I was thinking about the animated feature Ratatouille earlier. The head chef, Skinner, was the villain in the movie, but I’m not sure why. His primary action throughout was trying to prove that Linguini was harboring a rat in the kitchen, which was true; it even turned out that Linguini was a fraud and the rat was guiding his actions. Other than that, Skinner was capitalizing on famous chef Gusteau’s name, just differently than Gusteau himself (an established adulterer) had been.
So, what, he lost his job over maintaining public health standards and exposing a fraud? Over displaying an entrepreneurial spirit? Over being short and hatchet-faced? C’mon, Pixar, we need some better morals than that…
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I realized I haven’t been trying hard enough to earn my Shrill and Strident merit badge, which is funny, because there are certainly enough subjects that reinforce my atheism which could be lambasted. So let’s delve into the use of metaphors in scripture. While this will largely apply to the abrahamic scriptures (meaning the christian and jewish bibles, torah, and qur’an,) at least some of it will be applicable to many, perhaps most, other religious scriptural sources.
Virtually every time someone dares point out the glaring inaccuracies within scripture, such as the shape of the planet or the ridiculous concepts of worldwide flooding or that bats are not birds, the idea that scripture (or at least some portions) was written metaphorically will be brought forth. Yes, of course an actual worldwide flood is silly, but the flood is simply a metaphor; this excuses the physical or logical flaws of god’s word by turning such passages into a literary device – still informative, just not intended to be literal. While I could save a lot of time by simply calling bullshit and moving on (and this is perfectly justifiable,) there’s no shortage of people who would claim I wasn’t being fair or considering all of the ramifications and nuances or some whinefest like that, so I’m going to treat this in merciless detail.
First off, metaphor is generally used one of two ways: as a device to impart some form of moral or behavioral guidance, like in fables; or as a method of disguising an abstract concept within the confines of a story. In many cases, it uses something familiar or compelling to get the reader to relate to the concept easier – in other words, a form of analogy. A character may appear to be just a person, when they are intended to exemplify a character trait instead; one relatively recent example is the character John Coffey from The Green Mile, not-so-subtly exhibiting the behavior (and initials) of jesus christ.
These two uses result in two different effects. The former (moral guide) is intended to produce acceptable behavior in a way that the reader can relate to, rather than, for instance, simply saying, “Don’t commit to one course of action without due consideration.” It is this way that scripture is usually claimed to be intended, because it underlies the purpose of scripture in the first place. The second usage, however, is more literary, since it presents a kind of puzzle, a discovery for the reader to make that demonstrates a certain cleverness in the construction of the storyline. Blade Runner is a metaphor about mankind’s self-examination into what defines us as a species. No, I’m sorry, it’s actually about evolution. My mistake; it’s about scientists playing god and flying too close to the sun… dammit, it’s a metaphor for something, anyway.
And that illustrates the point. The value of metaphor is lost entirely if no one can interpret it correctly. The very fact that theologians, religious authorities, and just devotees cannot agree on whether certain passages are metaphorical or not belies the claim that they could be – how many other metaphors are mistaken for historical events? And it should be noted that virtually none of it was claimed to be metaphorical in the slightest until science had irrefutably demonstrated that it was nonsensical in any literal form – this means the metaphor was entirely lost on everyone for centuries, making it the least effective literary device yet discovered. The consequence of this is any such metaphor, should it actually have been intended by a creator, could only gain recognition after we lowly mortals had discovered how the real world works, utterly destroying any purpose behind the metaphor. One might as well bury the treasure map with the treasure.
There are further reasons not to use metaphors at all. Few forms or passages of scripture are written in any literary style, or were even intended for general distribution – it wasn’t until the printing press came along that the vast majority of the populace even had access; before that, it was up to the holy men to present the information. Most passages simply chronicle the actions of figures therein, and refer to historical events. Not only is it confusing to intersperse a metaphorical figure or event with historical ones, it adds no value or deeper meaning and even contributes to the idea that (at least) portions are strictly fiction. Until the past two hundred years or so, people did not receive regular schooling that taught them real history, which could then be contrasted with The Red Badge of Courage; scripture was their sole (a ha ha) source of information, save for whatever local tribal tales were present. There was nothing to compare the metaphors against.
