And back again

Sometimes it’s funny, the things we notice and the things we don’t. Today is the winter solstice, or the day with the least amount of sunlight in the year – daylight will only be increasing now up until June, which I consider a good thing. And it’s also credited as the first day of winter, which is completely ridiculous even when you narrow your frame of reference to the northern hemisphere (in the southern hemisphere, it’s the first day of summer.) Back when I lived in New York, the weather was notably “wintry” long before this, and even here in North Carolina we’ve occasionally had snow by this point, and we usually only get a couple of snowfalls per year; none yet this year, by the way, but we’ve had a couple of frosts. The real winter weather is still ahead of us.

SnowcapsI can look on this day and think, Yeah, now the daylight will be returning, even though it’s so gradual there’s really nothing remarkable about today, and nothing will be noticeable for weeks. As for the return of warm enough weather to provide shooting subjects? That’s a couple of months away – we’re not even halfway through the ‘dead season’ for most of the subjects I tackle. Can I look forward to perhaps doing some nice winter snowfield shots? Mayyyyybe, but as I said, the snowfalls here are sporadic, and when they’re good enough to make lovely shots they’re also heavy enough to make the roads treacherous, and there aren’t many options within walking distance.

So let’s face it: this is an astronomical event, and the vast majority of those go past without notice. The only real reason we’re even aware of this one is that ancient cultures had to notice it; the position of the sun was the only way for them to keep track of the days and seasons, since calendars were a long ways off. Thus Stonehenge and the “midwinter” (heh!) feasts that were later co-opted by christians as the birthday of jesus, despite the fact that no one had bothered to record that magical day and all indications from scripture point to it occurring in the spring, but someone had to take a stand against a completely mythical being (I’m talking about saturn here, and not yahweh or jesus. Just in case it wasn’t clear.)

Maybe I should simply create some arbitrary holidays next year, just to make particular days ‘special’ in no meaningful manner at all. Let me think about this…

Friday night color

sunrise colors under clouds with faint sun pillar
The other morning as I was rushing out the door, the sky was displaying some rich and gorgeous colors, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about them. Well, there was, if I wanted to get fired, but sometimes you have to prioritize. As I was up early enough again this morning, I kept a close eye on sunrise, and was rewarded with some not-quite-as-gorgeous colors, so I present them for you before the day closes here.

You’ve seen those dock pilings before, or if not, you have now (the water was higher then.) But what’s also visible if you look closely is a faint sun pillar, a column of light reflected from high-altitude ice crystals, in this case pointing towards the not-yet-visible sun and framed in both the gap in the trees and the space between the pilings – again, just subtle positioning to improve the overall affect. When you have conditions like this, you need to move fast – they won’t last long. The photos I have span all of four minutes (I realize as I checked this that I haven’t updated the camera clock for Idiotic Daylight Saving Time,) and the color was already fading.

Yes, I’ve done better earlier this year, but it’s winter, or technically late fall, and I’m taking what I can get, at least until I get those plane tickets to Belize for christmas…

Revealed yet hidden

So, the image I am about to show you can be considered creepy by a lot of people, I suspect largely through social conditioning, but whatever the reason, I’m suggesting you get over it; the amount of information and fascination that can result is a lot more interesting and useful than shuddering and saying, “Ewwwww!” And it’s not all that bad anyway.

Several years back in the NC Botanical Garden, I spotted a curious spectacle supported high on the leaves of a local fern. This was in a protected area well off the boardwalk, and there was only so close I could get to it, and just one angle to work from, so this is all I have. It’s a nice illustration of natural processes, but possessed its own mystery.

small unidentified skeleton being cleaned by ants
As a moment’s examination will show, this is a cluster of ants cleaning the carcass of some small deceased animal, with just enough anatomical detail showing through in the remains. The forebody had since dropped to the ground or leaves below, and the few remaining bones up there were too scattered and obscured to provide any details. The whole frame isn’t more than 15 cm in length, so this is quite small. It was taken in August, so this doesn’t narrow down the choice of species too much – virtually everything is active in August.

I’m not a biologist, and my knowledge of the various species around here doesn’t extend to their skeletal structure very well, but I nonetheless hazarded a guess, for years, as to what the departed was. The pelvic girdle is what I was going on for my guesses, knowing that most birds would have a broader pelvis, and that long narrow structure seemed to tell me it belonged to a long narrow critter; I considered this very likely to be a green anole (Anolis carolinensis,) something that I’ve seen countless times within the garden. Any further bits that could be used for confirmation, such as the skull, feet, or tail, had all dropped away under the ministrations of the ants, but it seemed like the safest bet to me.

Until I got ready to post this photo, sitting in my blog folder waiting for the winter slow season, and I started trying to find illustrations of anole skeletons. I quickly discovered that my thoughts on the pelvis were wrong: anoles have very minimal pelvises, certainly not the elongated type seen in my photo. Scratch that idea.

The way the hind limbs were splayed brought another species to mind, and a search for that skeleton came a whole lot closer to the mark. Tree frogs (second specimen shown on that page, scroll down a little) have pelvic girdles of exactly that nature, which makes a kind of sense: it serves as the anchor for the strong hindleg muscles that propel their leaps. In my mind, it should have been wider since frogs are broader-bodied than anoles, but they’re really not – they just sit bunched up most of the time, yet when stretched out they’re pretty slim.

