June’s weak abstract

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

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

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

On the negative side 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of Florida

Monday color. And monochrome

sharp red pond lily
We’re going to go beyond a simple color post with this one, because it’s more interesting that way. I started off with a macro shot of a small (as yet unidentified) pond lily, which loses a little bit when displayed at this size because the contrast in focus is distinctive at a larger scale, but so be it. The contrast in color is distinctive too, and it’s images like this that make me start playing around in the photo editor to see what becomes of them in monochrome.

same image in red, green, and blue channelsI’ve mentioned this before, but reducing an image down to just one (of the three) color channels can produce quite interesting effects in monochrome; in this case, all three of them had their positive points. Digital images are made up of three primary colors, and even the monitor you’re viewing this upon is breaking the image down into those. Every color displayed is a mix of red, green, and blue pixels, which is what “RGB” even means. And for some images, removing two of the colors (usually called “channels” in editing programs) can produce a marked difference in contrast and rendition. From top, this is the same image in the red channel, then the green, then the blue – the blue is the most surprising, since it’s often the muddiest when doing this. So what you’re seeing is the relative strength of the red ‘light’ in the first of the three here, rendered as monochrome – in other words, only light levels, and counting only the red light. So the purplish-pink blossom becomes almost white, because it has a lot of red in it. And since purple is a mix of blue and red, when we go down to the blue channel at bottom, we find the blossom is fairly bright there, too.

But what about the leaves themselves? Why are they even showing up in the red channel when they’re green? But this shows us some of our bias, the simplifications of our color names, as well as a trait of RGB colors. The pads are actually more chartreuse, or yellowish-green. And a curious aspect of RGB coloration is that yellow is a combination of the red and green pixels – seems counterintuitive, but you can see it for yourself right here. Now, note the pad leaf directly underneath the blossom’s shadow. It appears the greenest in the full-color version, and it’s noticeably darker in the red channel, but almost indistinguishable from the others in the green channel; same amount of green, but less red, which (when combined) means less yellow. Simple, right?

If that’s not confusing enough, the leaves in the blue channel are darkest, because yellow (or red-green if you like) is the opposite of blue. For color editing, if you increase yellow, you’re reducing blue. Or just look at it as if you’re increasing red and green while leaving blue alone – same thing, really. But overall, each channel provides a different rendition and ‘mood,’ if you will, to the monochrome image; each might have its own application depending on what you want to accomplish with the photo. The red channel really highlights the difference between the blossom and its shadow, while the blue channel makes the blossom itself stand out against everything else. Just something to play with.

Now let’s take a look at using the ‘Curves’ function in Adobe Photoshop to tweak your images more to your liking; now that anyone can use Photoshop online for free, it’s easy for me to show techniques within the program without feeling guilty that not everyone will invest in a ridiculously overpriced (for well over a decade) piece of software. In Curves, you can change the brightness of all three channels, or just one channel at a time, very selectively. Let’s say you want to increase the difference in certain colors, but only in the brightest parts of the image, or even in a very narrow band of brightnesses – say, in a sunset sky. Take a look at the original straight from the camera:

Sunset over pond with subtle colors
Not an award-winner, but it was the sunset I had to work with that evening. You can see how the reflection of the sky in the water produces more definition in the colors than the sky itself, which got washed out a little bit – this is easy to do with sunsets, because there’s a huge difference in light levels between the sky and virtually anything else, and the camera can only capture a certain range, less than our eyes can see. Now here’s a tweaked version:

sunset over pond, enhanced contrast
There are only two changes: the light levels in the brightest portion of the sky right in the middle (where most people want to look anyway,) and the shadows down at the bottom. Now the contrast in colors stands out a little better, while the darker bottom gives slightly more sense of being under the canopy of trees. Never get too heavy-handed when doing Curves adjustments, because subtlety looks more natural.

Here’s what the actual Curve plot looked like:

sunset enhancement showing Adobe Photoshop  Curves plot
The black wavy line across the middle of that X-Y graph is the controller for the light levels from darkest (bottom left) to brightest (top right,) and always starts as a diagonal line, seen in ‘shadow’ behind it. Meanwhile, that spiky grey area in the background, running mostly along the bottom, presents the actual light levels captured in the image – a lot along the left side, meaning most of the image is black and dark grey, but a little all the way across (meaning the image has a range of light from pure black to pure white) with a few spikes at the bright end along the right, which is those sky colors that are almost washed out in the original. Think of it as counting all of the pixels and assigning a brightness to each; there are more dark pixels, so more in the bar graph to the left. When you click on that solid line with the mouse, you produce a point on the line that you can then drag up or down to make brighter or darker than the original – you can see I darkened the entire line a bit (deepening the shadows towards the bottom of the image where the colors got darkest) and did a lot of playing around at the upper end of the line, which made the contrast between very narrow areas of the brightest part of the image enhanced to a greater degree. It can take some experimenting to see what works best, but it’s my favorite method by far of tweaking an image towards the effect I prefer. Try it out on your own.

