If you put your mind to it

It’s not hard at all to find some well-meaning advice about success, usually something about achieving your dreams by dedication and hard work, and most of the time, it pisses me off seriously. It’s not that I have anything against advice or optimism, or provoking people to try harder, but the implication, far too often, is that this is all that it takes to become successful. Variations of the theme often include the habits of some successful person – I actually saw some website, desperate for content it seems, listing what famous people had for breakfast – and of course there are all the various cute little proverbs, one of the worst ways to guide thinking that I can imagine.

In short, most of such advice is confirmation bias, the practice of picking the bits that support any given standpoint while ignoring all of those that do not. While Joe Millionaire makes it a point to be up by 6 am and jog ten kilometers before breakfast, we can’t ignore the huge number of people with the same habits who somehow are not millionaires, nor even close. While some musician never let go of their dreams, how many others that are never interviewed, never even noticed, pursued the same dreams and yet failed to break out of their obscurity, or perhaps enjoyed only modest success? If we want to offer advice, perhaps we could make at least a token effort to see that the advice really does work?

The success of any individual, any endeavor, will always depend on a wide confluence of factors, many of which (probably, “most”) are not in anyone’s control. Hell, we can look to the motion picture industry, where the attendance of any given film is widely variable and influenced by timing, season, “buzz,” critical review, and even just the vagaries of social media. One talk show host, just one, making a positive or negative comment can alter the box office returns by millions of dollars – and who knows what standpoint they even comment from? Against such factors, the script and cinematography and talent and hard work and goals and all such positive-thinking advice comes crashing down.

Meanwhile, there are an awful lot of people who just fell into their success, born into the right family, or just in the right place at the right time, or in an environment where their attempts to build a network or find investors is greatly enhanced; the playing field is far from level. It has long been known that growing up in a disadvantaged area – inner-city urban blight, or remote rural communities – negatively influences the likelihood of ‘breaking out;‘ the tendency, by far, is to maintain the status quo regardless of the area or status, so the developed regions tend to foster development while the undeveloped regions stagnate. This is why so much effort is poured into developing better schools and opportunities in disadvantaged areas, to try and break such cycles. No amount of good advice, no number of internet memes, is going to dismiss such factors.

And then there’s simple human nature. Given two equal job applicants, the more attractive one is most likely to nail the position – and this influence almost certainly has an effect well beyond “equal applicants.” Additionally, the hardest and most innovative worker in the world still has to have a boss that isn’t stupid, petty, or insecure, and/or has to work for a business that is willing to recognize and foster such an asset. We want to believe that hard work always pays off, we want a society where such standards are maintained, but the bare truth is, one personality clash can negate virtually everything else. Career success can be achieved through countless other influences such as shmoozing the right people, having connections, gaming the system, and even just being ‘perky’ – and these are hardly exceptions; we all know examples of these, possibly quite a lot of them.

It’s not my intention to be negative; I remain in favor of a positive outlook and being motivated to achieve goals. If someone’s success relies on skill sets and experience, there’s a certain level of truth to the concept of ‘always try harder.’ Focus and perseverance are undeniably useful traits almost anywhere. But I take grave exception to the belief that this is all that it takes. This ends up putting the blame of failure solely on the individual, with the direct implication that if someone doesn’t achieve their goals, they simply didn’t try hard enough (this same concept appears repeatedly throughout religion, only it’s the lack of devotion that’s to blame there.) By extension, it fosters the idea that human effort can alter all other factors, the asinine mind over matter schtick. Someone can be a marvelous actor, but if they lack the ‘chiseled features’ that are in demand, no amount of effort will overcome that, and the breakthrough parts just won’t materialize. Countless talents languish in remote areas because there are no opportunities for advancement there, and no opportunities to even obtain the funds to get someplace with more opportunities. In such cases, these concepts of ‘positive thinking’ reject reality and replace it with blame; you’re just not good enough to go somewhere. In what way is this supposed to be useful?

There are also studies that show that being perpetually optimistic makes one less prepared than being at least a little cynical, and there’s a very simple reasoning behind that: those that expect problems and obstacles are far more prepared to deal with them. Few of us are stupid enough to think, “I won’t run out of gas,” at least over a significant period of time – but how many of us think, “I’ll just get gas in the morning,” without considering the possibility of an emergency trip to the hospital? At some point, positive thinking becomes denial, and no recognition of the myriad obstacles that can appear in our paths. Motivation and dedication are only parts of a formula that should also include forethought, preparedness, business savvy, judging people, evaluating failures, and having plenty of options – and a better mental attitude is going to include the simple idea that shit happens.

Yet it gets far worse when this ‘failure is only personal’ attitude is prevalent in a society. Assistance programs of any kind, the ones intended to help level that playing field, are viewed with the bias that if someone is poor or disadvantaged, it’s their own damn fault. Far too many people want to believe that their own success came from their hard work or intelligence, and had nothing whatsoever to do with where they grew up or the use of a car when they were going for their first job, or even the number of neighbors close enough that needed their lawns mowed. There’s no magic formula that dissolves unfortunate circumstances, and while the very concept of success is primarily an ego-trip, this is hardly a reason why we should attempt to deny it from others, or believe that what we’ve achieved makes us special – that’s just being judgmental. Everyone live surrounded by factors, but these are in no way the same – some are much better than others, and some far worse.

