Too cool, part 24: Ring species

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne talks about new research that shows that the we no longer have any examples of ring species (which actually means we never did in the first place.) What’s a ring species, you ask? Go ahead, I did myself. Coyne explains it best, and you need to go there to get the full understanding, but in a nutshell, it’s a peculiar classification where a species population may spread around a geographical barrier and meet when they complete the ring surrounding the barrier, but because of the distance covered and time it took for them to do so, the outlying ‘fingers’ that meet again have diverged enough genetically to fail to interbreed, one of the ways we classify speciation in the first place. However, the species can interbreed with the population behind it, and this trait extends back through the population and around the ring to the other ‘finger’ – while each individual can mate with its immediate neighbor, there remains some minor genetic variation between them, and the further the species has spread, the more variation can occur between distant sections of it, to the point where bringing the most distant portions together again may result in genetic incompatibility. In essence, it shows one of the problems with divergence and when to consider something a separate species.

It highlights something often missed: we make up words to help us communicate things, but sometimes the concept we want to communicate doesn’t have the clear distinctions that we want them to have. Many people believe that ‘species’ has a firm definition, and moreover, an easy way to tell one from another. This is not at all the case. After using the word/concept for centuries, we found that living things just cannot be separated so distinctly. Even with the working definition that we’ve adopted, the concept of a ring species defied it – it represented a continuum of reproduction with a speciation barrier at the far ends.

The fact that it is not shown to exist does not solve the problem, either; it demonstrates how we cannot have a definition that holds for all circumstances. It’s not much of a stumbling block – those in the field and many outside know the issues, and it only presents a problem in a few cases. Sometimes, this is when someone is trying to determine whether or not a new name is necessary.

It is a good example of correction, though, and Coyne puts it succinctly when he talks about the removal of the greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) from the examples of potential ring species – the last one on the list, by the way:

But nature is nature, and what happened is what happened.

That’s science, and moreover the practical frame of mind that it engenders – make the correction, accept the results, and move on. All of it is useful information and adds to our knowledge base, so the only thing lost is the emotional desire anyone might have had to know a species defined a particular trait – it’s strictly personal, in other words. From time to time, one hears arguments (I’ll let you guess from what subset of our population) that science changes all the time, as if this is a detriment. But science is actually very good at correcting itself, or to be more accurate, the structure serves to help us gain a more precise understanding of our world, realizing that we’ve never been perfect and neither is knowledge, and improvement is a good thing. Which would you rather have: a system that can correct its mistakes and improve constantly, or one that ignores all flaws and believes that never admitting to gross, blatant errors somehow means they don’t exist?

There are skeptics, and then there are skeptics

Reading an old post, it occurred to me that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about skepticism, enough so that perhaps it could stand a bit of clarification as to where it comes from, and why at least some people find it to be useful. In many circles – circles that spend a lot of time discussing ghost stories, or UFO encounters, or miracles, and so on – ‘skeptic’ is taken to mean ‘cynic’ or ‘disbeliever.’ There, the term is pretty much an epithet, derisive – not respectful, certainly. Very often, one can see any variation of phrases such as, “You just don’t want to believe,” or, “You don’t trust anybody.” Both of these are actually rather telling in themselves, and we’ll get to them in due time. First, let’s consider what skepticism, as a dedicated pursuit (rather than a description of attitude) really means, and why anyone would pursue it.

In short, it’s the bare recognition of how often, and in how many ways, we as a species can be wrong, and the best ways to try and prevent it. Our knowledge is imperfect, our senses limited, our interpretations too selective. On top of that, we are inundated with scams, hoaxes, agendas, and skewed viewpoints from those around us, so of course avoiding these really needs no rational support.

But on top of that there’s one other, crucial factor, a difference that is probably responsible for more of the clash than anything else. Some topics we have an emotional investment in; they make us feel better, or provoke a sense of wonder, or somehow substantiate something within us. Other topics we treat as functional, providing something of benefit to us as a species, topics that can predict, or lead to further knowledge. Our taste in music is emotional – it’s safe to say that we’re never going to use it to cure cancer or rid the world of blister packaging – while our interests in fuel efficiency are to solve a serious problem. While we still may have an emotional investment in such topics, they are typically ruled by practical considerations. It’s probably safe to say that neither approach is very distinct, with plenty of overlap, but the difference is best characterized by a much heavier emphasis on, for instance, the practical over the emotional.

Note that the poster in Fox Mulder's office, from The X-Files, does not say, "I believe" - this is quite possibly intentional. Amusingly, this subtle difference has been repeated wholesale by countless UFO proponents. Image © Alistair McMillan, cropped for this usage, licensed under Creative Commons.

Note that the poster in Fox Mulder’s office, from The X-Files, does not say, “I believe” – this is quite possibly intentional. Interestingly, this subtle difference has been repeated wholesale by countless UFO proponents.
Image © Alistair McMillan, cropped for this usage, licensed under Creative Commons.

In most subjects where the clash between believer and skeptic can be seen, this difference in outlook is often very prominent. Within emotionally important topics, the efforts are often to ‘open the door’ for possibilities, claiming that science hasn’t ruled them out, and that people should keep an open mind. There remains a lot of weight given to evidence, but not comparatively; conflicting evidence is often ignored or minimized, while hearsay accounts that support the topic are given significant weight. Skepticism, however, takes a more practical approach, trying to determine if the topic has usefulness or measurable effect. Note that this is in direct contrast to a cynical approach, which really is to dismiss topics out-of-hand, likely for emotional reasons – both can, naturally, fall on the same side of the topic of ghosts, but should not be confused; cynics also don’t weigh evidence comparatively.

[The amusing bit is, skeptics are very frequently accused of taking the same emotionally-biased approach that is used by believers, only on the opposite side of the topic - there remains the inner recognition that it's possible to be influenced by emotions, yet it is virtually never considered for oneself in such cases. I also want to emphasize that 'sides' is a bit misleading, since topics should never be broken into binary, yes/no possibilities, but I use it here just to simplify - the paragraph would get unwieldy otherwise.]

I wish to express clearly that there is nothing wrong with favoring a topic for emotional reasons – it does not necessarily represent a flawed personality or irrational approach. But if we wish to convince others that some topic deserves closer inspection or is strong evidence in some manner, we should expect to encounter the skeptical approach, and be willing to demonstrate that our interests are not strictly personal.

Given all of that, what constitutes the skeptical approach? There are lots of little factors, but those listed below are probably the most common and overriding ones.

Accuracy – Determining the accuracy of any given account, statement, measurement, or other evidence is important, crucial to a firm understanding of what we’re dealing with. This especially applies to personal accounts and observations, since people are notoriously bad about estimations, details, and emotional bias. There is a marked difference between the raw information we obtain through our senses, and how we interpret it.

Alternative explanations – It is often easy to find some potential explanation for any given event or evidence… but is it the only explanation? In most cases, there can be myriad causes, and remaining blind to them is only a method of introducing bias. If we’re seeking a full understanding of something, trying to ferret out what really happened, then it’s important to recognize how many options there truly are. This goes hand-in-hand with…

Probability – It’s not enough to know a list of options; it’s also important to know how likely any of them might be. Treating them all as if they had an equal likelihood is ludicrous. In many cases, probability remains our only guideline towards understanding.

Consequence – Simply put, “If this explanation is true, it should have these effects.” In order for someone’s death to be considered an assassination by conspirators, there would have to be adequate motive and means to both commit the murder and disguise the intent. If Bigfoot exists, we should expect to see more evidence as time goes on and urban development reduces the number of hiding places. Explanations do not sit in a vacuum; they impact everything around them.

Perspective – Cows missing tongues and rectums certainly seems mysterious, but this is hardly any support towards extra-terrestrial visitation; even if such beings wanted tissue samples, why not keep the whole cow? Why not dispose of the remains effectively? What the hell is a cow tongue going to tell anyone? These questions usually go unasked, since it is a cultural meme that aliens collect cow tongues (as well as various other bizarre activities) – curiously, we somehow know this specific behavior even while not knowing where they’re from, what they eat, how they travel, or even having proven ET life in the first place. The ability to ignore the cultural emphasis or ready explanation to ask, “But does that work in any way?” is a useful trait.

Avoiding the trap of ‘common knowledge’ – As indicated above, there are a lot of bits of folklore around, as well as numerous things that we ‘know’ because they’re what everyone believes. All too often, these haven’t been established in any way and are, at best, assumptions – check out what’s so damaging about gluten, as an example (hint: nothing if you’re not allergic to it.) Many people believe that if they’ve heard a story enough times, that makes it trustworthy, but popularity doesn’t equate with verisimilitude.

Awareness of ‘false relation’ – Not everything can be considered evidence, and often, items are conflated together when they bear no relation whatsoever. While a light in the sky and a radar track can be considered corroborative, this should be only if they are in the same location and behave in a reasonably similar manner – it’s not, after all, hard to find a light in the night sky. The desire to support a hypothesis leads to finding anything at all to add to a list of evidence, but evidence should be distinctive; if it’s ambiguous, is it even useful?

