Again?

Adobe Flash "has a security issue"Oh, look – “Adobe Flash has yet another security issue and is automatically disabled to force you to update it. You know, for your protection.” Is anyone buying this bullshit?

HTML5. Or anything open source. Kill the monopolies.

And use the gif (pronounced “ghoti”) as you like, with my compliments. I made it last night using a clip from Young Doctors In Love.

What? It’s a movie. Not my fault you never heard of it.

She has a great personality

I enjoy doing this.

Last night while out poking around, I chanced upon a fairly small spider that, once I unloaded the images, motivated me to go out and get better, closer ones. I’m very pleased with this portrait:
portrait of crab spider Tmarus angulatus
Some spiders are menacing, or ominous. Some are even cute. This one’s just ugly. In fact, I see a resemblance to that Star Wars character that lost his arm over bringing a blaster to a cantina lightsaber fight…

Now, it’s funny; I suspect somehow this is not going to be a crowd favorite, and might even provoke some negative reactions from at least a few people, hard as that may be to imagine. But I’m fine with that, and in fact, posted this precisely because it may generate those reactions. It’s not just the aspect that not everything in the world is pretty, or should be – there is also a certain delight in showing an image that elicits any kind of strong reaction. That’s often what photographers want; that’s what anyone who creates something wants. I didn’t make the spider ugly, but I was able to bring this aspect to the viewer (hopefully, anyway) dramatically and undeniably. The page came up and said, “Boo!” – and if you reacted, it worked as intended.

Moreover, from a sheer photographic standpoint it’s pretty solid. Not just the eyes are in focus, but the whole ‘face’ and starting down the pedipalps, even though you can see the focus is so short at this magnification that the posterior lateral eyes (the ones sitting wide that face off to the sides) are even fuzzing out. The spider measures about a millimeter between the main eyes that we’re focusing on – those back eyes are, what, 0.2mm away? How easy was it to miss this crucial distance, do you think? [I have a few frames where I did, just to let you know.] And the light angle shows the shapes and coloration very well – there’s a catchlight in four of those eyes, for dog’s sake! Everything angled down across the frame, virtually no distractions – there are a lot of ways this image could have been worse, and I know all of them from experience. This was shot handheld (though braced against a fence) and focused in pitch darkness by the light of a flashlight – since this was with the reversed 28-105mm (and the same lighting rig seen there,) focus is achieved by distance, and not assisted by the camera or lens at all. There was definitely skill involved, but I cannot discount the huge part that luck played as well.

crab spider Tmarus angulatus full body shot
This is a crab spider, by the way – I’m almost certain a Tmarus angulatus, and she measures 15mm from the back of the abdomen to the tip of those forelegs. Definitely a female, and the leaf that she’s perched upon, wrapped up tight in webbing, is probably protecting her eggs – that odd shape is what captured my attention in the first place, and then I spotted the grey line atop when I leaned in for a closer look. Remarkably cooperative, too; after the first pics like the one here, I went back out to find that she’d moved from position, but a couple of gentle nudges with a bit of pinestraw (about the only use it can be put to) caused her to return to the same place, just facing the other direction. An awful lot of species would panic and drop from sight, or scamper into deep cover, so credit to the model’s blasé attitude towards direction from the photographer.

Giant iridescent mosquitoes!

Elepahnt mosquito Toxorhynchites rutilus shown with common mosquito for scaleThat… is a phrase that should become a new curse. Let’s start the ball rolling.

While I was working on the car yesterday, The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog drew my attention to a giant mosquito that was sitting on the windshield, wondering if it was a crane fly. A close examination of the surprisingly cooperative insect lent weight to it being an actual mosquito, albeit a very large species, and capturing it proved surprisingly easy. Less so in photographing it, since this required restraining it within a container and it was reluctant to do many poses on a twig within the mini-aquarium, though I managed a couple with patience. I did eventually gas it with alcohol, having no intention of letting such a monster escape, and captured a ‘normal’ mosquito for comparison and scale. I said I’d been working on the car, so you can stop the muttering about the condition of my thumbnail, thank you very much.

Elephant mosquito Toxorhynchites rutilus full body image
This is an elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites rutilus,) and after getting over its size, the most noticeable aspect is the iridescent blue and gold coloration. It extends quite far, too, even visible on the proboscis. After a lot of discarded frames, I dropped an alcohol swab in the aquarium and waited a bit, then fished out the stuporous insect for some closer, detailed shots.

Elephant mosquito Toxorhynchites rutilus head detail
No, you’re not imagining it – it really is sparkly all the way down. Plus you have to appreciate those wraparound eyes. After these photos, I suspended the entire insect in liquid alcohol to preserve it – both The Girlfriend and The Sprog react badly to mosquito bites, so releasing it would have earned me the ire of them both, plus we don’t need no more steenkin’ mosquitoes around here, especially one that looks like it could drill through Tuffskins, plus I wanted to save it for posterity anyway. However, after it had been pickled I looked it up to see exactly what species it was, and discovered that I should have let it go – elephant mosquitoes drink from flowers and are not parasitic (thus no bities,) but their larvae will actually eat the normal pain-in-the-ass species of mosquitoes and they’re currently in use as a natural control for those. Now I feel bad.