For every example of a self-made millionaire, there are millions who tried to follow the same route and failed. For every person who parlayed a single stock option into a thriving investment portfolio, there are thousands who lost their money when the stocks decreased in value rather than increasing, and millions who lack the disposable income to even make any such investments. For every founder who started out with a corner business and built it into a multi-million dollar franchise, there are hundreds of businesses that folded within the first few years. Timing and opportunity and location and connections and weather and just plain stupid luck all have their say, and to promote the idea that hard work will overcome all of these is being fatuous, failing to recognize that there are better things that we can do to promote success than offering untested and blatantly false proverbs about positive thinking.

And then, there’s this insidious concept that is rampant in our society right now, and it’s the pursuit of success in the first place, the idea that this is what’s important. Without a doubt, we all want to pay the bills, to be free from financial concerns, and to indulge ourselves a bit. Yet the drive to keep exceeding this, to always seek a higher status or a better financial position, is most likely fostered by evolved traits to compete, to appear as a better mate choice than others – just because that’s what worked to propagate our genes. But we have other desires as well, and too often, we forget that the pursuit of success or wealth or fame or whatever doesn’t actually make us happy; sometimes, all we need to be doing is what we enjoy, and most of the time this doesn’t take a lot to achieve. The competitive drive is something that, if it serves no actual purpose, we should be willing to ignore in favor of other drives or desires that actually will do something for us, many of which are a hell of a lot easier to appease. At the same time, the reduction of emphasis on success and wealth is quite likely to make our society better overall anyway.

Rather than taking our cues and goals from others, chasing the collective dream as it were, sometimes it’s better to look inside and find our own motivations, seeking what would work to make us the happiest and most satisfied. When we’re striving for a label to apply to ourselves, why isn’t “content” the choice more often?

Podcast: You guessed correctly

So, yeah, I’m finally getting around to posting about a photo trip taken, oh, eleven days ago – if I keep blowing deadlines like this they’re gonna stop paying me. And as a mixed blessing, this will be a multi-part affair, while also being at least partially in podcast form – I’ll let you decide which aspects of that are good and bad. Should you be planning your own trip to the Outer Banks, this and the following podcast may be of some use to you, and if you’re not, well, perhaps they’ll be entertaining anyway. At least we can both hope.

As you listen along, you can refer to the images and Google Earth Placemarks provided to get a visual reinforcement. Sorry, as yet I have no way of providing scents to go along with it, even when I go to great lengths to describe some in the audio. Don’t blame me – HTML is still lagging behind on that end.

Walkabout podcast – You guessed correctly

view of the wetlands in Creef's Cut, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
wild hibiscus over wetlands, Creef's Cut, Alligator River National Wildlife RefugeBoth of these views, despite their glaring dissimilarity, are from Creef’s Cut, in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge just off of NC 64, a little inland from the Outer Banks – see the Google Earth placemark here (clicking on it should open up Google Earth if you have it installed on your computer, and if you don’t, why not?) It’s also not hard to find this area on a map service of your choice – look just west of where NC 64 and NC 264 meet on the coast.

I have heard a few times that alligators can indeed be seen in North Carolina, and there was even an information plaque stating so right in the refuge, but I’ve never seen one so I don’t believe it myself. I have seen a black bear, at such a distance that the only shot I got was a ‘proof’ pic and nothing more, and the area is a red wolf habitat as well. If you’re looking for such subjects, very early morning at first light is the best I can recommend. The region probably looks fantastic in foggy conditions, as well. If you’re staying on Roanoke Island, you can get back here within an hour.

Bodie Island lighthouse, NC, from the wetlands overlook platform
Bodie Island lighthouse, NC, framed against tree and marsh reedsBeing there at a busy time for tourists, I didn’t attempt any full-length or establishing shots of the Bodie Island lighthouse, even though the area makes it fairly easy to do this – just didn’t want all those people in my images. Instead, I chose a few different angles that hid unwanted elements (like the full parking lot, easily visible from this shooting angle) and still tried to be fartsy – I’ll let you decide if I succeeded or not. I’ve done a lot of shooting around Bodie Island light, including here and here, and there’s a placemark attached to that first link.

great egret Ardea alba over marsh regin behind Bodie Island lighthouse, NC
beach scene at Bodie Island beach accessAbove is the view from the platform seen in a previous image, looking out over the marsh area that borders the sound side of the barrier island – a great egret (Ardea alba) made an appearance but wasn’t inclined to venture closer for a better portrait.

Directly across NC 12 from the drive to the Bodie Island lighthouse is a beach access, also quite crowded when I was there, so I only snagged a few frames – again, purposefully cropping out as much evidence of people as I could. The towering cumulus gave me the opportunity to work a vertical composition – anything horizontal or showing the nearby ocean would have had kids and boogie boards in it. Be patient – I did a little better later on. Many years ago during a stormier trip, I captured some intriguing cloud formations at the very same beach, this time a bit more sparsely populated.

By the way, if you want to see the noisy bridge featured in the podcast, this placemark will pinpoint it for you. Going back through the archive imagery (click on the photo date at the bottom of the map window in Google Earth) will let you see the storm damage that occurred, making the bridge necessary. It illustrates the hazards of living in an area exposed so readily to hurricanes.

Naturally, I can’t neglect noting the names of the various areas mentioned, so you know how to spell them: Avon, Bodie Island, Buxton, Corolla, Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Manteo, Nag’s Head, Pea Island, Roanoke Island, Rodanthe, Salvo, and Waves. Well worth a visit, but if you don’t like crowds, aim for a quieter season than I did.

