You’re a what?

I’ve mentioned before, I have occasionally considered splitting off the portions of the blog devoted to critical-thinking from those discussing photography – the main part of the site is, after all, about nature photography, so the latter posts are certainly appropriate to the theme. But there’s a bigger reason, and it’s that I’m an outspoken atheist in the bible belt, while I advertise my services as a photography instructor. There is no doubt that I am losing at least some business because of this.

Which is pretty silly, to be honest. I don’t talk about atheism, or religion at all, or critical-thinking, or 80s music, or the proper way of making tacos, when I’m with students. I used to do wedding photography as well, and that meant going into churches and even waiting through the ceremonies – and believe me, some of them were pretty ridiculous. But I long ago learned a bit of professionalism, which means I know what’s appropriate and what’s not. When I’m with a student or giving a presentation, you wouldn’t know (and couldn’t guess) my views on religion. I even have religious friends, and my dad does guest sermons.

[There are some religious folk who seem to believe that atheists are immoral, actively evil, nihilistic, and so on – this is not too surprising to those in the US who have seen it firsthand, but somewhat more so to Europeans who get almost no exposure to rabid fundamentalism. To these religious folk, however, atheism equates with satanism, never tumbling to the idea that considering all religion to be mythological pretty much trashes satan too.]

A blog is a place to air ideas, to vent, and (at least in my case) to practice writing – the personality that one may perceive from a blog might have little to do with how someone is in person, and this can be said for most forms of online personae. I imagine many Facebook users are not silly and vapid, and most of those commenting on YouTube are entrusted with more than spoons and crayons. Yet, I’m not sure everyone understands this, and whether the number of students I receive would increase if the critical-thinking, more-obviously-secular-and-atheistic posts just weren’t linked at all. While this site is not exactly setting fire to the internet, or liable to crash any servers anytime soon, it still garners traffic, so having any intention at all of addressing thoughts to people at large means that splitting off to another site/subdomain/whatever will reduce the audience by a significant margin. I don’t see that serving much of a purpose.

I’ve toyed with the idea of making some brief explanation on the photography instruction page, but that presents a dilemma all its own: did I just bring such posts to the attention of people who normally would never have noticed? Is there any way of subtly broaching the subject, without sounding cagey? Or is there some way of presenting this information only after someone finds the posts? Obviously, even this one will disappear into the depths eventually, and it must also be considered that those who view any of the religion-trashing posts with horror are unlikely to keep browsing.

Then there’s the idea that, perhaps, I’d just rather reach clients who are grown-up enough to handle it; I’m already rather impatient with people tending towards fundamentalism, because it very often impacts a lot of what they do, even their overall attitude and perspective. I’m going to repeat an earlier sentiment here too: if anyone is disturbed by the thought of taking photo lessons from an atheist, if this somehow threatens their faith, then it’s probably better that they’re forewarned, because it doesn’t sound like their faith was very robust in the first place.

So I guess it will stand this way for now, but this is the kind of self-evaluation that one gets to do with a website and blog, with the added bonus of never knowing what the right answer really is. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Monday color 2

green treefrogs Hyla cinera
Same pic in RGB channelsThis week’s entry for Monday color seems, on first impression, to be rather monochromatic, though a peek at the color channels shows no lack of other color registers – there’s just an emphasis on green. I imagine we can all use a shot of green right now.

Both frogs also hew fairly closely to the rule of thirds, but not perfectly, and certainly not by design – I just framed to get them both in the shot, with the limited positioning I could accomplish, perched atop a retaining wall aiming down at the pickerelweed with a long lens. After unloading the images, I decided I wasn’t wild about that upright stem right behind the sharper frog. Should have been paying closer attention.

You got… something on your face… right there

tiger longwing Heliconius hecale profile
Part of my routine is photo sorting, which involves examining each image I take for (my standards of) quality, and discarding those which fail to make the grade. One standard is critical sharpness, so images get reviewed at full resolution, which means they’re much larger than the monitor size and I’m only seeing small excerpts at a time.

While doing this for the images taken at the butterfly house recently, I spotted a curious detail on what I believe to be a tiger longwing (Heliconius hecale,) but there’s a few species that could possibly fit this color pattern so I stand to be corrected. In the profile perspective above it can just barely be made out, but let’s go in closer to see it a little better.

tiger longwing Heliconius hecale with encrusted proboscisIt’s a good thing that butterflies don’t have their mothers around when they reach this phase, because that’s a sight sure to make mom whip out her handkerchief and start scrubbing away while her kid squirms and grimaces – I’ll let you try to imagine an insect with its compound eyes squinted shut. I can only assume this is some coating from the interior of a flower bloom, because I’ve never seen a butterfly that liked eating paste, but I’m not a lepidopterist either. It does make me question what purpose this would serve, and if it’s possible for that stuff to get into the tip of the siphon proboscis and block it, effectively preventing the butterfly from eating. And now we come to the mental image of a butterfly blowing its nose.

I’ve seen that eye pattern in several species, and while I think it’s a ‘false pupil‘ effect, it might also signify ommatidia that have different purposes, like seeing more into the ultra-violet spectrum. Then again, that white stuff might be cocaine – it does come from poppies, after all. This would also explain why butterflies cannot fly in a straight line.