Using a metaphor for such distant and unknown events such as how the Earth began surpasses pointlessness and enters absurdity; what exactly would this be a metaphor of, and why would it work better than simply chronicling the actual event? What value can be derived from hearing that the planet was born from a ‘sky cow,’ or has a ‘sister,’ over simply saying that it came together from dust because of gravity? Imagine if physics were taught, not with measurements and experiments, but with two turtles named Force and Inertia. Aside from being condescending in the extreme, it lends nothing useful to the practice and produces confusion in the place of more direct explanations. What is Force pushing against when she tries to shove Inertia, and moreover, what is she using to do so?
We can even consider what was missed in such explanatory guides for mankind, such as microorganisms – wouldn’t it have been fantastic if germ theory had at least been hinted at? If the vastness of space wasn’t completely obscured by vague references to ceilings and insignificant points of light? If commonality of species was introduced instead of petty appeals to tribalism and ridiculous distinctions among people? If there really was a compelling reason to use metaphors, perhaps there were some useful applications that could have been selected instead. Mankind has spent centuries struggling with the rampant misdirection of scripture, from witch hunts to holy wars, chosen peoples to esoteric religious rituals, meaning untold thousands of lives revolving around, and eradicated because of, mere analogy.
It’s not like such usages were unknown when most scripture was written, either. Greek mythology could be said to display numerous examples, even if they were mostly about how the gods could get away with petty behavior while humans could not. Some fables go way back, and there are even distinct examples within the abrahamic scriptures themselves. The significant difference to be seen is that the examples are obvious, presenting clear connections to properties or traits which produce their effectiveness. I’ll even grant that things like the adam & eve storyline might be a metaphor that was lost to time. The problem arises when anyone doesn’t just stop there, but continues the idea through to the logical consequences; the serpent is a metaphor for, what, evil tendencies within mankind? Original sin doesn’t actually exist, it’s simply a method of communicating that we’re disadvantaged from the start? This isn’t a road that any religious person should encourage traveling down, since scripture fares even worse when examined closely, especially when combined with the message that things were created to be this way. We cannot commit mistakes if created by any being that knows all that will happen; we can only follow the script.
Finally, this is just another example of unevidence; no one can effectively prove metaphorical usage, or even give a convincing line of reasoning behind it. It is offered, instead, as a potential explanation of why scripture is so astoundingly inaccurate – an excuse that dodges the looming specter of fallibility. But as a potential explanation, it sits alongside other potential explanations as well, such as scripture being entirely fictional, and the probability of all such explanations deserves objective examination before any one can be favored rationally. Moreover, accepting the posit of metaphorical usage just to see where it leads produces nothing; no one has ever interpreted the metaphors underlying the end times, for example, though thousands of claims have been made throughout the centuries. The amusing aspect of this is, should anyone finally determine that their own solution to the arrival of armageddon was correct, it would be too late to be of any use.
So theologians should actually be grateful when accused of grasping at straws to excuse scriptural inaccuracies. The implication is much more benign than if we accept scriptural metaphors as intentional, which makes the ineptness, confusion, and generations of lives wasted to be purposeful; this means either a clueless creator, or a sadistic one (and that’s not the first time either has been proposed.) The conclusions remain the same, however: nature makes a hell of a lot more sense, and even produces real answers when examined.
Twenty-three years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into low-earth orbit (meaning about 555 km, or 345 mi, above the surface of the Earth.) Since that time, it has produced perhaps the largest body of work of any single telescope, and certainly some of the most detailed. And just recently, NASA released a sweetheart.
Let’s start with some perspective. Everyone (who matters) knows the constellation Orion. Anyone interested in astronomy knows Orion is overflowing with cosmic goodness, aflame with nebulae and gases and new stars and all that jazz. To the naked eye and pretty much any non-telescopic photography attempt, Orion looks like what I’ve captured here: just stars, though a close look at the ‘dagger’ (ahem) gives some indication that they’re fuzzier (ahem) than just orbs (yes, I’m having fun, thanks for asking.) Ford Prefect is from a planet around that yellow star at upper left. Orion’s belt is/are the three stars almost vertical, right in the center of the image, and the dagger is/are the three stars extending diagonally towards the lower right. The dagger is actually a mess of stars and nebula, and in fact, most of the center of Orion is gas and dust and whatnot. The belt stars, however, really are just three stars, as everyone who remembers the dialogue from Men In Black knows. The thing is, to see all the fun stuff in detail requires not just a powerful telescope, but some fancy filters to select specific wavelengths, the emission spectra of hydrogen or oxygen or whatever, and a scope that counteracts the rotation of the Earth because long exposures are needed – the light is far too faint to capture otherwise.