When I finished the detail shots I went out to find a typical mosquito for a comparison, which proved harder than it should’ve – we’d just had a downpour and it not only made them scarce, it seems to have disturbed nearly all of them from the undersides of the leaves where they typically roost. You know the drill – always around until you need one. As the image at top attests, I did finally manage to find one (actually two, but I fumbled the first and lost it,) but in the process I spotted a familiar insect within the decorative pond that is still under construction.

Backswimmer Notonecta clinging to plant stem underwaterThis is a backswimmer, genus Notonecta, possibly Notonecta kirbyi. Even as adults they’re aquatic, swimming around in jerky motions chasing down things like mosquito larvae. Many years ago as a child, I found out that they can be provoked to bite and it’s surprisingly sharp – no venom, but you’ll know it when it happens – and it was enough to convince me to use care when handling the true bugs with their piercing mouthparts.

[By the way, that’s not a true aquatic plant, but a plain ol’ terrestrial one stuck in there to provide a perch.]

The sheen you’re seeing is air adhering to its body, often seen on the belly too and usually providing a silvery appearance. While they can probably breathe this, they also have a snorkel-like opening in the abdomen which we’ll see shortly. They run roughly 10mm in body length, a little more in leg spread, and are most noticeable because those hind legs are usually seen splayed out like oars.

backswimmer Notonecta belly-up at surface of water
Since they hunt aquatic prey, they are usually upside-down when seen at or near the surface, gathering air through their butt while keeping an eye on the happenings below – this is shot looking straight down into the water. Anatomically and behaviorally, they’re similar to the giant water bugs, genus Belostoma, but only distantly related.

Backswimmer Notonecta portrait with swimming hairs
I have to admit I like this portrait, looking faintly surreal due to the adhering air changing the contrast, but it also shows off the hairs along its legs, angled so that they spread out on the ‘downstroke’ and flatten when the legs move in the opposite direction, making one-way oars that allow the bug to swim strongly. The proboscis is visible extending from the ‘chin’ down, or up in this case, to a spot between the forelegs. And there’s the faint hint of the reflection from the surface visible just above the abdomen. Really, I’m trying to figure out why this isn’t a Marvel superhero. And if you haven’t made a macro aquarium yet, you should.

At the same time, I also found another true bug and brought it along for a quick photo session while all the equipment was handy.

Wheel bug Arilus cristatus nymph
This is the nymph form of a wheel bug, a type of assassin bug that can be seen as an adult (many, many times bigger) here – as a bit of trivia, both images are using the same background print. This one is about the same body length as the backswimmer, but much more cooperative in posing. Given that, I still took too many frames trying for tight focus that showed the facets of the eyes, because they really weren’t visible in the viewfinder and the focal distance was different from anything that I could see clearly.

Wheel bug Arilus cristatus nymph profile image showing proboscis
Given that the proboscis spanning across this frame is probably less than 2mm long, it’s safe to say this a fair amount of magnification – the two spider web strands came along for the ride, and you can see how far out of focus the one in front of the eye ended up. This is admittedly a tight crop but still about half of the native resolution. Assassin bugs tend to be slow and deliberate movers, making them fairly easy to work with – much better than mosquitoes and hyperactive swimming bugs, certainly. Even as they try to turn away from the looming camera rig, it’s not hard to shift and maintain a preferred angle, but it always helps to perch them on something that can be turned easily too.

There’s something else I want to mention. I was composing this post in my head as I was obtaining these images, and ended up going out twice to reshoot perspectives that would better illustrate the post. Especially when you’re doing ‘studio’ macro work, it never hurts to hang onto your photo subjects until you’re sure you got what you need – enough angles, or the details of some particular facet, whatever. It’s much worse when shooting on spec for potential publication, especially because you have no idea what a publisher is hoping to illustrate, so take lots of frames. And finally, it never hurts to be paying close attention to the habits and patterns of the various species, so you have a much better chance of finding them again if and when you need more photos. The wheel bug nymph seen here, for instance, can only be found at this age for a short while, born in the late spring or early summer and reaching sexual maturity in a few weeks, so this coloration and size will naturally change. Think ahead.

Monday color 22

narrow-winged tree cricket Oecanthus niveus on geranium bloom
A very recent Monday color image this time, taken just a few days ago when a narrow-winged tree cricket nymph (Oecanthus niveus) posed at night on a geranium blossom. Some mist or dew would have been nice, but it wasn’t happening that night.

Happy birthday Boogs!