[By the way, one of these days I’m going to try out those oxidizing techniques shown on that page, because I’ve always wanted a preserved skeleton of something. We’ll just have to see what I find dead but intact.]

Which species of treefrog isn’t something that can be answered, I think, from the minimal remains – we have both green (Hyla cinerea) and Copes grey (Hyla chrysoscelis) treefrogs around here, and their body structures are very similar. And how the frog died in that position and didn’t fall from the swaying leaves – that’s another question, one I’m not even going to try tackling. It seems like the ants made quick work of it though, since I doubt it would have remained long there given any rains or stiff breezes. Just one of those curious finds, right place, right time.

Too cool, part 34: A chronicle in amber

I had initially said that I wasn’t timely on this, and that was even a few days earlier when I’d started to type this up, but then I realized how much I was falling for the same trap that has made “news’ the pathetic state of affairs that it is now. Scientific findings of this nature don’t have this bare moment of interest, like a celebrity doing something stupid, but a lasting impact and a value of fascination that persists. So regardless of how many times it’s been covered by other outlets, if you haven’t looked at the details of this yet, you really should.

Lida Xing, a paleontologist from China, had been poking around a market in Myanmar looking at fossils for sale when he spotted a remarkable specimen: a portion of a dinosaur’s tail preserved in amber. Now, this alone is a so-far unique find, since what we’ve been working on for the past century have been fossilized bones and the occasional body imprint in mud, so a portion of intact body – skin, muscles, and so on – is pretty sweet in itself. But this one has feathers, and in remarkable detail too. Why Evolution is True has more information, and I encourage everyone to go check it out, because I’m not going to even come close to doing it justice.

The most frequent comment on the entire subject is how the images of ancient sauropods have changed in the personal timeline of just about everyone. While the idea that birds evolved from some branch of dinosaurs has been around for a long time, it was a casual theory for many decades, having little impact on the popular perception of dinosaurs as just variations of reptiles. The idea started slowly gaining ground and attention as more fossil finds began to fill in the missing factors that distinguished the similarities between the two. In the past thirty years or so, the evidence started to become overwhelming, both in the form of matching skeletal structures like the clavicle/furcula, and in the finding of primitive feathers, mostly in mud impressions. Just a few years ago, I remember reading about one study that had started piecing together the colors of these feathers by noting that black feathers in modern birds contained a significant amount of a certain element; by testing the sedimentary deposits in the mud casts of some of the feather impression fossils, the same elements were found, but only in certain locations within the cast. The feathers, as they decayed, would give up their mineral composition to the surrounding mud, and so finding the same elements among only certain feather impressions gave evidence that at least some of the feathers were black. While far from proven, it remains a remarkable application of forensics, and provides the first inkling of what colors at least some dinosaurs might have been – before that, we only had guesses based on existing reptiles and the supposition of what would have worked best in certain circumstances. Was camouflage an issue? What about sexual selection, like how current birds select mates based on how brilliant their plumage is?

The newest find in amber not only shows excellent resolution of the feathers, including the fine structure of the barbs and vanes, but also a hint of colors. Quite notably, it provides enough detail to start filling in the finer points of how feathers themselves evolved, especially since, at present, it appears as if they have only evolved once in history (as opposed to flight, which has evolved four separate and distinct times, for birds, insects, bats, and pterosaurs, which were separate from the theropods believed to be the ancestors of modern birds.) But feathers have to have a specific interlocking structure to be useful aerodynamically, to form a smooth and manipulable surface, and such flight feathers are distinctly different from even the down feathers of modern avians. Within each feather are ‘arms’ (barbs) that radiate from the central ‘quill’ (shaft,) and then smaller ‘barbules’ that branch from those – these are the ‘teeth of the zipper’ that allows the flight feather to become one smooth structure rather than simply fuzzy like a down feather, and they must alternate position on either side of the barb in order to interlock. One of the questions about the evolution of feathers is if either the alternation, or the ability to interlock, developed first, and this specimen lends weight to the latter; this was definitely a flightless species with feathers that could not form a smooth surface, yet the structures that could hold the barbs together can be made out in examination, without the necessary alternation that would permit a contiguous surface. In other words, the teeth of the zipper are there, but not yet placed where they could fit together.

photomicrographs of amber-preserved coelurosaur tail and feathers

© 2016 Elsevier Ltd.


As may be seen when inset G is closely examined, some of the barbs are alternating, and some are not, giving an indication that these are in transition. It’s not just flight that requires this structure, but also rainproofing and the ability to retain body heat. ‘Fuzzy’ feathers can still serve this purpose to some extent, which is likely why feathers even began to develop (and why so many species have fur,) but it becomes much more efficient when a more cohesive structure evolves. And flight itself really needs developed feathers – air cannot bleed through or be induced towards turbulence by more than a few percent of the flow before efficiency drops too low to be considered “flight” (as opposed to “greater hang time” when jumping to escape predators or capture prey.)

Whooping crane Grus americana portrait through fenceJust stopping to consider the various aspects of it leads to countless further questions, and Wikipedia’s page on the origins of avian flight provides a lot of the speculative detail (and while we’re here, the origin of birds page is cool too.) But here’s one aspect that I’ll provide, first introduced to me by my raptor rehabilitation training many years back. Most modern birds have scaly legs, which is not unlike the scaly skin of many modern reptiles, and curiously, the scales tend to follow the same distribution pattern of feathers in nearby areas while not found beneath feathered areas at all (nor on the bare face or head areas of species like vultures and cranes.) They are largely the same types of cells, and closely related to the cells that produce fur in mammals despite the wide gulf in evolutionary development between the classes; there is a simple genetic mutation that can produce feathered legs in birds. In other words, the DNA of the cells contains the ability to produce either, with indications that only a small number of proteins regulates how they become either simple scales or elaborate feathers.