Most people have also seen photos of the Horsehead Nebula, a dark blob against the red background cloud. Many, however, don’t know where it is. See the lowermost star of the belt (named Alnitak)? To the right, forming a right angle with the beltline, sits another star, Orion’s Cellphone. No, I keed, it’s Sigma Orion (σ Ori) which is actually a cluster of five stars which makes discussing anything of this sort rather tedious but forget all that for now. If you use those two stars (shut up) as the base of a triangle pointing downwards, the tip of the triangle is roughly where the Horsehead Nebula sits.
See it? Yeah, me neither – even when I had a telescope I never got a glimpse of it. But anyway, you know where to look to not see anything. Likely you’ve seen photos that look something like this, though; the two brightest stars oriented almost horizontally are the base stars I just named, with lots of other stuff that doesn’t show at all in my image. There in the center sits the Horsehead Nebula, the dark smudge against the red sheet. If you really want a good idea of how messy (no, not Messier) Orion’s apartment is, see the Astronomy Photo Of The Day here, with a guide that appears as your mouse hovers over the image.
All that’s just the buildup, like how almost the entire plot of Raising Arizona is presented before someone starts yodeling over the opening credits (yes, I just shamelessly made a comparison between my post and the Coen brothers, but I’ve already been damned to hell long ago.) Now that I’ve discussed how little we can see, check out what Hubble produced by imaging the Horsehead Nebula strictly in infra-red:
Here’s the deal. The red clouds in most other images of the nebula comes from hydrogen, weak light emitted as it cools, and sits in a pretty specific wavelength of light (mostly around 656nm, known as Hydrogen-alpha.) That light is blocked by the dust of the horsehead, so it appears dark against the red light. This image is taken solely in infra-red, which penetrates the dust much better but is not emitted at all (or very much) by hydrogen, so the background becomes clear while the cloud suddenly gets shape and depth and contours. As can be seen, it still reflects some IR, mostly from a source (almost certainly stars) towards the top of this image. In the previous post I talked about photographing at IR wavelengths from 720 to 950nm; Hubble produced this image with filters for 1,100 and 1,600nm (1.1 and 1.6μm, or micrometers rather than nanometers.)
The crosses over some of the stars in the image are diffraction spikes, an artifact of the Hubble telescope and not something you’d see if you were viewing this ‘up close’ (a few light years away.) Basically, they mean that the secondary mirror of the telescope, which sits in the ‘mouth’ of the tube, is supported by four thin arms; the spikes are from light being redirected by the arms, but the particular details of this will wait for a later post when I know more about how it actually works (it’s one I’ve had on the docket for a while now.) What’s not shown in this image are several young stars further down in the dust cloud. Nebulae such as this are stellar nurseries, loaded with the raw materials for stars and planetary systems, and over time the combined gravity draws clumps together into superdense concentrations, which eventually flare from the heat and pressure into stars. Or the clumps might be less dense and simply become planets, in some cases not aligned to any star but sitting all by themselves, cold and alone and really not very interesting. I mentioned some of the consequences of such nurseries in a previous post.
The image links to the main Hubble site, where you can download numerous versions of it. Definitely check out the largest and zoom in to see it in detail; it’s amazing how many galaxies can be found in the background, including what I believe is gravitational lensing seen at upper left and upper right (the positioning seems too circular to be random.)