Let’s provoke some phobias

As you might guess from a title like that, we’re not going to be seeing puppies and ducklings in this post. The tags would give more than a clue, but they’re perversely at the bottom, so you’d have to scroll past all the images to find out what you’re trying to avoid.

On a photo outing just over a week ago, the conditions had been kinda meh and we (meaning the Implacable Al Bugg and I) hadn’t seen a whole lot of wildlife, even in an area where we could usually spot something dependably. This was Duke Forest, where at least a few water snakes could be found, but it was surprisingly quiet this time around, so we spent a bit of time experimenting with moving-water shots – the level of New Hope Creek [a small aside: half a billion things are named “New Hope” in NC, and I’m pretty sure it’s state law that one road in every town is so-named] was notably higher due to recent rains. This is as pleasant as the images are going to get.

time exposure of New Hope Creek in Duke Forest
We did see one snake perched in the top of a small sapling that was flooded at the base, quite possibly driven there by even higher water levels earlier, but it was so difficult to see clearly that I’m not even sure of the species; I suspect a queen snake.

On the way back up out of the valley, however, I spied a recognizable spider crossing the path, quite pleased because I’d never seen an adult – it was a trapdoor spider, genus Ummidia. Several years back I’d photographed a cluster of newborns right in the yard, being surprised when they were identified on BugGuide.net because I didn’t think we had any such class of arachnid in the area, but then I’d never seen another example. This one, pretty large as spiders in the area go (about 40mm in leg spread,) was proving difficult to photograph on location, not able to be convinced to hold still and in poor light, so I coaxed it into a film can and brought it home for some detailed images. You know, nice and close.

overhead shot of trapdoor spider Ummidia
No, I said close.

face shot of trapdoor spider Ummidia showing eye clusters
They’re called trapdoor spiders for a reason, and it’s for this reason that they’re not often seen: they usually stay secreted in a silk-lined vertical tunnel in the soil, capped with a hinged lid camouflaged to look like the forest floor, and leap out to snag prey that wanders too close. Naturally enough, I don’t yet have any images to illustrate this, since my subject here was found out on walkabout instead of chilling at home. One day, one day – it’s on my list of things to photograph. If I had to actually produce this list in written form it would take days or weeks, not (exactly) from the length of it, but simply from the idea that I vow to capture some image and this sits in the deep recesses of my mind, brought forth only when something happens to remind me again. Should some editor or science museum want to spend good money for detailed images, I could be persuaded to crawl around on the forest floors, combing the earth for something next to impossible to see, but this could understandably take days. In other words, I’ll stick to snagging what I happen to find rather than trying to eliminate items from my list, unless someone expresses a specific need.

Trapdoor spiders, or at least my particular example here, aren’t inclined to hold still and model, instead seeking cover or ambling around quickly, and convincing this one to pause out in the open took some effort. In doing so I got a nice threat display, and managed to snag the shot before it abandoned the display to wander off again.

portrait shot of trapdoor spider Ummidia threat display
That’s head-on, right at the chin as it were, and there’s little mistaking the menace – nor was it an interpretation, as the spider bit the probe I was using to help it pose, several times. While it was significantly smaller than the fishing spiders I’ve photographed, I’m fairly certain those fangs (chelicerae) were bigger; I have no doubts one would notice a bite. But now I also wish I’d gotten some better photos of those pedipalps, since they seem to have a decent grasping mechanism, almost like pincers.

I’m slightly out of chronological order here, because finding the spider came after our other encounter for the day, which was a lot closer than it should have been – I nearly stepped on this one…

southern copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix just off trail
… which is embarrassing, really, because it was right on the edge of the main trail, a driveway actually, and it saw me before I saw it, beating a retreat as I stepped close. I know this is copperhead country, and keep an eye out in likely conditions, but I let my guard down on the gravel drive as we were leaving. Had it been as stubborn as my previous encounter, I might have been bitten.

This is a copperhead, but a southern subspecies, Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix – you can tell by the complete separation of the patterns along the spine, as if someone did a really shitty job of lining up the decals; only the southern variant displays this, while the northern can show mismatched patterns (like the forebody seen here) but not total breaks. Not large as far as snakes go, and perhaps small average for an adult copperhead, about 45cm overall. It slipped off the trail but paused not far away, and we were able to get a few detail shots as it watched us warily.

southern copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix head shot showing slit pupil
You have to appreciate it when your model, even while seeking cover, pauses with its head in the sunlight for a nice portrait. We were not anywhere near as close as this image makes it appear, however; this is a tight crop from the original, itself shot with the 80mm macro. It shows another identifying characteristic of venomous snakes in North America, but one that’s of little use. Venomous snakes have slit pupils, while all others have round ones. Getting close enough to make this out means you’re already far too close – I couldn’t even see it distinctly from my shooting distance.

[There’s yet another trait, even more worthless, but it’s one that I’ve used to show off on at least one occasion. Snakes have transverse belly scales stretching completely across the lower margins, giving a Venetian blind appearance. Once they reach the ‘vent,’ or genital/anal opening, all non-venomous snakes then split into two slightly staggered scales, while the venomous snakes maintain a single scale right to the tail tip. When a homeowner suspected there had been a snake hatching within their utility box, I found several molted skins from the newborns and could positively identify them as copperheads without ever having seen the snakes themselves.]

