Odd memories, part 21

This one still kinda startles me a little, but at the same time, it’s strangely vindicating.

Back in the early nineties, I had been working for a humane society for a couple of years at the most, and had gotten involved in wildlife rehabilitation and advice (as I’ve mentioned before, several times.) Back then I was quasi-knowledgeable about wildlife, but most of it really came from the people I worked with and the networking that I was doing – it was simply the nature of the job. And one aspect, that I kind of fell into (because I’d expressed a mild interest and no one else was doing it,) was getting involved in what we called the Beaver Project.

Yeah yeah, snicker all you want, get it out of your system. Where I lived and at that moment in time, there was a fair amount of activity from North American beavers (Castor canadensis.) My first encounter, which might have even occurred before I began working for the humane society, came one afternoon as I was walking along the banks of the creek that ran behind the apartment complex. Hearing some soft noises in the tall grasses, I crept stealthily closer, and happened upon simply the largest beaver I have seen in my life, easily three times the size of what most people imagine them to be (I was later to find out that they can continue to grow all of their lives, so this was likely an elderly specimen.) Memory is, of course, a volatile and untrustworthy thing, but I would estimate its weight at better than 18 kg (40 lbs) and overall length better than a meter (don’t even make me translate that for you.) Its head looked almost as big around as mine, and there I was, perhaps four meters from it. It soon became aware of my presence, which provoked the abrupt and alarming momentary pause in its mastication of some vegetable matter, ensuring that I wasn’t about to scold it or anything, before it resumed its meal without twitching from the spot. Eventually, as I watched, it turned casually and ambled down into the water, clearly not at all impressed with my hulking presence (which at that time scarcely massed three times its own.) I was to later learn that beavers, overall, are pretty damn mellow unless provoked, which is usually accomplished by dogs. People they generally don’t give a damn about.

Anyway, in the humane society, the purpose of the project was to inform people about how to help prevent beaver damage to their trees, try to alleviate flooding by beaver dams, and deal with a lot of public ire and misinformation. This was my first experience with the angry homeowner and the bandwagon effect – once an article ran in the paper, there would be countless “me toos” that escalated in scale until it was a positive epidemic, and of course it all came down to the humane society to do something about it because it was obviously our fault that the dam things existed here in the first place. Now, there was no epidemic, and for the most part only passing activity in a few select areas, and I know this because I’d been out to examine numerous reports and complaints. Mostly, it was people that had lost an expensive exotic sapling that they’d had planted while purchasing property on the edge of a lake or waterway – again, this must have been our fault. I have very little patience for such idiocy, really; if you want a natural vista or landscape or whatever, it comes with animals, because that’s where they fucking live. You can eliminate this entirely by living in a seventh-floor walkup in NYC if it bothers you that badly.

Before I oversell this injustice, let me clarify by saying that a lot of it was our doing – specifically, advocating for humane control methods and not trapping. A little background is in order. North Carolina is still largely backwater (No! Really?) and hunting and trapping gets a lot more attention than humane management or even just ignoring the critters in the state; the NC Wildlife Resource Commission was started entirely to maintain game lands and still keeps this as a primary focus, only reluctantly embracing the idea that maybe not everyone wanted to shoot something. And there was a peculiar law on the books: while beavers could be snare-trapped (usually by a barbaric little Spanish Inquisition castoff,) they could not be relocated, so even if you live-captured them in a humane trap, you weren’t allowed to release them again somewhere else, even onto parks or reserves or game land. The idea, so I was told, was that you were simply relocating the problem. Which is true enough, except for the bare fact that it if wasn’t homeowners’ land it wasn’t a problem anymore. But yeah.

At some point in there, we were contacted by a homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, a few hours away by car. It seems that the same thing was happening there: an expensive plot of land newly-given over to housing, on the edge of a Norfolk River tributary, was seeing beaver damage and many of the homeowners were up in arms, demanding that the city do something about it. It became quite contentious, with advocates on both sides going at it hammer-and-tongs, and finally the city council decided to hold a hearing where everyone could present their case and they would make a decision. The reason we were contacted? We had an active humane program regarding beavers, and so they wanted someone from our organization to come speak at the hearing.