The Boogs as kittensFour years ago today, the Boogs were born. More or less, anyway. When they showed up at the house, it was Labor Day weekend and they were roughly eight weeks old, so we picked a date that was easy to remember.

The most notable thing about them is the color change they underwent, which you’ll see clearly in a moment when you compare this image, taken while they were still semi-feral and had not yet been in the house, with the recent photos below. But it’s also been interesting to watch their personalities develop, including the faintly obsessive behavior of both.

Little Girl (otherwise known as Zoe) is the tiger-striped one, at the back in this photo, the last to be tamed down – of the four that originally showed up abandoned at the house, she took much longer than the others. But largely because I was the one that forced her to sit still and endure some pleasant attention, she became “my” cat. She’s cool with everyone, but she has several behaviors only displayed around me, including the idea that if I crash for an afternoon nap, I must make a tent of the bedsheets so she can stretch out alongside. If The Girlfriend and I are both napping and we make space in between, this is not acceptable. She has also decided that, when I’m working at the computer late at night, there are specific times for attention. Not to mention the insufferable offense of being locked out of the bathroom when I’m in there…

Kaylee is the randomly-colored one though she appears pure white in the first photo, and while a Siamese-mix like Little Girl, the exact ancestry is muddled but surely eclectic. She became The Girlfriend’s cat, and as the time draws near, she sits impatiently at the window watching for The Girlfriend to come home, becoming a little spastic and racing around excitedly when it occurs, trying to trip people. This is an extension of the ‘keepaway’ game she played when she first came into the house, purposefully darting past people when they reached down to give her attention, then returning to dart past again, a game she still occasionally plays. She is also notoriously bad about eye contact, and will look fractionally off to one side instead of directly – on occasion she meets my gaze fully but looks away again immediately.

recent image of The Boogs
Here they are just a few days ago, in an image purposefully taken for the post – you can see the string that coerced them into posing, since they don’t really take direction well. Little Girl is the one reclining. Clearly, their colors wandered a bit from that as kittens. Kaylee, by the way, is obsessive about string, especially if it’s dangled from the upstairs balcony, and if she has been overstimulated with it (The Girlfriend’s Younger Sprog is usually the culprit,) will need a few days to come down before she’ll stop sitting alongside the string and crying forlornly for anyone to animate it.

The Boogs on the porchThis pic is from March, not showing off their colors as well but you can at least see their blue eyes – they’re very pleased with the screened porch of the new house. And the top perch is definitely Little Girl’s – it’s as tall as I am and so she can gaze down at me, engaging in swatting matches and occasionally bopping me on top of the head when she gets excited.

Some time back I discovered, by accident, that they both respond surprisingly well to whistling – I can only guess that the pitch that I achieve resembles their mother’s call. When getting the indoor photo above, the flash was giving me both confirmation and recharge beeps, to which Little Girl kept answering, eventually walking over to see why it was calling her.

They’re not pleased with loud bangs, however, so as all of you out there celebrate their birthday (and I’m surprised at the following that this blog apparently has,) let’s skip the fireworks over it this year, okay?

Peace or piece?

This is an observation that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for some time now, and I finally decided to set it down in detail. It is sure to make quite a few religious people get defensive, but the point is, that’s probably inevitable.

Let’s start with the simple aspect, and I’m going to fall back onto my old favorite, gravity (as well as subtle but terrible puns, it seems.) Do we ever see anyone arguing for the existence, function, or logic of gravity? Can there be found, anywhere, even the faintest vestige of doubt that it exists? It seems ludicrous to even ask those questions, doesn’t it?

Why, then, do so many religious folk get uptight, like, all of the fucking time? How does the absolute assurance not only of a creator, but one that has distinctly outlined exactly what happens to true believers and nonbelievers, result in the widespread anxiety that forms so much of the public face of religion? How does the idea that same-sex couples can receive legal recognition of their partnership foster so much ire? How does teaching evolution in school count as denying someone’s religion? Why should the eradication of “under god” in the pledge of allegiance (a completely irrelevant ritual to 99.9979% of schoolkids) provoke so much backlash? Truth is truth, right? How can omnipotence be threatened in the slightest?

A ridiculous number of online articles that even mention evolution will receive disparaging comments asserting that evolution is anything from a mere theory to an outright lie, and the vast majority of these comments are, not to put too fine a point on it, distinctly petulant and bratty in tone. Provoked? Not hardly – it’s next to impossible to find any article about evolution that even mentions religion, much less makes any claim that it’s disproved by natural selection. But is it an inferred attack anyway? The case could be made, but then again, it could be made for virtually any science article, as well as any article that mentions a religion other than the one the testy commenter follows. Yet even an inferred attack doesn’t justify the type of responses seen so often.