It’s definitely worth checking out the original paper, and especially seeking out the full-resolution version of the image that shows the electron microimages, solely for the detail obtained from this amber specimen. And if you’re curious about feathers and skin, this page briefly explains a lot of details about the functions and properties of both.

Two views

American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua sapling showing late fall colorsI have a couple more posts in the lineup right now, but I think I only have time for one this morning, so we’ll just have to see when the others arrive. It’s a shame, because one is pretty damn interesting, but I doubt I can do it justice if I rush it, so we’ll go with something more visceral and less thoughtful at the moment.

It’s gotten to be the dead season around here, so when we were out a few days back searching for photo subjects, I wasn’t holding out a lot of hope for any kind of interesting fauna, and even the flora is pretty sparse – the majority of the trees have shed their leaves and we’re largely into the duochromatic winter phase where everything is brown or grey. [A stupid quick side note: while there is a general consensus on the meaning of monochromatic, meaning one color – even when the most frequent displays of the term actually refers to no color at all, just a range of greys – the word to define two colors is unclear and largely a matter of preference; it can be duochromatic, or bichromatic, or dichromatic, but each of these have other specific meanings depending on the environment. I’m sticking with duo because it’s the most self-evident.] Nonetheless, a small American sweetgum sapling (Liquidambar styraciflua) entangled with an unidentified vine were rashly defying the winter gods by flaunting some bright colors – the green leaves of the vine set off the reds and oranges of the sweetgum nicely. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do with it, but it was something.

Then as I passed it and started facing more towards the sun, I could see the backlighting was bringing up the color and textures of the leaves, but more importantly, there was a section of stream in the immediate distance behind it that was producing ripples, and from that angle at that time of day this meant a glitter trail of sparkles. There was just one position only a handful of centimeters across that would work, but that’s what you have to be alert for. I lined up and fired off a couple of frames, then pointed out the opportunity to Mr Bugg.

American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua leaves against defocused sparkels from stream
The aperture had to be wide open to render the distant sparkles as soft circles, rather than in the shapes of the aperture opening (anything from pentagonal to nonagonal depending on the number of aperture blades in the lens,) and of course this meant focus was pretty selective – not all of the leaves, or even a single leaf, could be in sharp focus. And you can try to use those sparkles as a distinct shape in the background, but it’s tricky: each reflection from moving water lasts only a fraction of a second, so what you get as the shutter trips is unpredictable, and if you choose an area of very dense sparkles to try and increase the odds, you’re just as likely to get too many, which run together and defeat the nice little orbs which give the image character – notice how the shaping to the brightness on the right has become indistinct, not bubbles at all. And since the position of the sparkles will change with sun angle and perhaps blocking tree trunks, the window of opportunity for such things can be pretty narrow, perhaps 20 minutes or less. I’ve done better, but for the slow season, it was a modicum of success and a good illustration of examining the options of a subject.

By the way, if you really want to understand why those circles appear (and why “orb” photographs are utter nonsense,) I have an illustrated page here, and another example here.

May’s mirror

two juvenile Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis on opposite sides of grass bladeIt’s gotten cold again and there isn’t a lot to photograph and truth be told I’m not even trying, so we’re going back to May with this one. I’ve had it sitting in the blog folder for all this time (yet it’s far from the oldest photo in there,) because I was doing too many mantises back then. Yeah, I’m finally admitting it, I had a wild and hedonistic youth, if by ‘youth’ you mean just over 1% earlier in my personal timeline, and by ‘hedonistic’ you mean… well, whatever you like, because it appears I don’t even know what it means normally, but probably not a lot to do with blogging about mantids. I’m fairly certain it originated with that, though. You know, back when the ancient Latins were inscribing mud tablets with illustrations of Mantodea and hanging them on the privy walls…

Worse, it’s not really a mirror image, since the mantises are different hues and the legs aren’t even in matching positions, and they’re not directly opposite one another either – but their antennae are pretty close, so we’ll go with that. Let’s consider it a mirror from an apprentice just starting out, with a lot of flaws in it.

It would be easy to believe this was a variation of the second photo found here, except that they were taken on two separate days and I doubt the mantids held still that long. It’s probably obvious that they’re tiny, and if you know anything about mantids you’d know that from the month that I photographed them in, but it’s safe to say these are under 12mm long. I didn’t have as much luck with them this year, as they seemed to disperse faster and I spotted none of reproductive age in the immediate area when September rolled around, but I recently found an egg case that I can’t be sure is this year’s or not – we’ll find out next spring. Plus I will likely purchase a couple more to try, once again, to capture the hatching as it occurs.

I will be featuring a few more older images in the coming weeks, so you have that to look forward to – I know I’m all excited and antagonistic…

Where are we going with this?

So, back in high school and just afterward, I was a big fan of OMNI magazine, starting from the very first issue. It was a great blend of science news, artwork, science fiction short stories, excellent brain games, and interesting examinations of speculative and theoretical advancements – I have to credit it with introducing me to several great writers, among them Dean Ing, whose stories expressed physics in fantastic and imaginative ways, if somewhat implausible. Within its pages I found the first tests of the mercury ion engine, a then-experimental thruster for space probes which also found its way into the Star Wars universe; the TIE in TIE fighter stands for Twin Ion Engine, believe it or not.