Remember, too, that you can do this for each of the three color channels, selectively enhancing the blues for instance while leaving the reds and greens alone. This is a good way of counteracting the color cast that might come with different light conditions.

And then, because I was once again on a monochrome kick that day, I converted the entire image to greyscale. In this particular case, no color channel by itself provided a decent effect, so I just went with monochroming (it is too a word) the whole image.

sunset over pond in enhanced monochrome grayscale greyscale
Monochrome is all about producing the best contrast, since that’s all the image has, so it benefits from tweaking the Curves much more often than color images. And in this case, the Curves got a greater kick because the contrast between the pink and blue portions of the sky became more subtle (or nonexistent) when the color went away. So, this:

Sunset in monochrome showing Photoshop Curves function
So much for subtlety, eh? But since the contrast between colors is no longer a factor, the contrast between light levels may need to be enhanced, and thus the wilder curves in the graph – it didn’t seem to become unsubtle in the image, did it?

Again, very little change in the darker portions of the image, because reflections from water are always darker than what they’re actually reflecting (polarized, too) and so they didn’t need much changing – always be careful not to make reflections the same brightness or brighter than what they’re reflecting, because it won’t look right.

This is all illustrative, because I wasn’t terribly happy with the originals in the first place (I’ve done better, in other words,) and the sky wasn’t ideal; for one thing, some of the clouds that were even catching the sunset colors were actually jet contrails, and too straight – you can see this along the left side, both top and bottom. I positioned myself among the trees solely to try and disguise this as much as I could, so you’re actually seeing fewer contrails than existed at the time. But there’s another artifact of tweaking the Curves that popped up, and you may have already noticed it. Look at the larger leaves near the top, just right of center – see the halos? Since they were out of focus in the original image, and thus forming a full spectrum along their edges between the blackness of shadow and the bright sky beyond, the selective contrast tweak became very unnatural right there (it appears, far more subtly, in the tiny leaves against the water right near center, too.) The History Brush, which reverts the image back to an original state only where you ‘paint’ it, might have helped, or just blurring the edges a tiny bit with the Smudge tool with a very small setting could have worked. I left it in because it shows how little telltales can sneak in and look weird during editing, so keep an eye out.

Experiment, get a feel for what works best for you, and have fun with it!

Podcast: Full immersion

Copes grey treefrog  Hyla chrysoscelis on freshwater reeds
So, we revisit the concept of podcasting, but this time from a slightly different approach – not philosophy, but instead the highly exciting life of a nature photographer. I know – you’re just brimming with anticipation, aren’t you?

I’m still working out the kinks in the recording system, which means it’s a little rough and I’m far from satisfied with this one right now, but hopefully it’s not too godawful bad. So go ahead and click on the player, while down below sit the illustrations to accompany the audio. Maybe someday I’ll just do a video slide show, but that’s even more editing.

Walkabout podcast – Full immersion

Eastern narrowmouth toad Gastrophryne carolinensis perched on photographer's knee
Above, an eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis) perched involuntarily – and briefly – on my knee. The narrow mouth might explain the vocal effect. But probably not.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis in mid call
A Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) captured during a call. Yes, that’s another one hiding in the shadows behind it.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea having just ceased calling
Here, the only green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) that I saw that evening views me with reproach after I interrupted its serenade. Note how the throat pouch is still flaccid, always a bad thing when advertising for a mate.

Thanks for listening!

Might catch some shit for this

Neuse River long exposureOne of my photo students, the (likely) Inconsolable Al Bugg, has been jonesing for a couple of opportunities for a while now. And unfortunately, while he is away counseling at a summer camp, I pursued both of them in just the past couple of days.

Tuesday morning I was up ridiculously early and the conditions seemed right, so in the pre-dawn twilight I headed down to the head of the Neuse River, my old stomping grounds. I used to live just a few miles away, about 17 years ago, right as I was getting serious about photography and starting to build up my stock, and it’s a neat little natural area with relatively easy access, so I spent a lot of time down there. Just one image currently resides in the gallery of my main site, right here, while another is in that rotating banner at the top, if you wait long enough (you’ll recognize it.) Mr. Bugg and I had made one attempt last year to get down there and go exploring, but properly exploiting all of the opportunities requires a period with light to average rainfall, something that we didn’t have at the time – instead, we’d had numerous downpours in the past two weeks, and the spillway from Falls Lake that creates the river itself was wide open to handle all the excess from the lake. As a result, the river level was over a meter higher than normal, which (as can be seen from these images) obscures many of the scenic aspects and makes wading impossible. It is partially due to the habits I developed for this area that the “Wading-In” site name was even decided upon.