If you’re a public figure that even mentions homosexuality, secularism, atheism, or merely reducing religious privilege, you can expect a storm of messages promising your eternal torture and assuring you of your gross immorality, with the addition of a few threats of direct violence – because, you know, religion has that ‘force for peace’ thing going on. Point out that some law or practice is unconstitutional and you’ll also invite the diatribes produced from spittle-flecked keyboards. And I shouldn’t have to point this out, but this is not from some marginalized and openly-targeted minority faith, but mostly from those ‘good christians’ that not only make up a majority in this country, but enjoy the frequent rump-osculation from every political party as well, not to mention quite a few perks from the bare idea that religion should be respected. In fact, that’s a favorite word among the religious, a hell of a lot of whom somehow believe such a thing only goes one way. And while there certainly are exceptions, people who would never stoop to such juvenile tactics, don’t be looking for them to correct their brethren, or even suggest civil discourse.

I am a great fan of objectivity, though in some cases the attempt to demonstrate it is pointless, and only worthwhile because this entire post will be summarily dismissed otherwise. So, are these comments being made by children? Well, of course they are, duh! Oh, you mean actual adolescents, below legal age or whatever? The evidence doesn’t really support it; the posts often take place in forums where other obviously youthful comments don’t appear, and where topics of teen interest are few. It’s often not hard to distinguish a comment from a youth, and this is not consistently demonstrated. Moreover, adolescents jumping into adult discussions with derisive commentary just isn’t a common practice – though there are mitigating circumstances that we’ll look at shortly. And finally, if the majority of those holding such attitudes were under voting age, then the politicians wouldn’t be pandering to them at all, would they? Not to mention that we all have personal experience with fully-grown people who demonstrate these outlooks, and I can say that with utter confidence.

Is it fear? Well, of course – but very likely something more than that too. Just the possibility of being wrong doesn’t make people get that uptight, that outright nasty – it takes a lot more, the fear of losing something valuable. That something valuable is privilege, the status that is gained from the very idea of religion. It is important for them to be recognized as superior, because of their very choice of religion – otherwise what would be the point? It’s kind of like when big sister is left in charge, and the younger siblings ignore her orders, safe in the knowledge that she cannot wield the authority (and/or the punishments) that the parents can. Impotent rage takes over.

This would mean that faith, in such cases, doesn’t come from logic or moral guidance or even the reassurance that there is a plan of a benevolent overseer, but from insecurity, the desperation for a special status. If this seems doubtful, consider how often religious symbols are openly displayed in the home, on someone’s person, on the car… who needs to know about this? The omniscient god?

Interestingly, the similarities between this and discussions regarding aliens and conspiracies and such are manifest, in fact almost identical: the same blustering schoolyard attitude, the same condescending and insulting approaches, the same name-calling – and even the same old hackneyed sound bites, over and over and over again. That last bit says a lot all on its own, because it’s not like these sound bites haven’t been answered and repudiated, nor is it likely in any way that doing so yet again will have any affect. The appearance of such arguments is a distinct indicator that the user openly ignores any and all contradictions or corrections – they are not in search of what’s right, only what validates them. And when this validation seems weak – when it seems like it’s being ignored or simply doesn’t have any application at all, when their status is worthless – they strike out with open animosity. It does not provide peace of mind in the slightest – but perhaps a piece of their mind to bestow upon others, at least.

This is not to oversimplify anyone’s motivations, which may be complex, but it bears consideration as a distinct factor in light of the responses; sports and politics are capable of fostering the same. The relation to these is probably not coincidental either, since the convincing, demonstrable superiority of either sports teams or political parties is just as ethereal; it’s not a sign of confidence, no matter how one looks at it.

But since so much of religious belief, and indeed so much of many human behaviors, is prompted by what others are doing, we should take a look at this too; it’s giving more credit than is warranted to assume that all such actions come through careful consideration. There remains the distinct possibility – actually the very high probability – that such attitudes are promoted directly by churches, and the threatened, defensive demeanor is what the flock is encouraged to have, by either the passive beliefs of those around them or the active teachings of their church. This fits in remarkably well with the constant repetition of those aforementioned sound bites, which must be coming from somewhere; such consistency is not generally found among other topics.

Which is a very curious line of thought. Does this mean (or to be more accurate, how often does this mean) that churchgoers are actively steered towards insecurity and looming threat rather than, as we are repeatedly assured, the peace of mind that religiosity promotes? Instead of providing answers and confidence, how many churches play mind games with their followers by making them paranoid? The ‘wolf at the door’ tactic has been used for centuries, often enough by political parties trying to create a common, manipulative cause, and this pretty much defines the idea of satan and evil in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong – people don’t need help being insecure, or seeking some pointless, effortless manner of feeling superior because of it. But that just means churches have a common trait that they can exploit, just like they have for centuries when targeting the disadvantaged or sending missionaries around. And we can’t deny the appeal of becoming ‘better’ just by performing some inane ritual, rather than expending some effort towards honest improvement. But isn’t it funny how this superiority somehow fails to instill confidence?