Anyway, one of the regular topics was UFO reports, which at that time I still followed casually, though the ardent fascination of my adolescent years had by then waned in the face of obvious sensationalism throughout too much of the media devoted to the topic. As time wore on and I concerned myself with making a living, I read fewer and fewer issues, until picking one up one day several years later and finding it much thinner and devoted almost entirely to the same sensationalism over UFOS that had made me start drifting away from the subject. Not a lot longer after that, OMNI ceased publication.

So when I heard it was going to reboot as an online magazine, I had mixed feelings about it. Were the editors still enthused about glorifying UFO reports, or did they realize that had probably helped the death of the first incarnation? Would there still be emphasis on quality writing and innovative art? But it drifted from my mind, and I didn’t see anything past the initial site until just now, when I found it within my bookmarks and started skimming the contents. And it didn’t take long to come across the post, ‘How Ufologist Stanton Friedman Debunked Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.’

On top of my disappointment came a sense of deep foreboding, for two distinct reasons. The first was, I am very much aware of Stanton Friedman and his efforts to promote the idea that we are being visited by extra-terrestrial intelligence, and they’re not very impressive, nor is Friedman, physicist though he is, a thorough scientist in this regard. More amusingly, however, is that debunker is an epithet among UFO proponents, without fail applied disparagingly to anyone and everyone that displays any skepticism or lack of total belief in the concept of visiting aliens. Double-standards are a common thing among UFO proponents, however, so this wasn’t particularly surprising; regardless, the post (and the site itself) wasn’t showing much promise to me.

The content lived down to this promise, I’m sorry to say. Obviously written by a fan of Friedman’s, it went into numerous instances where Friedman apparently scored some telling point against not just the writers named, but other skeptical sources as well, holding him up as a champion of the truth of alien visitation and a deft debater within the field.

There’s just one catch, and it’s one that is so frequently lost within the topic itself, and countless other topics of paranormality and conspiracy and religion and so on: science is not established, assisted, or advanced by debate. Whether someone is personally convinced or not has no bearing on the facts, and the one overriding benefit of scientific endeavors is that we produce something that we can use. You see, philosophers may want to debate about the meaning of ‘consciousness’ or the nuances of modal logic, and theologians might like hashing out the ‘true’ nature of the resurrection, and literati clearly enjoy trying to convince one another that they know what the underlying message of any text really is, but science has the goal of giving us new tools that produce objective and measurable results. So all of the blather about UFOs, every last case study and new examination of photos, never even approaches the simplest of scientific criteria: what have we learned?

If we take, for instance, one of the accounts named (incorrectly) in the post, the Trindade photos, the very first thing that we find is that there is no agreement, or even consensus, on them being authentic or not, despite the fact that they were produced during a supposedly scientific venture (that somehow lacked any of the routine controls that would define, “scientific.”) And it is worth noting that there is no way to completely establish authenticity over hoax; we can only consider a level of likelihood. But even assuming, just for the sake of argument, that they are authentic, what do they tell us? Well, that there was an object of this shape in the sky. No size information, no distance or airspeed – none of this is possible without triangulation, at least. And of course, we’re hell and gone away from establishing even a method of propulsion, much less an extra-terrestrial intelligence, way much less where such intelligence might hail from. The number of questions left unanswered is staggering, and even the shape is left to assumption; a cylinder may look like a circle when seen from the end, or a square when seen from the side so, again, what can we definitively say about it?

[I have to add that the Trindade photos, seen by many UFO proponents as “great evidence,” are ridiculously unconvincing to anyone with even rudimentary photographic knowledge. Aside from being trivially easy to fake, there’s the simple matter that the object, supposedly photographed against the overcast sky, is not silhouetted as we should expect – if you question this, take a look at even a silver-bodied jetliner against the clouds and tell me how bright it appears, much less show me a photo of it.]

A hallmark of science, as well as our judicial system, is the attempt to establish things beyond a reasonable doubt (the weakness in there is that ‘reasonable’ is an entirely subjective term.) There’s the simple matter that if there are multiple scenarios in which something could have occurred, various ways to produce the same effect, then the scientific method entails eliminating as many as possible. The goal is to establish that the evidence could come from only one source, but that’s often impossible, so the next best choice is to obtain the greatest probability of a single cause. And all science is provisional, able to be overturned by finding contradictory evidence. Moreover, there is no ‘default’ explanation in the face of lacking evidence, a mistake countless people make – science does not support the practice of throwing something out there and accepting it as long as nothing disproves it. For instance, “dark matter” is a term for a gravitational anomaly, the concentration of attraction as if there is a huge mass in a particular location yet nothing that we can otherwise detect. There are numerous suggestions for what causes this, but none that are considered likely, much less default. Without firm evidence, the scientific answer is simply, “We don’t know yet.”

UFO proponents cannot grasp this idea, preferring to accept the posit that aliens exist, and see any factor whatsoever that can be twisted to fit as confirming evidence, unable and unwilling to consider how many other ways the same factors can come about without aliens – theologians, and just the few religious folk who apply some thought to their beliefs, do the exact same thing with a default “god.” True enough, there are investigators within the UFO field that make the effort to examine the cases with at least a passing semblance of scientific inquiry; without exception, these are the people who have earned that ‘debunker’ epithet, because casting any doubt at all on the foregone conclusion of the proponents, even raising the questions, is an indication of an enemy to them. It’s amusing, because the frequent demand from proponents is that the scientific community (as well as the government) takes these cases seriously, but when it does happen, they somehow find it unacceptable to maintain the same criteria that’s used for all other discoveries and research.