Hubble’s significant advantages over Earth-based telescopes are the freedom from the filtering and scattering effects of the atmosphere, and its ability to aim very accurately at any section of sky for long periods – this includes an ability to re-aim, multiple times, and still get useful images. Hubble sits in an equatorial orbit, and with subjects such as Orion that also sit in about that same plane, this means that the Earth will block the shot for a portion of every revolution. The instruments on Hubble include Fine Guidance Sensors that see an arc around the scope’s field-of-view and are used to lock onto specific stars, fixing its orientation during the exposures. The tidal influence of the moon and the sun means Hubble gets tugged gently in other directions, so the detail of these images is testimony to the ability to stay on target. For the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images, this meant exposures totaling about ten days.
I would have liked to have captured an image of Hubble actually passing over on its birthday, but it seems there will be no visible passes for my area on that date, sigh. I don’t have a very good view to the south anyway, which is what is needed for anything in an equatorial orbit seen from my latitude, but I’ll get it one of these days. Feel free to try on your own (it’s listed as “HST” in the Satellite lineup.)
So, I did indeed brave the sunny, warm weather (which did not tax my sinuses half as much as yesterday) to chase a few shots, mostly by heading down to the river for a short while. I was primarily aiming to do some infra-red experiments, and did, but I took advantage of other conditions while I was there. Above, a common clearwing moth, also called a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe) dives deep into a pinxterflower (Rhododendron periclymenoides.) These little buggers presented a difficult target because of their constant motion – they feed quickly and never land on the flowers, and I’m still after some really solid images of them. Quite likely, what it will take is setting up the camera in an ideal position just behind and over some choice blossom, and simply waiting it out – multiple flash units are probably a good idea.
Several of these large bushes/small trees were in bloom, and attracting no minor amount of attention, mostly from the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), who let me achieve some pretty close approaches and held reasonably still, unlike the clearwing moths. There were a few small squabbles, potentially mating behavior since it took place between yellow and black versions of the same species, but otherwise little display of territoriality was visible at all, with swallowtails and clearwing moths occasionally feeding from neighboring flowers. While I stood nearby, two clearwings and a swallowtail came over to check me out at close range, but only briefly – I’m guessing the denim shirt (it was pretty chilly today) wasn’t all that appealing. No, I don’t own any Hawaiian shirts, and never will.
Before the clouds started to roll in, I did a few landscape shots in infra-red against the clear sky, using several different filters. This particular one is the cheapo method, which is simply a piece of unexposed (developed) slide film, which blocks most visible light but passes infra-red quite well. It produces more of a color cast than other, professional filters, at least when used on certain digital cameras. All digital sensors are sensitive to infra-red, but many cameras include an internal filter to block the wavelengths, since it can result in overexposing subjects that reflect a lot of IR, such as foliage. Which is how I discovered that my old Canon Pro90 IS camera could do this – brightly lit leaves had a tendency to appear washed out. This filter not only gives some distinctive color differences even between different kinds of foliage, it passes the most light and requires the shortest shutter speed – which is not to say that shutter speeds, with any kind of IR filter, are reasonable. A tripod is a must, and exposure times usually run into several seconds. This is why the foreground leaves are blurry, since the breeze was significant today. And it occurs to me that I haven’t yet tried this filter on people to see the effect…
And this is the effect from a different filter, a 720nm IR (which includes a small portion of the light visible to us) and probably my favorite.
Shown in comparison to an unfiltered version, you get an impression of what reflects IR light. Foliage usually shows only subtle differences, no matter what the color, and even dead leaves are quite reflective. Trunks, however, are considerably less so, and water does little reflection of IR. Blue skies contain almost no infra-red, so skies can become very dark (again, some filters allows a certain amount of visible light through and may give some sky color, like the slide film further up) and without the reflection from the sky, water becomes more clear, as can be seen around the base of the rocks – obviously IR is still penetrating, and bouncing back from the rocks within the water. Notice how the water has a distinctly magenta hue while the foliage turns towards cyan.
And finally, an effect I rather liked, this time using the Lee #87 polyester IR filter, which is claimed to start transmitting light above 730nm; in comparison to a 950nm filter that I have, I’m more inclined to say to it peaks at least as high as 850nm – the exposure times aren’t as long as the 950, but close, and the color transmission is almost as negligible. What you’re seeing here is the spillway out of the lake, between the two images above. The eight-second exposure aimed down from above the wall captured the froth at the bottom, moving enough to simply become blurred trails across the surface. There wasn’t much color to begin with, but this filter eliminates most of it anyway. The light needed to be bright, because without the reflected sunlight the bubbles would barely have registered, not staying in one place long enough to impinge on the sensor very strongly.