So how does that happen? Is it a program of careful manipulation, the creation of a specific set of circumstances where the chosen folk are under constant threat from the pagan scientists and Teh Gays? Or is it the dissonance of hearing the assurances from the churches of how things ‘must be’ but failing to see any actual evidence of such? Or is it simply an unaddressable insecurity, to be found no matter what? Or any combination of those, or anything else besides? That will be left as an exercise – I know what I’ve seen plenty of evidence of myself, including the specific assignments for teens, without any useful background, to go to science and secular websites to post their diatribes for church credit. But this is by no means an exhaustive and controlled study.

Funny, though, it simply doesn’t work. While condescension is occasionally a wake-up call to someone being arrogant or assumptive, most times it’s simple annoying, almost the exact opposite of convincing. The abject ignorance of most of the arguments is plainly evident to anyone even remotely aware of the fields usually addressed, and the rabidly defensive responses visibly well out of proportion to the ‘threat’ of same-sex marriage or allowing women to drive cars – it’s remarkably easy to look like a loon. And it says an awful lot that these tactics are still being promoted.

Abstract twofer

raindrops beaded on leavesI realize I started a pattern with posting abstract images on the last day of March and April, then pathetically let this lapse for May. So, for June we will have two.

Neither of these need explaining, of course, so I will end the text here, and simply let the images speak for themselves. Stop raising your eyebrow skeptically – I have not been kidnapped and replaced with an exact duplicate.

stark branches against reflection of cloudy sky

Monday color 21

unknown Alaskan wildflowerOne more courtesy of Jim Kramer’s Alaska trip, which I saved for the Monday color post. I’m not even going to try to identify it – the botany is for someone else. Just appreciate the colors and contrast.

Chow’s on!

A couple of posts ago I mentioned coming back with more photos that followed the rains, and will repeat the warning here: this post is not just icky insects, but icky insects doing icky things.

The mantises have been growing at a noticeable rate, even though it varies among the many I can find. The ones on the Japanese maple tree seem to be finding the most food, and in some cases, it’s not hard to tell what it was.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis showing evidence of last meal
The ‘cotton candy’ visible on the limbs of this one show that its most recent meal was a type of planthopper we’ve seen a lot of this year, the citrus flatid (Metcalfa pruinosa.) They make plant stems look a lot like the mantid’s legs here, only more so. The fluff is the residue they exude from sucking up sap, and while it doesn’t exactly serve as camouflage, being visible from about half a kilometer, it does make it difficult to distinguish the exact location of the planthopper within. But not too difficult for the mantids.

citurs flatid planthoppers Metcalfa pruinosa with residue on plant stem
Curiously, it appears that the wings of the species develop before the final, adult stage, which is rare, even if they’re almost certainly not functional as such. For everything else I’ve seen, the wings only appear when they hit the last instar, the reproductive stage.

Both of the above photos were taken at night, so the eyes of both planthoppers and mantis show the color change that occurs then – red for the planthoppers, black for the mantis. As yet, I have not determined what purpose this serves, only assuming that it improves their vision while not giving a hit to their camouflage because it’s too dark to see the contrast.

chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis on spearmint with unidentified spiderWhen we moved from the old place last year, we left behind a veritable forest of spearmint plants, one of our few regrets in that move – spearmint is, like, the best smelling plant ever. Sure, we brought along several with us to transplant, but none of them took – or so we believed, until one patch started coming back this spring. What you see here is not that patch, however, but one of two new plants we got started that is now thriving. The mantises have previously avoided them but this smaller one has been hunting on one for the past few days, and I spotted it when it was sitting in a provocative position under a spider. Naturally, I decided to wait this one out, making me immediately aware of just how hot the sun was beating down. But in counterpoint, at least the wind hadn’t kicked up the moment I started trying to focus with a macro lens, which happens more often than not. I think they should pay a bunch of macro photographers to live under those wind turbine farms and solve all of our energy problems…

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with suddenly appearing mealI don’t think it was because of any motion of my own, but abruptly the spider switched to the underside of the leaf (it was the heat I’m sure,) and the mantis stared fixedly at it. Yes, its mouth certainly does seem to be open – you don’t really expect much of any expressions to come from arthropods, but occasionally something appears anyway, strictly by happenstance. At this point the wait, which wasn’t very long at all, seemed perfectly justified, and I watched carefully, knowing that the strike would be too fast for me to time it usefully, but perhaps I could nab the aftermath.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis at moment of spider captureWith inordinate luck, I fired off a shot just as the mantis made its move – I had no intention of capturing the crucial moment, I was just grabbing another frame. Working with natural light, the surroundings look a lot better, but the action isn’t stopped by either the shutter speed or flash duration, so there’s some motion blur – which adds to the drama. There’s even a little blur from the spider’s legs, showing that it realized its peril in a fraction of a second.

But… who won the race? Is it getting all anxiousy up in here? Should I stop now, and continue in another post to let the tension ease a bit?