Here’s the full-frame version, almost the same as the one from which the image above was cropped, showing off how well camouflaged copperheads can be. I wouldn’t be half as embarrassed had I stepped too close to it in these conditions, but it was a lot more visible than this initially.

southern copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix showing camouflage and difficulty in spotting
It largely stayed put as we cautiously maneuvered around for a variety of pictures, but when it started to shift into its ‘threatened’ display I called it quits and we left it alone. The common concept of this is that a snake “coils up,” and there’s even folklore that snakes cannot strike unless coiled; both of these are horseshit. A snake will “bunch up,” forming tighter S-curves while raising its head higher, allowing it a variety of movement options such as striking or just darting off rapidly – notice the difference in body curvature here versus the first image above. Once you see this, it’s time to back off. Coiling is a behavior usually intended to conserve body heat and provides a lot fewer options for the snake, but since people are more likely to encounter a snake when it’s basking and thus coiled up, this idea has remained around.

I would like to round out this phobia-inducing post with some images of clowns on the tops of tall structures, but I haven’t run across anything like that lately – be patient.

Things to come

Bodie Island lighthouse, and what you don't seeThis is just a hint, because there are several posts getting lined up right now but it’ll take me a little bit to get to them. Feel free to guess how I spent the past couple of days.

I’m trying to keep my posts and photos mostly in the order of which they occurred, which might spark the question of why? And mostly, the answer is that it’s what works for me. Naturally, there are images and subjects that are stronger than others, and if I jump to the strongest, that reduces the motivation to get back to the rest; with my time and schedule (using the word extremely loosely) being what it is lately, this might result only in fewer posts. So I keep things in order to build to them, making some posts ‘dessert’ if you will. Whatever, it works, stop looking at me like that.

Completely switching topics now, this particular composition is what I call, “creative hiding” – it’s partially about trying to do something different with a fairly common (some might say ‘over-photographed’) subject, and partially about intentionally masking some elements in the scene that worked against it. I talk about this a little in a previous composition post, so you can go there in the meantime and then start looking at this image in an entirely new way, wondering just what it was that I was hiding, and where. It might not be too hard, but the kicker is, did you have any inkling that I was trying to do this before I mentioned it?

Macro photography, part 10: Evolution

In the part nine post, I talked about having to create a new method of portable macro lighting because I trashed my old method, and while this was functional, there were a few small problems with it. The coverage was a little narrow and specific, while being hard to aim, and it sometimes produced odd reflections. But the worst bit was the weight. The Metz 40 MZ-3i is a wonderfully capable flash unit, but balanced it’s not – it’s fairly heavy, and it suffers from a decision made decades ago that few have yet addressed, which is the position of the hot shoe on a camera. Sitting right atop the prism housing and so directly in front of the user’s forehead, a flash unit cannot extend backwards from the shoe mount or it will interfere with putting one’s eye to the viewfinder; that leaves left or right (usually interfering with camera controls on the top of the body,) straight up, or out to the front. Many flashes are aligned straight up, but the Metz goes out to the front, which means the weight is mostly away from the mount. This becomes much worse if you try to mount the flash on something like a small ballhead or anything else that allows precision aiming, because off-center weight requires a lot of friction to stabilize, and most small ballheads can’t cut it.

On an off-again, on-again basis I looked for other solutions, mostly the idea of a much smaller and lighter flash unit that could still do manual output; this has not been a priority among manufacturers. To paraphrase their typical thinking, if you want manual output, you must be experienced/professional, and you’ll want a lot of other bells & whistles too and will be willing to pay a shitload of money for a lighting unit. There’s one exception, the MeiKe MK-300, but the reviews of it aren’t so hot. Did no one, ever, make a small manual-output flash unit?

Sunpak Auto 322 flash strobe unitThe webbernets is great, I have to admit. Yes, someone did make one at one time, and it turns out to be the same manufacturer as my previous flat-panel flash: Sunpak. The Sunpak Auto 322, while long discontinued, is a flexible little unit with a bundle of aiming options, a built-in PC sync cord, and manual output ranging from full to 1/32nd power, as well as thyristor-controlled automatic exposure. It can flop 180° atop the shoe mount, sitting to the left, right, or vertically, and the smaller flash head can pivot 180° on its own, as can be seen in my image. It is a little bigger than palm size but about half of the weight of the Metz and much better balanced. It runs off four AA batteries and has a Guide Number of 24m/80′ – not the strongest flash you’ll find, but more than adequate for macro work.

Now, all that’s well and good, but the secret to flash photography is controlling the spotlight effect, and that means a reflector/diffuser. After a lot of careful measurements and a bit of cutting and gluing, I’d created an attachment out of black matboard (so, dense cardboard,) aluminum foil, and a sheet of almost sheer white material. The entire inner surface is coated in foil and thus reflective, all exiting from the round opening with the sheet of white material to diffuse the light a bit more. While it increases the size of the flash quite a bit, it still remains manageable and is only slightly smaller in output surface that the flat-panel flash unit, while producing a round light source. Those thick white stripes you see in my image are patches of slightly tacky vinyl, glued to the tapered head of the flash to give my softbox more purchase. All together, it looks like this:

Sunpak Auto 322 with custom diffuser attached
The top surface slopes down to a point at the front, allowing the light to bounce down through the opening, while the opening itself is far enough from the flash head that there is no chance of direct light hitting the subject – this prevents strong highlights in reflections from eyes, for instance. The round shape is more natural-looking in those same reflections, and the opening is 13cm across, so big enough to provide wide coverage for most macro subjects. Instead of being a spot source like a flashlight or spotlight, the light comes from the entire surface and provides more coverage and softer shadows. Most importantly, it’s easily portable, and light enough to position in countless ways.