We return (reluctantly I admit) to being serious for a moment, to talk about the cropping of the closeup here. There are a lot of different ways to crop the image and see the crucial detail, and a lot of ways that make it awkward. The one I chose makes use of the corners, places the crucial bit in that ‘thirds‘ region, and portrays a subtle diagonal emphasis right across the image. The first crop I tried was a bit too wide and the facet I was illustrating thus smaller and harder to see. I won’t say this is the ‘perfect’ way of doing it – I don’t believe there’s such a thing anyway – but it’s what worked for me, and considerably better than many choices. Little decisions like this can help your images more than you might think.

Hello? I’m sorry, the connection is weak…

Let’s start off with the correction, or at least the admission that a statement that I’ve made numerous times in the past was not supported by facts. The statement, in various forms, was essentially that before various empirical proofs came along, people generally believed that religious scripture was literal and factual; this was largely used when I was discussing the claims of some passages being metaphorical, the rather blatant dodge of the religious to excuse the countless inaccuracies. Not long ago, however, I came across a source that said that the idea of at least portions of scripture being considered metaphorical goes way back, and it was only very recently that the emphasis on, for instance, biblical literalism arose, largely within the US. I want to make some distinctions clear here: religion and christianity and even protestantism and its offshoots are not all interchangeable, and indeed, judaism has a long history of examining scripture to try and fathom the meaning (always with the assumption, however, that there is one, and that the source is ultimately a supernatural being.) Addressing things of this nature is always rather tedious. Every time an argument is put forth from any religious person, it is with the assumption that their religion is the only one; all others are false and not part of the discussion. However, any atheist who replies to this aspect will often be accused of not factoring in all religions – yes, this kind of fence-jumping happens all the time.

Now, I’m not even sure how accurate this correcting source is right now since they did not provide much in the way of supporting documentation, but I’m well aware that numerous theologians, going back centuries, tried to work out all of the anachronistic, contradictory, and just plain weird portions of scripture. So yes, any statement that “everyone believed it was literal in the past” is wrong – I’m not sure I’ve ever been this specific, but at least, the emphasis on literalism is not as supportable as I made it out to be, and I hereby correct myself. Yet, a lot of questions still remain, such as if the majority of religious folk believed, or if the work of these theologians could be considered representative of the greater populace (or even known?) And was there any consensus on which portions were metaphorical, and which were accurate?

And frankly, I don’t care – it’s an activity for historians, but producing an accurate statistic doesn’t really lead us anyplace. Because the overall point still exists: scripture is accepted as ‘the word of god’ despite any demonstrated inaccuracies, and a truly ridiculous amount of effort and machinations are put forth to try and justify this standpoint. I’ve already addressed the metaphorical excuse before, so I won’t go into that again, but I will reiterate some very basic points. The first is, there is no method by which the intention of any scriptural passage could be determined to any reasonable degree – the ‘metaphorical’ portions aren’t in quotes, or highlighted by asterisks, or whatever. The second is, the argument that this could be the intention is hollow; it could also be entirely mythical. Funny how that possibility never seems to be given any weight, isn’t it?

Seriously, let’s examine this one for a moment longer, because it’s very distinctive in itself. If a medical diagnosis was either an upset stomach or appendicitis, how stupid would it be to arbitrarily chose just one and ignore the other, for whatever reason? If someone gave you directions and said, “At the next intersection, take either a left or a right,” then everything’s okay? The correct answer is the one that is most liked? No, doing something to determine which of two or more choices is most accurate is the very definition of rationality. This will be the topic of another post later on, so I won’t belabor it here – I just wanted to highlight an aspect of behavior that, for all other topics, is considered signs of mental instability, but among religious subjects it’s just dandy somehow.

In fact, it is a symptom of the underlying problem with any and all uses of scripture (at least, I have yet to find an exception, anywhere): no matter how inaccurate, how inapplicable, how outright ridiculous any passage might be, the religious will find an excuse, any way of desperately avoiding the simple admission that it’s wrong. Because there’s the premise that god is perfect, so if scripture is imperfect it wasn’t written by god. Makes sense – yet this is an unacceptable conclusion, so any and all methods of salvaging the errors within scripture are fair game.

You think this is hyperbole? Let’s take a look at some examples – these are largely going to be about the abrahamic scriptures, the basis of judeo/christian/islamic structures, but I’ll try to mix it up a bit too:

Geocentrism - Or if you like, the Earth being the center of the universe. This mistake, to the best of my knowledge, is made by every religion that addresses location in the universe at all. And yes, it has always been considered literal, with the churches using force when necessary to suppress the evidence otherwise. In some quarters, it is still argued to be correct, often by claiming that it all depends on your measuring point, the relativity dodge. There are two problems with this. The first is, it would mean not just the sun and moon, but every star, galaxy, nova and dust mote, even space/time itself, dances around the Earth in a tight circle, voiding the concepts of gravitational mass and the conservation of both energy and momentum. The second is, relativism effectively destroys the concept of ‘center’ by nature.

The nature of the ‘vault’ or firmament of the heavens, the moon, and stars; night as a curtain or veil - Yep, literal; a big ceiling that these were all pasted upon (or in some cases, a fabric they were shining through,) one that would even open up at times to let the fucking rain come down – it’s impossible to find any wording that contradicts this in any way, actually, and the astronomical studies of planetary motion tried for centuries to accommodate these nonsense ideas. Once established as dead wrong, at least the religious only resorted to claims of metaphor and little else.

The day-age excuse - The universe was created in seven days, according to abrahamic scripture, but is pretty distinctly 13.8 billion years old according to literally hundreds of interlocking aspects of physics. “Day” doesn’t even have a meaning until you have a rotating planet. No matter, say the creationists, it says right here that a day is like a thousand years to god, so there you go. Even if we ignore the technical bits about, again, “day” and the very same issue with “thousand years,” there’s also the gross mismatch of what happened in each day, the wrong order of development, and some really ridiculous things like birds forming from the air.