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis snacking on spider leg
Well, technically, they both won. Or both lost – whatever, the glass is at midpoint. The spider escaped with its life, but not intact; this is why you see so many spiders missing a leg or two (or maybe I’m the only kind of person that notices stuff like that.) The mantis ended up clutching at least two of the spider’s legs, which the it consumed philosophically. Which makes me pause for a second, realizing that we’re probably the only species that does visible displays of chagrin when we miss a goal – cursing and stomping around and flailing our hands pointlessly. Was this something that was beneficial to our survival, a signal to the other hunters that the quarry was still at large or whatever? It certainly found a home in sports, along with the various displays of strutting when points are scored. We’re weird, aren’t we?

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis snacking on katydid
Another mantis was found having moved to the rose bush out front, and was finishing off what I believe to be a katydid. It was down slightly into the depths of the bush rather than right on top, so I was trying a bunch of different angles for the detail shots, and happened upon one that worked for the action at the moment.

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis eating katydid disgustingly
You know that first bite of pizza, when you pull away and the cheese is still gooey and stretches out in a long string? Or maybe a candy bar with caramel. Mmmm, just makes you hungry, doesn’t it?

[I told you it was likely to be disgusting. I just didn’t tell you I was going to make it even worse than the visual aspect.]

Chinese mantis Tenodera aridifolia sinensis with moutful in its palps
I also managed another vantage, this one obviously from beneath and so getting a little color from the rose blossoms in there. I’ve said it before, but I wish I had mouthfingers. Okay, fine, the technical term is palps, which just goes to show you that scientists are too uptight sometimes, because mouthfingers is way cooler. I just know these would make eating while reading or typing so much easier.

Hey, listen: the internet is full of kittens. Someone has to branch out a bit.

On capital punishment

Capital punishment yet remains a contentious topic, even while we’ve found comfortable positions on many of the moral issues we struggled with for centuries – slavery and racism, women’s rights, legal adulthood, and so on. Perhaps the biggest reason behind this is, there are too many factors that motivate a response, most of them emotional, and most of those have been bred into us for centuries. I’m going to take pains not to portray any stance on the topic, which hopefully shouldn’t be too hard, because I’m undecided on it myself.

First off, we have the justice system in the US, which has the goal of preventing crime, especially further crimes, and to do this, it has three primary facets:

1. Rehabilitate convicted criminals so that they may re-enter society in a functional, acceptable way;

2. Impress any potential criminals with the consequences of their actions;

3. Prevent incorrigible criminals from continuing to commit crimes.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t feel facet 1 is even viable, and in practice, it’s not demonstrating a very good track record, at least in the US. But also in here is the hidden motivation held by a lot of people, which is vindictiveness. This is kind of an emotional version of facet 2, in that it often qualifies the criminal offense beyond legal definitions, sometimes in the manner of who the victim is, sometimes in recognition of how closely we feel the crime. Someone who lives next door to a child who was killed is far more likely to demand a death penalty than someone who lives across the country. And there are, in fact, very good reasons for this. No, let me rephrase that: there are viable explanations for this, but these explanations deserve no value judgment. They are neither good nor bad, they just explain.

Our moral, social structure is something evolved into us over millions of years; natural selection guided us towards reactions that would create the strongest drive towards reproduction – doesn’t seem to connect in any way, does it? But reproduction relies on both survival and a strong tribe, among other things, and so we have a finely developed sense of what’s acceptable behavior within the tribe, and what’s not. Children are naturally our genetic future, breeding (literally) a stronger sense of protection over them, and our ‘neighbors’ – or immediate tribal members – are more likely to both carry similar genes, and cooperate with us in maintaining a strong tribe. So yes, from an evolutionary standpoint, the death of a neighbor child is worse than the death of an adult far away. But of course, this means that criminal acts can become too subjective, relying on the qualification from individuals as to how severe they might be; laws are a recognition of this problem, a fixed value of severity to attempt to rule out subjectivity. This only works if we realize why they are this way, and how variable it can be to rely on our bare emotional reactions.

Our developed sense of fairness comes into play, often with a simple comparison: how come a criminal, who has taken the life/lives of someone else, is allowed to retain their own life? Often it seems a shame we can only kill someone once, and in times past, capital punishment was occasionally carried out in gruesome ways. It is now usually considered bloodlust or barbarism, but we cannot ignore the basic idea that someone who has killed a lot of people can only themselves die once – the scales could not effectively be balanced with a simple execution. At least, if we consider “life” a measuring stick.

A variation of this might be our concept of “future.” We tend to be optimistic about the future, at least from a personal standpoint – we will be making more money, we will travel to that exotic location, we will finish that book we’ve been working on. But when it comes to the worst criminals, we don’t like contemplating the idea that anything beneficial might happen to them.