And finally,

The evidence leads to the conclusion – and not the other way around. Anyone whose mind is made up ahead of time, who is looking to confirm their suspicions, who seeks only supporting evidence, is obviously working from an overriding bias. Skepticism requires no investment in the answer, no interest in being proven ‘right’ – if a conclusion is to be found (and this is not always the case,) then it comes from the preponderance of evidence, and not from wishing it to be true. Note that, on most of the topics that benefit from skepticism, what is being examined is whether the claim for extraordinary phenomena – conspiracies, ghosts, aliens, gods, psychic powers – has been adequately supported; if not, the answer remains null. Not that psychic powers has been disproven, but only that no one has yet provided proof. This mistake is made constantly. Also constant is the idea that, with no proven scientific explanation, some extraordinary one can be accepted by default – the religious are notorious for this one, but there can be nothing that is determined by a lack of evidence either way. Every proposal requires positive proof (this is called logic.)

So, as an exercise, let’s see how these apply to a typical subject: The JFK assassination. This is admittedly a superficial treatment, but shows how these factors work towards the interpretation of evidence; they can be applied to all other traits named in any conspiracy, and further, in any other mystical, paranormal, or even curious account.

While there are literally hundreds of different theories pointing to a conspiracy, this is actually a red flag rather than a ‘smoking gun’: How come there are so many different ones, and why can’t they come to agreement? While plenty of people seem confident in their evidence, there’s no consensus on what it’s evidence of [Accuracy, Consequence, Perspective, Common Knowledge.] Virtually everybody traces back to one simple factor: the Zapruder film showing Kennedy’s head snapping back and to the left – Oliver Stone made a very big deal of this in his movie, perhaps without ever realizing that it was the only thing that anyone could agree on, and it solely relies on the belief that, in order to occur, the force had to come from the front right [Accuracy, Common Knowledge.] Ballistics experts, as well as those who have seen active combat, disagree entirely, and even a basic knowledge of physics and gunshot wounds tell us differently, despite what movies portray: the force did not come from the initial impact of the high-speed bullet, but from the shockwave of its passage through the brain as well as, potentially, muscle reflex. Get rid of this, of course, and the agreed-upon evidence of a conspiracy collapses in shambles.

That’s far from being the only evidence ever quoted, but it’s the only distinctive one. It was what prompted millions of armchair detectives to try and find supporting factors, such as the ‘puff of smoke’ from the grassy knoll seen in the photograph, which no one can see unless they’re desperate [Accuracy, Alternative Explanations,] and the ‘doctored’ photograph of Oswald posing with the gun in his backyard while there are order receipts, multiple photos, testimony from acquaintances, and even the admission of his goddamn wife that he owned the fucking thing [Accuracy, Probability,] the ‘impossible’ trajectory of the bullet that injured Connally that is explained by his sitting position and deflection from bones, that no one has demonstrated how it could be otherwise [Alternative Explanation, Probability, Consequence, False Relation,] and of course, the number of people with motives and apparently huge resources at their disposal who somehow didn’t recognize that the President does not wield autonomous power and so assassination would not permit an abrupt change of power or policy [Alternative Explanation, Probability, Consequence.] I could go on for hours (for a more amusing commentary, click here.)

The point is, any one account, any book, any ‘special’ television program, can sound convincing if we accept them without the understanding that they can be inaccurate, in countless ways. But there’s a lot of money to be made from promoting conspiracy theories, and humans are somewhat prone to believing them. Viewed with the idea that they might, just might, be bullshit, the flaws can become readily apparent. The bullet that fell out of Connally’s leg in the hospital – that’s surely atypical! True, but how does it even remotely support a conspiracy? The conspiracy claim is that he sustained his injuries from multiple bullets, converging from several different angles. So, the ‘planted’ bullet was all the doctors and the Warren Commission used to establish the single bullet theory? The fatal bullet was never found, but no one suspects Kennedy was killed by a ghost. The desperation to find evidence to support a conspiracy is obvious, especially when the scenario of how such evidence fits together is somehow routinely neglected.

Interestingly, it shows how probability is only considered when it’s useful. The highly improbable event of the bullet simply falling out is evidence that someone planted it, but all of the other highly improbable aspects are routinely ignored. It’s more improbable, however, that someone somehow planted the bullet, knowing that a) it explained the nature of wounds no one could possibly have any knowledge of, so quickly after the event; b) both the doctors and the Warren Commission would be fooled by it; and c) someone was handy and had the damn thing in their possession to plant in the first place. The bias is obvious, and it can be found in nearly every aspect of any JFK conspiracy. Compare all of these, of course, against the idea that a disgruntled, hotheaded, trained marksman acted alone from the very place that he worked. This is how probability is usefully applied.

Occam’s Razor is often mentioned here, but it is actually of limited use, at least in its popular form. It is only an expression of probability, not a law unto itself. It’s even subject to interpretation. Given the myriad bits of evidence often seized upon by UFO proponents (in denial of the ‘false relation’ tool,) claiming that all of it is explained by an extra-terrestrial visitor seems to easily, simply, fit the bill. This is the appeal of the conspiracy theory as well, but it ignores two things. The first is, the ‘evidence’ was chosen precisely because it fits the scenario, often with the dismissal of anything else that contradicts it. The second is, there is nothing simple about extra-terrestrial life; the number of questions that can be raised about it is vast, as is the amount of information we would need to confidently establish it as proven. While I have personally encountered many people who assure me that we have more than adequate proof of life beyond this planet, no one has ever answered my questions of, “Where is it from?” and, “Does it have DNA, or perhaps an analog?” Many conspiracies rely on suppositions that would require more and more complication – “we don’t have evidence of that because the government is suppressing it” – which bears no evidence at all, and usually begins to extend the hypothesis to involving hundreds or thousands of people and a vast structure of deceit, all without any indication whatsoever. It becomes a wanton abuse of probability, almost always just to explain why their initial ‘evidence’ has none of the support we’d expect to see.

Carl Sagan was probably not the first to express the thought (but he certainly popularized it) of, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This underscores a mistake made very frequently: it is not up to anyone to disprove any given explanation; the burden is on those espousing it to demonstrate that it is likely, or fits the evidence best. I’ve said it before; the idea is not to concoct the plot of a novel, but to determine the most plausible set of events. The idea of a prehistoric or wildly anomalous freshwater creature living in a lake in Scotland is a great story, but just saying, “Maybe it got trapped in there during the glaciation many thousands of years ago,” isn’t really cutting it; how come this never happened anywhere else? How did it last for all these years? What does it eat, how does it reproduce, do you realize that many species in small populations all over the world go extinct constantly because small populations are unstable? Can we even find the evidence of the peculiar event that trapped it, since it’s pretty clear such events leave gobs of evidence behind?

There’s even a telling shortcut that I use all the time. It’s been well established that hoaxes and misinterpretations abound in the topics of ghosts and UFOs; anyone unaware of this is far too ignorant to bother with. Thus, it makes sense that the very first thing any investigator, reporter, or enthusiast should do is to try and rule these things out before going any further at all. For UFOs, did they check the astronomical reports, and the list of satellites and rockets boosters that would be visible at that time? For ghosts, did they check for a history of belief, or pay attention to how the witness was trying to market the story? Most times, you’ll see none of this, or any other efforts; the emphasis is on trusting the story, right from the start. In such cases I consider it safe to assume that no skeptical approach is being taken, and ignore the remainder of the ‘investigation’ – they’re not going to produce dependable evidence or conclusions.

Also useful is the ‘case for the prosecution’ angle: those promoting any scenario should be obligated to establish their case as if it’s being heard in court (the response to this has not been warm and open, I can tell you.) If their evidence is as solid as they claim, this should be easy, but typically, the evidence is unsubstantiated, hearsay, speculation, and excuses (see government suppression, above.) Our court system and standards of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ are there for a reason: if there isn’t really good evidence, the conclusion isn’t sound.

That’s a hint of how often the skeptical approach is used in areas other than UFOs and paranormal research and debunking religion. Police departments know to separate witnesses and compare their stories for discrepancies, and seek corroboration of all personal accounts. Scientific journals rely on experiments that not only test a conclusion, but actively rule out all other conclusions at the same time – and then, it’s up to other scientists to replicate the experiments, to eliminate the possibility of bias or mistakes or jumping the gun. Even with a healthy history of success and experience, the researcher does not expect to be taken at their word, but provides distinct measurements and references to other papers, tracing their way back to visible results rather than relying on mere testimony; you will never hear of the “reputable researcher” within journals, since that assumption is purposefully avoided as corrupt. Wikipedia does the same, to a fault [citation needed.] As Joe Friday said, “Just the facts.”

It’s another reflection of the difference in approach. Relying on ‘trust,’ believing eyewitness accounts, or failing to consider how wrong something might be is an emotional approach; very often it is openly expressed that it is cruel or cynical not to extend this trust. Yet, there are far too many ways for humans to be wrong, including being untrustworthy, that extending such trust automatically is naïve and impractical. It is not a judgment on the individual, but a knowledge of humans in general (and thus not to be taken personally, though it often is anyway.)