Now, let me paint the picture. I had been providing advice over the phone, and had helped with a couple of our public programs, which meant a total of 30 attendees or so. That, and a couple of school plays, rounded out my public speaking experience. But I imagined it was a relatively routine thing and, since there was presently no one else in the program that was available or experienced enough, our director encouraged me to go. The humane society had a vehicle that I could use, the homeowner who contacted us would put me up for the night, and so, when the time came, off I went.

There had been no time to plan much, and I intended to get as much information from my host as I could so I could address things directly. Meanwhile, I found out that the little meeting I had imagined was nowhere near accurate: there would be perhaps a few hundred people in a large auditorium, and the major TV news crews would be present. We would have five minutes to speak, no questions or back-and-forth, from a podium standing in front of the raised dais where the twelve council members sat. If you’re picturing this medieval judgment tribunal situation thing, I can say there were no robes and the scene wasn’t lit by guttering torches, but otherwise that’s accurate. Nothing like getting thrown into the deep end. I had, at my host’s urging, brought along a dress jacket at least, something suitable to be buried within.

Did I mention that I did not, in fact, have my speech written out? I had a lot of notes and odd-and-ends, and my own basic experience on hand, but nothing was rehearsed and I had no idea how long my scribbled notes would actually run when spoken. I was lucky enough, however, to be the second-to-last to speak, which allowed me to hear all of the cases being made before me, and so I was in the enviable position of being able to rebut these directly, and I actually wrote the entire speech up to a few minutes before I was to go on. When called upon, I stepped smartly to the podium, activating (so I thought) the microcassette recorder in my pocket to save my stuttering and rambling for all eternity.

And… it went without a hitch. For anyone that has actually listened to my podcasts, this is probably impossible to believe, but it’s true nonetheless. I might have stumbled over a word or two, but considerably less than some of the speakers, and nothing untoward or even memorable. I was still young and hardly an imposing specimen of any kind, much less what you’d expect from “an expert,” but it went amazingly well. I finished with about fifteen seconds to spare in my five-minute allotment, and regained my seat over a hearty thumbs-up from my host.

The last speaker was someone from a nationwide animal advocacy group based in DC (no, not PETA, or even in the same ludicrous ballpark – PETA really is a bunch of dipshits); someone with a hell of a lot more experience in the matters than I had, and well-used to public speaking. After we all finished, the council adjourned for a brief deliberation, while some of the speakers (including my host, but thankfully not including me – I have a face for radio) provided interviews for the TV crews. Not too long afterward, a couple of the council members approached the last speaker and I and asked if we’d be available to attend a small private meeting the following morning. We weren’t in a position to say no, really, after the effort we’d done to be there that night in the first place, so we agreed. I made the stupid mistake of confirming that I did have a place to stay, which meant I spent the night in my host’s spare bedroom rather than in a lovely downtown Norfolk hotel. Idiot.

The meeting the next morning was basically to reassure the council that trapping was pointless, and not something that the city needed to be spending its money on (especially since that trappers would have been charging $50 a head, and there was no assurance that this would actually accomplish anything nor that it would not be an ongoing expense – if you have a habitat, animals will use it, and the possibility of beaver populations perpetually coming down from further up the tributary was distinct enough.) The council elected to leave the matter up to the individual homeowners as, “what to expect when you live on the waterfront.” I have to say, it felt pretty damn vindicating.

After that, the guy from the nationwide organization and I had breakfast together, comparing notes and experiences, and he admitted that he was faintly chagrined to have to follow me, because I said virtually everything that he’d had planned. Which was great to hear, you betcha, but not terribly surprising; the information remains the same, and I pointed out that hearing two disparate sources reiterating the same info may likely have cemented the council’s decision, since most of the other speakers varied wildly on both expectations and the heinous damage that they claimed was being done. But overall, I still look back on this episode with a little disbelief – there were plenty of ways how, and plenty of reasons why, my speech could have gone awry, and it was by far the most public thing that I’ve done, even today. And yet, it helped with matters since, because I knew that I handled that well enough and so taking control of a wedding party or jumping onstage during a technical glitch stirred nothing in me more than a momentary nervousness.

By the way, somehow I never did trigger the cassette recorder when I thought I did, so I didn’t have any record of how it went other than my scribbled notes. Ah well.

Now, since I’m on the subject, I have to add part two.

