Despite the abruptly warm temperatures today following two snowstorms, there’s still a bit of snow cover around, and a full moon out there. We don’t get conditions like that very often, and I had planned on taking a short hike out to someplace scenic to do some long-exposure night shots. I waited for the moon to get nice and high, but that meant the clouds had time to roll in, and I stepped out laden with camera bag and tripod to find the moon completely hidden. Nertz.
There’s still a chance it will clear some, so I’ll keep an eye out, but it’s likely that this is one of those goals that remains on my mental list for the right conditions. There are a lot of things on that list: an Outer Banks trip in moonless (new moon) conditions, to take advantage of the greatest distance I can achieve ‘locally’ from light pollution. Some decent waterfall in freezing weather. A good electrical storm over an open field with a decent foreground subject. A tornado or waterspout.
Obviously, some of these are pretty hard to plan. Even the waterfalls tend to be in parks or require long hikes on steep trails, both of which get ruled out by icing conditions. The darkest skies within several hundred kilometers are in a valley in the mountains of Virginia, about four hours away; to get darker I’d have to get way out west. Better than two decades ago I went out for a walk under a full moon in heavy fog, cutting through some fields I knew well. The effect was wonderfully spooky and surreal, since the fog only extended about eight meters up and didn’t obscure the moon above at all – everything was lit up wonderfully while still limiting visibility to four meters or so. I would have thought I’d see such conditions several times in the intervening years, but if they occurred I missed them entirely.
It’s easy to think that, without certain subjects in my image stock, I’ve ‘missed out’ or am somehow incomplete – occasionally I do think this, and have heard the same lament from several other photographers. This is ignoring plenty of images that I do have though, some not even imagined as possible, much less as a goal. It presents an interesting balance in mental outlook: planning for compelling, unique shots is very important, because just waiting for all of the conditions to come together by chance isn’t a fraction as useful as knowing when the light, sky, or foliage is ideal. But judging success or self-value on whether these plans come together or not can be pretty discouraging; we don’t have perfect control over everything and shouldn’t expect to. Focusing on the misses while ignoring the successes isn’t being very objective. To me, it seems best to view it this way: the glass is indeed half-full, but it could be more full, too.
So for now, a couple of shots from the snowy yard, which aren’t going to win any awards. Better will be along soon enough.
This is another after-effect of the debate I mentioned earlier, and is closely related to the comments I made therein. The image here is one of those shamelessly forwarded, reposted, and unattributed “memes” that can be found everywhere, and I feature it reluctantly because the photos therein are always unattributed and usually lifted without permission. Since this was a recorded debate, it’s likely this is a screen capture from a posted video, but I’d still prefer to give credit where it’s due. I have resized it slightly to fit within my format here, but otherwise left it as I found it.
The key quote is at the very bottom, and it’s what led to the post title, the response of a great majority of scientists, atheists, and even agnostics: “It doesn’t matter.”
Nobody – nobody – that I have ever come across or even heard of thinks all religious folk believe the same thing. Not even that all christians do. Anyone that is embarrassed by creationists or cults or televangelists does so not because they’ve been treated the same, but because they themselves have associated under the same broad label – “christian” in this case. I myself am very supportive of taking individuals as individuals, dealing only with the views expressed directly and not assuming that anyone is a spokesperson for any ideology. As I said in the earlier post, I’d rather see religious folk correcting the others they identify with, those ostensibly holding the same religious views, but I’m not expecting that to happen anytime soon, because it really has nothing to do with creating a coherent set of ideas. Religion is not about explanations, but about status – that’s why there’s no agreement among practitioners.
Trust me on this one, however: the concepts of a literal adam & eve or a worldwide flood are far from being the only things that can be found wrong with religions. The real crux of the matter, and the reason why the distinction made by this meme doesn’t have any impact, is this:there is nothing scientific about religion in any form. There is nothing, in fact, even demonstrable – dependable, predictable, explanatory, or useful. It’s indulgence, and nothing more. No holy book, no scripture, no mythology or folklore or belief system, has ever tied in with the bare facts. Full stop. The bible does not say, “god put it all in motion with the big bang,” or any variation thereof – neither does any other religion. None of them say, “the creator implemented a system that would shape its creatures over time,” or even manages to get the composition or size of the sun correct. To claim that god ‘produced’ the scientific facts is the blatant attempt to shoehorn a belief system into the undeniable traits of our universe – there is not only no evidence of such, there is no account of it, and it did not appear until after science proved creationism dead wrong. It is, pure and simple, made up, well after the origins of the various religions, in a desperate attempt to try and maintain relevance.
Even heeding the pleas of those who try to wield ‘possibility’ as a weapon gets us nowhere. Let’s say that it’s possible that a god really did start it all. So, what now? This gives us nothing to use at all – no properties of this god, no intentions, no attitudes, no follow-through in the slightest. We can’t even determine from this which god it is referring to, since all of them are ‘creators.’ Are we sure it’s just one, and not a committee? Does anyone who uses this argument consider the possibility that it’s actually a nasty little god with evil plans? That our universe is actually a discarded mistake? That we humans are intended to exert some independence and stop relying on the creator? There are a lot of ‘possibilities’ out there, including the possibility that religion is complete nonsense – how does anyone select only one?