Nearly everyone places value in truth; no matter how pleasant some belief might be, if it’s false, it’s not really useful – that’s fantasy, or denialism, or even mental instability. But the desire for something to be true can have a radical effect on how we approach certain topics, skewing perspective and weighing factors unjustifiably. Skepticism is the recognition of this bias, and the attempt to eradicate it. No one can be said to be a perfect Skeptic – we all have biases of one kind or another, so it’s really just an approach, a method to ensure that what we’re seeing is the truth, as close as we can determine… and sometimes we need to remind ourselves to use it. It’s not foolproof, either, but remains the best method we’ve ever used to determine how our world really works.

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While this was in late draft form, I came across this article by Sasha Sagan, the daughter of Carl Sagan; the first half, at least, expresses the skeptical approach quite aptly. Check it out! (It’s much shorter than my post above.) Also, the special attitudes displayed by many of those who seize onto conspiracies and paranormal explanations is examined in this post, as a counterpoint.

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P.P.P [In the old days of letter-writing, "P.S." stood for "post script," meaning after the main body of the letter, and if you thought of something after that, it was a "post post script" - of course, this is a post post post] – I was just about to publish this when I found this article on addressing conspiracy theories. Just to make me look bad, note the image they used on page 2. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Cracked for the meticulous accuracy of their articles, but quite often they provide a lot of links sourcing their information, like this article on the NY Times site regarding the mindset of conspiracy theorists. It is admittedly a bit disturbing seeing how well I fit the profile, and of course leads to introspective consideration that my skepticism is another form of ‘taking control’ – I’ll leave you to speculate on whether it’s a legitimate method or not. The most telling trait that I’ve seen among conspiracy theorists, though, is the lack of response, action, or follow-through; while there are a lot of people who are quite confident that they know there’s something nasty going on behind our backs, not once have I ever found anyone that had any idea what to do about it – there’s no apparent interest in correcting it.

So, spiders

wolf spider Lycosidae
And so, we rejoin our hero in his further adventures of spider encounters and arachnophobia…

When I did the detailed portraits of a largish wolf spider (family Lycosidae) a few days back, I released it under the porch steps and vowed to keep an eye open. Accommodatingly, the spider assisted this endeavor by molting sometime in the next 12 hours or so, leaving behind the old exoskeleton almost exactly where it had disappeared from my sight. About a day after that, casually, I started looking around under the steps to see if, by any chance, I could spot it again, and found it perched only centimeters away from the exoskeleton, almost in plain sight. This was an open invitation as far as I’m concerned.

I went in and got the ringflash, the most dependable way to try and elicit a reflection from the eyes while close enough for detail. It takes a very narrow angle between light and receiver, which is usually your eyes, but in this case the camera lens. What typically happens is, you can spot a reflection at night from a moderate distance if a bright flashlight is held close to your eyes, but the reflection will vanish as you get closer. While I have had some success with the ringflash (a circular flashtube that goes around the lens itself,) at macro distances even this tiny difference between light and receiver is enough to eliminate the reflection. I got the barest evidence of it, but nothing that showed as distinctly as I would have liked.

[Someday I will try a different trick, which is to set up a piece of glass angled at 45°, right in front of the lens so I am shooting through it, and fire off a flash unit aimed at the glass, perpendicular to the lens. This will bounce the light on a path directly from the lens, and may produce the effect I'm after. This will be a fussy rig to construct, however, and for very limited uses, so it hasn't happened yet...]

After doing the establishing shot above, I decided to attempt what I had skipped over the previous time, which was to have the spider walk across my palm, and preferably get a shot of it perched there. This has four purposes: to show scale, to creep people out, to demonstrate the harmlessness of wolf spiders, and to help me get over my lingering arachnophobia. It’s something I’ve had since childhood, and I think irrational fears should be eliminated, so I’ve been working casually towards this end, not always effectively. So, adjusting the camera settings and focus for my palm, I set it down nearby, put my hand palm-up next to the spider, and started nudging it in that direction.

We pause here for dramatic effect, while I relate the size of the spider. Using methods soon to be revealed, I determined that the spider was about 25mm (1 inch) in body length, which puts the leg spread over 100mm (4 inches) – I’ve seen bigger, but you have to admit it’s impressive nonetheless. The spider was already a little concerned over the various angles and close approaches from the various photos I’d already taken, but had remained motionless, relying on its camouflage. As my fingers touched it, however, it was made aware that its cover was blown, and instead of nicely, calmly, walking onto my hand in a casual and nonthreatening manner, it scrambled across at quite high speed. The ‘conquering irrational fears’ thing only goes so far, and I flinched sharply, causing the spider to launch itself on a dragline off of my hand and down to my feet. There, I was fine with it, and was even embarrassed with myself for flinching, but I can attest personally that, no matter what the rational mind wants to say, the place where the phobias lie still has the first word.

It really is peculiar. I know the bite of a wolf spider is harmless, far less than a bee’s sting, and I’ve been stung by those too many times to care much. But the spider thing still makes me react. A few days later, I coaxed a stag beetle onto my hand to show The Girlfriend, despite the prominent pincers plainly visible, and didn’t have the slightest issue with it. Spiders just don’t move right, and have too (two) many legs. So I’m sympathetic towards phobias, to a limited extent – at the point where people feel they have to kill every spider (or snake) they see is the point where they’re letting the phobia dictate actions beyond the reflexive; It’s useful to remind oneself that this is an irrational fear, and not a justification.

Anyway, after this failed therapy, I gathered in the molted exoskeleton for some detail shots. It was interesting to note that the exoskeleton over the abdomen has shriveled up into a twisted thread, making the remains look much less significant – here’s a scale shot on a penny:
wolf spider Lycosidae molted exoskeleton with penny for scale
Not terribly impressive there, is it? Note how the ‘skullcap’ upper half of the cephalothorax has separated from the chelicerae and pedipalps seen in the center – that’s typical of this species, and indeed, many arthropods including some crabs. Others, like mantids, split longitudinally down the ‘spine.’ But since I hadn’t brought out the calipers for the live specimen, I was able to measure the molted cephalothorax, and use that (and a photo of a ruler superimposed on the fullbody image above) to determine the body length overall. To be honest, the spider was even bigger, since they always emerge larger than the molted skin, but we’ll go with the measurements I gave anyway.

wolf spider Lycosidae chelicerae fangsYou might remember these from the earlier post – they are, of course the fangs (chelicerae.) Curiously, every species where I’ve been able to see these, regardless of the coloration on the body, displays this same deep reddish-brown hue. I know I’m not helping anyone’s own arachnophobia by posting these so prominently, but they’re cool anyway – you can see just how small they are in the previous pic. For many a bug, this is the last thing they saw – well, okay, considering the compound eyes, it would be this, and the ground, and the sky, and the plant they were on, and the zit on their back…

A few days later, while watering the front garden where the mantis lives late at night, I scared up another wolf spider, much smaller than the first subject, but special in her own way. Even from a distance, the shape of the abdomen looked suspicious, and bringing out the penlight I always carry (you’d be amazed how often it’s useful when you always have it on hand,) I confirmed my suspicions: she was carrying her brood on her abdomen, as wolf spiders tend to do.
wolf spider Lycosidae carrying young
Aren’t they just adorable? Their cute teeny-weeny wittle legs, and those button eyes – yeah, I know, you can’t really see the eyes, since the young have the instinct to keep their heads pointed inwards and bunch their legs up as protective armor.

baby juvenile wolf spider Lycosidae portraitExcept for this one. Brazenly exposed up on top of the stack, it takes advantage of the best view and the freshest air, perhaps serving as lookout or hall monitor, or maybe some purpose akin to the guy who drives the back end of the hook-n-ladder truck (didn’t you always want to do that? Whaddya mean, “The what?” Just how young are you?)

I have wanted to do some detail shots of young ones like this all by themselves, but that would entail separating them from their mother – while the cruelty aspect has a little to do with my hesitation, it’s much more that I’m not sure I could do it without injuring them (since I doubt there’s really any emotional trauma that could occur – extending what we would feel to arthropods is not exactly sciencey.) There are two things that I’m curious about when seeing this, by the way. The first is wondering just how long they remain with momma before venturing out on their own, or even whether they hang on until she dies – it’s not uncommon for adults to pass on after reproducing, and likely happened to the green lynx spiders I watched last year. Second, I wonder if, and how, they feed when riding piggyback. The mother might be able to snag an insect and offer it to them, but she certainly isn’t going to feed them any other way, and I suspect they’re just on their own in that department. So what does riding with mamma do? Is it only protection for a few days?

Oh, you want another baby pic? Okay.
baby wolf spider Lycosidae up close
Notice how nobody’s eyes are visible, and the legs are bunched up tightly to shield their bodies. I’m a little surprised the abdomens are left so open, though.

No, we’re not done yet.