And then there’s simple fear. To a certain extent, the belief is that a severe criminal cannot be rehabilitated, and continually poses a threat to us as long as they remain present – this is exacerbated by the parole system, where criminals can often be released without even completing the term of their original sentence. This rarely happens in any capital case, the ones where execution would be considered a potential sentence, but this distinction isn’t recognized by enough people. Influencing this is the peculiar genre of horror movies, where the villain continually, almost supernaturally, returns from apparent death to wreak more harm before being dispatched in some spectacular way – this has never happened in real life (even Rasputin’s demise was less dramatic and possibly exaggerated,) but again, this distinction remains vague.

There are a few other factors, such as the belief that life sentences mean a criminal is languishing in prison with free cable TV and no bills or worries, not exactly an accurate idea. Or that the costs of their continued existence, paid for with taxpayer money, would be eradicated with a death sentence – in reality, executions cost many times more than a life sentence, through the exorbitant price of our legal system and the statutory appeals process. This far outweighs the cost of incarceration, which is considerably less expensive than living independently in any community. Too many of the factors upon which many people form their opinions are not accurate or realistic.

The rational argument often comes into play: there is nothing that can be done to reverse the crimes or ever make them ‘acceptable’ in some way – the families will forever feel the loss and anguish. From that viewpoint, the bare prevention of repeated crimes is the sole function, especially among those who recognize that capital punishment has never been shown to be an effective deterrent. In like vein (okay that was inexcusable, I admit it,) comes the argument that killing criminals makes society no better than those it wants to eradicate. Countering this, however, is the argument that it is not the action necessarily, but the reasoning behind it; consider that we celebrate Veterans’ Day here, essentially glorifying death as long as it’s “for our country.” Criminals, however, may act from a sense of selfish entitlement, unbridled rage, or even dysfunctional empathy, while capital punishment is intended to address how unacceptable this is within our society, as well as preventing it from happening again. If someone on the street stabs me in the bicep, this is a hell of a lot less damage and risk to my system than a surgeon removing my appendix; we have to be careful with how we’re measuring or viewing these topics, and why.

All of these, and likely a lot which I haven’t enumerated, crash together into the debate, everyone involved having their own personal recipe of motivations and considerations. Lately I’ve been considering an additional point, one that I haven’t seen mentioned yet I suspect more than a few people feel, at least subconsciously: capital punishment is not just for the criminal, but for the victims and families as well. It may be seen as demonstrating that we do hold the victims in higher regard, something that can often be lost when we see how oddly our justice system treats the matter. The accused are often guaranteed more benefits than the average citizen, from healthcare to attorney’s fees, concerns over humane conditions and even quick, painless deaths, while the families of such victims have to initiate their own legal actions (often at their own expense) just to obtain funeral costs or adequate compensation for the loss of a provider. There are also the rare cases when the accused is considered a victim themselves, suffering from mental illness, functionally incompetent, or (again, not often in capital offenses) a product of social failings. These – again, rare – cases may be taken well out of context, but more importantly, the problems with our legal system have no relation to what we argue for in regards to capital crimes, even when they’re intertwined.

Or, do they? There’s the perspective of a guilty person escaping “justice” (whatever that is,) but also the perspective of an innocent person being punished – this is where the failure of a justice system has a much bigger toll, and one that isn’t considered often enough. Very often, law enforcement personnel find fulfillment of their job duties in convictions, and elected officials will even run on their record of such. Yet convictions are not the key; accurate convictions are, and there is no worthwhile method of measuring these yet; perhaps there never will be. Juries can be biased over whether someone simply looks guilty, and we’re all familiar with the idea that an arrest means, “they got the guy” – before a fair trial has even taken place. This says nothing of the myriad issues with eyewitness testimony and the glossed-over weaknesses of various forms of evidence, ignored because they weaken the case (and thus the record) of prosecuting attorneys. Our legal system is not a game, but you couldn’t tell that from the attitudes and actions of most of those involved, who feel that a case can be won. The human element is a remarkably weak aspect in the whole affair, emotional and improperly focused and unable to wield, or even fathom, complete objectivity. We cannot even determine guilt, the truth of what occurred; all we can do is decide on what we believe occurred.

There is likely no easy answer to all of this, but to even guide us towards viable options, we have to agree on what we’re trying to accomplish, something that has yet to happen. Going back to the three goals of the justice system, we usually rule out rehabilitation as having any potential at all; that’s why capital punishment is even considered. Consequences are still often believed to be of some importance, even though this is most likely a kneejerk reaction; capital punishment does not demonstrate any deterrent effects, especially when those who we find most deserving are often socially dysfunctional anyway (that’s why they can commit such crimes in the first place – we’re usually not talking about the average member of the public and their social mores.) And when it comes to preventing further crimes for the individual, capital punishment and life sentences are equally effective.