All of that is an abject abuse of the term ‘possibility’ anyway, because we cannot actually determine that any of them truly are possible – it’s just using ignorance to insert specific ideas without any reasoning behind them. Probability, however, has something else to say about it. With no evidence of such existence, no effect to be found, no properties to be measured, no examples of gods or supernatural whatevers to be seen, the probability of such a creator is… null. Nothing divided by nothing is always nothing – that’s how probability works. Nobody driving their car down an empty road slams on the brakes because of the possibility that there’s an invisible brick wall right there – but somehow this is supposed to be a valid argument for religious belief? Seriously?
And that brings us to the last little assertion: “Some of us are reasonable.” Well, that really all depends on how you define ‘reasonable,’ doesn’t it? For a lot of people, using semantic gymnastics to excuse a preferred belief system doesn’t actually count, as hard as that may be to believe. While it is certainly possible to be more logical or coherent than creationists, that’s a particularly low hurdle, and there are bigger ones to be found.
* * * * *
I feel obligated to point this out, after the comments I made in the earlier post regarding how rarely you see religious folk bothering to correct other religious folk rather than, as this post shows, trying to deny any association. It would have been remarkably easy to address this meme to creationists, but that’s not what we see, is it?
Nevertheless, credit is extended to Pat Robertson, of all people, who openly trashed the young-earth standpoint promoted by Ken Ham. He wasn’t (at least within the video clip at that link) defending his religious position to scientists or atheists, but addressing other christians when he called it nonsense. He still promotes a lot of really bizarre beliefs, but at the very least we get to see a prominent religious figure who aimed in a more useful direction. Baby steps, baby steps.
The place where The Girlfriend works had decided to close at 1 pm today on account of the impending winter storm. The only problem was, the storm rolled in with authority a little after noon, and by 1 pm the roads had become impassable. She ended up getting trapped in town (which is not the same one we live in) and is currently watching TV in a hotel room, waiting to see when the roads are going to become clear enough; the ice or freezing rain storm that is predicted to follow may delay this even more. She’s not happy right now.
I’m not going anywhere myself, and have amused myself to some small extent by trying to get some more detailed snowflake images. I’m actually quite limited in doing so, since for the whole afternoon the snow was coming down so hard that it was actually accumulating on the camera and flash, and I had to keep drying off the camera. Add in that the wind was gusty and so the rosemary bush was swaying a bit, making it hard to maintain tight focus at such magnification. I was using the bush because the thin needle-like leaves would support small clumps of snowflakes and provide a darker backdrop, which is what’s necessary to get any kind of detailed shots – a snowflake against a backdrop of snowflakes isn’t very distinctive.
The following shots aren’t up to par – I don’t have to tell you how small snowflakes are, and getting the precise focusing distance necessary just wasn’t coming together. Nonetheless, you can still see something exceptionally curious, and yes, this is exactly what it looks like.
Everybody knows the classic snowflake shapes, but quite often there are other shapes as well, and one of them is a hexagonal hollow column of ice, occasionally responsible for some pretty cool effects at night. However, these columns then developed snowflakes at the end, perpendicular to the columns, forming little spools of ice. While most of what I could see were classic flakes, I was able to find several examples of this peculiar formation – just, not get properly detailed images of them.
In other images some columns without the flakes can just barely be discerned, but there were several examples of these to be found (at least by my remarkably nearsighted eyes.) The temptation to reach out with something and pick up a single crystal, or move it into a better position, was overwhelming, but of course this wasn’t possible – even if I could get something small enough not to damage it and cold enough not to melt it, what was I going to do? After unloading the memory card twice to see if I captured a decent shot, I delayed a bit to dry off (the yard was at least 12cm deep in snow as I was taking these,) and went out with a different flash rig. By then, however, the conditions had changed to producing nothing but ice needles – still snow, to all appearances, but not looking much like snow at close examination.
Soon after this the snow changed to sleet, so I’ve probably lost my opportunity to get those cool little snow spools, for now. It’s a shame, because who knows what kind of conditions it takes to produce them, and when it’s likely to happen again in North Carolina?
When I was taking Earth Science in high school, back in central New York, the teacher had specially prepared microscope slides, able to capture a snowflake and form an impression of their shape before the flakes melted. We were all set to go outside when it was snowing and capture our own flakes to examine under a microscope – yes, in New York you’re often in class when it’s snowing, unlike here where they tend to cancel school if it even threatens to snow. That year, however, we never got a decent storm. At all. While learning meteorology, we’d been told to watch for the jet stream to come looping down out of Canada, bringing the arctic air and thus the winter weather with it, but it just kind of wimped out that year and we didn’t see much of anything. I remember this every time it snows here, and keep an eye out for the conditions to capture flakes, which are rarer than you might expect – they can melt easily in contact with any wet surface, and any surface not quite cold enough, and even if they make down intact, surface air can melt away their intricate arms; I’ve got plenty of pics of blobs and misshapen crystals. So, I keep trying.
[Believe it or not, this post has sat in draft form in the system since I started it in April 2013 - it never seemed to fit in among other posts that well. So it gets to appear now as a Darwin Day post while photography has hit the winter slump. There's still a chance something else might appear, but no promises.]
A few weeks back [a ha ha ha!] when I was at the river I obtained some images of trees where beavers had stripped some of the bark, and on returning and unloading the memory card, I noticed that the oozing tree resin had snared an ant. Returning later (but on a day earlier than this,) I specifically tried to find examples of this again. There is a possibility that what you’re seeing may reappear in a few million years as a fossil. But, not a very good possibility.