The yard plays home to a lot of this species, known as orchard orbweavers (Leucauge venusta.) They’re small, only about 10mm in body length, and generally unobtrusive. This couple was a-courtin’ on the same chive plants that I posed the wolf spider on earlier.
orchard orbweaver spiders Leucauge venusta courtship
The male is on the left, the female on the right – I only know this because I could see the difference in pedipalps; the coloration is variable and likely not an indication at all. While in many species the female is significantly larger than the male, in this one (and the wolf spiders) the difference is minimal. Following a successful mating (which is always an iffy thing,) the female’s abdomen will swell with eggs before she deposits them in an egg sac. Now, there was no evidence of this to be seen on the chive plants, but alongside the front door where I watched another courtship take place, the female produced an egg sac pretty quickly.
basilica orbweaver spider Mecynogea lemniscata with egg sac
I had intially believed this to be another orchard orbweaver, but a closer look at that color pattern showed that they didn’t match, and I started searching through Having no luck, I finally uploaded some pics. In six minutes, I received a reply – you gotta appreciate that. So what you’re seeing here is a basilica orbweaver (Mecynogea lemniscata,) same size, same habitat as the orchard orbweaver, but more distantly related than you might imagine, coming from different families – this one, in fact, is more closely related to the long-jawed orbweavers (first post, second post) than to the species above. I’m very pleased with this image, by the way. Not only did I get that dorsal coloration in great detail, I got the egg sac in the same sharp focus, which took an awkward angle aiming up from underneath. And one more thing, too:
basilica orbweaver spider Mecynogea lemniscata dorsal detail
Aside from the ‘shroud of Turin’ abdomen, those are two of the eyes you see reflecting from the head – somehow the flash (well off to the side on a macro bracket) hit the right angle to bounce back to the lens. Likely, this was helped by the softbox, which provided a broad light source overhead. Once again, the body length is 10mm, so you can judge for yourself how small the details are.

The egg sac of the black widow that I was watching some time back never did produce any young, nor did a second one created by the same spider, who stayed behind at the old place (for reasons unknown, I was forbidden to bring her along.) Maybe I’ll have better luck with this one.

But how? Part 15: Benefit

In earlier posts I have tackled, I think, all of the aspects about to appear within this one, but I think it’s worth having them here in one collection, under a heading which makes it easier to find. On top of that, the argument is a common one, and probably cannot be answered often enough. Sooner or later, every atheist is challenged to address all of the benefits of religion that we must do without if we had a completely secular society, so let’s take a close look at these benefits.

The first thing we need to consider is that ‘benefit’ can be construed a lot of different ways, which I’m going to break down into just three for the sake of simplicity, and to ensure that the distinction is clear. There’s personal benefit, which doesn’t extend past the individual; there’s social benefit, which provides a general improvement to a group, town, or culture; and then there’s overriding benefit, which is as close to universal as anything might be, crossing cultural and racial and national boundaries. Few topics can actually fit into this latter one – even vaccines depend on both an economic structure that makes them viable for a populace, and the ability to both distribute them and ensure enough participation to achieve group immunity. These distinctions are important, since very frequently, the benefits of religion are treated as if they are an overriding benefit when they can barely be considered a personal one.

Another distinction that needs to be examined is if the benefit is actually demonstrable, rather than nothing but hearsay and supposition. For instance, probably the most prevalent claim in regards to the topic is how, without religion, we would be anti-social, nihilistic, and outright evil – a ridiculous number of people even seem to believe that atheism equates with satanism. Yet the actual evidence for this descent into savagery is completely lacking, while numerous contra-indicators lend more than a little weight to exactly the opposite effect; secular societies tend to be more social and cohesive, and certainly not completely chaotic. So any claims for benefits should be more than just assertions, but backed with solid evidence – this shouldn’t be hard to find, should it?

Let’s take a look at more of the most common claims of benefit:

Religion is a force for peace – For this to even be plausible, we should expect two things: that deeply religious societies have a lower percentage of conflict, crime, and social corruption than others; and religious motivations and/or connections to warfare be significantly lower than other motivations. Any knowledge of either history or current world events render both of these ludicrous. From Europe’s long bloody history with the catholic/protestant schism to the current clash of shia and sunni muslims throughout the Middle East and beyond, the US’s religious justifications of slavery and racism to the righteousness of the Conquistadors, religion is instead deeply intertwined with violence and oppression. This is no surprise at all from a sociological standpoint; privilege and righteousness frequently lead to abuse. In fact, an indefensible claim of superiority, one that cannot be demonstrated in any way, quite possibly leads to more conflict: the bully whose superiority is questioned resorts to physical violence. If you think this is an inappropriate argument and not practiced by adults, go look at the news regarding the Middle East for a week.

It has been claimed that the presence of religion has actually served to temper the potential violence – without its influence, the situations would have been much worse. It’s a possibility that certainly deserves examination, but again, just raising the possibility is not in any way establishing the viability – the real work hasn’t even begun. If the claim were true, we should expect to see the manifestations of religion within conflicts to be, you know, peaceful, or restraining, or at least urging a more civilized discourse, yet this is exceptionally hard to find. Even in situations where economics or classism are surely major factors of the conflict, the appearance of religion within is easily seen as justification and motivation, rather than palliative. And of course, we cannot ignore such prominent bits of history like the Crusades and Inquisition, which are directly defined by their religious influence. Even if we could establish that they were motivated more by power or greed (and no one has effectively made this case at all,) it is clear that the purpose of religion within was not to slow things down – quite the opposite, in fact.

Religion builds communities and social cohesion – I suspect, whenever anyone makes this claim, they are imagining Amish barn-building parties and not a different church at every third crossroads and, um, all that shit above. But yes, indeed, churches do maintain a certain level of community, certainly more than the average suburban neighborhood in the US, and they do lend themselves to generating cohesive goals, or at least ideas. And this is good – as long as the goals or ideas are beneficial. It is usually assumed that they are, but the evidence proves this inaccurate far too much of the time. Legislation against same-sex marriage, or regarding ‘teaching the controversy’ in schools, or even the nonsense idea of ‘abstinence-only education,’ all comes from these same communities, to say nothing of cults, extremism, and similar manifestations – “community” does not automatically imply, “progressive.”

And far too often, the community is rather small anyway – yielding a few dozen to a few hundred people, separated from numerous other ‘communities’ of baptists, catholics, muslims, buddhists, and so on, all just down the street. It all depends on what you’re using as a comparison, doesn’t it? While any church might be better than a village full of individualistic families with no common goals, it’s much worse that a community that encompasses the entire village itself, drawing no dividing lines between personal ideologies. There are not the vast number of splinter sects among every major religion because of how much it fosters community.

Moreover, can churches even be said to build, foster, or encourage community, or are they simply taking advantage of the human trait towards this in the first place? There are millions of communities, from Facebook groups to book clubs, Mensa to the NRA – it’s not like mankind would be made up of hermits without the influence of religion.

Religions promote charity – Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I do not, in any way, consider money or efforts spent towards self-perpetuation and promotion of the church itself to qualify as ‘charity,’ any more than I consider it as such when practiced by any major corporation; again, believing that “church equals good” or “church equals charitable” is an unwarranted assumption. Can we agree on that? I hope so, but if not, think of it in the context of a church other than your own. Now, removing all of that from the equation, how much do religions really provide towards charity?

Chances are, you don’t know – very few people, outside of those doing church bookkeeping, have any idea, really. But if I ever run across a community where the church buildings are more run-down than every other house, I’ll let you know – don’t wait up nights for it. While the days where the churches and temples were the most elaborate structures in the city are largely past, it can’t be denied that they are usually expensive and well-maintained structures, to say nothing about the megachurches, teleministries, and even colleges, all built on the donations of the followers. So you tell me: are their contributions to worthy, charitable causes exceeding the amounts spent on church buildings (and priest housing, and travel expenses) by a factor of ten? Even five? I’m curious, myself, because the contributions are continually sought under the assurance that they are used for good causes…

While all this is going on, countless charitable organizations are plugging away, using minimal funds to maintain core functions while channeling most of their contributions towards the areas that need it more. Have you ever seen a stylish and elaborate Red Cross building? Wouldn’t it make you suspicious if you did?

Then we have to consider that, in an awful lot of cases, the ‘charitable’ efforts of religions are thin disguises for recruitment, and even early indoctrination. Let’s think about something for a moment: religion, by and large, is a nuanced thing, dealing with ethics and social structure and, basically, mature decisions. While we have a minimum voting age, there is apparently no minimum age for religious instruction, even though (as can be attested by virtually anyone who’s been through it) young children are not going to grasp even a tiny portion of what it is supposed to provide. The point isn’t to build core ethical values, and you’ll never see churches teaching comparative religions (at least not honestly) – the point is to hammer the ideas home very early, in the formative years, to try and establish the ridiculous stories and bizarre ideas as ‘normal.’ And that dig about ‘honesty’ above isn’t a cheap jab – the misinformation spread by churches and religious groups is rampant, concerted, planned, and intentional. Are you sure that ‘day care center’ is solely concerned with helping the young mother with her children? If a parent requested that no religious viewpoints be expressed to their child during this care, do you believe that will be respected, or even that the ‘charity’ will not be withdrawn at that point?