Fossils are all fakes, planted to ‘test mankind’s faith’ - There’s really no need to explain this one, nor is there any passage referring to it in any way. The same excuse gets used quite often for anything that science has firmly established in contradiction of scripture.

Geologic strata was all laid down in the great flood, and the fossils within are arranged in layers mimicking evolutionary development by ‘hydrologic sorting’ - Yes, it contradicts the one above – don’t expect religious folk to be consistent, and you’ll avoid disappointment – but this one’s a beaut, so stay with me here. In stable geologic deposition (no folding, uplifting, etc.) the older stuff will be found deeper, and the newest stuff closest to the surface. True to form, the deepest fossils are all early forms, simple critters, while the shallower/newer fossils demonstrate evolved characteristics. No no, comes the reply – they all died at once, victims of god’s hissy fit over… something, it’s never been clear what. But the smaller ones settled to the bottom layers – yes, a global flood is supposed to have produced layers – and the big suckers like apatosaurs stayed closer to the surface. I’m not making this up. To the best of my knowledge, no one has managed to explain why all human remains, as well as every damn mammal in existence and those “just apes” like Neanderthals and Australopithecines, didn’t filter down past the dinosaurs with the rest of the ‘smaller’ critters. Sometimes the failures are so blatant you wonder what kind of a mind manages to miss or ignore them.

Racism/slavery/child abuse - These are not minor items, but pretty damn high on the scale of unethical behavior, no matter what the standpoint, and for the most part, the religious try to pretend these don’t exist. While this is certainly better than using them as ultimate authority to justify bigotry and abuse, it’s a long ways from admitting that these are remarkably damning evidence against being advice from a perfect entity. Not to mention that this blind-eye attitude is less than a century old in places (especially here in the southeastern states of the US,) which means a few thousand years where they were used as justification of abuse and classism, that wonderful “word of god” thing that has improved our lives so much. Sadly, homophobia has not yet joined its brethren in dismissal, even though jesus told us to love one another…

[Right away, some rabid nitwit is going to leap up in correction and say this was “as brothers,” unable to realize this does not salvage homophobia in the slightest. Seriously, this happens all the time.]

Now, there’s one aspect I haven’t addressed, though it comes up far more often than any of those above. It is frequently claimed that scripture is not, and was never, intended as any form of history, scientific tome, or information source, but only as a guideline to ethics and behavior – that it is, in essence, entirely metaphorical, an elaborate fable just to give mankind a cultural basis for morality.

Utter. Fucking. Bullshit. No, really, copious, unending, spraying green chunky bullshit. I’m actually going easy on those points above, because they’re usually passed on to the flocks of the devout from a trusted authority after hammering home the whole peer influence, one-of-us thing, targets with weak wills and no concept of making sense because blind stupid faith is “a virtue.” I’m not excusing this, but at least I understand how it happens. However, the claims of scripture being entirely parable and only structured to relate stories are nearly always put forth by people considering themselves scholars, who supposedly can understand what a metaphor is and why it would be used, and who speak on behalf of what is purported to be careful consideration. However, to arrive at this conclusion one would need to have never actually read scripture, be completely brain dead, or in pursuit of a particular agenda. There are pages upon pages of genealogies, historical events, and supremely petty behavior, from the devout right on up to and including god. There are direct connections to known figures and events, very obviously the attempt to tie everything in with history – not to mention that both the creation of the universe, and the eventual destruction of it (with very specific predictions, mind you,) serve no purpose in a metaphor, especially when the details are not only dead wrong, but completely unconnected to any other portion. The lineages of the special people are continually harped upon, clearly placing birthright well above behavior. And then there are the countless slaughters, not in any way examined through the lens of pointlessness, regret, or consequence, but openly glorified, often assisted by god in a vengeful and bloodthirsty way.

Moreover, the explanation/excuse of parable runs into another glaring problem – one, again, very often ignored in the pursuit of the status that being religious is supposed to impart. Even if we, just for the sake of argument, accept that scripture was exactly intended this way, only a brain-damaged fucktard could deny that it has failed, completely and spectacularly, to guide the devout towards good behavior. Aside from the very large number of people who managed never to grasp either the nature of the metaphor itself nor the message underlying it, we have the centuries of bloodshed and persecution, oppression and subjugation, that have all rallied behind “the word of god” – and still do. It’s more than insulting to keep hearing this feeble, whiny excuse from supposedly intelligent, educated adults, and I really can’t stress enough that we should be enthusiastically ripping new assholes over it, every time it appears.

Coupled with this is the hypocrisy of certainty. To the devout, such claims of metaphor are never couched as possibilities, or one of many interpretations – invariably, the language of “this is exactly what it means” is used, in complete denial of the myriad interpretations over the centuries, the various aspects which fail to support the metaphor, and the bare fact that only one person can tell you for certain whether a metaphor was intended or not, and that’s the writer. When theologians are in discussions with educated atheists, however, the certainty behind these arguments vanishes, probably well aware that it’s analogous to blind dogmatism, and instead we’re asked to, “consider the possibilities with an open mind.” It appears an open mind is useful in those who disagree with you, but absolutely unacceptable in those who you claim to be guiding.