Anyone familiar with types of fossils (or that simply remembers their Jurassic Park) knows that amber is tree resin that underwent the right conditions to become preserved, turning into a gemstone of sorts over a very long period of time. And a significant amount of what we know about prehistoric arthropods comes from finding them preserved in amber, having perished exactly as you see here. It is perhaps the most accurate and complete information to be gathered from fossils, since the process can preserve even microscopic details – but, alas, no DNA to engineer ancient sauropods, since DNA simply cannot survive for that long.
Yet, like all fossilization processes, it’s exceedingly rare. The resin would have to encapsulate the insect completely, then detach and become buried in sediment almost immediately, since it breaks down due to environment and bacteria just like everything else. The sediment, naturally, cannot be washed away anytime in the next several thousand years, meaning it has to exist in an area that undergoes only accumulation and no turbulence, flooding, or major land upheavals. Only then can the transformation process go on long enough to turn the resin into a durable ‘crystal.’
This is why the fossil record is sporadic – those are very distinctive conditions, not found many places at all. Even enough oxygen trapped in the mud can allow bacterial decay to take place and wipe out any organism’s remains before the pressure of accumulation can do its work. Knowing the conditions of the riverbank where these images were taken, I can say that the chances of these insects being preserved are infinitesimally small. The current is highly variable and the sediment very limited, leaving little opportunity to even start to bury any of this resin when it falls from the tree, nor to carry it further downstream where conditions are more conducive. Moreover, this entire area (in fact, all of North Carolina and really, the entire east coast) is too geologically active to feature many areas that will remain stable – the Blue Ridge/Appalachian mountain range is eroding away, dispersing silicate-based rock towards the coast where it eventually grinds into sand. The mountain range itself was formed from colliding with the north African continental plate, and everything east of the range (which includes the area I type this from) had been seabottom until the mountains wore down under millions of years of rain onslaught and extended the coast eastward. This means there are no fossils to be found in this area unless one digs very deep – and that any potential surface remains are very likely to be destroyed under this slow but constant landslide to the sea.
So the victims here are unlikely to be preserved for posterity; in fact, one at lower left has already been removed by something else, perhaps an opportunistic scavenger, leaving the legs and wings behind (not a fan of dark meat I guess.) Had I found this on the edge of the Mississippi River Delta, then maybe there would have been a greater chance of being buried under ongoing accumulation and becoming a tiny little record of this era’s life. Or maybe I could collect one and throw it in the septic tank…
By the way, a small distinction that I learned myself when looking up the conditions for creating amber: this is resin, not sap, which is thinner and accomplishes different things within a tree. Sap carries the nutrients throughout a tree, while resin is simply a property of the wood, possibly contributing to the moisture barrier that prevents the tree from dying when subjected to damage such as this. Quite a few trees by the river exhibit signs of beaver activity, some from years ago; they recover. Life, uh, finds a way.
Every time there’s mention of the dire future facing us, whether it’s energy shortages or global warming or even potential pandemics, there’s one factor that always comes up, and that’s population density. World population hit seven billion in 2011, and is expected to hit eight billion in 2025 or so. Dwindling resources and the runaway effects of both population and energy consumption means we’re getting ever closer to a serious problem; in many parts of the world, we already have these serious problems, and depending on your perspective, this might be true for every place in the world. Very often, proposals to solving these problems reflect energy innovations, more efficient production of food, and so on, but these really are just treating the symptoms of the illness itself, one that will cause a serious crash unless cured: we need to not just slow population growth but, if anything, reverse it.
The population numbers above actually reflect a slowing birthrate, believe it or not – it only took 12 years to go from six to seven billion, down from the 10 years to go from five to six billion – but this is one of those statistics that get misinterpreted badly. “Population growth is slowing significantly, so we’re doing the right thing, right? We can relax?” No, not really – there’s a cliff that we’re approaching, and going over it slowly is the same as going over it at high speed; the point, of course, is not to go over it at all.
It’s easy to misunderstand the terms within the concept. Some people, perhaps a lot, reading the line up there about reversing population growth thinks this means to actually reduce the population; I actually witnessed one commenter in a discussion who accused advocates of wanting to kill off people. But population growth is not population – we can halt growth right now without doing anything drastic, just ensuring that the birth rate is not exceeding the death rate. Any geographic area has a saturation point where it can comfortably maintain a certain population of a species, a balance between available food and space, predation, illness, and other factors. The geographic area for humans is now the entire planet.
Nature can and will take care of this for us… but, we probably won’t like how this occurs. Starvation, pandemics, large-scale wars over resources and land, and even just the simple fact that every natural disaster will kill exponentially more people because the population is denser everywhere – these will help solve the problem all right. We’re kind of a weird species, because we’re social, but not entirely; as long as all those things happen to other people, we’re not too concerned about it, willing to ignore it or forget about it quickly. It’s a reflection of the importance we place on kin and immediate tribe, rather than on species. But it’s safe to say we can do better, and the easiest and most effective way is to halt population growth.
