I’m pretty sure I heard a nearby transformer blow last night. But we’re not out of the woods yet…