Sunpak Auto 322 and diffuser mounted to camera
Being offset to the side like this, a heavy flash unit is quite noticeable, so this lighter rig is a lot more manageable. It’s mounted on a seven-inch “Magic Arm,” a slick little mount with two ballheads and a pivot joint in the middle, all tightened by just one knob – lots of positioning options, but ridiculously overpriced unless you shop around a bit (*cough* Chinese Ebay listings *cough*.) The grey thing spanning between the camera and flash unit is, of course, a Manfrotto 330B macro bracket seen in part one.

The real test, naturally, is how the images taken with this lighting rig look, and I’ll let you judge for yourself, since it was used exclusively for the images in this post, and this one, and this one, and this, and even this (the first image excepted – that’s natural light.) I’m pleased with it, even though I may add a small fill-reflector to help balance out those shadowed areas opposite the light unit.

But, I made a passing mention a little earlier of how studio macro work can still go wrong, so let’s take a quick look at one of the more amusing, though bizarre, examples. I had captured two tiny amphibians and was shooting them in a shallow tray on the back porch, using some leaves a a natural setting. I had provided a thin layer of water to keep my subjects moist and support the typical conditions, and highly reflective aspects of the setting or subject can be a problem at times. In this case, I was using a gooseneck LED desk lamp for focusing, throwing a lot of light to help nail optimum sharpness (for instance, when using the reversed Sigma 28-105 with its fixed aperture of f16, which makes the viewfinder image quite a bit darker than normal.) There’s such a thing as the wrong angle, though:

tiny amphibian with horrendous reflections
That long solid reflection over the foreleg is bad enough, but the colander effect from the LED lamp is just hideous, and a bit surreal. The only use such an image could be put to is a blog post on lighting failures so, uh, yeah…

Where does the time go?

Do you realize it’s been sixteen days without a mantis picture? Lucky I came prepared.

The largest one is being found routinely now among the peonies, so from time to time I have to do a portrait session. This is at night.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis lookng serious
It’s funny how subtle differences can change the ‘feel’ of an image. Above, the mantis seems like it’s looking directly at you, because the angle of the flash highlighted the compound eyes in a particular way. In the same sequence of frames, I changed the angle slightly, giving the mantis a slight head tilt and moving that reflection, and so now the reflection seems more like a pupil, making the mantis look thoughtfully off to the right.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis looking contemplative
Plus, when reduced for bloggage the facets of the eyes got minimized, so I had to go with a tighter crop to bring them back. That’s 7mm across the eyes, about the width of a pencil. Look at the little ‘hairs’ on the palps alongside the mouth. I love this lens…

By the way, the change in expression/perspective is not intentional, because I can’t tell what affect the flash will have ahead of time – it’s just what I see while editing the images afterward.

And now, during the day.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis during the day showing different eye color
Yeah, I know the background is still dark – that’s from 1/200 second at f16 aiming into open shadow where the flash won’t reach at full strength. What you’re supposed to be looking at is the color of the eyes, that nice delicate green against the dried-leaf brown of the rest of the mantis. I don’t normally see this – usually they go full green or full brown with nice stripes across the eyes, but I guess this one’s a fashion rebel. I prodded it towards the adjacent day lilies for a better background, to which it was not openly receptive. That’s a mantis glare right there.

And yes, there’s a water droplet just visible along one eye – see previous post about the rain. But if that doesn’t bring the idea home, here’s one more shot to round out the nearly-content-free post, because the angle worked pretty well. Even if it’s from the mantis quickly getting fed up and trying to go back to the peonies where it started. Meddling damn nature photographers…

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis with evidence of recent rain

Still damp as hell

Since the deck needs to be restained, we pressure-washed it the other day. Surprising absolutely no one, we have not gone 24 hours without rain since then, and in fact the task was completed in a narrow window of sunlight during a very wet early summer – normally we start our summer drought about this time. The frogs have been quite happy with the meteorological manifestation, and so I made another foray out to see what I could find.

There were two things of note, relating directly back to the most recent podcast. The first is, I managed to track in close to that whimpering call that I was hearing before, and confirmed that it is a variant call of the Copes grey treefrogs; even watched one issuing it, little throat pouch pulsing in time and everything. So, unless there is such a thing as amphibian ventriloquists, I’m considering this mystery closed.

Second, under cover of darkness I managed to get right up close to the eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis) when calling, the one that sounds like a goat. And when I say close, I mean holding the recorder within 15 centimeters. During the third call, you will hear a faint click that seems to cut the call off abruptly; that’s me switching on my headlamp to see if the toad’s throat swelled as much as the grey treefrogs’ (the answer: not quite, but almost.)

Narrowmouth toad call

I won’t say that this is a perfectly accurate rendition of what you’d hear in person, because the recorder’s dynamic range is probably much smaller than the actual sound being emitted by the toad. But it’s significantly closer than the irritated chittering of a brown bat that the cats had found in the house many years ago, one that gave such a vocal display that I fetched the cassette recorder. That recording was way the hell off; it seems the primary squeaking that we hear falls well outside of the range that the microphone or magnetic tape, or both, could handle, and all I actually produced was a dismal scratching sound. Very odd.