Back to the article itself. Friedman, despite his lack of scientific standards and objectivity, is adept at one particular thing: sophistry, the art of spinning subtly misleading arguments that make no useful point. And that’s the only thing to be seen within the post.

Data, numbers and logic are the cards in this fact-vs-fiction game, and Friedman insisted that the rules used are straight and consistent. “People ask the wrong questions,” he said. “The question isn’t ‘Is every UFO somebody’s spacecraft?” The answer is ‘Of course not.’ The real question is, “Are any UFO’s somebody else’s spacecraft?’ and the answer is ‘Yes.’ It’s like asking ‘Is everyone over seven feet tall?’ Of course not. ‘Is no one over seven feet tall? Of course not. One can easily get into trouble by asking the wrong question, because then you treat every sighting equally.” One could certainly get into trouble trying to pass off conclusions to Stanton Friedman which had not been thought out.

It should come as no surprise that Friedman does not often directly debate anyone, instead preferring the tactic (like I’m doing here, unfortunately) of arguing against selected statements. Because, of course, we can measure the height of people and definitively establish that someone is over seven feet tall; we have numerous examples of such. We have no examples of extra-terrestrial life – that’s what Friedman is trying to prove. But you don’t prove anything with analogies, especially ones not even remotely related to the topic at hand. Should we instead ask, “Is there anyone born with three thousand arms?”, nobody would contest a negative answer, but to establish a positive answer, we’re going to want to see it, aren’t we? Friedman’s demonstrated attitude is that we should assume it could happen; after all, it’s just silly to have high standards of evidence for something extraordinary like that.

He also adores playing word games, appealing to suggestion and assumption rather than expending any real effort in establishing something concrete to work with:

“As writers, surely they didn’t or haven’t worked on classified government sponsored programs. I worked on classified programs for 14 years and I am certain that secrets can be kept. As I have often noted, 80 percent of the engineers and scientists responding to the question, ‘Do you think the government has revealed all it knows about UFO’s?’ said, ‘No’ .”

[By the way, I am correcting the post’s mangling of quotation marks as I go]

Notice that we don’t have any information presented at all, just his personal assurance that the government can keep a secret and the belief among those unnamed ‘engineers and scientists’ that it might know more than it has revealed. I’ll be forthright with you: I am 90% sure that the US military complex has not revealed everything it knows about UFOs, and just as sure that it has not revealed everything it knows about dogs – that’s the nature of security concerns. But so what? My certainty yet remains anecdotal, unable to be supported empirically, and unknown information is just that; there is nothing that tells us, one way or another, what this information must be. And it’s unfortunate that I have to point this out, but ‘UFO’ is not synonymous with ‘extra-terrestrial life.’ A fucking leaf can be a UFO, as can any Russian, Chinese, or American aircraft that never received a positive ID.

Friedman also likes picking the easy factors to rebut while ignoring the pertinent ones. When J. Allen Hynek made the comment that he considered space travel to be impossible, Friedman chose to counter with the available energy of nuclear fusion, as if this was the only factor that Hynek (or anyone else) was considering. Ignoring for the time being that fusion is not an easy source to tap (requiring, in every instance we can find, an enormous amount of energy or mass to start,) there’s the simple fact that the distances between stars is vast, and even traveling at the speed of light (which is presently considered to require infinite energy,) it would take more than four years to travel to our closest stellar neighbor. Imagine the resources necessary to sustain a living body that long, and how much mass that requires. And as proof that this has occurred, we have shitty photographs and eyewitness accounts of aliens remarkably like the latest science-fiction movies (seriously; this trend is more common than you might think.) Energy is a red-herring in this case, not arguing the salient points at all.

Friedman also displays a two-faced approach extremely common among proponents, and quite amusing all by itself:

The jury may still be out on the final verdict, but a widely-documented, real contact would certainly firm the evidence. What would happen to this planet and its people should this occur? Does the government give any serious thought or planning for this contingency?

“Practically none. I would like to see psychiatrists, religious leaders, psychologists, and god forbid, the military, thinking about what this means. First, we’d have to get over the ego business and recognize we’re not the only life in the universe, and probably not the most intelligent.”

You did see the part above where he tries to imply that the government knows more than it lets on, right? So what now makes him assume that this particular aspect hasn’t been tackled already? Does he think that they’ll keep their knowledge of ET life a secret, but post their procedures for contact on the bulletin board? Or does he not really believe the shit he’s throwing around?

It’s also entertaining that he feels that numerous professionals should be devoting their time to this contingency as if it were imminent, ignoring, one supposes, all of the other issues that presently exist and provide a real benefit in addressing. Going deeper into this, we have the common lament among proponents that people need to be doing more (the old “take me seriously” canard,) without ever addressing what it is that should be done: “The government should be looking into this!” Into what, this crappy photo of an indistinct object? The ‘eyewitness’ accounts of someone who claims to have been abducted? What else can one do but interview them? Should we be posting the composite sketches on lamp posts, “Have you seen this alien?” I’m always at a loss as to what anyone thinks should be done that isn’t being done already by countless groups that are absolutely desperate for real evidence but somehow keep failing to find any.