Sometime after that, we’d received several complaints about flooding and so on along another creek in the area, one that we knew had the occasional mid-size beaver dam on it, because that was one of the projects I’d worked on; there are numerous methods of trying to ensure that beavers do not stop up too much of the water flow, all of them labor-intensive and none of them particularly effective – beavers detect water flow and try to stop it, because deep water is protection and access to their food plants. Wanting to determine the extent of the damming and the actual population of the rodents, we figured the best bet was to check out as much of the creek as possible, and this meant kayaking it. I’d done more than a passing amount of kayaking on our homebuilt models while back in NY, but did not possess one here, and so had to rent a whitewater performance kayak from the neighboring town. This craft was a far cry from what I was used to, which was a multi-person open-topped model where you could carry a small amount of cargo; instead, this was a seed-shaped needle of a craft with one of those skirts that you wrap around your waist and snap over the lip of the single-opening itself, to keep water out. This was the kind that you can eskimo-roll, a term that still exists even while “Eskimo” is being considered racist. Anyway, I had no idea how to, um, “E-word-roll” a kayak and wasn’t about to try it.

I want you to bear in mind that this was in February, so the water was still quite cold and not something that you wanted to splash about in. I endeavored to get into the kayak without setting foot in the water, finding in the process that these sport models are very laterally unstable, and also that the foot pegs pushed me up onto the seat back. This isn’t as egregious as it sounds, because the seat back rose all of six centimeters, I believe, but it was still uncomfortable. I pushed away from shore into the middle of the creek and started to turn.

Really unstable. Almost immediately the kayak decided on its own that we should E-word-roll, and turned turtle in a flash. I was in about a meter of water, not really the depth that you would make the attempt even if you were so inclined, and all I pictured was getting upside down without any knowledge of how to right myself and getting trapped within the kayak. Before I got fully horizontal on my way over, I’d slammed one paddle tip into the bottom, in an attempt to halt my inversion, and kicked madly out of the kayak and skirt. While this was happening I know I was uttering some desperate, unmanly, and extremely unintelligible sounds, even worse than when someone fishes their phone out of the toilet. It was over in seconds of course, and the water wasn’t remotely deep enough to pose a hazard even if I couldn’t swim (which I could,) but now I was soaked to the skin in 5°c weather.

Annnnddd that was it, wasn’t it? I’d have to go home and change, and still wasn’t sure how to handle this unstable piece of shit, and should probably just give it up and settle for hiking the creek edges as far as I could, some other day. As I mentally planned all of this, I got pissed off, and noticed that the wet clothes weren’t bothering me as much as I thought they would (though soaked, it was still a winter jacket, and of course a good mad-on does wonders for body temperature.) And at some point, while thinking about throwing the kayak back on top of the car, I noticed that the foot pegs were adjustable and set for someone about a meter shorter than I was. Eventually, I decided to give it another go.

Let me tell you, in those itty-bitty performance kayaks, center of gravity is important, and readjusting the pegs so I could sit in the seat improved the stability quite a bit – it was still quite tippy if I leaned at all, but manageable with just a little presence of mind. And so, I completed my mission, or what I could of it anyway, which was enough to answer all of the questions that I had. Because the dams that I encountered were feeble little things that didn’t raise the water level 30cm, while the water was perpetually stained orange from the ubiquitous Carolina clay, indicative of extensive runoff from areas where all the topsoil had been removed – the flooding wasn’t coming from the beaver activity, but from improper stormwater management from the nearby road construction efforts. Far too much of my journey was spent out of the kayak anyway, dragging it over snags and shallow areas because the creek wasn’t capable of supporting a single kayak’s passage, much less flooding out someone’s property, and a rise of a couple of handspans would have completely swamped the minimal beaver dams that I did encounter – the population couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so in a kilometer stretch. Certainly not an epidemic.

And the following year, I had the bandwagon effect confirmed, because then the papers had moved on to other topics and, while the beaver populations appeared unchanged from the year before, we received about 10% of the calls that we had previously. People are weird.

Some winter progress

Okay, here’s the backstory. For some time now, I’ve been thinking of noodling around with photomicrography – photography through a microscope, you know, serious macro work. This requires having a microscope – surprise surprise – and I’ve been watching for one for years, since I wasn’t going to drop the serious money for a new one for something that I might not get into all that much. The local college surplus store had a few at one point several years ago, right at the edge of my price range, and I dithered and lost out, since they all went within two days. Since then, I never saw a decent microscope for sale anywhere.