The same can be said for the various programs and clinics aimed at adults, as well – it’s an extremely common tactic to target the disadvantaged and down-on-their-luck, leveraging their vulnerability to try and convince them of the love of the church. That’s fine, really, but when there are strings attached, we’re not really hitting the definition of charity, are we? Alcoholism programs that require religious services, financial counseling that continually promotes a faith in god? Are these necessary, or even germane? And how many of these come from the same parishioners who fret and babble about the ‘secular agenda’ of teaching evolution and permitting abortions? But I suppose manipulation is okay, as along as it’s the right kind of manipulation…

[A quick aside: In the neighborhood we just left, I routinely received visits from a near-homeless guy, living on welfare and scrimping for money to get by. At christmas, he was given a rather elaborate bible by some religious soul, obviously warmed by their own largesse. Not, apparently, by their sense, since he was illiterate and couldn't read at all - I'm sure he would have benefited more from just a decent meal. His few bills, by the way, were paid by the state, not any of the umpteen churches in the area...]

Crediting the churches with their charity efforts, even if no self-serving aspects are to be seen, still remains a bit selective, considering how many other charitable organizations exist – it’s not like religion has a monopoly on the practice. On the rather frivolous website theChive, content is primarily reposted or solicited humor, trivia, and cheesecake photos – but when they hold a charity drive (which is often,) the results are astounding. There is no appeal to salvation, status, moral responsibility, or really, anything at all except the background of those in need, and the bare challenge to meet/break the goal – and invariably, they achieve this within hours. No one needs the input of religion to be charitable. And, it deserves to be said in recognition of the previous claimed benefit, theChive’s web ‘community’ is undoubtedly larger than 95% of the churches in the world…

Religions offer moral and emotional support – Hard as it may be to believe, I find this a noble practice; everyone, at one time or another, just needs a little social interaction and support, even when it doesn’t actually change their situation at all. Our own mental perspectives have a lot to do with how well we cope with adversity, and simply ‘being there’ for someone can mean a lot.

Yet, the perspective thing can go both ways. The overriding aspect of most religions – that there is some form of being that intended for things to be this way – has its own input into how people view their personal situations. Within most religions, there is no ‘shit happens’ – no random events, no impersonal effects of mere physics. Instead, we are asked to believe that everything happens for a reason, a grand plan that we are not privy to, and of course this includes all of the bad things that happen to people. This is no minor thing; it has such a significant impact that a major branch of religious philosophy, theodicy, is devoted to hashing out the problem of evil from a loving god. Maybe in another few thousand years they’ll get it to the point where people are no longer bothered by it…

In the meantime, we have to recognize that judgment and damnation, or the planned death of our children, has a fierce impact on our emotional states. That merely feeling horny as a youth, instead of being a perfectly natural and biologically functional thing, is often considered wicked. That even a simple mistake can be responsible for ruining one’s entire afterlife. Oh, yeah, religions often provide us with an afterlife to look forward to, which is great – provided, of course, that one does not waste the entirely of their presentlife fretting over making it to the right side after death, and there are an awful lot of these people.

Even something as simple as moral guidance can be problematic, since the religious definition of ‘moral’ often leaves a lot to be desired (see ‘force for peace,’ above.) Rather than coping with the incredibly difficult concept of being beneficial to as great a number of people as possible, religious morality usually involves selective quotes from scripture and a serious dose of self-righteousness; there has only been a few million people killed because they were ‘heretics’ and deserved it. Even if we can somehow establish that homosexuality is truly immoral, laws against gay marriage don’t actually affect it in the slightest, do they? They only exist to register the disapproval of the vapid devout. This is what comes from failing to understand what the function of morality even is.

And like charity above, moral and emotional support isn’t exactly a hard thing to provide; aside from the numerous individuals that are perfectly capable of rendering this elaborate assistance, there are plenty of professional organizations that do the same – without baggage, without strange rules, without skewed perspectives. In my own personal experience, I’ve spent no small amount of time helping friends cope with the emotional and perspective problems stemming entirely from religious sources. Without those influences, they would have been in a much better state of mind.

Religion is, and has been, an inspiration for the greatest works of art throughout history – Paintings, music, sculpture, literature – our museums are filled with references to religious themes and inspirations, true enough. And this applies as long as you don’t include any art at all from the last two centuries, where religious themes have become so minimized that it effectively disproves the idea. There are, however, a few contributing factors behind this apparent inspiration. The first is, we have almost nothing from the Middle Ages on back – most works have vanished, and even the historical record is sporadic and fragmented badly. The Renaissance, of course, is what most people are thinking of when they speak of this topic, and that’s when the churches were commissioning these works directly – with what money, anyone can surely wonder. The churches were also responsible for preserving them (when they didn’t alter them to reflect the more uptight tastes of later church authorities.) Anyone who believes Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo were divinely inspired is perhaps unfamiliar with the commentary Leonardo repeatedly slipped into his works, and the anatomical studies that may well have prompted the shape of a brain in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. It is also worth noting that, of most of the religious works to be found, creative interpretations abound, much more so than scriptural accuracy.

Literature has its own special qualities. Overall, religion is a story, relating remarkable, epic events and larger-than-life people, the staple of all storytelling (who wants to hear about what I did yesterday?) As such, religious motifs lend themselves to creative interpretations and expansions, which carries over into music as well. But if we ignore the selectivity, we find plenty of other subjects tackled at every point throughout history, love being far and away the biggest, closely followed by tragedy.

And finally, like charity and community above, can we even remotely propose the idea that, without religion, far fewer works of art would have been made? It’s possibly true enough from the monetary angle, since (in part due to the churches themselves) many people lacked the funds to commission their own topics, but do we honestly believe Michelangelo would have taken up gardening instead? Without Shakespeare, we wouldn’t have as many derivatives of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth around, but would we actually have fewer movies and plays? There is a notable difference between using religion as a theme, and crediting religion for the artistic ability.

Religion makes people feel good – Despite the vague nature of this claim, I really have heard it expressed as a benefit, more than once. Taken all by itself, it might be somewhat useful, and in fact, it likely serves as one the biggest supporting factors claimed for religion in the first place. More on this in a second.

First off, it’s not like our society, or most for that matter, has any shortage of indulgences – put in a DVD, eat some ice cream, fire paint pellets at total strangers. Seriously, the way this is often expressed, we’re expected to believe people’s lives would be total shit without religion. In a few, isolated cases, this is probably true, but not for most, and certainly not in a way that justifies the huge emphasis it is given within our cultures.

Secondly, feeling good is that personal benefit pointed out in the beginning – nothing wrong with that, but again, hardly worth the effort. ‘Feeling good’ is also a perfect justification for drug addiction, isn’t it? Hey, I feel good calling religious people self-indulgent twits…

It is the same kind of perspective that causes the religious to defend their personal choice, which is just ducky; keep it personal, and you won’t hear a word from me. Yet, there isn’t much about religion that’s personal in any way, and even those who manage to keep their mouths shut are still influenced in how they vote, what they teach their kids, and what views they have on ethics and society. Liking Metallica is a personal choice; we’re never going to see any proposed legislation regarding it, are we?

Feeling good should probably also come with at least a modicum of value and supporting evidence, as well. Countless cultures throughout history undoubtedly felt good about their exalted status as god’s chosen, or the master race, or the enlightened – was that worth encouraging and protecting? Perhaps we need a bit higher goals than that.

Many aspects of religion are tailored specifically to make people feel good – that’s the selling point, and the reason why it still exists. You will be rewarded, god loves you, there is a goal, you will not die, and on and on. Now, this can be done for anything, if our only criteria is to feel good – it’s called a motivational poster. The rot sets in when it’s incorrect, misleading, or fosters detrimental actions or attitudes – again, some standards would be useful here.

Most especially, the personal benefit angle crashes spectacularly when it’s tied to something detrimental to someone else, something that all of those who assert their ‘personal choice’ tend to forget, conveniently. So much for moral guidance. And this applies to every benefit mentioned above, and all others as well; defending religion by selecting only those items that sound good while ignoring those that are extremely, irrefutably damaging is reprehensible, and hardly worthy of the minds we have. I’ve said it before and will need to keep saying it: there is no reason to try and determine the balance, how the scales end up weighing. Do good; don’t so bad. That’s all the elaborate, nuanced, complicated guidance that’s necessary. If your idea of ‘good’ targets others or reinforces your own status, you need to exercise more thought in the matter.

This tendency towards selectivity needs further critical examination. The Crusades and Inquisitions mentioned above did not just happen despite the influence of religion, they never would have occurred without it. The ideas of witches and demons and holy lands do not come from anyplace else. Even when the participants actually believed they were doing good, this definition of good was created solely by religious influence (to say nothing of those who were only using religion as an excuse to consolidate their power or status – I’ll leave you to speculate on how many that might have been, and how poorly religion worked to temper their actions.) When it comes right down to it, just about every time that someone wants to speak of the benefits of religion, it is to try and offset the pretty goddamned nasty aspects that are also part and parcel, things that we wouldn’t have had without religion in the first place. It’s a desperate attempt to justify their personal viewpoint, conveniently ignoring the long, bloody history in favor of… what, exactly?