But that’s not enough, is it? We want more, and I’m comfortable saying that this is because we have a drive to maintain a strong society; we want to weed out the bad elements, both by direct action and indirect threat (consequences.) We want to define our lives as being protected, mutually cooperative, and precious. There’s nothing wrong with this – we wouldn’t have survived without it, I’m betting. But how do these drives translate into an effective reaction to major crimes? Is it possible that we are driven, in part, towards execution for our own peace of mind rather than because it serves a specific function?

Most especially, is there a balance point between having a working justice system and believing it is performing as usefully as possible? It’s safe to say there is no perfect society on the horizon, no way that all such crimes will be forever eradicated, no matter what. But can we find something that a majority of people will agree is an adequate response to capital crimes? We easily recognize there is a debt, if you will, that can never be repaid. Or, is there? Is a portion of the problem solely in our perspectives?

Someone who loses a loved one over cancer may be motivated towards eradicating cancer, but overall, the loss is largely accepted as being something that just happened. Auto accidents are sometimes viewed much the same way, or sometimes seen as evidence that we are not accepting high enough standards for vehicular safety. But a murder usually becomes personal, and for far more people than the immediate family – this isn’t something that happens, but the actions that someone performed, deliberate and intentional; the more intentional and the more vicious, the stronger the demand for retribution. This is, again, those functions long bred into us for a cooperative society – we want to shape acceptable behavior for the tribe, and we can’t do this for cancer or random events, so these are viewed differently. But of course, beyond a certain point we can’t do this for people either; we just rarely recognize the futility of the emotional drive. Not to be too weird, but consider the woman who murders her husband for the insurance money; chances are, it’s not going to happen again, so the prospect of anyone else being in danger is not really an issue. Does that make it better? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Then there’s this little aspect that I don’t even have a decent name for, and forgive me for using this case example. It takes no effort whatsoever, at least in the US, to find those who have a strong opinion on the OJ Simpson trials, most especially the first; very often, you can find those who are quite sure what the verdict should have been. Curiously, none of the people I’ve ever spoken with about the verdict can enumerate the evidence presented and how it affected their decision – yet they’re perfectly willing to pronounce how the trials should have gone, and the flaws within. It’s not like the functions and purpose of our justice system are unknown or poorly illustrated, nor is it unclear why this is in place. But it’s disturbing just how few people accept this. From the incredibly ignorant practice of ‘trial by media’ to the fatuous argument, “Who else would have done it?”, our species is incredibly incapable of grasping the simple concept of, “Let’s see the evidence before coming to a conclusion.” These are the same people who make up juries. Is it even viable to believe we are capable of deciding fairly who lives and who dies? If and when a mistake is made, what do we decide to do in response to that? Are the same people who feel that wrongful death is punishable by death ready to step forward and strap themselves onto the table to atone for their incorrect verdict?

There are numerous contributions from our culture that affect our judgment as well. The phrase, “an eye for an eye,” is scriptural and extremely old, mixed in with passages about subjugating women and avoiding shellfish, but we can still hear it now, and a lot of decisions are based on a variation of it. Closely related is the idea of the ‘scales of justice,’ and how a punishment must fit the crime; this is nonsense on two levels. The first is, what purpose does this serve, and who stands to benefit? And the second is, we often don’t believe it anyway – employers routinely check into criminal records, and there are even laws requiring convicted child molesters to notify their neighbors, both of which demonstrating quite clearly that we don’t actually believe in either the ‘scales’ or rehabilitation (again, at least as practiced, or abjectly avoided, by the US legal system.) And then we have the peculiar currency of ‘life,’ often considering death the worst thing that can happen – yet when we’re dead, we’re not feeling anything at all, as opposed to any form of ongoing punishment. There are lots of ways to make people regret their actions, none of which will take place after death – and many of which impinge into the realm of barbarism. Once again we get into subjective ideas of what’s appropriate.

What if we ignored all of the aspects of punishment and revenge and deterrence, and instead simply focused on balance from a functional standpoint? There is no way, of course, to bring back someone who was killed, but what about seeing that the person responsible provides a positive contribution? Put them to work on projects that improve the community, or any community. No concerns over the cost of incarceration, no worries about criminals lounging around with free cable TV – and even a wrongful conviction doesn’t seem quite as bad then. This is actually practiced now, but to a very limited extent and, to the best of my knowledge, never with capital offenses. It isn’t exactly rehabilitation, but then again, neither is anything else currently in place for capital crimes, and in this manner there is a greater benefit than nothing at all.

Again, I’m not leading towards a conclusion; the entire point is to illustrate how many factors compete for attention, many of them emotional, some of those poorly applicable to the issue at hand. Like so much of human interaction, there is a broad emphasis on reacting rather than considering goals or functionality, usually without any realization that this is taking place. What we feel should be done is probably not as useful as establishing a goal and determining the most effective way to reach it – and this applies to a hell of a lot more than simply capital punishment, or any aspect of our legal system. But to go out on a limb here, I’m going to say that if we have a strong and immediate answer, it probably wasn’t reached by careful and objective consideration.