Easiest, perhaps, from a rational, theoretical standpoint. Again, as long as this applies to other people, it gets significant support – we often have no problem seeing the people who are “breeding like rabbits” in some poverty-stricken country and wondering what the hell is going through their minds. But when it comes to us, all of a sudden we have a right to have kids and no one can take this away or even has any right to tell us what to do. Actually, there’s no right either way; a right is a legal concept, provided by the bylaws of any government, and I’m aware of no bylaws that guarantee a right to reproduce – they certainly do not exist in this country.
But more, what this kind of response reflects is the reproductive drive within us as a species. It’s very strong, unsurprisingly, and has a tendency to bias our reactions – more than a tendency. Much more. It colors a tremendous amount of our lives, from how we groom ourselves in the morning to the cars we select to purchase, from our refusal to scratch ourselves in public to your Facebook profiles. Status, prestige, sociability, and many more related aspects of our behavior have a lot to do with sexual selection, the drive to appeal to a mate. We can’t escape from it.
We can, however, exercise the rational portion of our minds – especially when we realize that those emotional influences can make us react in ways that aren’t always worthwhile. One can always ask if it is important that we reproduce, but this doesn’t really address the issue, since the internal drive automatically makes it important – that’s what emotions are. Basically, someplace in the distant past arose the behavior to want to reproduce, and an organism that wants to reproduce will probably reproduce more than one that is indifferent; it doesn’t take long for this trait to appear throughout a population. An alternate trait, of finding reproduction distasteful or even just slightly annoying, isn’t going to spread as fast, imagine that. But this is all just the process of gene replication and propagation – it’s not any different from a trait to fear death. However, if we were to qualify reproduction not in terms of rights or desire, but usefulness, what then? Who can say that their genes are better for the species than their neighbors’ genes? Anyone with an ego, of course, but perhaps we can aim higher than that. Except that we can’t, because we don’t even know what most genes generate within the body. Most of the really notable accomplishments of humans, the things that we might consider important, don’t seem to be genetic at all.
Not to mention the myriad problems that can arise when we start down this path. Besides the bit that we cannot be objective in the face of our internal drives, it isn’t long (you have, perhaps, already reached this step) before we start to consider making the decisions for others, deciding as a ‘disinterested third party’ who would contribute more and thus should be allowed to reproduce, which starts getting a bit too close to the idea of eugenics. No, the decision can only come from within.
Which is not to say that we cannot promote perspective, and careful consideration, and the ridiculous consequences if we fail to rein in this drive. It’s not particularly hard to override the internal drives – we do it constantly when we select our diets or give up smoking, keep working with a headache or avoid smacking our obnoxious neighbor. Even our reproductive drives are encased in cultural expectations – what’s acceptable on a first date and where one goes to look for companionship. There is always a ‘right time, right place’ constraint in effect, and even birth control is just a method of gaming the system, satisfying the strongest portion of the drive while avoiding the new bundle of genes it evolved to produce. What is necessary is the recognition that most of the desire to have kids is just a property of selection – the strength of the emotion does not signify, in any way, its importance, only its effectiveness in getting through the process.
Some might argue that this is nature’s way – who are we to argue with it? The answer is, we’re species with brains, intent, and foresight, which nature has none of. There’s no goal in nature – things just happen due to simple physics, which is what predation and extinction demonstrate quite effectively, one would think. And yes, nature can indeed halt overpopulation, and does – what it doesn’t do is provide any mechanism to prevent it in the first place. All fires will, eventually, go out, but it’s often in our best interests to not let nature run its course in this manner.
We also had no problem with defying the natural order when we developed medicine and surgery, extending our lifespans and greatly decreasing the mortality rate of childbirth and infancy – it’s a little late to be waving the nature flag now. These advances are actually a very large part of the population problem, allowing birth rates to exceed death rates by a notable margin. Every benefit has a consequence, and this is what we face with longer life spans – we need to drop the birth rate commensurately. We may eventually develop, perfectly naturally, a reduced desire to reproduce, though again it’s hard for such an influence to propagate since it only does so through offspring. In the meantime, we can use our perfectly natural rational brains to note the issues and decide on what works best, avoiding the problems we can foresee rather than ignoring them. If there’s a legacy of being the smartest species on the planet, this would be a prime facet.
There are countless arguments that can be extended counter to this, and rebutting them all here would be impossible. The first thing to ask oneself is if the argument came first, or the emotional reaction? Because if it’s the reaction, someone is only playing puppet to their genetic history, trying to rationalize their simple instincts. It’s common knowledge that the first step in curing addiction is to recognize that desire is misleading, and not often in the individual’s best interests. Reproduction has exponentially more impact, since it affects everyone, not just the individual. As much as our culture treats such decisions as personal, they really aren’t.
If it helps, very little of what we are, the personalities we have, the intelligence we wield, comes from genes. The most important and effective things to promote, the greatest benefits we can offer, can be bestowed on anybody, regardless – which means reproducing our own genes has a tiny fraction of the impact of things like education and philanthropy. We can leave a legacy very easily, if that’s the desire – it doesn’t have to be our own kids, our family name, our (well, your, perhaps) strong chin. And is it better to raise a handful of children with our direct guidance (knowing that they’ll seek their own perspective anyway,) or reach a dozen or a hundred by teaching, advocating, or just financially assisting?