I’m also not impressed with the arguments, which always appear, that all of that above is not my religion, the sudden, distinct dividing line that gets created whenever anyone is observant enough to note all the bad stuff going on. Up until that point, of course, religion is usually used in a universal sense, with great emphasis put upon the sheer numbers encompassed within that overriding, ill-defined descriptor. There are two things that I’ll observe, in response. The first is that I have never, ever seen any self-professed religious person challenge the statement that religion is good; the challenges only appear when the umbrella term that they shelter under is no longer a point in their favor. Second, the exact same traits that they follow, emphasize, and venerate by even being part of a religion are what’s responsible for that list of pseudo-benefits above. Since we’re now in the realm of fine distinctions, what’s the fine distinction that makes their faith good? Isn’t that the important bit? Even if we want to consider religion a force for both good and bad, what’s the point that’s being made then?

I’ll be the first to point out that human nature produces a lot of the behavior we’ve seen throughout history and still see today; I will never say that eradicating religion will eliminate conflict and abuse, and make everybody love one another. But to try and take religion, as a whole, and assign it any properties at all, much less beneficial ones, to permit some handy little label is ludicrous beyond reason. If someone wants to be considered good, then they should do good things, not seek out an association with a cultural convention. If they’re inspired by religion to do it, fine, no problem – others may be inspired by simple empathy, fairness, and the sense of ethics that we’ve evolved to have over millions of years. However, to make any claim at all that religion deserves credit for benefits, and is thus worthy of a ‘good’ status, is an exceptionally shallow, superficial, and above all self-serving perspective. We can do better.

Not spiders

damselfly on reed
You know, if I’m telling you in the title that spiders will not be found in this post, that only means some following post is not going to be good for arachnophobes…

bumblebee on water plantSince the move, I’ve been taking the opportunity on occasion to scope out the new area, trying to determine what kind of decent shooting locales can be found nearby. One stroke of luck is a large pond, close and easy to get to, but so far unspoiled. It’s big enough that it will serve as foreground interest for sunrises and passing storms, and is partially bordered by a great wetlands section. I expect it’s going to contribute a lot of images to my stock.

I’m going to be lazy this time around, and not worry about finding the proper species names for the subjects in this post – it’s time-consuming sometimes, and really messes with the flow of thoughts into charged silicon. So just cope with “bumblebee” and “flowering water plant” for this one, as I relate the special efforts I went through to capture the shadow of the bee against the leaf below. Even I imagined this to be an easy thing to capture, just taking a bit of patience, but that wasn’t really the case – the range the bee had to be in to cast a distinctive shadow on the leaf is pretty narrow, and bumblebees move fast and rather erratically. Of course, it takes finding a flower and leaf in just the right position in the first place, then staking it out and waiting for a bee to come along, hoping it wouldn’t take too long since the shadow would move off the leaf eventually. You’d like to think that a bee visiting the neighboring flower indicates that it’s just a matter of moments before it moves to the one you’ve chosen, but that comes from our structured, pattern-oriented, anal minds; bees don’t possess these traits. Planning shots like this can get you sunburned easily, and I wasted a lot of frames on near misses.

two dragonflies posingThe pond area, unsurprisingly, plays home to a stunning number of dragonflies and damselflies (the difference between the two: the former has outstretched wings when sitting, like here, while the latter has wings aligned with their bodies like at the top of the post.) Both species need to have their wing muscles fairly warm to operate efficiently, which is why they perch in sunny areas so frequently, but this day was warm enough that they didn’t have to sit still very much. The one at top was cooperative and sat there for quite some time, while the pair seen here didn’t remain there together longer than 30 seconds before one or the other was off to pursue some tasty insect – they have no interest in bumblebees, by the way, and on those occasions when a dragonfly chose to perch atop one of the many flower spears, they were usually dislodged by bees within a few seconds. The nice thing about dragon/damselflies is that they often have preferred perches, and even when spooked off by an incautious movement from the photographer, may return quickly to the exact same spot. That allowed me to get these two together in the frame, though I admit this is actually a composite image. They were far enough apart in distance from the camera that one would be in focus while the other wasn’t, and stopping down to capture them together also sharpened the background to the point of being distracting and less appealing, so I combined two images where I had selected focus for either dragonfly. Shameless abuse of technology, I know.

I have also returned to the pond at night, not really expecting to see much going on but curious as to how much light was in the area for night shots (too much – the nearby shopping complex and apartment buildings were liberally sprinkled with floodlights that reached all the way to the pond.) The cacophony of frog calls, however, was almost disturbing; I’ve misplaced my recorder in the move and so do not have any examples yet, but I’ll get one soon enough. I won’t even attempt to describe it, since I won’t be able to do it justice, and just let you hear it for yourself in a later post.

assassin bug nymphAs should be apparent from previous posts, I’m not neglecting my immediate local surroundings either. Spotted in the backyard, an assassin bug nymph displays some atypical adornments; the white hairs are supposed to be there, the bits of fluff that make it look fresh from a pillowfight, not so much. But while I didn’t directly see how it achieved its ensemble, I’m pretty sure I know where it came from:
leafhopper nymph
This variety of leafhopper nymph has been spotted numerous times nearby; this particular one was just coaxed out of the circle above where it had been sitting idly. I don’t pretend to know what that was all about, though I’d flushed it out since I thought it might be a variety of spider that I’d heard of but never seen, one that makes a white ‘splash’ of webbing on a leaf and then sits in the middle. With its green mottled markings, it looks very much like bird feces, and this appearance attracts flies for it to capture. Alas, this was only a fluffy leafhopper, not half as interesting even though those tendrils, when seen from above, certainly looked uniform enough for spider legs. Many local species of leafhopper extrude long, glassy tendrils from their hind ends, ‘feathers’ of starchy feces that may serve to distract predators by giving them a decoy to grab. That’s entirely different from what you see here, but it may be a related trait – like I said, I’m too lazy to look them up right now. Ask me nicely and maybe I’ll do a follow-up. But I consider this very likely to have contributed the lint to the assassin bug, especially since I saw the same effect on the legs of a crab spider a few weeks back, one that still had the leafhopper in its grasp. If it’s a defensive thing, it doesn’t seem to work all that well.

newly-molted adult leafhopperThis is quite possibly the newly-molted adult form of the same leafhopper. At the very least, those wings look like they’re still drying and unfolding, but I didn’t spot the old exoskeleton anyplace nearby, so I can’t be sure. I even went back out a little later to see if the wings were fully-extended and dry by then, but couldn’t locate the leafhopper. As above, the eyes are red because these images were taken at night. Leafhopper eyes change color like praying mantis eyes do; during the day, they display a more camouflaging hue. Presumably, this provides some advantage to their night vision, but I suppose they could also be up well past their bedtime, or suffering from allergies – must maintain an open mind.

More pics will be along in a day or so – it’s been a fairly spidery couple of weeks. I’m kind enough, at least, to issue warnings. Sometimes.

Too cool, part 23

Here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we celebrate our independence from our former British overlords (permitting us rampant handgun crime and overpriced healthcare) by viewing huge displays of fireworks, as well as stealthily setting off our own illegal versions while drunk as hell. Yes, it sounds like a cliché, and it’s also perfectly true.

Safety first... or, notUnlike my current residence of North Carolina, fireworks are able to be obtained legally in Florida, and while living there, I found Independence Day and New Year’s Eve to be, shall we say, rather interesting. After viewing the big official town display, I drove home through a war zone of palls of smoke and fire trails arcing over the road, showering the car with the debris from the rockets, then sat outside and watched the neighbors setting off their own displays. Seen here, someone is launching rockets from the middle of my apartment complex, right alongside the leasing office. Also of note, the inevitable mislaunch can be seen detonating in the bushes.

[There are limits, and the police did eventually shut this display down, without even a high-speed chase or anything involving naked drunk people - while what you read about Florida is mostly true, it's not constant...]

I have always wanted to be flying over Florida on one of these nights, since I imagine it has to look fantastic from the air. And yes, this is safer than you might think; fireworks really don’t go terribly high, and they detonate much lower than even light planes typically operate. There’s a greater risk of running into another aircraft than of being struck by a fiery blossom.

But naturally, someone had to step up that idea with modern technology; Jos Stiglingh mounted one of those xtremecooldood video cameras to a quadcopter drone and filmed a fireworks display from ‘rather close range.’ Check it out:

Now roll that back and pay attention at 1:13 to see a direct impact from one of the glowing embers. Beats the hell out of sparklers any day…

The long-awaited mantis update

Chinese praying mantis on day lilyPosting is still slow – I’m finding a lot of my time taken up with other things, boring things from a blogging perspective – but I’m trying to keep up with images at the same time. There will be another post featuring various arthropods coming shortly, but for now I’m going to focus on just one.

One of the many mantises that had inhabited the Japanese maple has now switched to the front flower garden not far away, and stalks the daylilies (genus Hemerocallis.) When we first moved here, the maple was crawling with mantids, but most of them have moved on or simply disappeared, while the one seen here is an established resident, spotted pretty much daily. The change in size is, as always, fascinating to watch, especially when you’ve seen how tiny they are when first hatched.