Moreover, there is a vacuum of useful information. Friedman’s compatriots are incapable of providing any info about what alien life is or would be like, and so we are left only to speculate about not just their approaches and attitudes, but our own in the face of an event no one has ever experienced before. Given, however, the notable number of people who believe that they’ve had contact, it hardly seems like humans as a whole are going to freak out or anything.

Ignored in all this, surprise surprise, is the amount of real effort that working scientists have put into the topic – only, they concentrated on the most likely scenarios, such as picking up distant signals from extra-terrestrial intelligence rather than expecting them to drop by unannounced. SETI is a real program, with members that can actually think, and they recognize that long-distance communication is thousands of times easier than long-distance travel. Safer, too, as the possibility of finding alien life that’s hostile to direct contact, in countless different ways, cannot be ruled out. They also recognize that any such life is unlikely to be anything at all like us, and devote their time to puzzling out the most probable method and ‘language’ used. Again, in a vacuum of solid information; we may find out that our speculations were dead wrong, but without useful info we cannot correct this, or even know how wrong it might be.

Two particular areas of concern which Friedman felt could be addressed by anyone interested in the subject, deal with information and access to it. People need to put pressure on the Air Defense Command and other government groups to reveal the highly classified information in their files.

Yeah ’cause, you know, the government is going to cave when they see the real desires of the people. There’s nothing like an online petition to show the government we mean business. Lobbyists and special-interest groups could save themselves a hell of a lot of money if they’d follow that proven-to-work example…

Again, we see the self-assurance that the information is actually there, just waiting to be revealed – but how this is known somehow is never established, nor worth the effort it seems. While Friedman may want to assure us that the government can keep a secret, the UFO field abounds with the informants that breach their security clearances to provide just the barest hint of suppressed info – not enough to act on, of course, but still enough to start the proponents whining again. And the bare fact that not one of them has ever substantiated their claims in even the tiniest of manners seems to keep escaping notice.

Curiously, however, these alien visitations are taking place in public throughout the world, so one would assume that even civilians could gather the same information as the mean ol’ government (ignoring the fatuous idea that every government the world over would be equally capable and equally motivated in maintaining these secrets.) So, yeah, get on that, guys.

Friedman recommended a Centralized UFO Research Facility which anyone in the country could call while observing a UFO. This would tie together local, regional and national sources to record and comment on sightings, beginning with those groups which have been privately conducting this work for years on their own.

We’ve done that already, but I guess not everyone’s heard about Project Blue Book, or the independent and civilian University of Colorado Scientific Study of UFOs, often called the Condon Report. Had Friedman looked into either one of these, he would probably be far less enamored of the topic, since the thousands of reports examined by the two agencies, as well as the thousands more examined independently, yielded virtually no useful information at all, and absolutely nothing regarding ET life.

Sorry, I have to be disingenuous at times just for giggles. Because like all proponents, Friedman is somehow convinced outside of any serious evidence, and pointedly refuses to either understand how and why science works, or accept an answer that he doesn’t want to hear. If any study or investigation fails to support the idea of alien visitation, it will be seen as flawed at best, but very often the accusations of disinformation campaigns start getting thrown around, with just as much supporting evidence as the original UFO reports – alien visitation simply must be occurring, so if we can’t find any evidence of such, then that’s evidence that someone is hiding it all! The overwhelming possibility that we have no evidence for extra-terrestrial visitation because it just hasn’t occurred is an idea that simply cannot be entertained.

In the decades since the term ‘UFO’ was coined, we have made no progress whatsoever on that front: no consensus on even types of visiting vehicles, much less a physical artifact, much less an actual alien, much less any knowledge of where they’re from or how they got here; even those few reports that claim to provide some form of information, such as Betty Hill’s ‘star map,’ haven’t lead anywhere. In the same amount of time, we have eradicated smallpox and almost eradicated polio, we have discovered plate tectonics, DNA, and countless subatomic particles and properties, we have sent planetary probes to all of the nearest planets and even out to the thinnest regions of our system, and we are even cataloging the number and types of planets around nearby stars. And we now have cameras at the fingertips of the vast majority of world population, as well as instantaneous communication among a large portion of it. And yet, the field of UFOs has, inexplicably, made no progress at all. The aforementioned Trindade photos were taken in nineteen-fifty-fucking-goddamn-eight, still cherished by UFO proponents because they cannot achieve the simple goal of something better. You can also compare the various dates for sightings listed in this article – offered as a bare bit of counter-balance from the same online magazine, found as I was typing this post – and note how they seem to line up with two of the three ‘active periods’ for UFOs, the late 1950s and the early 1970s, coinciding remarkably with the periods of media attention to the topic (the third is the early 1980s, easily the weakest of the three however.) Present activity consists of countless re-investigations of old reports and the always-breathless promise that something earth-shattering is going to be revealed, which somehow never manifests.

Science moves on, providing new discoveries and insights every day, improving our knowledge base and indeed our quality of living. Meanwhile, UFO proponents keep trying to polish the rickety edifice of alien visitation in abject denial that the field has never produced one quantifiable and supportable element that would justify even being defined as ‘alien visitation.’ Like Friedman’s points within the article, supposition and wishful-thinking are the only cornerstones to be found, buttressed with insistence and the surety that real evidence exists somewhere, almost certainly being withheld because, ‘reasons.’ Had, for instance, information science progressed with the pace of UFO discoveries, this post would have had to have been published as a mimeograph…

*     *     *

A few serious investigators in the field:

Robert Sheaffer

Tim Printy (see also this post)

James Oberg (the author of the second article linked)

Get back, winter!