While doing the toad calls, though, I spotted a tiny little frog or toad, and went back to grab a film can to capture one for closeups, ending up with two. So I did a quick modeling session before returning them to their original location.

unidentified tiny frogs or toads
I can’t offer what species these might be, just that I suspect they’re one of the chorus frog species in the area; I’ve seen very young Copes greys and they have different markings, though I’ve never seen them quite this young, so maybe I’m wrong.

unidentified newly-emerged amphibian with scale
Curiously, in this light they appear quite light-colored, while on location they look a lot darker. The nub of the tail is still present on this one, indicating a pretty recent transition from tadpole stage. For those of you who aren’t adapting to metric, 25mm is an inch.

unidentified amphibian from dead ahead
One was slightly more cooperative than the other, but neither was all that difficult to work with. They were in a shallow pan with some leaves and a hint of water, and while they were inclined to make their way out, it was with the typical froggy movement of sitting still for several seconds before abruptly advancing a body length or three. I just narrowly kept this one from jumping onto the lens. Those toes give a good indication that this is a treefrog species of some sort, at least.

unidentified amphibian in extreme closeup
Naturally, I had to go in for the super closeup, because I could. The pupil of the eye measures about a millimeter across, if that helps at all.

This is with the help of yet another softbox flash rig, and it’s been working well so far – I intend to be back a little later on with some more details about it, including another shot of one of my models here that effectively illustrates when studio macro goes wrong. Don’t touch that dial – uhhhh, mouse? Screen? Whatevs.

That’s racist! I think…

Racism is one of those topics that the vast majority of people in the world will agree is bad. Which is helpful, because it provides a common factor in ethics, a value that is actually hard to argue against. However, the definition of racism is something that is often not pinned down very well, so broad in scope that the epithet is often applied in situations where the detriments cannot even be seen.

While I’m not going to attempt to define it distinctly here, I am going to throw out a lot of things to consider, among them stereotypes and caricatures, which we’ll tackle in order. A stereotype is the idea of a class of people, sometimes racial but more often not, that all bear some particular trait (or at least a majority do.) Stereotypes come about largely because people recognize certain tendencies in the first place, a pattern that is already present, but they can also be an introduced stereotype, something that is culturally supported and repeated but not really represented within the class, any more than any other class. Think of the idea of the idiot husband, which is such a huge facet of TV sitcoms that it can be hard not to find it repeated. This is not any more, or less, racist, sexist, bigoted, or biased that the ‘woman driver,’ yet it is rarely ever addressed, much less capable of inspiring a vehement reaction when introduced. Then there are the stereotypes of the nerdy kid or the jock, the nosy neighbor or the gypsy-attired spiritualist, the fat filthy mechanic or the lilting-voiced homosexual. When these are used in most fictional works, it is because someone is attempting to get across a particular idea quickly, with a minimum of time devoted to character development. Quite often it is used for comedic effect, which is enough to spark the idea that some form of judgment is being passed on a class of people – this is where it gets interesting. “Gay guys do not all lisp or bear an obsession with decorating!” come the protests – but it’s never clear whether anyone was trying to say that in the first place. Characters are created by far not, as some would believe, to promote an agenda, but to serve as a vehicle or a foil, a simple method of driving a plot or joke. And again, we don’t ever protest the stupid husband or the jock, do we? Why not? Aren’t these just as pernicious influences on our culture?

The use of the word “nigger” is considered extremely bad – when done by any non-black person. In certain music genres, however, it is ridiculously overused, sometimes defiantly, sometimes with pride. All of these genres are performed by black musicians and vocalists. What does this tell us about the word itself, its acceptability in “society,” its function, its meaning? Moreover, is it a stereotype to portray a black person using “nigger” conversationally, or is it a distinctive culture? Where is the line that is crossed? Now, think about this: if we insist that everyone else cannot use a particular word that is common among blacks, isn’t this a racial distinction by itself? How weird is it that someone would have to know someone’s skin color to ‘properly’ classify the word usage, as if its definition could evolve for black people but remains fixed as distinctly negative for everyone else?

What about speech patterns? The same cultures tend to have very distinctive mannerisms in speech, both in timbre (which is a prevalent trait among black people, so much so that one can often tell the color of someone’s skin over the phone,) and in word usage and slang. Now, if I (an unarguably white male) were to imitate such a speech pattern, is this racist? Am I, in some way, offering commentary on all black people by doing so, even when it is a common trait within this country? Does this only apply to certain classes or racial distinctions, or does it also apply to, for instance, the Dutch Minnesotan accent? And if not, why not?

That’s just to start the thought processes. Right now we’ll move on to caricatures. There is a caricature hanging on the wall where I can see it right now, of The Girlfriend and The Younger Sprog. It is far from an accurate portrait, and shamelessly exaggerates the features of both, but it isn’t hard to fathom that the artist was portraying them, and they’re easy to tell apart. A caricature is a method of exaggerating traits that we tend to notice – accuracy is not the goal in the slightest, but the portrayal of someone in a recognizable yet simplistic and often cartoonish way. Is this making fun of those traits, or denigrating the people depicted for having them? In some cases, perhaps the argument could be made, but in most of them it’s just a method of producing an easy portrait. Again, finding the line that’s crossed is highly subjective – and subjectivity is not something upon which we should ever pass judgment. While I might have an opinion of the artist’s motives, this doesn’t make it correct in the slightest.