You can also go to this post if you want more info on shooting IR. Generally, unless you want to have a newer camera professionally modified, it’s better to find an old digital that lacks the IR blocking filter.
Hope you got out today, but if not, there’s always tomorrow!
It’s Earth Day, the day we celebrate our planet’s independence from the Barren Hegemony of the Solar System! It was a hard fought battle, especially since there was no one to fight it, but we (well, not specifically us; the planet, anyway) persevered!
We typically celebrate our defiant animus by going outside and gloating. Admittedly, some people (you know, them) do things like use less electricity, plant trees, make efforts to recycle materials, and other eco-friendly activities, as if this is the only day they should be doing them – yeah, I know it’s odd, but there are self-centered people out there. Regardless, get outside and shake your fist at the general universe, unless someone can see you, in which case do it only, like, in spirit. Whatever that takes – I don’t think it necessarily involves an out-of-body experience, but this isn’t precluded either, as far as I know.
In the event that you cannot express your Terran Heritage effectively (for instance, you have an asshole boss who wants some work to get done or something insipid like that,) relax – you can actually celebrate Earth Day any day, or even every day if that suits you. Compared to the other planets we know, this one’s actually pretty cool (well, okay, it’s warmer than most, and certainly more hospitable.) Just get out when you can and, as an exercise, try to find a spot where the natural stuff overwhelms the manmade stuff by the greatest margin.
I may be back later on with anything I’ve found, provided my sinuses can weather the assault – right at the moment, I am besieged by some of the most potent allergens I’ve ever encountered, courtesy of the recent rains I think. But even if it’s not today, I’ll be back with something appropriate a little later on. Don’t wait for me, however – get your own Earth-On.
Yes, that’s me, illustrating the drop-offs visible along much of the Blue Ridge Parkway, meaning I did a “mountain to sea” thing with the images for this post, while remaining within North Carolina too. Clever, I know.
I came in this evening from being outside shirtless, horrifying the neighbors, and felt something walking on my chest. Looked down and found a little winged aphid – just the perfect size, to my way of thinking. Grasping it by the wings and scampering outside, I carefully placed it on the azalea bush in front of one of the newborn mantises. This was touchy – they’re still very shy, but I was rewarded by seeing the mantis’ head snap around and fixate on the location of the aphid; I quickly dashed inside and got the camera. Once back outside, I played god (loki, perhaps – I’ve always liked loki) and nudged the aphid around from its hiding place on the back side of the leaf, and that was all it took.
Yes, there’s a part of me that feels I shouldn’t interfere, but then again, I’m interfering just by looming close for the images, and I’m getting some benefit from this, so why shouldn’t my photo subjects? This is the primary attrition time for insects – they’re at their most vulnerable at this size, and most of them will die within the next few weeks. Plus, I just mowed the lawn, and who knows how many critters I wiped out? I can go on justifying this if necessary…
Besides, you don’t walk on me without my permission – let this serve as warning.
Maurice Williamson, a member of New Zealand’s Parliament, addresses the floor yesterday on a bill that would amend the state of marriage to apply to same-sex couples as well:
Initially, I really liked his statements. There’s still (despite my efforts) a lot of emphasis in this country on not speaking sarcastically, especially in something as official as government assemblies. It was refreshing to hear someone treat trivial, nonsensical arguments with derision, because if we treat them with respect, we’re implying they have an equal status with arguments that provide rational consideration and actual, unimagined consequences. Same-sex marriage is a mere formality of legal standing, preventing the disenfranchisement of a select group of people (who take no actions that have the slightest public affect) from the benefits of a married status. It does not encourage homosexuality, any more than hetero marriage encourages heterosex. Think about that one if you like…
I reconsidered when I thought about it a little bit – not the same-sex bit, but the use of sarcasm and derision. I remain in favor of them too, but any statements that rely solely on belittling a standpoint while lacking rational arguments aren’t really arguments – they’re opinions, and of course can be used both ways. There’s no shortage of such approaches in topics like anthropogenic global warming and Barack Obama’s policies. Agreeing with an opinion, even liking the way it’s presented, doesn’t make it a good argument. A good argument is one that provides unassailable points, whereupon the only rebuttal can be to make emotional, opinionated declarations.