We’ve had a couple of overnight frosts and some generally cool days, and I figured the treefrogs had packed it in for the winter, though the aquatic frogs in the backyard pond might still be sporadically active. Recently a warm front pushed in, bringing quite nice temperatures and a bit of rain, and last night I went out in just a t-shirt (well, okay, pants too) to take a peek in the backyard. As suspected, a couple of the green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) were out of the pond and both resting, a few meters apart, on the lower crossbar of the fence.

green frog Lithobates clamitans perched on fence

another green frog Lithobates clamitans perched on fence
Both of these are fairly good-sized for the species, so they’ve been doing well in the pond, and they’re far from the only residents – I’ve known of five at a time in there, and last night I saw four of them, one unidentified species being quite small. I was walking very slowly and carefully because the yard is littered with leaves and spotting frogs in those conditions is extremely difficult.

But they weren’t the only frogs to be found, and the next ones surprised me.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched desperately on siding
My count for last night was six green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea,) of different sizes, all in the backyard. I’d been hoping, only a few months ago, to get some established in the yard, but this was more than expected, especially since they’ve outnumbered the Copes grey treefrogs at the best of times.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on planter pole
When I first saw this one, on my way back in to get the camera, it was tightrope-walking up the black pole you see here, a peculiar sight since their legs are twice as long as they normally appear, splayed out awkwardly to either side. I will get an illustrating shot of it one of these days, but for now we have the typical perches.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on gardenia leaf
I spotted this one from across the yard as I was photographing the previous – that bright hue certainly stood out against the gardenia leaves. This was also noticeably the biggest.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea settled down within downspout
You’ve seen a variation of this perspective before, and it’s possible this is the same frog, but it’s a different downspout. This one was the most difficult to photograph, since the space between the nearby rain barrel and the porch supports was very narrow, and I simply couldn’t work a better angle with the flash unit. This was also the only one to be found at midday today, right before I typed this.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched on cat 5 network cable
This was actually the first I’d spotted, the one that made me head back to get the camera, and I found three more in that short trip. The blue ‘pole’ is actually a standard network cable, the kind you plug into the back of your computer, or at least did – now everyone uses their smutphones, it seems. but yeah, tiny. In fact, here’s another shot to show scale:

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on cat 5 network cable with fingers for scale
Yep, able to fit comfortably on the pad of my middle finger, though I doubt it would have stayed put for those shenanigans.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea hanging on dried weed stem
This was the last, about the same size as the previous one and hanging on a dried stem in the garden. The warm rain really made them active last night, and might again tonight – who knows? But I’m pleased to see them again when the shooting season is winding down for the winter.

And to close, we return to the first treefrog in the gallery which, while I was shooting the others, crossed the upper deck to sit on the edge of the window and peer into the screened porch like a slimy green voyeur. I said I was wearing pants, so I can’t tell you what was motivating this one, and let you speculate on your own.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea peering through screen

The abstracts chase November off

unidentified flower buds
I couldn’t really pass this one up, as curious as it is. Back in October when cruising through the NC Botanical Garden, I happened across a small flowering plant, almost ready to blossom out, and the spiral pattern of the buds was compelling, so of course I had to go in straight down from the top. The dim natural light was part of the motivation behind the short depth, but also the idea that I didn’t want too much detail or sharpness from the image. I like the way it came out.

mystery landscapeMeanwhile, I present another image with a curious effect, but I have to admit this isn’t the best way of presenting it. It should be casually inserted into a gallery of other images without comment, letting people skim over it if they’re so inclined, waiting to see how many people catch the peculiarity of it. All I will tell you is that there is no trickery involved.

If you figured out what was special about it, good! And if not, even better, because it means it was as confusing as I’d hoped. If you were definitely wondering about the odd appearance of the sun or moon in there, I’d be happy. But perhaps it wasn’t that hard after all. Regardless, here’s the image as shot.

maybe not so mysterious now
I had been looking at the reflections of the bare trees in the nearly motionless water of a small stream, wondering how to make it slightly more interesting, when I saw the leaf approaching on the feeble current. It took a couple of minutes for it to get into position where I wanted it, probably making Mr Bugg wonder what the hell I was up to just standing there staring at the water, but again, I like the end result.

Podcast: Composition

Gret blue heron Ardea herodias in Indian River Lagoon, Florida
Yes, it’s finally here! The podcast I’ve been trying to finish for literally weeks! It will surely live up to the hype and anticipation…

Walkabout podcast – Composition

First off, since I’m speaking in generic composition terms within the podcast, you can click here for the entire list of posts that deal with composition, especially more specific and detailed aspects. There’s just a couple…

And while I’m at it, my views on art, a small part of the reason why I don’t pursue it rabidly. It’s got nothing to do with not being very good at it…

Did you get to the point where I demanded that you watch the video? Good – it’s this one [found here if the embed isn’t working for you]:


As noted, it’s not my video (I wouldn’t have used a suit,) but instead done by Daniel J. Simmons.