Not to mention the ridiculous pop psychology that arises at such times. Even if, for instance, the artist really was trying to say something nasty about The Girlfriend’s smile, so what? That’s the artist’s problem. It’s one individual’s impression of another individual – to carry it further would require a lot more supporting evidence than one quickly-drawn portrait. But much much worse, to believe that anyone else seeing this depiction would in some way be influenced in the same negative manner is, to put it bluntly, total horseshit. We constantly hear how things like children’s television or favorite books must be influencing their malleable and unquestioning little minds, and even hear it about grown adults as well, the same ones entrusted with voting and driving cars and paying bills; we’re never the ones that can be influenced so readily by a cartoon, but, you know, they undoubtedly will. Aside from the bizarre idea that any human could be imprinted like a duckling by trivial contact with some particular attitude, there’s the ironic fact that negative judgment is being passed on a very large segment of our population, as being too stupid to recognize fiction or satire.

That brings us to humor. It’s not hard to find someone that insists that some topic should never be the target of humor, or that a humorous depiction is actually the true feelings of someone, disguised as humor to make it more acceptable. And while I’m sure the latter does occur, how often it occurs, and determining for certain that it has, are again almost entirely subjective; there’s no easy way to tell, and making that judgment in the absence of much supporting evidence is, again, an irrational bias. Humor is a very convoluted thing, and a surprisingly large number of aspects within the topic are in some way based on denigration or misfortune – if you find this hard to believe, start classifying all of the humor you hear and see how often someone comes out of it in a bad light. Stereotypes and caricatures are used often therein to both establish the premise, and to avoid any real target of this (admittedly mild) abuse.

We also have to be careful about how we view humor, especially in taking it too seriously – it’s a topic that is specifically not intended to be taken seriously, even if (such as in the case of satire) it is a method of highlighting something that might bear serious consideration; sometimes, the goal is to make us think, or recognize a situation that we might have been ignoring for whatever reason. But to claim that any topic is ‘off limits’ to humor is to miss the entire purpose of humor. We might not personally find something funny, but this is only an opinion, and the judgment should remain personal; not liking a particular song does not make the musician or the music itself bad in any way (except for ‘Jack and Diane,’ which really should never be played again. Ever.) We might find something in bad taste, and that’s fine – it means the humor failed for us, and if enough people hold that opinion, the humorist will switch to another approach. But to think that any topic should not be permitted is censorship, which is only practiced when someone has something to fear.

Moreover, the vast amount of political satire that exists, and its minimal impact on how politics is pursued, gives lie to the idea that humor is a big influence on anyone. In most cases, we find something compelling when it supports views we already hold, and fail to find it amusing when it contradicts such views. We will even, surprisingly often really, convince ourselves that something supports a particular agenda when the evidence for this is extremely thin; it doesn’t have to be an agenda that we support, either, if we’re motivated to prove a point. Again, politics demonstrates this readily, with enemies lurking behind every tree, but the overly health-conscious can create a ‘toxin’ out of anything.

There tends to be a lot of fuss about some older works, such as several Disney films and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The latter, especially, has been on and off several banned lists, and a few years back formed the center of much debate when some over-anxious people introduced a ‘cleaner’ version of it, mostly by taking out the word, “nigger.” There are a lot of things to consider here. First and foremost, the use of the word was a cultural norm for the time frame depicted, and today’s cultural standards have no impact on the past – nor does our current attitude define how it was used then, the context, the meaning, or the attitudes supposedly held by those (note: fictional) characters that used it. Once again, the book receives this kind of attention because it is often introduced to young readers, who are believed to be far too susceptible to trivial influences – an extremely common pop psychology belief that has never been supported by any study, ever. And this is a special form of irony, because the book is one of the better, yet subtler, ways of introducing anyone to critical thinking. Words are not defined by the dictionaries, but by their usage, as we see above with black music, and throughout the book the word “nigger” is used solely how we might use “black” today – or “African-American” if one is silly enough to fall for this clumsy attempt to now make “black” a negative word. All characters therein, however, are defined by their actions and attitudes, and the primary black person, the escaped slave and Huck’s companion Jim, is compassionate, protective, and at times astute. There are quite a few people in the book with moral characters ranging from questionable to reprehensible – and all of them are white. If we are to believe that anyone is easily influenced by a book, equating “nigger” with “bad” or even “racism” is not what anyone can take away from the story in any way.

Here’s where it all gets interesting. We find racism bad, because it assigns a set of negative traits to a broad class of people, instead of simply seeing them as individuals that, like everyone else, possess some good traits and some bad traits. In other words, racism is a superficial and shallow way of making a decision. But curiously, the application of this very label is also done, far too often, in a very shallow and superficial way, thinking that anything that bears any racial or ethnic characteristic whatsoever denotes racism, or that humor is disguised contempt, and so on. When we see the scene with the raucous crows in Dumbo, are we seeing something bad? Yes, the crows carry a lot of traits of black culture from that time period, and they’re pretty dismissive of the little elephant – and they’re also clever and talented. Who decided that just bearing black cultural traits, or being sarcastic, was somehow negative? Moreover, who can support the claim this is an intentional indictment of all black people, everywhere? Why isn’t such an unwarranted assumption treated just as distastefully as racism itself; isn’t it the same damn thing?