This week’s trip, however, took place in near-ideal conditions. The water level was low enough for access to a lot of areas, and the temperature perfect – warm enough to barely be noticed, but cool enough to feel great, and the air temperature wasn’t climbing too rapidly either. The main downside was the sky, which was thick haze pushing towards overcast, preventing it from being a useful element in any scenic shots.

To truly appreciate the locale, one must be willing to get wet, and this is where the waterproof sandals are a necessity (and pretty much my main footgear all summer long.) The river bottom is just cluttered enough to make going barefoot dangerous – far too many fucking assholes that cannot discard their beer bottles in a trash bin, not to mention the other junk that accumulates – but even without that there are the mussel shells, in places completely carpeting the river bottom and easily wending their way into the sandals just to be perverse. For some reason – maybe it’s my feet – the sandals seem to be a kind of one-way valve, where the shells can get in readily enough but then somehow cannot find their way out again, no matter how much shaking and swishing my feet around I do. Coupled with the large amount of silicates in the area, ‘sand in the making’ quartz particles eroded from the distant mountains and on their way to the just-as-distant beaches, it’s not hard to get a sandal-full of abrasive junk. But that’s not enough to keep me out of the water by a long shot.

The river immediately splits into two branches straight out of the spillway, and there’s a parking area on one bank; this used to be just a canoe launch before the city of Raleigh revamped it to make it a ‘greenway’ trail for walkers, joggers, and bicyclists. The paved trail avoids all the good areas, though, so one must depart the path in the right places to find the good stuff, and thankfully not too many people even try – I was all alone for my entire visit this time. Cross the shallow river at the right spot and you come across a cut between the two channels, a placid little cove partially shrouded in shade and perfect for vegetating.

cove between two channels of Neuse River
great blue heron Ardea herodias perched in stark treeThe other end of the cove opens on the opposite channel of the river, with long narrow rock islands stretching out into the main part of the river. This area is ruled by birds: great blue herons (Ardea herodias) of course, and belted kingfishers occasionally hurtling past with their chittering alarm. A pair of red-shouldered hawks had been constantly venting their slightly anxious-sounding calls from the moment I approached the area, and once I hit the cove I found out why: a mated pair was quite concerned with a murder of crows that could not be convinced to leave the premises despite being aerially harassed by the hawks. I did not have the recorder in hand when one of them buzzed low overhead, else I would have had a great sound bite. My emergence on the second channel sent off the hawks to a greater distance, but this might well have been a good thing, because the crows completely vacated the area when they saw me.

The footing can be deceptive in such conditions. The dry parts of the rocks well out of the water mostly have a rough texture and provide about as good traction as can be expected in a natural setting, but below the surface is another matter entirely. Coated with fine weeds and algae and often an additional layer of silt, the rocks become damn near as slippery as wet ice, and stepping on one is simply asking for trouble. This meant that the camera got safely stowed just about every time I stepped anywhere, which meant that when the two herons came cruising up the river only a few meters off the water and turned directly towards me, I couldn’t get the camera out in time, missing what could have been some magnificent closeups while in flight. “Could have been” is of course highly speculative; nailing focus and framing on a moving subject in such a manner is far from guaranteed, but any photographer will usually treat it as the award-winning shot that got away.

Also on hand were some northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis,) the first I’ve ever seen. They were performing elaborate dogfight maneuvers down low over the water, snatching insects from the air. They weren’t terribly bothered by my presence, so when a handful of them took to a nearby perch, I slipped in closer without any trouble and soon realized I was seeing this year’s brood not long out of the nest. The agitated half-flapping motion (as if trying to fan away a fart) every time an adult drew near, coupled with the gaping behavior, was kind of a giveaway.

northern rough-winged swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis juvenile being fed by hovering adult
I did not see a single snake while I was there, which is curious because I virtually always see at least one, sometimes several – it’s an ideal location for the various water snake species. However, when turning around as I was standing near an uprooted tree, I caught the movement of a tail curling down into ‘resting’ position while the owner’s head was hidden from sight behind a branch. Moving slowly with the camera at the ready, I came around to the other side with the intention of snagging a portrait before the reptile fled. As suspected, it was a skink, but my caution wasn’t necessary in the slightest because I was approaching from its blind side.

adult female American five-lined skink Plestiodon fasciatus with damaged eye
The five-lined skink, an adult female, wasn’t completely unaware of my presence; despite the covering noise of the running water and the breeze, the sound of the camera bag’s zipper caused her to raise her head warily, ready to bolt, but she never turned enough to spot me.