Now, Williamson’s remarks do indeed address some of the statements that have been put forth in support of marriage bans, so I don’t want to give the wrong impression – there are few arguments against same-sex marriage that don’t stem entirely from fundamentalist sources, and there’s no reason to believe religion has anything to contribute to legal rights or privileges. Even more, I’d love to see someone point out that this is only using scripture to bolster personal bigotry, since no one is ever going to introduce a bill against tattoos, trimming beards, avoiding contact with women during unclean periods, or wearing clothes of two different materials – all very distinct prohibitions from abrahamic religions, as distinct as prohibitions against homosexuality. Scripture contains a lot of ridiculous horseshit, most of which we happily ignore as pointless – it’s only when someone cannot make a rational argument in favor of their prejudices that they resort to using “god’s decree.” Such hypocrisy needs a lot more verbal bitchslapping, just to demonstrate that honesty has not been forgotten by some.
I’ve heard the argument that if the voters support it, that’s the way it should be – majority rules. What this ignores is that the voter’s responsibility is not to encourage legislation to their personal benefit, but to select the legislator that will best represent the entirety of their electorate. Lawmaking is not about indulgence – it’s about useful structure. The same people who want their bigotry stroked seem to get upset when large corporations strive to indulge their own interests, curious as that may seem. The creation and support of laws is to prevent harm; select groups of people should only be disadvantaged if their practices end up harming others. Laws that specifically disadvantage a select group without providing any advantage or benefit to everyone else is valuable… in what way?
Yes, this needs to be thrown into sharp relief. Yes, every crass insecurity hiding under the skirts of religion should be paraded around publicly and humiliatingly. People should be embarrassed to hold petty little views, rather than allowed to pretend they’re respectable because it’s holy somehow. Sometimes the decision we have to make is if we’re going to actively get into someone’s face about this – or remain silent (because confrontation is so emotionally harrowing) and thus be complicit in the victimization of others. Inaction is not innocence.
And take it from me: verbal bitchslapping is actually a lot of fun!
Just so you know – the amendment passed, and same-sex marriage is now a protected right in New Zealand. Go Kiwis!
This is probably the best photo I’m ever going to get of this, so I have to share. This is what spider sex looks like.
The female is the larger one, which is very typical of spiders. The little ‘legs’ seen here extending out to the front are pedipalps, and one of the ways you can easily (well, more or less) tell the gender of a spider, because the male’s are always larger – very often club-shaped rather than slender like the female’s. His are visible too, the dark blobs extending towards the underside of the female’s abdomen. Arachnosex consists of the male stretching his pedipalps underneath his own abdomen and depositing semen therein, then crawling or reaching underneath the female and delivering the semen, uh, manually. It all seems odd from our perspective, until you think about our perspective anyway.
This is the scale shot – all of it took place in the female’s lair on the underside of a holly leaf (one of my current go-to’s for arthropod pics, at least until more plants come into full leaf.) The female might be all of 3mm in body length – the blurry blobs in the top image are not ghosts or spirits, but pine pollen.
The best I can say is that these belong to the family Theridiidae, otherwise called the cobweb spiders, which includes probably half of the species you might find within your home. That identification only came about because I recognized the body shape and eye positions (visible in other images not shown here) to be very similar to black widows;eye position is actually a very good way to determine families of arachnids.
I had spotted the two spiders within her protective cluster of web strands and knew something was imminent – spiders do not tolerate close proximity unless either mating or newly hatched. I returned with the camera just in time to catch the money shot action. No way to use a tripod and nothing to brace against, so these are handheld while partially crouched and aiming slightly upwards, tripping the shutter as I swayed into sharp focus range. Sounds like I’m drunk, but when sharp focus is obtained within a 2mm bracket (for the lens used in the closeup image anyway,) only the rock-steadiest of people will not be leaning in and out of range constantly.
Artistically, however, I like this pic better, a neighbor only 15cm away on the same tree. That would be within earshot, except spiders don’t have ears, so the horrified look is just how jumping spiders appear normally. I love the cartoon eyelashes.