I was on the phone with a friend and, as usual, wandering all over the place while talking – I’m a great fan of my hands-free headset, though the neighbors often don’t spot it and think I’m strange, but I am, so no biggie I guess. Anyway, during the conversation I spotted my resident chowing down on a recently-caught meal, and had to go inside and get the camera rig. Yes, I still do nature photography while speaking on the phone, and my friends are used to this, even though it occasionally involves strange grunts and truncated sentences. I’m probably one of those taxing acquaintances. Are there a lot of people who chat on the phone at 10:40 pm while lying with their head in the front garden, shooting almost vertically at a mantis eating a roach? I bet the numbers would surprise you…
Chinese mantis eating cockroach
By the way, while most people associate roaches with bad living conditions and all that, there are actually quite a few species, and the wood roach (genus Parcoblatta) is fairly common in many areas of North Carolina. They’re not a pest and don’t reproduce in the home, but they make great meals for nocturnal insectivores like mantises. My subject here, in fact, was growing so noticeably larger that I knew it was due for a molt, but I wasn’t watching close enough, and only caught the aftermath a few days after I photographed it with its meal. Since this was captured during the day, the mantis is not displaying the dark eyes that it had with the night shots above.
Chinese mantis with newly-molted exoskeleton
As always, following a molt they appear significantly larger, and today my subject measured 60mm (2.5 in) in length, quite an increase from the 10mm measured a few days after hatching, and still only half as long as the reproducing adult stage will be.

Chinese mantis drinking dew from leafWe’ve been a little sparse on rain during a heatwave, so I was watering the plants and, getting close to the mantis’ stalking grounds, I switched the sprayer to the ‘mist’ setting. Once again, this was greatly appreciated, and the mantis immediately began drinking up what it could from the leaves. I was slightly unprepared here, in that the strobe batteries were weak and taking too long to recharge; this shot was slightly off in focus, and by the time I had replaced the batteries the mantis was no longer displaying this behavior – it was getting a little antsy with this strange creature looming overhead, bearing the bulky contraption that makes up my macro field rig. However, I wafted in another mist treatment, which gave me an opportunity for an even better display.

mist drops on mantis eyes
You can see the difference in light quality and focus depth here as I switched to using natural light without the flash, needing to use a larger aperture to keep the shutter speed high enough. You might think this much water is unnatural, but it occurs just like this on cool evenings, and the mantids can cope readily. Watching it in action was actually pretty damn cool.

Mantis clearing dew from eyesThe eyes, of course, are important, but so is the moisture when it’s dry, so the mantis made sure none of it was wasted. With a motion remarkably similar to a cat cleaning itself, the mantis swept its eyes clear with a foreleg, then drank the moisture collected on its leg. Switching to natural light was a major blessing here, in that I could fire off sequences of frames without worrying about strobe recharge times.

Will a praying mantis realize I’m behind this benefit, or remember my generosity? It’s safe to say, not a chance – about the best that might happen is it gets somewhat used to seeing the macro rig nearby without anything bad happening, and I find it a little easier to snag pics, though I can’t say I’ve seen any real evidence of this. Today I brought the calipers in close to try and get an accurate body length, and it really didn’t like that; it dove for deeper cover in a near-panic, though I was able to coax it back out and get the measurement – it was far less concerned about my fingers than the metallic shine of the calipers. Like many species, a lot of it depends on the actions themselves. Sudden movements, eclipsing the light, bearing down from above – these are all predatory behavior, regardless of the shape or appearance of the offending object.

I remember reading a study, many years ago, where a frog was tested in response to certain stimuli. A cricket model, very realistic, that simply sat still didn’t garner any attention from the frog, but a wood block, moved in the same manner that a cricket does, provoked strikes from the frog. Since then, I’ve observed numerous different species, and the pattern holds up surprisingly well; overall, it’s the actions, not the appearance, that most often provokes a response, defensive or complacent.

Maybe someday I’ll sit down with a bit of thread or wire and some little innocuous object, and see if I can provoke a strike from a mantis by making it move like a tasty bug. It might be interesting to see what details the mantis pays the most attention to.

It’s just to illustrate, honest

A few posts back I talked about a cool lens effect, where defocusing a subject far enough could make it virtually disappear. Yesterday, I captured an image that illustrates it even better. That’s really the whole purpose of this post. It’s not to creep people out or anything.
wolf spider portrait with defocus effect
Your eyes went immediately to the left foreleg (right side of image,) didn’t they? The leg is extending almost straight towards the camera, and at this range and magnification, it almost completely disappears, so much so that you can easily make out details on the second leg behind it. The leg is complete, by the way, and extends down out of the bottom of the frame.

But while we’re here, look at those sad little eyes! My subject, having been spotted by The Girlfriend inside the screens of the porch, really just wanted to be left alone, and was very shy. I was able to nudge him with my finger into a better position several times, and he complied easily.

And yes, it’s a male – the large club-ends of the pedipalps (the tucked-in ‘legs’ alongside the face) indicate this pretty distinctly. This is a species of wolf spider, family Lycosidae, and measured about 2.5 cm in body length, which made it somewhere between 5 and 7 cm with leg spread – not the biggest I’ve seen, but impressive nonetheless. I perched him on the chive plants for this portrait, allowing me to get down low and catch the chelicerae (fangs,) and after a few shots, he wandered off the planter and ventured off someplace under the porch. We’ll see if I spot him again anytime soon.

On composition, part 22: Distortion

A fundamental part of photography is focusing light onto the recording medium, be it film, digital sensor, or even our own retinas. And the method used for doing this the vast majority of the time is a lens, a transparent substance with a certain index of refraction – the trait of bending light when it passes through the surface of the substance. Put the right correct surface angle in the light’s path, and you can direct it the way you want. What should be known is there is no such thing as a perfect lens, and as a result all photographs demonstrate some form of distortion – some more than others. It can’t be avoided, so it might as well be put to use.

[A small side note here, expanding on a section above: the light bends only at the surface of the transparent substance, both on entering and exiting, which is why the curves of the front and rear surfaces of some lenses are dramatically different. Within the substance, however, it continues on a straight line.]

Far and away, the lenses that demonstrate the most distortion are the wide-angle lenses, the ones intended to capture the widest field of view and cram it all into the frame – the wider they go, the more distortion is present. This is inescapable, at least until we get media that wraps around our heads in order to mimic the scene we would be seeing normally. When you take a view that encompasses 140° horizontally and expect to see it on a monitor which takes up 35° to 55° of our field of view, something’s going to give, and that something is strict accuracy.

It used to be that all lenses were ground spherically – the surface described a portion of a perfect sphere, and only the size of this sphere varied. But the light was being thrown onto the flat plane of the recording medium, not a portion of a sphere like the lens, meaning the edges of the image were further from the point of bending than the center – the result was the center of the photo was typically the sharpest, with the edges dropping off in both sharpness and accurate rendition. Now, with them newfangled computers and them fancy gadgets, it’s possible to make lenses that are aspherical, optimized for a flat focal plane. Such lenses reduce the distortion that used to be found, but still do not fully eradicate it. This means that older lenses, especially the shorter focal lengths that produced the widest angles, are much more likely to show distortion; the same can be said for the more inexpensive consumer lenses, intended to sell at a low price and thus not likely to receive the elaborate grinding.

spherical distortionDistortion from a wide-angle lens is often called barrel distortion, but it might be more clear if we consider it fisheye or glass ornament distortion, the kind of effect you see if you lean close to a reflective sphere – your nose gets too big and your ears disappear around the bend of your head. The effect is rarely that pronounced, which makes it deceptive, because then it can sneak in when we’re not expecting it. The most noticeable effect is from vertical elements of the image that are close to the edge of the frame, which may either lean towards the top or bottom center or bow around the middle of the frame – this becomes even more pronounced when one portion of such a subject, like the top of a tall building, is significantly further from the camera than other portions. It can also appear in the horizon if it crosses too far from the middle of the frame, for instance when we aim higher to get more sky in the image and thus the horizon falls towards the bottom of the frame.

There’s not a lot that can be done about this, save for avoiding the circumstances where it’s most visible. Try not to have trees or columns near the edges of the frame when using such lenses; shoot as close to horizontal as possible, so the relative distances are comparable; keep the horizon in the center of the image (bear in mind you can always crop the image later to get the framing you prefer.) The closer a subject is to the camera, the more pronounced this effect will be, too – again, it’s that relative distance thing, and how much the subject intrudes into the dangerous areas around the edges of the lens effect.

We go back to the lens shape again. Since they’re typically round, they throw a round image onto the focal plane – the rectangular frame of most cameras just cuts more off the top and bottom than the sides. So the sides of the frame, and most especially the corners, tend to get closer to the more distorted regions of the projected image and show the worst aspects.

This also applies to a trait called light falloff. If you look at the spot thrown by a flashlight beam, the edges are not sharp – the light fades at the edges, and the same is true for the image a lens produces. This means that the corners of your photo can go darker, and this is true with any lens, not just wide-angle versions. This is most visible when you have clear sky in your photos. It’s subtle, and many people miss it entirely, but it can have a noticeable affect on those scenic shots, especially when enlarged significantly. The nice thing is, this is very easy to get rid of. Simply use a smaller aperture when shooting; the effect usually vanishes when the lens is topped down 2-3 stops from maximum aperture.

bokeh and macro doublingOne of the more interesting terms you might hear, especially in regards to lens performance, is bokeh. What it refers to is the appearance of the out-of-focus portions of an image – occasionally, it is used to mean just the highlights in these areas. Ideally, bokeh should be nice and soft, appearing airbrushed and not blotchy as seen here, but it’s a lens trait and, as such, there’s not much you can do about it other than purchase another lens. However, if you already have a selection of lenses at your disposal and you know one is better than another, you can sometimes substitute the better lens in limited situations.