Not too long after that, the battery pack/vertical grip on the camera simply failed, the mounting screw completely pulling out as I was adjusting the camera on the tripod, and luckily it was firmly in hand when it did so because I was knee-deep in the river when this occurred. If you’re familiar with Canon’s accessories, the normal battery door must be removed to fit the grip, and it slots nicely into its own space inside the grip; as this came free, however, the battery door made its escape unnoticed and still sits somewhere in the Neuse River. Which effectively prevented me from using the camera at all, since I couldn’t just insert a battery as normal either. I came home and ordered replacements for both, and resigned myself to not shooting anything for a bit until they arrived, unless I wanted to use the old D-Reb.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday night/Thursday morning, the muggy weather produced some thunderheads outside of meteorological predictions, and it appeared a nice lightshow was at hand. I grabbed the D-Reb and trotted across to the pond nearby, but on arrival the older camera wasn’t playing nice and refused to operate, and once again I settled for watching the natural fireworks without taking any photos of it (I did shoot a brief video on my flip-phone, but that’s more of a joke than anything.)

The cell passed, but a little later on another took its place, and I thought, “The battery has a locking pin, so maybe it’ll stay in place and operate even without the battery door?” I tried it out, it worked, so I covered the battery opening with a piece of packing tape and went out across the pond again to start shooting.

distant lightning under towering thunderheadMr. Bugg has been trying to photograph a decent electrical storm for a while now, and my assurances that this can be really tricky have done little to appease him. Yet it’s perfectly true: getting a decent display, in a good setting with a good view, is more miss than hit, and I’ve gone years without any kind of acceptable shots despite being almost instantly ready for any storm that shows promise. The past couple of years have been extraordinarily lucky for me, both with the frequency of storms and the quick access to several good vantages; in the old house, there were so many obscuring trees around that I had to travel to an open sky area and hope I could find one facing in the direction of the active thunderhead.

Even when there’s a decent view (yes, you may have seen this perspective in an earlier post,) that doesn’t mean the storm will cooperate. Inter-cloud activity can provide some light and shaping to the clouds, but that often only looks like moonlight, and of course everyone wants to see the dramatic bolts. On this evening I was actually working in moonlight, the nearly-full moon shining brightly on an isolated large thunderhead. But the lightning was being shy, and when it did appear, it was primarily like this, barely visible underneath the cloud deck, mostly because of the distance of the storm. The light rain had long passed and this cell was many kilometers off, very active but mostly lacking visible bolts. I just kept tripping frames and waited; there wasn’t anywhere else I had to be at freaking three AM (I keep weird hours.)

I’d like to say that patience pays off, but storms can be fickle, and often enough I simply go back without anything even remotely decent to show for it; it occurred earlier this month, in fact, a fierce storm that I did not get home in time to take advantage of, despite the great show while I was driving (sans camera, naturally – I do occasionally go someplace without it.) And then again, sometimes it does.

distinct lightning bolt projecting from cloudsI had given up trying to frame a bolt with its own reflection in the water, and had switched orientation to zoom in a little tighter on the active part of the thunderhead, so I missed that composition, but it still looks a lot better than inter-cloud glows. Most of the time when there was a visible bolt, it was a thin thing stretching across the sky in an aimless and lint-like manner, but lightning is known for being unpredictable, and this nice ground strike is a beneficial aspect of that. The cell was near-immortal, tapering off and seeming to be fading before developing a whole new life, all without moving in the frame much at all, appearing to be stalled someplace well east. It was still slightly muggy, but not too uncomfortable, and when things like this happen you tend to ignore that anyway.

And again.

distinct lightning bolt over trees
The moon was shining bright enough to limit the duration of the exposures, plus I was aimed directly towards the city center, which was throwing a lot of light onto the lower clouds, some seen here in front of the bolt, that were much closer than the thunderhead itself – that’s where the orangish glow comes from. Someday I’ll get out to the beach, or someplace far out in the western states, to shoot storms without the taint of light pollution, but for now this is what we get.

Even when those low and close clouds thickened enough to nearly obscure the distant thunderhead, storms can surprise you, and when I had packed up and was walking back, another lovely bright bolt blasted through the obscuring humidity just to tell me I was still not patient enough. But I can’t complain about the results all the same – I’ve paid my dues over the years.

Too cool, part 30: Not even halfway yet

You know, I started wondering why I’ve never tackled this before, and then I realized it was because I never had something handy to use for the comparison.