Then not quite a year ago, I happened across one in a thrift store, complete except for the lighting unit, a serious four-objective binocular lab scope from Bausch & Lomb, which means price range new would be in the $500-$1000 range. Price on this unit? Eleven bucks. I actually went to check out with some trepidation, thinking they were gonna catch their mistake or even accuse me of switching price tags, but I walked out the door at that price. I can live with that.

Replacement light sources get expensive too, and I wasn’t finding a match anywhere, but we’re at this really cool point in tech now, and I simply fitted an LED light source. First unit burnt out within five minutes during the initial experiments, telling me that a heat sink is necessary immediately, but it was too bright anyway. Second unit was meticulously constructed to fit into the microscope housing with a generous heat sink, even feeding into the metal body of the scope – snazzy little job if I say so myself.

Finally, the other night I fired it up and started playing, finding that it was working just ducky. Then I couldn’t find the camera adapter that I’d purchased some time back. Located it the next morning, and later on tried again. I’m clearly going to need some slide cover slips and perhaps a top light source as well (the only one right now is the standard bottom light,) but you might start seeing more stuff like this (only better):

These came from a couple of different sessions as I experimented, just noodling around right at the moment, but proof of concept and all that rot. I also have to do a meticulous cleaning of the lenses all through. At some point, I’m going to figure out how to get a measuring scale in there – I imagine that they can be purchased someplace, and that they’re not cheap.

The other thing that appears in the middle clip is, I believe, a molted exoskeleton from another unidentified arthropod, found floating on the water sample – I included it as another subject to practice on, but did not explain this in the audio. All of these are from water drops merely resting on a slide, no cover slips or preparations or anything.

By the way, you can compare this with my results from using a bellows unit in place of a standard lens, several years back – daphnia come in a variety of sizes so I cannot say these are a direct comparison.

What prompted all of this was searching for something to photograph during the lean months, and doing a little poking around in the backyard pond. I turned up an egg case of some kind on the underside of a floating leaf, suspecting that they were snail eggs but honestly not sure. The remaining photos are all more-or-less ‘routine’ macro, taken with the reversed Sigma 28-105.

unidentified aquatic eggs from underside of leaf
The entire blob was about 10mm in length, so you can figure out from there how small the eggs were. I include a detail inset from the same frame so you can see those eggs as well as we’re able right now (save for attempting to slice open the blob and get an individual egg on a slide, which i considered more likely to fail than succeed, but I also thought about getting some hatching sequences and so wanted to leave the blob undisturbed.)

unidentified eggs in detail
There! That’s certainly… multicellular. If you can identify the species from those misshapen blobs, let me know – I think someone scrambled those eggs in the shell, myself.

After taking these, I returned the leaf to a small bucket where I could monitor things, but was unable to check back as routinely as I would have liked, and it appears they all hatched out in the interim. I still suspect snails, given how many are in the pond itself, but haven’t ruled out other things like that wormlike something that appeared first in the video.

One of the water samples that I gathered had a ride-along, a small insect that perched nonchalantly on the water surface and made no attempt to leave the 20ml sample jar that I was using, so I did a few shots of that one while it was being so cooperative.

smaller water strider genus Microvelia cleaning proboscis
I had no idea how to start looking for identification images, knowing this was not a truly aquatic bug, just one that was at home on the surface, so I uploaded the images to BugGuide.net, always a useful resource. But as I did so, I was looking at the anatomy again and realized it was like a short, squater version of a common water strider. In moments, I’d confirmed that this was indeed what it was, though not an immature nymph as I’d suspected from the lack of wings or elytra. The subsequent reply from BugGuide’s volunteers reinforced this discovery: it’s from the genus Microvelia. In this image it is cleaning its proboscis – striders are predatory hemipterans.