Such a perspective has to be far-reaching, of course, and this is one of the arguments that may be used in defense – we’ll never reach the entire world with this. But I don’t think we can really say this at all – we’re certainly trying really hard to reach the whole world with medicine and food and clean water, which few seem to think are wasted efforts. If just one culture can demonstrate how well population self-control works, then the proof is there to be seen. But it requires accepting the change wholeheartedly, without caveats like, “My kids won’t add much to the impact, ” or, “There are other people who should be restraining themselves.” It’s not a competition; we are all one species, and will all feel the impact if we can’t prevent overpopulation. Believing that others are somehow more deserving of the nasty effects is beneath us.
It is often argued that we will be expanding to the stars, or at least colonies on other planets/orbital stations/whatever; in many cases this is considered a direct consequence of our expanding population. But first off, this is kind of a ridiculous way of dealing with the problem, isn’t it? It’s mostly just an excuse to satisfy our drive for exploration. More to the point, there isn’t anyplace even remotely hospitable to us within reach; we’d have to manufacture an entire ecosystem, from oxygen to food sources, protection from radiation to adequate psychological environment… and the populations therein would be even more limited and constrained. We’d have to solve the damn problem before we could implement this method of dealing with the problem. While right here, we already have one planet that has everything we need, ideally suited to us because we evolved within its grasp. All we have to do is implement a little management, some self-maintenance. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
I’m skipping a lot of backstory here, because after a lot of typing I realized it doesn’t add anything useful. So, short version: at a recent science-versus-religion debate, some triumphant creationists were invited to pose questions to all those who believe in evolution. I have long ago blocked the site that posted them for a puerile editorial that demonstrated pretty much no standards at all, and have found the questions reprinted on another site that consists solely of reposted content without attribution – they’re not getting any links either. If you like, however, Jerry Coyne (or is it Professor Ceiling Cat? I’m never quite sure) at Why Evolution Is True has featured a few of the images and a link to the originator. I say images because, somehow, it has become internet vogue to take photos of someone holding their handwritten message on a pad, perhaps the most inefficient use of bandwidth ever conceived.
I’m just going to re-type a few of the questions, sparing you the experience of seeing the self-assured visages of the people repeating them. And I say “repeat” because they’re the same damn questions issued ad nauseum from religious folk [spelling and punctuation as in the original, as far as I can reproduce by typing]:
Does not the Second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?
If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?
There is no inbetween… the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds neccessary for an “official proof”
If evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact.
Because science by definition is a “theory” – not testable, obsevvable, nor repeatable’ Why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?
What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?
Why have we found only 1 “Lucy”, when we have found more than 1 of everything else?
Relating to the big bang theory…. Where did the exploding Star come from?
And of course:
If we come from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?
I’m not going to bother answering these – there is such a thing as an exercise in futility. That’s part of my point, really – these have been answered millions of times over the years. What I want to know is, where, exactly, do religious folk keep getting them?
The same vapid ‘zingers,’ over and over again. Do preachers stand up on Sundays and send these out to their flock? Is it some facet of homeschooling? Do they come from religious tracts? Are they from little word-of-mouth discussions going around during church picnics? Seriously, how do these keep getting hammered into the minds of creationists?
I’m not asking how they stay there – creationists have to cherish and nurture their self-indulgent belief systems, and a sound bite, however inaccurate or nonsensical, is clearly enough. But there’s a concerted effort to introduce these sound bites, and I’ve never seen it happening, I only see the results.
It’s an interesting thing, you must admit. With the internet these days, a lot of total nonsense gets quashed quickly – make a Facebook post about Mars being the size of a full moon in the sky and see what happens. How long does it take to find out a celebrity death rumor is false? No, this isn’t the normal kind of disinformation that goes around.
Which of course raises the question of whether those promoting it know it’s horseshit. I can’t believe that the same questions could keep going around for decades, never being corrected, always avoiding an intelligent response. So, is it a matter of abject denial, the purposeful ignoring of the corrections to coddle ideas that creationists like better? This seems bizarre, because these aren’t just ideas, but consistently used as debate points – they’re intended to wield against others. Wouldn’t you think that getting trounced in an argument would make someone at least a bit hesitant to keep forwarding that particular point to anyone else?
The other option is even more interesting, because it means that whoever keeps promoting this shit to creationists knows that it’s ignorant, and yet keeps repeating it – playing religious folk for utter fools. Speculation as to why they might do this is left as an exercise, but I think it’s safe to say that it has little to do with being “good,” or at least any functional definition of such.
Now, a couple of observations. First, so many religious folk think these are powerful arguments – as if, in the decades that the laws of thermodynamics and natural selection have existed, no one working in the fields has ever heard such arguments, much less thought of them on their own. To them, it seems plausible that we could actually have departments in universities, research labs, biological firms – I mean, seriously, vast areas of education and study – that operate despite these flaws, knowingly or unknowingly… but some little local church has tumbled to the Truth™. Of course, anyone that knows what the Second Law actually says, that has even a cursory education in evolution, easily sees where the flaws actually lie, and knows that whoever is using these arguments has no idea what they really mean (especially since the First Law trashes all gods.) This means that they’re just a fantastic way of making religion look stupid.
And that’s observation two. Regardless of whether any religious person actually uses these arguments personally or not, the bare fact that they’re still out there, still being perpetuated, makes all members of that religion look ignorant. Sure, this sounds like I’m being unfair, painting everyone with the same brush and all that, but let’s back up a second. First off, we’re not talking about just me, but anyone who might hear these arguments – expecting perfect objectivity from everyone is too naïve to even bother with (not to mention rather two-faced when the subject is religion.) More to the point, though, is that in most fields, great pains are taken to distance the reputable areas from the fringe elements, or even between fundamental disagreements. New classifications come up routinely to distinguish differences in approach or schools of thought.