You remember the photo from an earlier post, showing the newborn Chinese mantids (Tenodera sinensis) clustered on a twig? You know, this one:

newborn Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis clustering close to where they hatched
That was taken within 24 hours of hatching, and while I have nothing to provide a direct scale, I can tell you that they’re about 10mm in body length, almost able to be mistaken for ants outside of the arena of macro photography.

Recently I got another photo, of a mantis posed on the exact same twig, from almost the exact same position. Herewith, a nice size comparison:

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis posing on twig from birthing
Displays the growth well, doesn’t it?

Now, a confession. Since this is the largest mantis I see in the area, I’m almost certain it was from an earlier hatching, one I did not witness, and therefore is not one of the brood seen in the first image. However, it is safe to say that it was the exact same size when hatched, so the comparison still stands. We can’t use the image dates to determine age, but I will guesstimate this one as about six weeks of age. Also noteworthy is the bare fact that this is not even halfway to adult size yet, being 45mm at best.

Another confession. While the mantis was quite close by, I had to coax it over to the twig just so I could do this. The pose, however, is all its own.

I couldn’t let this go without compositing the two images together for a very direct comparison.

composited image of newborn and six-week Chinese mantids Tenodera sinensis
The angle was slightly different (sue me) and, believe it or not, the image of the newborns overlaid atop the more recent image is slightly transparent, so the twig is actually doubled up – it’s hard to see the different shooting angle, isn’t it? I’m satisfied with it.

Like I said, I’m surprised I never tried this before, but even the plants that they have perched on have been growing in size at the same time, so there was never anything that they appeared alongside during different growth stages that remained the same. I’m glad now that I never removed the twig, which is one I planted there because the egg case was attached to it.

Am I going to be able to do this again, when one of them finally reaches adult size? You know I’ll be trying, but I can’t predict what will happen – we’ll just have to be patient.

Just one day? Sheesh

Tuesday, June 21st, is World Humanism Day, an event sure to be celebrated with fireworks and elaborate cakes and a big ol’ music festival featuring the remaining members of Spanky and Our Gang. Or it will pass, at least in this country, largely unnoticed. One or the other.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s really hard to argue against the whole principle, especially if you refuse to resort to straw man arguments. There are various definitions of humanism, but for the most part, it’s simple: emphasis on people as a whole, without demarcations or bias, and a reliance on reason. Most forms, especially secular humanism, rule out any influence from supernaturality whatsoever – without evidence or demonstrable results, it’s clear that we have much better ways of producing beneficial outcomes.

Right off the bat, ignoring all of the butthurt responses, we will (and do) have people claiming that this is what makes humanism “against religion,” and immoral and all that shit, completely incapable of seeing that emphasis on humans is pretty much what morality even means – why else would we even need it? As for being against religion, well, no – it’s simply against both the reliance on the extremely vague and utterly worthless concept of “supernatural,” as well as the bias and classism that many religions foster. If that’s how one defines their religion (instead of, for instance, the good that it can and should produce,) then yes, they have a point – just, not a very good one. If religions truly are a force for good, then the goals are aligned with humanism in the first place; religious folk can accomplish this within the confines of a supernatural worldview, while the humanists can do so without it. No problem.

A ha ha ha ha! I’m such a wag! ‘Good’ is not exactly a hard concept to fathom, much less apply, but it gets abused unconscionably when it comes to religion, more times than not. The very first thing to remember is, actions can be beneficial or detrimental, but people can never be labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; we are all a mix, a bundle of conflicted motivations and emotional reactions. Who among us can say they’ve never done something stupid simply because they were frustrated or impatient? So seeking to place an overriding label, on ourselves or others, is pointless, and in fact irrational – but it can be done much easier for individual actions. Sure, this might mean we have to think a little more often, but we’re a species advanced enough to handle this now.

One of the arguments that comes up so often with ethics and morality is that some viewpoint/ideology doesn’t have answers for everything, therefore it is incomplete and should be abandoned. “Humanism doesn’t tell us how to handle capital punishment!” comes the cry, revealing the desire to throw obstacles in its path rather than actually seeking solutions. But if we’re even asking the question, then it’s clear that no other ideology has provided an acceptable answer either. More to the point however, humanism isn’t a set of rules to inflict on a mindless population (which, within some religions, means everyone not of that particular religion,) but a mindset that encourages effective ways of reaching solutions. Sometimes it’s just a matter of approach: not, “what should we do?” but, “what are we hoping to accomplish?” Such a subtle change automatically alters the perspective, doesn’t it?