The very first things to appear, usually well before winter has gasped its last, are of course the daffodils, and there are only so many ways you can photograph them, but then again, what else is there? So when The Girlfriend had cut a few to put in a vase, I borrowed them one night to at least keep my hand in with the macro rig – I was beginning to think I’d forget what I was doing.

center of daffodil blossom
No no, of course that’s not where I stopped. Please.

stigma and anthers of daffodil
Nothing like a straight-up-the-middle shot, eh? That stigma all moist and receptive, surrounded by eager ‘one-eyed’ anthers crowding around. I’ll let you pick your own appropriate soundtrack music…

I remembered something from my childhood, one of those elementary school experiments that are supposed to show – something, who knows what – but mostly just look cool. One of those things that you read or hear about, but never actually try, you know? So, given that I’m in my mid-fifties now, I figured it was time to get to this long-neglected task, and cut a new flower to put in its own vase on my desk, adding a few drops of food coloring to its water.

The idea is that the flower draws up the water for a few days and the food coloring stains its petals, creating unnatural hues in the blossoms (it supposedly also works with celery.) My plan was to get it fairly unique in color and then sneak it into The Girlfriend’s own vase and see how long it took her to notice. But perhaps daffodils are the wrong choice for this, because while some coloration did indeed occur, it was to a very limited extent before the flower dried up, too subtle to be of any real use. Ah well.

daffodil fed by colored water
Given those, you should now know what the end of the month abstract image was; as the flower started to dry out, I took a section of a petal to pop under the microscope, naturally picking a portion that was showing the color. And it might be showing some evidence of this, if you look closely at the image at that link – there are faint hints of cyan here and there, but that could also just be refraction of the light too. Still, I’m just getting started, so we’ll see what kind of funky stuff I can dig up later on.

Storytime 9

stupid driver
Some 14 years back while house-sitting for some friends who lived near the interstate, I went out for a walk one evening and noticed, off in the distance, a collection of flashing lights from emergency vehicles. At this point I was still largely shooting film, but my friend had left behind his Sony F-828, an upgrade from the F-717 that I’d used for a while in Florida, so I gathered that up with a tripod and hiked down towards the lights to see what was happening, with the thought that maybe I’d get something I’d long been after, which was a time-exposure with passing emergency vehicles in the frame.

Long story short: the accident looked minor, with not even an ambulance visible and just one disabled vehicle (looked like a spin-out, which people tend to forget is extremely easy to accomplish at highway speeds.) However, to allow access from both fire and wrecker vehicles, one lane of the interstate had been closed off with flares. The visibility of this extended for perhaps a thousand meters – I’d been that far away when I first spotted it, I believe.

I set the tripod up on the shoulder well away from the emergency vehicles themselves, but still within the region of lane closure and away from the road surface, so I was clearly not in anyone’s way, nor at risk myself. Well, much risk.

I was reminded how stupid people can be when, almost right alongside me, I heard a desperate squeal of brakes and locked tires and looked up to see a pickup truck fishtail to a halt within the closed lane. Either the idiot had approached the traffic ahead of him at way too high a speed, or had figured he’d duck into the ’empty’ lane to go around all those slowpokes. While he wasn’t too close to rear-ending a police cruiser, he also wasn’t far enough from it (again, highway speeds,) and somehow did not register the road flares that, really, couldn’t be missed unless you were unfathomably stupid. I quickly spun the camera around on the tripod and fired off a shot, so that’s what you see in the frame up there: the pickup is still rocking, with one of the road flares visible just beyond its rear tire, while a rig passes by in the correct lane. The blue ripples are reflections from the side of the trailer of the police cruiser not far out of the frame, strobes active (as they had been for the previous twenty minutes at least.) In fact, you can see a faint haze above the trailer itself, at the right end of the streak from the running lights, which may very well be the smoke from the idiot’s burned tires – I know I could both see it and smell it when I was there.

How close did he come? Well, here’s another shot that was a tad wider (shorter focal length) from the same position:

time exposure of car carrier passing police cruiser at night
There’s the flare, and the police cruiser that was outside the previous frame. The other thing you’re seeing is a car carrier rig, illuminated by the blinking lights as it passed – cool effect. The flare looks closer or brighter than in the first photo, but I think that’s only because it wasn’t partially blocked by the idiot’s tire here – both exposures were only one second long.