We cannot ignore the other side of the coin, which is the metaphorical interpretation that so much of religious doctrine is based upon: abortion and birth control, blood transfusions and medical care, tithing, marriage, masturbation, circumcision… actually, just about everything that differentiates faiths from one another, under the broad groups of christianity or islam for instance (which are themselves just offshoots of the same scriptural sources) is owed almost entirely to interpretation, the remainder to selectivity. The hierarchy of holy men, the rituals, the idea of meeting houses and weekly schedules even, do not appear in scripture except as vague passages, certainly not in any form that would permit anyone to pronounce them as “the way.” Most of those mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph were entirely unheard of when written, and for many centuries thereafter. Yet somehow, we are told, god finds abortion and birth control a sin. Isn’t it amazing what can be found, especially what can be found when other sins like trimming your hair and beard were obviously just metaphors for, um, something else?

Scriptural scholars have examined all of these aspects, and many more besides, for the possibility of metaphors and translation errors and editing and so on, comparing usages and writing styles and even presumed attitudes. The first point of order is that, despite these efforts, no consensus has been reached on 90% of the possibilities outlined, so anyone that proclaims the ‘true meaning’ of any of it doesn’t have the weight of authority nor education behind them. The structure and style that would actually denote metaphorical usage, that would serve to distinguish such passages from literal or historical records, is nowhere to be found throughout the vast majority of it (but, curiously, can be found in limited passages, showing that it was indeed known and understood at the time of the writings.) But what is even more well known to scriptural scholars is how much of scripture has been changed, excised, cribbed, tossed about, and otherwise mangled over the centuries, from the arbitrary declarations of ‘canon’ through the vast missing portions to the blatant contradictions. Even if we blindly accept the premise that somewhere in the past there was a divine source, nothing that remains is trustworthy as representing it. I cannot give an adequate impression without writing a few thousand more words, so feel free to look into it on your own.

Now, there’s a salient trait of all of these that deserves to be highlighted very clearly. None of these interpretations are, nor have ever been, responsible for any form of special insight or guidance. All of them, and nearly every other explanation ever offered over scriptural inaccuracy, only exist to bring scripture up to speed with what we have determined by other means. This is like the kid in school who, when corrected, spits out, “That’s what I meant.” So, even if we accept the premise that these are what was really meant in such passages, we still never knew it until we found out through other methods, over a period of centuries, mind you – centuries filled with persecution and genocide and all sorts of divine guidance horseshit while we waited to decipher the fucking puzzle. One must reasonably ask how many other ‘proper’ interpretations we have yet to find, since it’s pretty clear from this premise that the gods weren’t actually trying to explain anything or guide the flock, so what conclusions should we draw from this? Or are we to believe that right now, we finally have it all correct? Based upon, what, the enormous advances religion is now providing to mankind?

Moreover, such claims of metaphorical intention have never been consistent – not among all of the adherents of any given faith (or even splinter sect thereof,) nor throughout history. Geocentrism is a metaphor? Too bad church doctrine persecuted people over proposing that the Earth orbited the sun. The seven day creation cycle refers to ages or millennia or whatever? So why do we have a seven-day week with one of those being holy? Nobody believed in literal witches or demonic possession? Good news to those that died, I suppose. But you know what’s even more telling? That these explanations are only considered important to defend religion from secularity – they’re only used when it is pointed out how worthless scripture is as a guide. They are not, ever, promoted to the faithful to try and correct them, so that any given faith is consistent and unified, everyone gaining the benefit of the True™ meaning. In other words, these are not offered as information or guidance, but excuses.

Or, of course, we could just toss scripture into the trash as being far too ridiculous to contemplate, realizing that the only bits of it that we find valuable aren’t exactly deep thoughts, and that the natural world demonstrates far more truths to us than every bit of scripture combined. I’ll be the first to openly call the idea of god, any gods, to be complete fucking nonsense, but will still point out that, if there’s anything that we can consider divine intent, it’s the basic dependable physical traits that we live with, every day – the real world.

But you know what’s ironic? The very thought that we apparently needed these stories to guide us, because we’re too fucking stupid to figure out some basic rules for getting along socially, yet the interpretation of them has required countless millions of hours of study (still without deriving a consensus,) and on top of that we feel we’re more than intelligent enough to handle this. Isn’t that wildly inconsistent? But imagine if, instead, we put all that effort into just building a useful social structure all on our own. What could we have accomplished then?

No peeking!

extremely shy spider that looks like Bane
Here we have more archive images while the winter slump goes on. I haven’t tried to find out what kind of spider this is, because with the lack of any distinctive markings or body shape, the next best guide is the eye pattern – obviously there’s some difficulty here. This little squirt’s defensive posture seems like it should be quite effective, at least at first glance, and note how the leg segments and joints all line up so well.

But then I got to thinking, because the abdomen is left pretty exposed, as it is with the newborn wolf spiders when riding atop mom’s back, so is this less vulnerable than the cephalothorax (head/forebody)? If the chitin on the abdomen is so effective, why would this not extend across the entire body? I would think the joints present a certain degree of vulnerability, but here the spider presents half of them right out in front. So perhaps the idea isn’t necessarily protection against a direct attack, but simply hiding the standard spider profile from those predators that recognize it to mean, “food.” I could also have caught it too soon after waking up and it was embarrassed about its appearance.