The search for, or the reliance on, absolutes is one of the biggest stumbling blocks of our species – we want to be able to pronounce things ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and seemingly can’t handle grey areas. Yet we’re not only surrounded by nothing but, we also deal with them on a routine basis. As Sam Harris has pointed out, “health” is a ridiculously vague term, and it’s impossible to find someone perfectly healthy, yet we routinely seek health as a goal; usually it’s just a matter of picking which of our choices surpasses the others available. Even ‘species’ doesn’t have a firm definition, but for the majority of our uses we can apply it just fine – we don’t often need absolutes, just functional methods for the situation at hand.

Humans have a wicked tendency to want to think in binary terms, and to seek the two sides of every coin (even when coins have much more than two sides, or even faces.) When doing so, humanism is often pitted against religion as the opposite face, and of course this means countless people have to choose to abandon their religion or not. While I find binary thinking to be infantile and way beneath our capabilities, if I had to wield it at all in these circumstances, I would instead place humanism and tribalism as opposite sides. Tribalism is our inclination to make demarcations, “us” and “them,” to apply labels to groups of people just to simplify our views towards them. More often than not, this has nothing to do with any distinct set of traits, but only serves to reinforce our pre-existing biases in the first place: we find ourselves relying on concepts like, “sinners,” or, “foreigners,” “tree-huggers,” or, “abortionists,” and on and on and on – all methods to lump together people with a huge variety of approaches and viewpoints and desires within a vastly inadequate boundary so we can then pronounce judgment (yes, even “atheists” and “religious folk.”) It’s nonsense, and well beneath our abilities as a species with remarkable ways of thinking. We’re all human, and our approaches should always be with this fact firmly in mind.

So in recognition of the day, here’s my suggestion: take a few moments to tackle decisions with an approach towards what’s most beneficial. Ignore the labels, and see only actions, with the realization that any proposed actions should be able to be applied in all directions, including back towards us. Take a few news items and try to ascertain how we arrived at these circumstances – I say this in the wake of a Florida nightclub shooting with obvious religious motivations; instead of thinking that this came from some “wrong” religion, try to fathom how someone could possibly have held the idea that this was a useful approach in the first place. But even if we don’t feel up to tackling all the ramifications of that, just look at various actions throughout the day. Does the way we treat those we work with lead towards a beneficial goal? Do our actions within groups of people define anything useful, or competitive instead? Are we raising our kids with an eye towards functional goals and improvement, or simply trying to extend our personal viewpoints through them?

Most especially, does the benefit extend beyond ourselves, our immediate circle of deserving people? How do we even define who’s “deserving?”

That should be a decent start, anyway. And if you miss the opportunity on Tuesday, feel free to try it out any other day – I won’t tell.

*     *     *

A couple of outside links regarding humanism:

The Humanist

American Humanist Association

And some internal, related links:

On capital punishment

Friends with benefits

Animal ethics

Put down the Dymo, Avery

How to bake a human


Just a handful of collected arthropod photos from the past few weeks, specifically excluding mantids.

sweat bee on flower with intruding bumblebee
Above, while pinning down focus on a pollinating sweat bee, a bumblebee flew into the frame as the shutter tripped, in a pretty optimal position compositionwise. Too bad the focus was so short.

And before I get to the next image below, a brief bit of background. While out at the nearby pond one night, for some reason without my camera (I’m not sure what I was thinking,) I was seeing plenty of reflections from spider eyes in the headlamp beam – and one especially sparkling one. My suspicions were confirmed as I got closer: it was a mother wolf spider carrying her multitudinous offspring on her back, with their eyes reflecting the light as well. I’ve gotten a few photos of this before, but I’m always aiming for better ones, and she seemed inclined to remain in position, so I noted her location carefully and trotted back home to grab the camera. Unsurprisingly, she had toddled off by the time I got back, but apparently a few of the sprogs had bailed her back and were hanging out in the same location on their own, so I settled for a couple of them instead of a family portrait.

newborn wolf spider genus Lycosidae alone without mother
Now, a word of explanation. I had nothing handy to take a measurement, but this little spud was tiny – the leg spread is probably less than the leg spread of a common tick. I could spot them by their reflective eyes (which says a lot, really, if you consider how small those really are,) and had to keep my gaze carefully on that location as I drew closer and the angle got too great to maintain the reflection. It was the only way I would ever have spotted them.

Here’s another one that relied largely on luck.

red ant carrying another deceased red ant
These red ants weren’t very big at all, and the one carrying the corpse of another was moving right along, as ants tend to do. At the magnification I had to use for them, they would flash in and out of focus in less than a second, and tracking them is not as easy as it might seem; they don’t maintain a steady rate nor direction, and once you overshoot and try to backtrack, they take off randomly again. It becomes a matter of very steady movements, anticipation, and timing – plus a lot of luck. There’s a reason I’m balding; I’d probably have a luxurious full head of hair had I not taken up macro photography.