A quick note about how hard it is to express field of view and focal length. Back in the day, as they say, it used to be relatively easy; with 35mm film cameras, each 50mm of focal length was about 1x magnification, so a 50mm lens was ‘normal,’ about what you’d see in person, while 100mm was 2x and so on. Everyone knew a 28mm lens produced a nice wide-angle shot. Then came digital, with much smaller sensors and commensurately shorter focal lengths, so this rule disappeared, and no guideline could be used among the different cameras. Eventually, the “35mm equivalent” started being used, and the Sony F-828 actually had such markings on the barrel of the zoom lens. Except, what’s saved in the EXIF info of the file isn’t the equivalent, it’s the actual focal length, so as I see that the top photo was shot at 37.7mm focal length and the middle one at 26.2mm, some translation is in order. It took a little research and a couple of quick calculations, but the equivalent is, top to bottom, roughly 100mm and 150mm – both short telephoto, meaning I was farther away than the photos make it appear, but not hugely.

I’ll close with one more, which only vaguely fulfilled my goals for that evening. As the wrecker pulled away with the accident vehicle (the original one,) I was prepared, up on the slope and dragging the shutter as it pulled into the lane. Interesting, but not quite what I was after – which I have yet to accomplish, but seriously, it’s not like I go out and try several times a year.

time-exposure of wrecker leaving with accident vehicle

February has left the building

I'm not telling you
Well, not yet it hasn’t, but within a day it will – it is, naturally, the end of the month abstract. Once more, I’m not revealing what this is (though someone will likely know,) and all I’m going to say instead is that it is topical, very current, and a hint of things to come.

Oh, yeah, and this image has undergone a little sharpening, because it needed it. I’m in largely uncharted territory here (for me at least.)

Always the best for the readers

Except, in this case, it would be viewers. Yes, that means a video is coming up, but wait! Hold your horses, it’s not one of my videos, so you don’t have to leave. In the interests of providing to you nothing but the best factual sources, carefully examined for useful and accurate information, I happily sponsor the latest offering from Ze Frank or zefrank or whatever (who I’m beginning to suspect is not actually French) – in this case, True Facts: The Lemur:

The Duke Lemur Center mentioned within has appeared here before, or at least a tiny portion of one of their fences as well as an even tinier portion of one of their residents, and sits only a handful of kilometers from Walkabout Studios (I love saying that – rather overblown description of my crowded desk in a shared home office, but hey…) I imagine that their tour requests have multiplied significantly since this video posted, which is a shame, because that was one of the things on my list of spring possibilities and now it might be hard to get to. Thanks, Ze Frank!

Either way, I’ll do a vaguely-related post soon, since I already have most of it planned and about half of the photos edited. Starting to get a little posting momentum going here, so be patient.

Meanwhile, you can always adopt a lemur, but I do have to warn you, this is misleading: you don’t actually get to take the lemur home, and you sure as hell aren’t allowed to use it for dance or singing lessons or teach it anti-vaccination horseshit. Yet your donation supports the research done at the Center and their outside efforts, which is pretty cool all the same, so have at it – there are other options available too. I don’t care that you’re a freaking Heels fan, do it anyway.

ring-tailed lemur Lemur catta portraitOf course, I have to close with my favorite lemur photo (among those taken by me, anyway,) which also appeared in the recent exhibit. This did not come from the Duke Lemur Center, but from nearby Museum of Life & Science – probably directly-related anyway due to their proximity. I think the ring-tailed lemurs get far too much attention, given how many species there are, but this was what presented the best opportunity so far. We’ll see if I can rectify that soon.

By the way, if you’re embedding YouTube videos, you can remove little bits from the URL like, you know, “autoplay;” and have mercy on everyone. Little tip from your Uncle Al. No, this doesn’t mean that I just adopted you – relax.

Storytime 8

moon alongside defocused christmas lights
First off, I’m going to refer you to this post just for trivia’s sake, because the image above was shot the same night. While I wrote that I wasn’t shooting the full moon, that wasn’t actually true – I was just illustrating shooting by the full moon for that post.

But before that happened, I fired off a few shots at home, aiming up alongside the holiday lights still strung along the rail of my second-story balcony. I suspect I wasn’t bothering with the tripod at that point, because this image shows the hallmark of shooting with a wide-open aperture: all of those defocused lights are round in shape. If the f-stop was smaller, they’d be in the shape of the aperture itself, and I have a few examples of those. With a very small aperture, you can render bright points of light as starbursts, but only if they’re in focus, and even with the increased depth-of-field, I wasn’t getting the moon and my balcony rail (only a few meters away) in the same focus. I had the choice of going with starbursts and an unfocused moon, or a sharp moon and round unfocused lights, so here we are.