One of those items on my mental list of images to capture is the emergence of newborn mantises from their egg sac. I’ve gotten recently hatched nymphs a couple of times, but none ever emerging.
On spotting an egg sac near the pond in the park close by a few days ago, I found dangling debris, the shredded structure of the sac, that indicates the hatching has already occurred. Taking one last look, I found a nymph hanging onto the debris, and settled in for at least those pics. In observing its behavior and how the wind whipped the debris around, I eventually realized the mantis was actually caught, and may have been there for an unknown amount of time while the siblings simply dispersed into the tall grasses. Freeing an insect that’s a mere centimeter in length without injuring it is no easy task, but eventually I set it on its way, still dragging a bit of debris from one hind leg.
Now, last year’s residents led me to believe that there may be an egg sac hidden in the azalea bush right alongside the porch, and three times over the winter I examined the bush without finding anything. I have to say that the bushes, while small, are dense and notorious for capturing leaves, so I spent a lot of time determining that what I was seeing was just a leaf and not an egg sac. However, today I had it driven home that I’m not a Serious Sac Spotter, since a collection of nymphs (probably Chinese mantises, Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) was found clustered near the center of the bush.
I’m guessing, from the size and coloration, that they’ve been out for at least a few days, but since I haven’t yet followed any right from hatching, that’s just a guess. There are only a few flowers on the bush yet, so not enough really good backdrops, but they’ll be along. You can bet I’m going to be keeping an eye on the dewy mornings.
At this size, the mantis nymphs are very shy and not terribly fond of the camera looming overhead, so my attempts to get a nice portrait shot were met with each of my subjects turning away and heading deeper into the bush – this is the best I’ve gotten so far. That will eventually change, too; watch this space for more developments. By that time, the pine pollen that’s all over every damn thing here in central Carolina, staining everything from cars to pond surfaces a curious chartreuse, will have vanished, and won’t be peppered across my models.
The same bush hosted a few specimens of a pale green assassin bug (Zelus luridus,) only marginally longer than the mantises. They were less shy, but more bedeviled by the pollen. I was a little worried when I found one proboscis-deep in a fresh meal, since they’re just as insectivorous as the mantises and are likely to prey on one another, and the position it was in prevented me from getting a good view of the victim. Much as I try to be impartial, I still have favorites, and the mantises beat the assassins in my book. I was relieved to see that the meal was likely a lacewing nymph.
Also sharing the bush was a busy Eastern yellowjacket, I think (Vespula maculifrons) who was probably attracted by spills from the hummingbird feeder suspended directly above the bush. Provided I was in position and waited for its approach, I could get these nice frame-filling closeups, but if I tried leaning in myself, the bee got spooked and flew off, immediately returning to another section of the bush.
And finally, the one subject that wasn’t found on the same azalea, but perched conspicuously on a weed in the yard. The bright color attracted my attention, and the photos have done little to explain its appearance – near as I can tell, some twisted leaf managed to get wound around the abdomen of this fly. I may be wrong – this could be this season’s haute couture among the Muscidae, newly unveiled for spring. With a very close look, it appears the vegetation has actually bound the hind legs tight to the abdomen, and whether this had anything to do with my ability to get this close is anyone’s guess.
And yes, it feels good to get out of the winter slump and into some serious shooting again.
Some things get accepted into culture, maybe unintentionally, maybe in a casual way, but then become established enough that we get fooled into thinking they came from a reputable source, or from careful consideration; most of philosophy is this way, it seems. One that I’m going to address here is something that I’ve coined unevidence.
Unevidence should not be confused with the curious concept of negative evidence, which I’ve had fun with before. Negative evidence is the proof that something doesn’t exist, which cannot actually be done at all – we can either have evidence, or the lack thereof. Unevidence is slightly different, even though related: it is the practice of questioning some evidence that we actually do have in such a way that the doubt permits some alternate concept in its place. Just defining it makes it rather obvious, perhaps, though let’s look at it in detail.