But I still like that image up there, mostly for the “Don’t jump!” impression I get from it.

leafhopper nymph on parsley stem
One evening while chasing the mantids, I spotted this leafhopper nymph slurping up fluid from the stem of a parsley blossom. The plumed, fibrous ‘tail’ is pretty much leafhopper poop, and probably serves a protective purpose, even though it seems to attract a lot more attention than the leafhopper itself would have. They go through a lot of fluid, and quite quickly too, so the production of these strands is constant when they’re feeding. Between the foreground blossoms and a cluttered background, as well as things that would have blocked the light from the flash, my choice of angles was very limited, more so than it appears here – I aimed for having a foreground blossom just off the back of the leafhopper and it came out pretty clearly.

You do, of course, remember the massive fishing spider that was hanging out around the pond liner in the backyard? That one eventually disappeared, not being seen again within a night or two of finding it missing a couple of legs, and I think it likely that it fell prey to the resident frogs. But a few weeks ago as I moved some of the plants within the pond, I saw a little spider skate across the surface of the water, and when I located it again and examined it closely, it turns out to be the same species (high likelihood, anyway) as the large one.

juvenile fishing spider Dolomedes tenebrosus at base of scouring rush Equisetum hyemale
Is this an offspring of the mother, as I speculated upon then? I consider that doubtful myself, since as small as it is, it’s a lot larger than I would have expected, given the time frame – newborns are tiny. I also would have expected the frogs to make quick work of it, but as of tonight it’s still around even though it lives right under their noses.

At the botanical garden the other day, I snagged a newly-emerged adult dragonfly, which leads to a bit of trivia.

newly emerged adult draginfly final instar next to molted exoskeleton
The pale color, and the fact that the wings are sitting upright and not flat out to the sides, indicates that this is a new emergence. The brown insect to the upper right isn’t something else, however – it’s the old exoskeleton that the adult just emerged from. Yes, that big ol’ dragonfly came from that little brown skin, and while you might imagine that the skin shrank considerably after drying out, that’s not the case; the adults really do expand that much as they emerge. I have yet to capture this happening, and now I really have to, because we all have to see it, don’t we?

Here’s a look at one during the nymph stage, which is spent entirely underwater.

dragonfly nymph underwater
Yes, indeed, the eyes are much smaller, the abdomen greatly truncated, and those little flaps on the shoulders will someday become those elaborate dragonfly wings. At this stage in its life, a dragonfly is adapted to an entirely different set of habits and prey – it’s just that the transition between the two isn’t gradual, but takes place in hours.

I mentioned George Hrab’s Geologic podcast before, and I’m going to give you a direct link to one now, because he talks about their peculiar anatomy within – something I didn’t know myself, to be honest. And he does so with his own style, so definitely click here to listen. There’s a lot of other stuff in there too, but it’s hardly a detraction from the specific topic here. Consider it bonus content.

More is coming shortly, or as shortly as I can make it. You know where to find me.

I predict…

… there will be more posts coming in the uncertain future, with photos and trivia, and perhaps some changes to the regular content.

There. That sounds much better than my excuses for not posting something substantial now, right?

Maybe not.

reflection of Canada goose Branta canadensisAnyway, I’ve been juggling various tasks and projects, and I have two posts definitely in the works – the problem is, one is about mantids again and I want to space it out, even though it’s by far the easiest to write, while the other will take more prep time than I’ve been able to give. So, you get this semi-abstract image while I fill a little space telling you about some idle thoughts.

One possible change is, again, podcasting. I tried it some time back, carried it for a year, then let it go – I wasn’t sure it added anything except a lot of preparation. But on listening to George Hrab’s Geologic podcast recently, I have been toying with the idea of changing the format a bit; instead of just reading off a longer philosophical post, I may try recounting various experiences when out doing nature photography. You see, I’d settled on the ‘audiobook’ format because I didn’t want a lot of pauses and “uhhh”s in there, and because I felt that some of the stuff I’d written gained more emphasis from verbal delivery, making it the obvious choice for the experiment. Trying the new approach does mean that I will be working (poetic license abused there) off-the-cuff, with all the oral foibles that I am prone, while attempting a coherent story, an interesting delivery, and an acceptable amount of humor. This may be a serious mistake on all of those counts, but I will be trying some dry runs first, so they’ll have to pass my standards before they appear here (like that’s reassuring.) If nothing ever appears, well, let’s just say you were spared.