A closely related trait is something I’ve mostly seen from macro lenses, usually when used at or near maximum aperture: image doubling. Some aspherical lenses seem to do it too, and this is likely where it originates. Basically, distinctive portions of an image, like the insect legs seen here, can be doubled when well out-of-focus. This is one that you usually can control, in that it seems to disappear once the aperture is stopped down to f8 or more.

A trait of longer focal lengths is chromatic aberration, sometimes called color fringing. This occurs because different wavelengths of light get bent differently by the same lens surface, and is most visible with very bright objects bordered by darkness – the top of the object may have a blue fuzzy edge, while the bottom has a red one. The effect is often worse the farther the subject is from optical center of the lens. This is usually fairly well controlled in newer lenses, and the reasoning behind multi-coating (a term that isn’t seen much anymore since nearly all lenses feature it,) but the very expensive, high-end telephoto lenses also use additives to the glass to control it, and may advertise “extra low dispersion” or “fluorite” and similar terms. I’ve seen it so rarely, even with the large number of consumer lenses that I’ve used, that I find it much more prevalent in rumor and reputation than in actual appearances in the image.

Color fringing, especially in a very distinctive shade of purple, also appears as a result of many different digital sensors, almost always around bright highlights. This is a camera trait, however, and is not affected by lenses, nor is there much you can do about it except avoid the circumstances where it occurs, touch it out afterwards with editing, or find a different camera body.

lens flareA very common set of effects is glare, lens flare, and ghosting – all closely related and stemming from the same causes. Basically, any time bright light (like sunlight) hits the front surface of your lens directly, the light can bounce around and scatter within the lens assembly, perhaps reflecting off of each surface, maybe only reducing contrast and washing out your image. Note that it is not necessary for the light source to be visible in the frame or viewfinder, only that it is reaching the front surface. Seen here, it has produced red and green ‘ghosts’ on the base of the stump, optically opposite the sun peeking through the roots, and the first way to prevent it is to avoid doing what I did and having the bright sun in the image. But immediately behind that is to use a lens hood – generally, any time you’re outside in bright sunlight, but most especially when you’re aiming in a way where sunlight can reach the front of the lens. In some conditions the hood (especially those made for wide zooms) is inadequate to fully protect the lens, and you might use additional shading, such as your hand or your hat. You can often tell in the viewfinder when you’re successfully shading the lens, as the contrast will abruptly increase and/or the ghosts will vanish.

Also seen here, the sun is made distinct by the presence of the ‘starburst’ arms, which is a trait of lens flare attenuated by the aperture – to see it most distinctly, use a small aperture with a point light source. This is one distortion trait that can be used to great advantage, accentuating the light source and even adding some character to the image. Even the bad kinds of lens flare are often used in movies to drive home the idea of a brilliant,overbearing sun, and this is so much a known thing to audiences that it was even replicated in Toy Story, a computer-generated film that didn’t use lenses and so would never have a reason for the effect to occur – watch for the string of hexagons to appear, towards the end, as Woody sees the sunlight magnified by Buzz’s helmet (he uses this to ignite the fuse on the rocket and save the day.)

All forms of wide-angle distortion can be used to accentuate scale and distances, especially by getting very close to your subject. Any surface stretching away can have the distance exaggerated, but close objects (or portions thereof) can also be made to loom large in the frame. Dramatic, unreal perspectives can be used to give a different impression than what we might normally see, perhaps making a subtle subject leap out at the viewer.

The more an image is magnified, the shorter the depth-of-field becomes, and this applies to both telephoto and macro work. This can be used to increase your subject’s isolation, drawing attention directly to it since everything else in the frame is defocused. Alternately, wide-angle (short focal length) lenses increase depth-of-field and so can allow the entire frame to be in focus – useful for scenic and landscape shots of course, but also helpful in compressing two subjects together into the same apparent plane, like those images of tourists ‘holding up’ the Tower of Pisa.

While distortion alters reality (or at least, that version that we perceive with out own senses,) it isn’t always a shortcoming, and by knowing how to use it, a photographer can create more eye-catching compositions. It’s definitely worth knowing how it works with your own lenses.

Fighting with abstracts

This one’s going to be a little bit weird. I mean, more so than usual. It started as just an offhand comment, but grew into a strange bit of philosophical inspection.

I recently read, yet again, the journalistic cliché about someone “beating the odds.” Which is complete nonsense. No one ever beats the odds, though they might fall right in line with the odds in a favorable way – being the one in five million people who wins the lottery, for example. Even if, by some strange chance, they continually, repeatedly got results against all probabilistic expectations, they still didn’t beat the odds, the odds simply changed. Probability is based entirely on what actually happens; it’s not a law unto itself.

Yet, it gets even weirder. Why do we even say anything at all like, “she beat the odds”? As if she physically battled with some abstract concept, where victory could be distinct? If there’s anything that could not possibly be engaged in any form of combat, it would be an abstract idea. Our language has millions of these examples, both objectifying and personifying concepts that we have created entirely from our imaginations – we struggle to learn math, or win out over stubbornness; we beat the rain home, or even teach that squeaky door a lesson. We spend a ridiculous amount of time first assigning some form of agency or personality to objects and ideas, and then engaging in competition with them.

Steven Pinker observed this in How The Mind Works, giving it as evidence of the overriding functions that form human cognition. Despite the immense numbers of things that we encounter that we should be able to view in an entirely neutral manner, we much more often subject them to a ‘friend or foe’ perspective, something that either helps us along in our lives or forms an obstacle to our goals. Some of this really is true, to a certain extent; food might be on the other side of that river (or downtown traffic,) and so we must endure a certain level of hardship, expend more than average effort, in order to achieve the rewards. While it doesn’t seem a big jump to go from, “This is a little harder than I’d prefer,” to, “This is actively blocking me from my goal,” there yet remains no reason to become even frustrated over it, much less view it in terms of competition or adversity. Instead, the idea of competition is so ingrained within our minds that we use it everywhere – and, to the best of my knowledge, in every language and culture.

This is just one example of why an intelligent extra-terrestrial species might have a great deal of difficulty in translating and understanding our language – there is an unknown likelihood that they possess no such traits and wouldn’t understand why we do. But even sticking to this planet, it gives a faint indication why we have so much difficulty with conflict and warfare: we can’t actually get them out of our minds. Rather than living harmoniously with our surroundings, or treating random events as just things that happen, we consider our individual existence as a competition against forces trying to prevent us from our goals. That this is an evolved trait that perpetuated itself seems a given; it’s not hard to see that treating impediments to our survival as a challenge, a test of our very egos, probably produces a more immediate and stronger response than seeing the same thing as just ‘what happens.’ We’re more likely to persevere in any undertaking when we take it personally. Think about the difference between an accomplishment, such as completing a puzzle, and a challenge, like considering our inability to complete the puzzle (which is meaningless after all) to be an indication of failure on our part.

Certainly, it’s been a useful trait. The puzzle of preventing polio, for instance, was solved largely because it was egotistical, a challenge to our abilities; think instead if just the people who had polio, the ones who would benefit directly from its disappearance, were the only ones concerned about it. Even if this had been the case, what was produced was a preventive vaccine, not a cure, and those afflicted received no benefit from it. Don’t let me sell it short, because empathy towards others, including our own genetic line, played a very large part as well – we would prefer not to see anyone stricken. Some of it, too, was seeing children coping with the disease, since that fires up our protective responses. But then again, how much of a part do these play towards eradicating world hunger? This goal should be easily within our grasp, yet it falls well behind the quest for personal wealth and status, far too often. There’s no easy way to tell how much we’re motivated by social justice and protecting children, and how much we’re driven by a nonexistent competition with the world we live in, but we can’t deny that the latter remains a strong influence on our thinking.

It makes me wonder how much of a part it plays in another mystery that I ponder occasionally. While there are plenty of explanations about how humans could have created the concept of gods, it’s harder to justify why so many of these beings are considered kind and beneficent, especially in the face of both scriptural accounts of wrath, and the belief that gods are responsible for the cataclysmic events of the earth. But let’s face it: if a being is both omnipotent and antagonistic, well, game over, man – it’s not a competition that we’re ever going to win. However, let’s say we can win big if, and only if, we play by the rules… that pretty much describes most religions, doesn’t it? And it explains why religions get involved in so much competition and antagonism of their own. It certainly makes a lot more sense than a god, who created humans with certain tendencies, playing games with them that end in perpetual reward or punishment, like souls are poker chips.

So can we call this competitive viewpoint good, or bad? Well, neither, really – that’s just another trait coming into play, one of trying to slot things into distinct categories and make quick decisions. Like most things we might encounter in our world, it can have a lot of different effects on us. Instead, it just helps to know that it’s there, and can appear just about anytime, useful or not. Perhaps that’s enough to let us ignore it when it’s provoking (heh!) us towards an attitude or action that won’t really be beneficial.