In any discussion of the shroud of Turin, it is usually well known that the fabric was carbon14 tested and found to be only 700 years old, give or take – by an astounding coincidence, this is just how long ago the first record of its existence appeared. Immediately, however, someone will bring up speculation that the C14 tests could have been contaminated (bacteria is often supposed) and thus inaccurate. This factor is unevidence; no one has actually demonstrated that this could even happen, much less performed any tests at all for the contamination, and somehow those who bring up the possibility do not seem inclined to follow through in this manner. It is simply enough to raise the doubt, so the alternate belief that the cloth is actually the burial shroud of jesus of Nazareth cannot be ruled out.
The same tactic comprises the entirety of Intelligent Design, where no actual process or theory is presented in the slightest (and original research is avoided like eye-contact with a panhandler); the only efforts ever put forth are the attempts to raise questions about natural selection. It can also be seen in UFO circles when any prosaic explanation is offered, and it lies embedded deeply within any conspiracy theory that can be named. Doubt is widely considered support for any favorite alternative.
The flaws are obvious under even cursory examination: lack of confidence in one explanation does not even remotely imply any confidence in another. Somewhat more subtle but just as important is that a lack of confidence does not rule out any explanation either – it can still be perfectly correct without our ability to prove it beyond question (in some cases, any fervent desire for alternatives will perpetuate such questions anyway; people will believe what they want to believe, cognition be damned.) We continue to see the application of unevidence because too few ever stop to think about it, and because the practice has been established in our culture to an extent that it is considered valid. Everyone else is using it, so it must be legitimate.
It is so well established, in fact, that many who pursue critical thinking and skepticism can blow right past it, when the use of it presents a golden opportunity to show what critical thought accomplishes. It is often used as a form of misdirection as well, because doubt is a powerful tool; weakening a case by casting doubt on any factor within can sometimes, by extension, appear to cast doubt on everything – yeah, as a species we can fall for that too. Again, for certain topics this can be seen quite often.
In fact, the use of unevidence is often a red flag, a strong indicator that the person using it is more emotionally involved in their standpoint than rationally convinced (even though the use of rational in this case is a bit too subjective.) Unevidence doesn’t provide a point in favor of anything – instead, it merely opens a gap within which someone will jam their preferred ideas. At times, it even demonstrates a double-standard that verges on hypocrisy; unevidence can manifest as a demand for impossibly strict rigor in supporting all of the evidence that someone doesn’t like, a rigor that is never necessary for the evidence that they do like. The previous example displays this quite clearly: while C14 dating is not considered accurate enough to dismiss the potential holy provenance of the shroud, what, exactly, is supporting this provenance? And how many doubts can be raised about that?
The slightly tricky thing about unevidence is that there are legitimate reasons to question some kinds of evidence, and rigor is actually a good thing to maintain – critically, we should be holding all evidence to a high standard regardless. The crucial difference between weak evidence and unevidence is that weak evidence presents, worst case, a wash – return to null. Unevidence is always considered to strengthen an alternate view, as if there are only two possibilities. I was going to point out that it was an attempt to inflict dichotomous, binary style thinking onto a situation where it wasn’t warranted, but binary is actually useful in illustrating the flaw. Some people seem to believe that evidence consists of two states: either supporting one hypothesis (e.g., that the shroud is legitimate) or the ‘other’ (that the shroud is a fraud.) But binary is actually a choice between positive and null, 1 and 0, and that’s all that evidence really is – it either supports a given idea, or it supports nothing. What is required for any and all alternative proposals is another type of evidence that can produce that positive state, the 1 that is necessary, and it is this that unevidence fails to establish – in fact directing attention away from.
The goal is to recognize this and point it out as needed. Even if evolution were completely discredited tomorrow (heh!) this would not make the adam & eve story any less absurd, or relieve the onus of demonstrating positive evidence for Intelligent Design. UFO stories that lack a mundane explanation are not any more supportive of alien species than the sightings identified as a satellite – seems odd, but a moment’s thought will reveal the logic. Not being able to find one’s car keys does not support the idea that they grew legs and walked away. Possibility does not actually derive from being unable to demonstrate impossibility – things can be impossible even when we cannot prove it, while possibility requires something to support the proposed concept. Even better, move any such discussion towards the use of probability instead, to force the introduction of supporting factors. It sets a bar for reasonable discussion that does not rely on gaps.