The podcasting thing was resurrected from my photography habits, which is possibly not what you’re imagining; it’s not all just taking pictures. I often end up with a lot of images to sort, which means deleting those which don’t pass muster, pondering if any particular image passes muster, and shifting the keepers into the appropriate categories, as well as adding the information about the image to a database (the part that I’m really behind on right now.) It’s time-consuming, and I usually have music playing when it’s going on, but recently tried finding some decent podcasts to let play while I work. After doing a search for the better comedy podcasts, Geologic won out over the others by a wide margin; most of them were too scattered, had a clash of too many voices, or simply lacked anything interesting to say. George Hrab is engaging, involved in the content, and not overly-concerned with trying to “be more funny,” nor competing with other voices; it is, as far as I’m concerned, how it should be done. Plus, anyone that can rip off a subtle quote from Midnight Run gains a lot of Brownie points from Al. So many, in fact, that he’s now been added to the blogroll on the sidebar.

Will my attempts even approach Geologic’s level? No. Will I be trying to shamelessly copy his style? No – despite my obvious shamelessness. Is this something I shouldn’t be doing at all? Quite possibly. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Mantodea reditum

That means, “return to the mantids.” Maybe. Probably not – it’s Latinish, one of many languages I have mastered not in the slightest form whatsoever.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis poised on parsley flower
Lest you think something has terrible happened to my mind, I hasten to assure you that I have been keeping tabs on the mantises, even when I haven’t been posting anything. There is now a vast size difference between individuals, but no easy way of demonstrating this, so you’ll just have to take my word on it for now.

unidentified mantis on Dracaena grass
First off, the Carolina mantids (Stagmomantis carolina) seem to have dispersed entirely from their hatching point in the backyard, appearing nowhere that I have seen, though there’s a slim possibility, going only from the size, that the specimen above is one that made it around to the front porch area. Right now, I cannot say whether the Carolina mantids largely vacated the area or fell prey to various hazards, among them quite possibly their own cousins. The Chinese mantids (Tenodera sinensis) had hatched around the front of the house – mostly; I’ve seen a couple in the back – and have spread out a bit to various locations in the yard, with a handful still occupying the immediate environs of the egg case that I witnessed hatching (more or less.) This means the front garden with the day lilies and peonies, and the Japanese maple sitting on the other side of the front door. All of these locations served as their habitat all summer long last year, so I’m expecting the same again this year, but we’ll see how that goes. It’s handy to have photo subjects so close by.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on rosemary plant
A few have even made it over to the rosemary plants, where at their present size they camouflage amazingly well. This won’t last long; they’re going to get a lot bigger than the rosemary leaves/needles ever will, but right now they’re almost invisible. You did see the one above, right?

Carolina mantis Tenodera sinensis on eating black ant on pokeweed plant Phytolacca americana
There’s not a whole lot of behavior to photograph – they eat, and on rare occasion they molt their exoskeletons, which so far I haven’t spotted (I think I just missed one.) But I occasionally catch them eating, and for two of them, they initially dodged me as I drew close with the camera, but after only a half-minute they felt it was safe enough and thereafter ignored me. Above, this one looks like a distant aunt bestowing an unwanted kiss on a reluctant nephew, which is sorta right I guess. Most aunts don’t eat their nephews around here, but I can’t speak for other cultures…

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis with roach
I shot this one just a few hours ago, as it partook of an average-sized roach (they can get a hell of a lot bigger around here.) This one was a measured 40 mm in body length, so about four times the size it was when first hatched, and the biggest in the area to my knowledge – it’s perched on a peony leaf, if that helps at all. It might, in fact, be the same one I photographed three nights ago on the mint plants, but that one was bright green at the time. They can change colors, but I believe it only happens after a molt, and I’m not sure how soon afterward, whether they emerge in a different color or the chitin becomes that hue over time as it hardens. This is one of those things that I’m hoping to witness someday, since so far no source that I’ve found has clarified this matter.

Chiinese mantis Tenodera sinensis in profile showing eye color
This is the photo from three days ago, left until the end for the fartistic merit. The translucence visible in the exoskeleton lends a little weight to this being soon after a molt, but I never saw the discarded skin so I’m only speculating. More noticeable is the eye color. I’ve mentioned before that, at night, mantis eyes turn black, presumably to help them see better, but it only takes place after a certain age, and this one appears to be on the border of that – two of the images above were taken at night, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the eyes. The eyes of this one are incompletely black, still bearing some of the daytime stripe on the sides, even though this was well after nightfall. At some point I might stake one out at dusk and photograph a whole sequence of the change.

Right now I’m still pondering potential methods of telling them apart. Since they molt their skins periodically, a little dab of paint or dye will be discarded then, and there are no other markings that are unique to individuals; I’m not even contemplating any body modifications that would be retained after a molt, such as lopping off a foot. Maybe I just need to teach myself DNA sequencing…