Bodie Island lighthouse at sunrise showing several composition elementsSeveral of the things I talk about in the ‘cast are illustrated within this one image, such as simplicity, point of focus (strong subject,) creating a scene, keeping the subject off-center, and framing to keep whole elements such as the boardwalk and the railed overlook. The overlook balances out the lighthouse, while the curve of the boardwalk helps direct our attention towards the subject, inviting us to come along. Also notice both the light quality/color and the angle, shaping the lighthouse and telling us it’s morning there; not only that, but both the overlook and the lighthouse are facing into the light, a subtly positive mood. A couple of clouds in the sky help fill in a large blank space, and the grasses tell us it’s a rustic setting – which is kind-of true. The lighthouse itself and the immediately-surrounding grounds are immaculately tended, but overall the locale is marshlands, which is more interesting and expressive, thus the “you choose what you want to portray” bit. Rule of thirds? Not really, but not far away – in other words, the concept is okay, but the mathematical precision so often given to the rule is completely unnecessary and not at all grounded in fact. if you want further detail about this, I’ve tackled it no less than three times: once, and again, and finally here.

But here’s another illustration, contrasting the rule with the approach I suggest, which is to use the elements within the frame to good affect.

lady beetle demonstrating elements within the frame
The faint grey lines indicate the thirds concept, where the ladybeetle kinda but not quite falls. More importantly, the entire frond is framed well, not cut off at any point and thus providing a complete setting, actually a key part of the scene, and aesthetically pleasant all by itself. The soft backlighting gives it a brilliant glow, contrasted by the dark and muted ladybeetle, while the remainder of the background seems to indicate not a lone plant, but a thicket, one among many – even though, when you look at it, it doesn’t have to be a very big patch at all; there’s just nothing that contradicts the idea. And overall, a strong emphasis on just “green,” which works for display prints quite well. This is what I meant when I suggest tearing apart a favorite image to understand how and why it works for you.

Sandhill crane Grus canadensis with horrible composition skillsAnd this is how you do it wrong – yes, I really did take this photo, at a time when I should have known better, and my only defense was shooting from a car window and anticipating the crane leaving the area before I could get off many frames. But look at how complicated and distracting the background details are, and how centered the crane is, and then the trash in the photo, and holy shit, the pole sticking right smack out of the top of the crane’s head! Seriously, do better than this (it’s not hard.)

azalea blossoms at Old Well UNC Chapel HillNow here are more illustrations of things I talked about, such as setting the point-of-focus against a contrasting color in the background, while also using the background to build a frame around the focal point. The soft light allows for the subtleties of the flowers (even when it produces a truly boring sky, which is why it’s minimized in this frame,) but the larger version show the raindrops on the blossoms much more distinctly, so the grey conditions become more understandable. The single flower is set apart from all of the others so our eyes go right there, assisted by the shorter focus range, but the background is still expressive and distinct; this is not a photo of a flower, but of a particular scene, and anyone at all familiar with UNC Chapel Hill recognizes Old Well instantly. Moreover, other distracting and unwanted elements are hidden behind the flowers by shooting at a low angle. It’s easy to shoot a landmark and just have a photo of a landmark, but with only a smidgen more effort, you can add a lot of charm to the scene.

Did you get a nice impression from the opening photo? Admittedly, the heron could have been a little more separated from the rocks, framed by open water in an ideal composition, but at least the head and beak are distinctive enough to grab our attention, and the colors of the water and rocks offset each other nicely. And it may be hard to tell, but the heron is showing a hint of the color and light angle that tells us, in this case, approaching sunset. But now take a look at the original frame, without the cropping:

great blue heron Ardea herodias with disturbing background
Makes a big difference, doesn’t it? if you originally got the impression of the heron being someplace out “in the wild” and far from civilization, good! That was the idea. Including the distant shoreline with its plethora of development changes the idea of where it was taken, and includes a lot of distraction that serves no purpose.

Now here’s another aspect, or at least the impression that I get. The version at top, without the shoreline, invites us to pay attention to the heron more, and we see it gazing at something out of the frame – there’s an implied direction that way, a definite bias to the left. But with the buildings in the picture, there’s another subject, and now the heron is oblivious to it all, seeming to gaze at nothing, but certainly paying no attention to the bustle beyond it, and we relate a lot less to the heron even though nothing about the heron itself has changed. Do you get the same impression?

black and white goats in high contrast lighting, extremely hard to see detailHere we see why high-contrast light doesn’t work for high-contrast subjects. The head of the kid becomes so indistinct that it’s impossible to tell where it stops and the shadow begins, and while there’s the faintest hint of a sheen from the black fur on its shoulder, it drops almost entirely into the bottom registers of the image, even while the white coat has bleached out to indistinct pure white in most places – it illustrates the narrow range quite well. Adjusting exposure for either aspect would have driven the opposing aspect even further out of range, so no matter what, we would have to pick which portion of the goats we simply didn’t want to see the detail of – or choose better light conditions to shoot within. I personally have three different presets on my cameras: an ‘average’ setting with mid-range contrast and saturation, then one with reduced contrast and saturation, and one going the opposite way with increased settings. The one with reduced contrast and saturation is for use in high-contrast lighting such as this, helping to control these extremes, while the increased contrast/saturation preset is for use when the light is low-contrast and muted, making the colors pop a bit better.

By the way, if you’re looking for more information about white balance and the failure of the Auto White Balance setting, this page should help a bit.

So there you have it; don’t just take a picture, but make it. And keep moving forward – we all have room for improvement, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Good luck!