Not so with religious folk, who like big umbrellas to make their numbers sound impressive. You will rarely hear any religious person openly denigrating such idiotic arguments, or even making the effort to correct them politely, since this implies a lack of solidarity – all religious people must be right (you think I’m overstating the case, but such arguments are used constantly.) While any atheistic or even secular article will provoke a shitstorm of religious responses (always including at least one of the arguments quoted above,) not even a tiny fraction of such effort is expended to correct a “fellow christian.” Obviously, the important point is that no one criticizes religion – but it’s quite all right to make it look ignorant.
So, for all the religious folk out there who wonder why they’re not getting respect, well, look to your spokespeople – the dividing lines are where you decide to place them.
If you don’t get it, then you’re… how shall I say this politely? Your kind don’t belong around here.
Ah, who am I trying to kid? I came late to the whole thing myself, regrettably, since television networks are notoriously bad about doing good science fiction, and the one time they get it right it gets cancelled without making it through the first season. It was years afterward that I watched Serenity, afterward purchasing the Firefly boxed set. The amusing bit is, even The Girlfriend likes the series, and she doesn’t like science fiction at all. Come to think of it, I haven’t asked her what she thinks of westerns…
A lot of the credit must, naturally, go to the writers*, the ones responsible for the dialogue that makes it what it is:
You may not think much of the series, and that’s fine, really. You have to live with your inadequacies, not me.
* They would be Cheryl Cain, Ben Edlund, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenberg, Brett Matthews, Tim Minear, Jose Molina, and Joss Whedon.
If there is one book that I recommend to everybody, regardless, it’s Demon Haunted World, the most efficient, readable, and interesting book to promote critical thinking that I’ve ever come across. But underneath this pursuit lies a curious question: why there is an apparent deficit in critical thinking in the first place.
How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, goes a long way towards answering this question, and has been added to my list of recommended books. I will happily admit that, in part, this is because it deals directly with topics I’ve posted so much about before: how we’ve been shaped over the millennia to think, react, and act in certain ways. It does not hurt that Pinker has confirmed many suspicions and idle theories that I’ve had, even though he also trashed a few. But far more in support of recommending it is that the information therein is often not only startling, correcting common misconceptions about ourselves, it all fits together remarkably well. It presents a tremendous amount of information, broken up by subtopics, and I found nearly every one of these subtopics imparted something new and, quite often, completely against former understanding – even when I was already convinced of how much this approach could explain.
This is not exactly a book on evolution, and will not help much in understanding how the process works – nevertheless, in order to understand what goes in in the human mind, one cannot help but see the evolutionary path, and the influences that selection has had. Up until quite recently, it was believed that biology could explain what the brain was made of, but that psychology, sociology, and anthropology was necessary to explain what we did and why – basically, that we were influenced almost entirely by culture, the “nature vs nurture” idea that has ever after been misconstrued, sometimes wildly. What Pinker (and all of his sources) demonstrates is that biology has a hell of a lot more say in the matter than was previously believed, and that many of the perceptions of our minds were dead wrong, sometimes egregiously so. While he does not bother with fingering culprits, there are still places when the clash with the humanities is hinted at. Most times, the information is presented as-is, without editorializing, without comparison against previous ideas, without judgment.
This is good, in that many of the concepts related within range from somewhat surprising to outright contentious, depending on how open the reader is; I imagine the number of angry letters Pinker has received has not been trivial. Some of the ideas might seem radical, when viewed against the ‘common knowledge’ that many people have held all of their lives, but this is largely the point; for a long time, we really didn’t recognize how we should have been looking at the topic of The Mind. Yet this book is not speculative in nature – it does not present radical ideas that it then looks to find support for, like ‘The Secret’ and all that jazz; it is a collection of solid scientific studies, sometimes ingenious in approach, that have examined and tested numerous aspects of our thought processes. For example, in Chapter 5, Pinker relates studies that tested infants from the age of 3 months and up for what they expected to happen with different objects – this is long before they could have built a database of experience to guide expectations, much less receive any parental guidance on the matter. One could skeptically ask how anyone could determine what an infant could tell us (“one gurgle for yes, two for no, spit up if you want the experiment repeated”,) and Pinker answers that: infants can express both interest and surprise by how they paid attention. If they soon looked away, what they had seen wasn’t new or unique in any way, while if they paid sharp attention, what had happened was unexpected. In this manner, it was determined that from very early ages, humans develop strong distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, with different expectations of behavior for each – infants get upset when a face becomes still, but not when a dot does. People and animals can move independently, but objects require some outside force like a push, or collision with another moving object. Infants also had an immediate recognition of small numbers of objects, able to be distinguished long before the red and blue fishes have come along. Parents do not teach the concept of “three” to their children, only what word to use for it.