And, looking at the hairs on the legs, I wondered if the view out between them was much better than the view in, like those girls who somehow see through their bangs. A close examination of another frame in the sequence, where I had rolled the spider onto its side a little more, answered that question.

spider anterior median eye visible between legs
See it? There’s just one eye visible between the first two legs on the left side, the spider probably none too thrilled with the camera looming this close. But just in case, here’s another version where I highlighted the eye.

peeking spider eye highlighted
Also visible are the tiny pairs of claws on the end of each foot, the ones that enable spiders to run up walls and across ceilings, but don’t work so well on smooth plastic buckets.

It’s funny. I’ve been around spiders enough to know that they’re often incredibly shy and timid, or at least a functioning analog of such since I doubt arthropods really have emotions that we would recognize, and I see these images as illustrating it very well. But I strongly suspect others might see them entirely differently, even as menacing. I would solicit opinions, but (in case it’s escaped attention) comments are few and far between, and the people who might give the most contradictory answers are the ones who don’t read these posts, for, uh, exactly that reason I guess. So yeah, probably a waste of time.

Unlike the rest of the post, of course…

Monday color 1

iris flowers after ice stormWhen I did the color post at the end of the year, I had selected quite a few different images, many of which did not make the cut because they were too similar to others, or I needed more reds, or a horizontal format instead of a vertical (yes, this confirms that I actually put some attention into posting, despite rumors otherwise.) So, since it’s the slow season and the weather’s yucky, I decided to feature one a week, on Mondays, just to brighten things up a little. They are scheduled to post very early so you can see them first thing in the morning if necessary. I’ve actually got enough already sized to last into June, so perhaps I’ll continue this throughout the year.

This one came from the ice storms last year – you can see other examples in this post, and this one.

Its spit is your grave

spittlebug nymph with victims of defensive foamWell, okay, only if you’re a tiny arthropod and encounter it directly. No, that’s not exactly right either, because it’s hardly a grave, is it? Maybe I should have abandoned that title…

We’re going back in the photo archives for this one, seeing as how no one has gotten off their ass to ban winter. During warmer months, you may have spotted a blob of foam on a plant, often in the forks or at the base of leaf stems, and wondered what it was – it very likely appeared a little different from what I’m showing here, but this isn’t typical, it just illustrates traits a little better. Wonder no more, however, because what you saw was the protective behavior of a spittlebug nymph.

There are a few varieties, and I have no good method of identifying which species the nymph belongs to, so this will remain vague for now. They are hemipterans, ‘true bugs,’ meaning they have piercing/sucking mouthparts, in this case to draw out plant juices like the leafhoppers and cicadas do. Some time back I posted about the sharpshooters, and the volume of waste that they produce, and later about a curious substance produced by adult spittlebugs – these species are related and have similar feeding habits. Long story short: they feed on plant sap but derive very little sustenance from it, so they must cycle a lot of it through; basically, it means they’re almost perpetually weeing while feeding. The sharpshooters fling it away, the adult spittlebugs might simply drip, but the nymphs have developed an interesting defensive trait, which is to pump the stuff full of air and surround themselves with bubbles. In this image, two unidentified arthropods have run afoul of the sticky defense and drowned within – those are the two darker shapes towards the bottom of the drip – while the spittlebug nymph itself is the yellowish shape at the top.

From research just now, the nymph’s spit is likely acrid-tasting, certainly far more viscous than plant sap, but is there anything else to it? For instance, was it actually toxic to the two victims seen here or simply too sticky to escape from? As yet, I don’t know. I also don’t know how the sticky little bugger breathes while in there. I’ve commented before that most arthropods breathe through openings along their sides called spiracles, and in the case of the spittlebug it seems like it may be related to the shape of the plates along the underside of their abdomen called tergites (singular tergum.) This doesn’t help answer the question at all, since this is the last location I would think could be useful in breathing while submerged in sputum.

spittlebug nymph close-up
Here’s another look of the same one, as detailed as I could get while it remained protected under its self-generated blanket. Since it’s only a few millimeters long, it’s easy to imagine that spotting this at all would take the right light and a very close examination, but it’s much worse in most cases, since the bubbles are often thicker and more piled atop the insect.

spittlebug nymph exposedThis is a different one that I had exposed earlier to see the detail – this was quite an involved exercise, starting with even locating the little guy among all the foam, then in carefully sweeping the remaining bubbles away with a blade of grass. While the adult produces a remarkably water-repellent substance to remain dry (seriously, click on that link, it’s very cool,) the nymph displays pretty much the opposite affect, never appearing to be dry at all. This one is already starting to regenerate its cocoon of bubbles, only moments after I’d exposed it for the photo – you can see them gathering along the branch. I have two vague suspicions fostered by this photo, and since I’m not at all entomologically-educated that’s all they are, but perhaps I can find out more come spring when these guys reappear. The first is that the protrusion from the hind end of the abdomen, while almost certainly producing the spit in the first place, may also be how the spittlebug breathes, occasionally extending up and out of the bubbles to draw in air (arthropods really don’t need much, and the large quantity needed for the bubbles is almost certainly ‘pumped’ rather than ‘exhaled.’) This might even be linked to the production of the brochosomes in the adult, at the least forming a repellent surface on the very end so it can easily poke free from the saliva. The second suspicion is that the swollen portion of the abdomen represents storage of liquid so that the nymph can quickly generate bubbles for protection, even while not actively drinking sap.

spittlebug nymph exposed
This is another nymph, though whether it’s the same species at a later instar, or a completely different species, I cannot say – I’m inclined to think it is at least a later instar because of the greater body detail. It also finally explained just what, exactly, this spider had captured, something that I’d been wondering about for a while (but no, it wasn’t enough to keep even me up nights.)