[As an aside, I need to point out the frequent reaction that also comes up, where any depiction of some member of an ethnic group in a negative light is considered inappropriate as well, as if there’s some class of people who cannot be assholes. We might see a film with a character that is corrupt in some way, but because this character is a recognizable member of any ethnic group does not mean that the producer or director intended them to represent all members of such ethnic groups; in such cases, are we the ones making broad over-generalizations about an ethnicity when all we saw was a greedy person, that just happened to be Jewish or Italian or whatever? Did they perpetuate a stereotype, or did we?]

I can imagine that a lot of people reading this will interpret me as trying to say that there’s no such thing as racism, or that I am permitting or condoning it in some way; ‘reading between the lines’ is a favorite pastime of many, quite often when they cannot even read the lines themselves in the first place. Yet when people have a personal crusade, or fancy themselves as possessing a more ‘correct’ attitude, they’re capable of finding supporting evidence for this attitude where little to none rightfully exists. If our goal is to improve our society, then the things that we choose to decry should be able to demonstrate a harmful effect. We can’t just imagine that there might be an issue, or rely on ignorant pop psychology; we can argue that there are subtle influences that all add up, in which case we should be able to demonstrate that this is a measurable effect, and not a fool’s idea of the suggestibility of the human mind. Even more importantly, we shouldn’t be on a quest to find examples, anxious to drive forward our goals of political correctness; in such cases we’re far more likely to be reaching desperately, trying to make a plausible case just to support our preconceived ideas, rather than determining what any particular case really represents, and whether it’s even worth the bother. Feminism is presently in the thrall of crusading activists that can find gross improprieties in the strangest places, which creates an atmosphere of melodrama and anxiety, and a distaste over even being associated with such extremism – and which often leads to kickback, the spiteful swing in the opposite direction. Seizing some example that may or may not be a subtle indication of bias and pronouncing it ‘heinous’ and ‘aberrant’ is more likely to produce resentment than shame, and what’s that going to accomplish? Is judgment really likely to lead to improvement, or is it just another example of bias, the desire to appear more worthy than others? Isn’t this a form of classism all by itself? If we assign traits that don’t exist – if we apply a label that isn’t supportable – in what way is this different from what we protest in the first place? Rather than playing fast and loose with the criteria so we can find fulfillment in our roles as community watchdogs, shouldn’t we be sure that what we’re combating is actually detrimental first?

June’s weak abstract

What the filename saysI’m pretty sure I’ve said the exact same thing before, but if you’re seeing this, I failed.

For a month-end abstract, I found few images that were shot in June that satisfied even my definition of ‘abstract’ – I even went out on the evening of the 29th to see if I could pull off an idle idea, but the rain prevented me from pursuing it. So we have this one from the previous evening. I’m scheduling it to post at noon, and giving myself the morning for a last-ditch effort, but you already know that was for naught.

By the way, even as you view something like this by headlamp and can get nice distinctive sparkles from all the mist and the larger drop, that doesn’t mean the flash angle will pull off the same effect. This was almost direct flash, and you can see that it took away some of the shaping of the petals, the shadows which give depth and texture to them, but had I shifted the lighting off to the side more, I would have lost the dew. It really does help to have some flexibility in lighting, and at some point I’ll show you the present rig, which has been working pretty well so far. For now, we have a misty rose. Drink it in.

On the negative side 8

It’s been a while since I’ve observed that Florida is a special place, and I’m concerned that you might have forgotten this, so I have to illustrate it again.

First off, some things in Florida get big. For instance, birds. Sure, there are herons and vultures throughout most of the continent, but those are about the only large bird species, and they rarely allow a close approach. Florida has numerous waders, like sandhill cranes and wood storks, and scads of brown pelicans.

On top of that, Florida has the crocodilians, primarily the American alligator, though there are a handful of American crocodiles as well. And yes, I know these aren’t confined to Florida, but they’re most prevalent and visible there, occasionally ending up in people’s swimming pools. It is possible to have a casual encounter with a lizard nearly as long as your car, without having to be out “in the wild” someplace.

Now, I’m not sure how people in other states view this, but I suspect there are more than a few who wonder how insane you have to be to live in Florida, with the chance of being eaten while playing golf, but it’s really not that much of a hazard. Alligators tend to be shy and don’t usually consider people a safe target for meals – we’re too large, and above all too fatty – so mostly it’s just a matter of paying attention when one is near a water source with sloped edges. And in places, there are warning signs to remind anyone whose mind might be wandering.

And finally, Florida has fishermen, or fisherfolk, whatever word you want to use – I’ve maintained that you cannot be a resident of Florida without owning a fishing pole (which means I was only a resident alien while living there, but hey.) People will go fishing so they can go fishing – using a casting net in shallow areas to collect small fish like finger mullet to use as bait when out on a boat going after bigger fish.

Even the birds have noticed this, so much so that they hang around and pay attention when people start mucking about on docks and at shorelines. I’ve watched herons stealing from bait buckets, including one that stalked up to an empty bucket and then looked somewhat confused when it found no fish within, checking a couple of times just to be sure and then looking off into the middle distance with a distinct “WTF?” air. It’s one thing to be a thief, but quite another to look affronted when nobody left anything for you to steal.

So when I was out fooling around with some old, grainy B&W film by a boat launch, and the local started pulling in his casting net and cursing fluently at the brazen marauding avians, I had to quickly frame the shot with the warning sign, just for a little bit of irony.

Beware of Florida