Pinker covers a tremendous amount of territory in this book, from artificial intelligence to the concept of modeling three dimensions, from our peculiar half-grasp of logic to why we have violent tendencies. Some of these have been grappled with by philosophy for centuries, but become startling clear (and perfectly sensible, if not necessarily pleasing) when examined as artifacts of evolved organisms. While we like to believe that humans are higher beings and quite rational, there’s a lot of evidence that our behavior is much, much closer to the ‘instinctual’ actions of many other species than products of careful consideration. These instincts, provoking feelings of importance with certain behaviors, can even lead to elaborate cultural constructs. The tendency for an organism to perpetuate its own genes is not only a given trait anymore, it’s fairly obvious how it could be developed through selection, leading to behavior that favors family and kin, and by extension the small tribe of kin-group. Some of this behavior, however, is rather esoteric:
In any group, the younger, poorer, and disenfranchised member may be tempted to defect to other groups. The powerful, especially parents, have in interest in keeping them in. People everywhere form alliances by eating together, from potlatches and feasts to business lunches and dates. If I can’t eat with you, I can’t become your friend. Food taboos often prohibit a favorite food of a neighboring tribe; that is true, for example, of many of the Jewish dietary laws. That suggests that they are weapons to keep potential defectors in. First, they make the merest prelude to cooperation with outsiders – breaking bread together – an unmistakeable act of defiance. Even better, they exploit the psychology of disgust.
The chapters dealing with violence and gender differences are very likely to draw a lot of resistance, which is a telling effect all by itself. A bar fight between two males, often over the stupidest of reasons, is more about sexual status (how capable and virile the participants appear, not just to any females watching, but within the ‘tribe’ as a whole) than it is about the importance of discouraging such rude behavior by whaling on someone who issued an insult – though the idea of sexual posturing isn’t likely to occur to the participants at the time. And despite the protests of a large percentage of the population, women and men really do behave entirely differently, and have entirely different outlooks and approaches, especially regarding each other.
Pinker is careful to note the misconceptions that arise from these established results, as well. While evolution shaped us in a manner that worked efficiently, our modern societies are a far cry from 99.99% of our previous history – things have changed too quickly to develop adaptations to our lives now, so much of this behavior doesn’t provide the benefit it once did. Also noted is that there is no intent or goal anywhere in the process; we cannot say that because natural selection produced these effects, this is how we should behave. The curious, and perhaps heartening, effect mentioned above is that we often feel distaste over many of these aspects – evidence, perhaps, that evolution is on the case and has produced some counteracting influence. But what is more important is the conscious recognition that these simplistic behaviors exist; if we believe that we are always rational or ‘in control,’ then we’re far more likely to consider these ancient artifacts as reasoned actions – but if we accept that we have some old instincts that still prompt unthinking responses, we’re better able to quash them when they appear. All too often, unfortunately, the efforts to recognize where such things came from are considered “excusing” them, or worse, are simply ignored wholesale because the entire idea is unsavory and counter to previous beliefs.
I feel obligated to mention that this is a dense book; Pinker broke How the Mind Works up into eight chapters when it could easily have been thirty, and at 673 pages it is half-again as long as Demon Haunted World (extensive notes, references, and index temper this just a little.) And he does not skimp on the detail, sometimes getting a little too involved in explaining certain aspects, like others’ attempts to compare (inadequately) cognition with computing. It took me longer than expected to get through it, even with my interest in the subject matter, yet I encourage the perseverance that might be necessary; it’s a complicated subject and he treats it seriously, and the understanding that it can evoke is, dare I say, something that will change the way you see people. It’s even worth it just for the numerous examples of research that demonstrate how often our impressions were dead wrong. Among many other things, the book does a number on pop psychology, which can only help – there are still far too many people who wield it with utterly misplaced confidence.
Right at the end, there’s a curious departure from the style used throughout, as Pinker allows for how some burning philosophical questions are so far unanswered. I found this seriously dissatisfying, not just from the lack of the critical approach established earlier, but because I can see numerous issues with the message. Essentially, he admits that some aspects are still not understood, like consciousness and morality, and even concedes that the mind may not be adequate to fully comprehend itself – not surprising in an adaptive organism shaped over millennia, really. I have no argument with the latter approach, but have found that large swaths of philosophy suffer from the same kind of misconceptions that Pinker has addressed elsewhere in the book, and aren’t very hard to understand when viewed within the same framework. This bit at the very end offered little more than a sop to the humanities, and I am suspicious that Pinker intentionally threw this in to allay the protests that he sees from the demystifying of the mind – he is, after all, an academic with colleagues in those fields – but to me it was almost as if written by someone else. It’s brief, though, so no biggie.
To say that this book is going to lead to some other posts is probably putting it mildly – two have crept in while I was in the middle of it, and I’ve been marking other passages as I review it, something I wished I’d done from the start. It’s remarkably thought-provoking, and assumption-challenging, and above all, smoothly fits together pieces that we may not even have been aware were part of a puzzle. Because of its style and density, I have to consider it at an ‘adult’ reading level, lacking some of the earnest appeal that Sagan and Singh bring to the table, but it is no less fascinating for that. Dig in, and keep a notepad handy.
In abject denial of the actual readership of this blog, I must apologize for being away as long as I have. What with the Grammys, and the Superbowl, and Groundhog’s Day, and then all the celebrity activity, well, you know how it goes. The up side of all this is, of course, that I have so much to post about now!