two-lined spittlebug Prosapia bicincta adult profile
two-lined spittlebug Prosapia bicincta adult scale dorsal viewHere are two images of adult form, in this particular case (since I can identify these) two-lined spittlebugs, Prosapia bicincta – one of which demonstrates scale quite nicely. Once again, this seems to be an example of aposematic coloration, the high-contrast and memorable ‘keepaway’ pattern that also signals a defensive trait – according to one source, this species is believed able to secrete its own ‘blood,’ or hemolymph, when disturbed. This is what the ladybeetles do, and apparently it’s foul-tasting. I haven’t had the pleasure, myself; as weird as I am, I’m no bug-licker (demonstrating that no matter how anemic your social graces, you can always find someone to sneer down upon.) This defense was certainly not enough to deter a fishing spider, but because of their capture and feeding method, I imagine a lot of such defenses won’t work with spiders.

So the next time you see that little cluster of bubbles on a plant, you can point to it and say authoritatively, “That is a spittlebug.” Chances are, someone will think you’re just trying to be funny, but those that don’t might start asking a lot of questions that I haven’t answered here, and you’ll have to pretend you can’t hear them (it works for me.) Hopefully, before that occurs I’ll have found more examples and done some closer examinations to answer that breathing question; then, your opening is, “You may ask how this insect breathes while surrounded by viscous foam, and that’s an astute question,” which will make them feel all sheepish because they weren’t about to ask that at all. Put ‘em on the defensive, right off the bat.

The struggle for an appropriate title

You’ll understand in a second.

So, there is a documented case of a woman named Mary Toft who, in 1726, claimed to have given birth to rabbits. Now, there are a lot of weird stories from a few centuries ago, mostly of the “so we are told” variety, and even today there are a number of medical marvels that we know of through supermarket media that somehow never have a thesis written about them. This story wouldn’t be half as interesting if it was strictly post-event recollections, perhaps with a forlorn rabbit offered as evidence, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Oh no.

See, Mary was pregnant, but miscarried after sighting a rabbit – because, you know, rabbits. Little shits, all cute and harmless and stuff. But soon afterward, she claims to have then started delivering various animal parts, and notified (what passed for) doctors in the area. One, by the name of John Howard, over a period of several days helped her deliver a fine selection of incomplete pets, up to and including nine baby rabbits.

This was a hoax, I’m sorry to say. But let’s examine the over-and-above efforts expended in pursuit of this one. Doctors, even then, didn’t stand on the other side of a screen and shout instructions during childbirth, so it is a reasonably safe bet that Dr. Howard there was not being fooled by any simple slight of… uhhhh… hand. I do believe the good doctor was assisting this poor woman in the production of dismembered critters through the usual and accustomed route.

As one source saucily put it, “Let’s pause to let that sink in.” However, I don’t think ‘sinking in’ is adequate or even possible in such circumstances; I suspect some pushing was in order. And I would like to be perfectly clear in this regard: if you are required to prime your boomhauer with bunnies in order to perpetuate your hoax, you are almost certainly carrying things a wee bit (a ha ha) too far.

And it has to be said: If you are already accustomed to inserting hossenfeffer in your hootch and see nothing wrong with this, there are probably some repressed childhood memories that bear examination. Let me guide you, in the event that no one else has up to this point, but this is not a spectator sport.

Mrs. Toft did eventually reveal her machinations – by that I mean the hoax – when she was threatened with vivisection, because, hey, a treatise on the necessary plumbing would be good for years on the lecture circuit. This, however, was further than Mary was willing to take the joke, a significant datum that many parents might find useful in childrearing. And so, thus ended Mary Toft’s career of launching lagomorphs from her labradoodle. At least, for an audience…

I am not making this up.

Homey don’t play that

As a species, we like to occasionally speculate on extra-terrestrial life – what it would be like, how prevalent it is, what we could learn from it, and so on. More than speculate, really, because we’re actively looking for it (or at least some of us are,) and have done some interesting theoretical science along those lines. I’ve written a few posts about it myself (first of a three-part series here, a further examination here,) though I hasten to add that the relationship between my stuff and theoretical science is distant at best, just barely on the same continent – maybe an outlying territory. And yet, I also want to point out that the topic remains theoretical, for everyone, because that’s all we can possibly engage in right now; we’d need a lot more information than we currently possess to accomplish anything more than speculation. We’re groping in the dark.

A post over at the National Center for Science Education blog sparked this extended thought process. The basic premise therein is that, between the discovery of atomic fission and the drastic changes we’re making to our environment and climate, we may not be terribly long-lived as species go; if we are at all representative of intelligent life, then it’s possible that intelligent life lasts only so long in the universe. So in cosmic terms, in order for us to encounter any, they would have to be almost exactly aligned with us in a developmental timeline. If they developed earlier, their signals fell upon deaf ears (like of the sauropods) and stopped before we could hear them, and if they develop much later, our own signals will have stopped.

Now, I’m going to ignore countless other factors within this whole topic to concentrate on one small aspect, but it’s an interesting one (it is – don’t argue.) And it’s something that underlies a lot of my posts here, so if I have a personal philosophical message – aside from trashing philosophy, I mean, – it’s along these lines.

Let’s start with the nuclear annihilation angle. While I am largely of the opinion that this is a passing phase of our development and a threat that will vanish soon, there are still some convincing arguments that we stood a little too close to decimating a large percentage of our world population, as well as provoking a drastic effect on our environment, with the discovery of nuclear weapons. It’s not like these hazards were at any time unknown, either – we were aware right from the start that they were intensely powerful. And we also knew, right from the start, that human behavior is a bit too unstable and outright petulant to possess such power. The attitude that surrounded them seems to be, “We, the responsible ones, better have enough bombs on hand to stop those irresponsible other guys.” Not only is there the idea that we had weapons more dangerous than humans could be trusted with as a whole, but that “we” were smarter and more trustworthy than “they,” this peculiar egotistic division that our species loves to engage in. Though the weapons have remained unused since the two initial events seventy years ago, we’re not really confident some one of us won’t be stupid enough to use them, quite possibly through that same tribalism that creates the “we” and “they.”

Chances are, no matter what, we wouldn’t wipe our species out in this manner, but it is possible that we’d wreck our economic system enough that space exploration, radio astronomy, and such pursuits take a distant back seat for a while. But consider if we, as a species, were just a smidgen more hotheaded, tribalistic, defiant, and egotistical – how easily could it have happened then? The balance between the rational consideration of consequences, and the emotional reaction to (even perceived) provocation seems to be surprisingly narrow now – it doesn’t seem like a slight change in our mental makeup, some aspect of evolutionary development long ago, couldn’t have made things turn out drastically different.

Now let’s consider climate change. There are several key aspects of the entire debate, having little to do with whether it’s actually taking place, believe it or not. Most of the debate was over whether humans were significantly, noticeably contributing to it, the “anthropogenic” part. And most of the debate over that was fostered, funded, and provoked by those who had the most to lose over the findings, the ones that would suffer serious hits to their gross profit structure if they had to curb the production of greenhouse gases, and a hell of a lot of money was poured into this fight. Almost entirely ignored within this all was that it didn’t matter how much the human contribution is (a measurably significant amount of it, by the way) – continued production of vast quantities of greenhouse gases was only going to add to the problem. Firefighters do not need to know if the house fire was started by a gas leak to turn the fucking gas off anyway as soon as they arrive.

But the overriding aspect that rears its ugly head in this situation is the short-term versus the long-term effects. By protecting profit structures, by denying and ignoring the impacts (predicted for decades, by the way,) by fighting to maintain the status quo against all indications that it would have to change, those in active denial were placing immediate gratifications over long-term hazards in level of importance. Future issues are “somebody else’s problem” – one of the failings of term limits in politics, and visible throughout many policies, including the one towards nuclear waste. Even on a personal level, we can foster a market that favors huge, overpowered trucks and muscle cars through some misplaced and pointless association with machismo, and consider the negative effects (and even the ongoing cost of gas) as somehow irrelevant, or out of our control. But, we can see a photo of a fast-food worker spitting in someone’s food and get incensed over it – feel free to weigh the relative impacts of each action.

[I want to be careful about playing the blame game here – there are numerous ways in which our environmental impact takes place, and a lot of them either honestly out of our control or outside of a viable opportunity, such as purchasing a hybrid vehicle or making our homes more efficient, often at a prohibitive cost. At the same time, the market will support these better as the demand increases. Something to consider.]

Tracing it all back, we find that most of the stumbling blocks in the path of long-term benefits come from simple traits: ego, status, greed, even convenience and indulgence. Overall, very basic emotions largely revolving around reproductive rights, but also around our status within the community (which is not exactly clear is even a separate thing from reproduction – is our fancy car showing off more to the neighbors or to potential mates?) And a lot of this is pursued way out of proportion to any benefit, mostly because we never think about it. So, we have a house twice as big as we need, are well past reproductive age, are competing with no one for any kind of needs whatsoever – what the fuck are we pursuing now?

That the question can even be asked is a rather telling evaluation of our species. The brains that give us the power of the atom, that tell us the long-term consequences of our actions, are too often incapable of directing us towards a productive, rational course of action. You would think that even a comfortable retirement, much less a luxurious one, would fall behind the continued thriving of our entire species – yet most times it doesn’t. The evolved drives that we have involve only the immediate future – which means we do not possess any instincts for lasting survival. That has to come from our brains actively considering them. Not very hard to do, really, but we have to make the effort.

We come back to that balance point. We received fancy brains largely because they were more efficient than evolving an automatic reaction to every environmental demand that we might face, but we still have the automatic reactions too, and they actually compete for attention. Our continued survival very likely depends on the brain winning the competition more often, and right now it’s not too clear if this is possible. As mentioned above, had we developed with a slightly stronger aggressive/protective instinct, the nuclear stalemate might have come out quite differently, and I’d have to be chipping this whole post into stone tablets or something. But are the drives that push us towards short-term benefits, status and ego and all that, actually too strong to allow the brain to guide our species towards long-term survival? It’s not a matter of what any individual may feel, or how easy it is to say, once the subject comes up in discussion, that the long-term is much more important. It’s a matter of how many actions our species as a whole may take under the goading of these base instincts.

These instincts were almost certainly necessary for us to survive this long, and variations of them exist in most species that engage in sexual reproduction – it seems highly likely that such traits (or close analogs thereof) are necessary for survival. But species also go extinct, failing to develop traits that will allow them to handle the new environmental demands. It’s not a matter of a ‘bad evolutionary selection,’ but the semi-random elements of both environmental variation and genetic mutation failing to achieve compatibility; sometimes this occurs very quickly and a species dies off with a short existence on this planet, and sometimes it doesn’t occur for a long time, like the proliferation of the trilobites that lasted 270 million years, through two major extinction events before disappearing in a third. Humans can’t make any claims to success or longevity; every species on the planet right now is a successful descendent of the beginning of life billions of years ago. The question is, which ones will continue far past this point?