Yeah right. When you see me posting about anything of the sort, that’s the time to assume crash positions or go deeply into debt buying that new helicopter, because the end times have arrived. Or perhaps that I’ve suffered some kind of traumatic head injury – I wear a medical alert bracelet that advises everyone, in the event that I give the slightest shit about sports or current music, to immediately unsuscitate. Spellcheck doesn’t believe that’s a word…
Even so, a couple of major posts (at least I think so) are coming up – in the meantime, I’ll fill in with a few photos and some light music. Say, shouldn’t pretty photos be called, “light music”?
Both of these were taken while out with students – this one, in fact, is the same type of plant as seen in the previous post, only a few meters away though not the same actual organism. I missed the narrow window of capturing it while snow was present, but that would not have been ideal in conditions like this – the light is too bright to handle the high-contrast subject of colors and pure white snow well, and something likely would have suffered. You can be excused if you think the background greenery is a different species; nandina really can get this diverse in color on the same plant, though I suspect it takes a hard shock of cold weather to pull it off.
The other is just an interesting effect of heavy bubbles throughout thick ice, exaggerated by a wide-angle lens. I could have done without the pine needles, which ground it from being completely abstract, but they were frozen into the ice and not going anywhere soon. Don’t get the impression it got that cold here – this was a small raised pond in the botanical garden, able to get far colder than any typical body of water. But yeah, I found it pretty cool either way.
Like most of the country, we’ve been having some longer spells of cold weather, a bit lower temperatures than normal for this time of year, but Monday popped up clear, sunny, and shockingly warm, hitting about 20°c (68°f) – a new student who had been aiming for a day with good conditions to meet contacted me at the last minute, and I headed out. We met near a pond, where the last vestiges of ice lent a curious texture to the water, while we wandered around without even jackets. A few turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) wheeled overhead, seeking thermals, as we talked about composition, framing, and contrast. I typically don’t take a lot of images while working with students, partially because I prefer to concentrate when shooting, but mostly because this is their time, not mine. There’s also a balance point, because when someone is after an image, they’re usually tuned out to anything being said and not absorbing too much; it’s better to sit down and talk theory for a bit before going out to apply it in practice. Some, however, tend to take their cue from me, and will seek out more shots if I’m doing my own, perhaps because it reduces the idea that I’m watching them and judging their approach. I’m pretty easygoing about it all; I’ll talk about what makes a subject stand out and how to use the surroundings to good effect, but not how they should approach their photography. Tastes and styles differ; I encourage students to embrace their own, and just help them achieve it.
I will talk about creative approaches, however, such as going in behind these nandina (Nandina domestica) berries for an uncommon perspective. Aside from the curious view, there’s a sneaky little advantage to doing this: the conditions were bright and contrasty, and brilliant red subjects often go oversaturated in digital images with such light. When there’s no chance of a handy cloud or haze, you can find the shady side and prevent the color from becoming too vivid, giving a hidden, secretive air to the image at the same time.
Though the day was lovely, there was the promise of change, since a winter storm was due to roll in within the next two days, perhaps dumping ten centimeters of snow on us. That’s an abrupt change even for this state; I listen with but half an ear to weather reports, since they’re notoriously unreliable in the area, and have been on the phone with people only a few kilometers away, comparing radically different conditions. A few years back a coworker questioned me as to why I was late for work, since the office had received a bare dusting of snow; I had to take her out and show her the 12 cm of accumulation in the back of the pickup bed, indicating the conditions found in the northern part of the county (I was polite, and did not tattle on another coworker, who had called this transplanted New Yorker for a ride since she couldn’t drive in the white stuff, but way later than she should’ve called me – we would have been late regardless.)
Yet, this time the report was pretty accurate. In the early evening (yesterday, now,) the snow started, fitfully, then getting into its stride, and a few centimeters have already coated everything. The nandina would be very fetching with a nice layer of snow, but we’ll have to wait and see if the roads are going to be acceptable – I’m not into risking my neck for a shot, no matter how scenic. This didn’t mean I couldn’t start off with some local shots, and I’ve been after decent snowflake images for a while now. What’s necessary are nice low temperatures, for one – the surfaces that the flakes gather on have to have gotten cold enough not to melt them on contact. And it also takes a few flakes that have settled distinctly separate and at a useful angle, especially one where the lighting can be managed.
The temperature we’ve got – it’s -5°c (22°f) as I type this, and potentially dropping even lower. And the rosemary bush provided some nice support, especially with the help of some web strands courtesy of the green lynx spiderlings (Peucetia viridans) that still inhabit the bush. The spiders were nowhere to be seen, unsurprisingly, but the evidence of their presence was highlighted by the snow.
If you look close, you can just seen the web line coming in from the top of the image, supporting the snow in a curious sculpture. The vast majority of the accumulation were these linear ice crystals, often called ice needles or columns, with just a few flakes peeking out here and there, making it even harder to find a decent subject. At this magnification, depth-of-field is minuscule, only a few millimeters at best, so you choose your focal point judiciously; naturally I went for the classic flake hiding back there, which (solely by chance) captured the web strand as well. But it’s the next one that I’m most pleased with.
Sure, I would have liked a nice, singular snowflake to make a distinctive composition, but you know what? I’ll take this for the time being, since it’s the best I’ve done so far. The web line is also just barely visible in this image, center top, but whether you can see it or not, you have to admit it helped display the snowflakes quite well. If I can keep raising the bar on my winter pics in this manner, I might even be able to stand the snow for a few days.
A few. Then get out of here. Did the long-term snow cover thing when I lived in New York for 17 years – that was quite enough.