Here’s another perspective to temper the idea that selection is ultimately successful. The various cancers, which many species can claim susceptibility to, have evolved right along with us; most of them can’t spread between individuals, and if they’re successful enough, their environment – the host – dies. They inhabit a niche of self-limitation, but as long as they usually spring up well past reproductive age, the tendency for them to exist still gets past the selection process. In essence, they’re a detriment that exploits a loophole in natural selection, yet do not possess any ability to expand beyond a given point.

And now, another factor, one which I’ve touched on before. We are a curious, exploratory species, always interested in what lies over the horizon. And when you think about it, we’re incredibly optimistic about it, unrealistically so to be honest – any newly discovered area stands an equal chance of being worse than where we are now, but this doesn’t temper our anticipation that it will be better. And these odds go crashing down dramatically when it comes to space exploration, since we evolved for conditions only on this planet – what exists in space is ridiculously inhospitable to us, and the same may be said for the vast majority of planets we could find. Very frequently, we will hear that our future is in space, and that man’s destiny is to expand and colonize, spread out through the stars – but why would we even think that? The efforts involved would be phenomenal, the expense of energy and resources to create even a moon colony so prohibitive that we have no feasible plan to implement it. Not to mention how bleak a moon colony would be.

If you ask anyone why we would have to colonize other planets than our own, the answer invariably is, because of our burgeoning population and dwindling resources here on Earth – the one planet in known existence where we can actually live. It’s like we throw up our hands over the prospect of even limiting ourselves, of being smart enough to live within our means – somehow, this is much harder than terraforming some other planet, or building a self-sustaining colony someplace. We’ve passed beyond irony and entered idiotic now – please do not make eye-contact with the natives. And it’s not like any of this is hard to puzzle out – we just don’t, under our inherent drives to explore and expand and spread out, like bacteria.

Even worse, some of our desire to expand into space may be the same status thing mentioned earlier – we want to own and control even more than the entire planet. Historically, expansion has been driven at least as much (probably far more) by power and megalomania as by the necessity of new resources or a more hospitable place to live. And it seems likely that we recognize this trait when we are concerned about who has nuclear weapons.

But when we imagine contacting extra-terrestrial life, we somehow believe they will have almost the exact same outlooks – or at least, those are the ones we hope to find, anyway, somehow thinking this is a good thing. It may be that we haven’t heard from any such species because they possess slightly more useful instincts than we do – perhaps no drive to explore at all, and instead one to make their conditions as ideally suited to their survival as possible, so their home planet is fully sustainable; they pick up their toys, too. The mark of an advanced race may be conservatism, that they won’t expand. By the same token, they might look at us askance, stunned by the behaviors we exhibit, the conflicts that hamper our development and put us at constant risk. Perhaps they might hope that we, like cancer, cannot extend beyond the host.

Which also means that encountering extra-terrestrial species that are similar to humans in any significant way might be a very bad thing; we may not like the mirror that is held up to us. Especially if they have the resources to extend contact across such vast distances in the first place. If they offer any blankets in trade, it’d be best to pass on them.

Truly, a bug

While redoing some drainage channels around the house, something in the dirt seemed a little too undirtlike [spellcheck doesn’t like that word, but I’ve long since learned that spellcheck is bigoted] so I scooped it up. Lo, it was a cicada, the first I’ve seen in the earlier instar nymph form, the phase that stays underground for freaking years and feeds on tree sap.
unearthed cicada nymph
Not that you can really tell much difference from the form that emerges from the ground and molts into the adult in the summer months – except for the eyes, it pretty much looks just like the exoskeleton it blithely leaves behind on tree trunks, a literal litterbug (unless you count the bugs that live in leaf litter, but I don’t.) I always thought the live ones would be more colorful, or striated or something – the reality did not justify the breathless anticipation.

This one was moving sluggishly at first – well, at always – but as it warmed up a little indoors it got slightly more active, especially when I was cleaning it up. This took place with an eyedropper and an artist’s paintbrush, and it fended off such ministrations around the head and mouth. At one point, dabbing it with a cotton swab to soak up excess moisture, it seized the cotton tip in those nasty little forelegs and wouldn’t let it go.
cicada nymph on tree root
For illustrative and educational purposes, I perched it on a tree root, which is where it would spend the majority of its life, drinking up sap and hashing out very long poems. Still annoyed at being disturbed, and likely unable to see anything more than light through those eyes if that, it kept its midlegs raised in either defensive posture or a rude gesture – I’m inclined towards the latter, since I’ve seen bees do this too when another encroaches on the flower its feeding from.

While I would like to watch this one develop, or at least emerge from the ground and climb its tree for the final molt into adult instar, I can’t think of any way of accomplishing this, so I’m simply going to return it to the location where I found it, now that the digging is done. It’s not like there’s a shortage of them come summer, though I’m still frustrated with coming across a swarm of them all molting at once, literally dozens, when my camera was miles away (obligations with friends – see how badly those can turn out?) One of these days I’ll get the whole sequence.

Bolstered, however, by actually finding something to photograph in January, I went out with the flashlight to see if anything else was stirring – spiders can be surprisingly hardy in cooler weather, for instance. Alas, all I found were a few centipedes and some snails, which I brought inside for a brief photo session and a race, until I caught myself doping one of the snails and forfeited the race.
snail race