Given that this was taken nine years ago, I had to rely on memory, and was pretty confident that the lights had been wrapped around the top rail – which meant that the moon appearing almost between some of the lights indicated that it was just above the rail itself (perspective-wise, anyway – again, going from memory, but I’m also pretty confident the moon remained 385,000 km away, and this is supported by its size in the frame.) Curious, I threw the Curves way off the scale in GIMP with the hopes of rendering ever-so-faint evidence of the railing in the image. Result: no evidence – just not enough light captured during the exposure.

What I did bring up, however, were a few more lights (and some unexplained blotches, very faint evidence of some kind of reflected light or cloud.)

same image with light levels boosted signficantly
I took it a lot farther than this just to see what appeared, but backed it off because this was sufficient to illustrate the missing lights. It seems the blue bulbs (and I’ve seen this before) are a lot lower in light output than the others and thus don’t expose as brightly. Which is curious, because they’re all the same kind of filament and wattage, so the difference remains in the glass tint. I have a vague suspicion some of the output borders on the near-ultraviolet and gets filtered out by the camera and lens coatings, but that’s just idle speculation, and something that I have no way of testing. Well, okay, no easy way of testing – I suppose I could rig up several strands of nothing but blue bulbs, here in the office where I park my ass all winter, and see if I get a tan…

Tell me what you’re doing about it

Today, February 21st, is Get Around To Doing Something Because It’s Been A Year And There’s Nothing To Shoot Anyway Day and so, prompted by this, I put together this little animated gif (pronounced “gyl-EN-haylll”) of fifteen frames that I shot a year ago. As you undoubtedly recall, that day opened quite foggy and I went down to the lake to take advantage of it. In the middle distance out there sat a depth marker in the water, serving as a perch for a seagull because of course – before humans came along to put lots of poles and buoys in the water, seagulls were stronger since they had to fly farther between perches, so that’s even more blame we can shoulder. I had the longer lens on to do esoteric abstract compositions, and as I was shooting, another gull came in and usurped this primo spot and I simply fired off a sequence. I kept looking at them and thinking I should do an animation, but knew that would be a little time-consuming, between ensuring that the frames lined up reasonably well and touching out all the dust on the sensor because it becomes really damn noticeable in plain grey situations.

[My shooting habits are largely responsible for this dust, because most of my lens changes take place out in the field in less that optimal conditions, plus my main body doesn’t have one of those ultrasonic dust-clearing functions. I need to clean the sensors more often, but it’s slightly tricky and stands a distinct possibility of damaging the sensor if I’m not careful, so I tend to put it off more often than I should.]

But enough stalling.

animated sequence of gulls disputing perch
If you look close, you can see the perched gull following the intruder – I could have shown this in better detail but it would have made the image that much bigger, and with the fog and shutter speed and distance it wouldn’t have added much anyway. Personally, I have my doubts that the second gull even needed a perch, and only wanted to demonstrate its dominance (read: assholiness) to that insolent, lazy gull on the marker.

You may have noticed the distinct color cast, significantly different from the photos shown last year, and that’s because I was shooting these in Sunlight white balance, essentially no correction – the light really was that blue, I just tweaked the others for an effect that looked more normal to us (because our eyes and/or brains automatically compensate for color casts, at least to a degree.) The weather conditions right now are vaguely threatening more fog, but they’re also threatening a thunderstorm, so if the next post doesn’t contain lightning photos, it either didn’t happen, or the conditions didn’t permit being out there doing time exposures, or I was too tired and slept through it.

[Such excuses could really apply to everything here, couldn’t they? “I was going to go out and shoot some photos of California condors, but the weather never got nice enough, and they don’t live around here, and I don’t know how to use a camera anyway.” It’s like deflecting all the blame away. I should try this more often.]

Enough about me. Tell us in the comments what you’re doing for the holiday!

Can’t argue with tradition

stray branch on beach during sunset at Costa Rica, by Wendy Hall
mainsail against sky, by Wendy HallAfter the first grueling summer of 16-something-or-other, the initial colonists of what would later become the United States said, “Enough of this shit” (or words to that effect – probably more like, “Forsooth, we are unworthy of this bounty of excrement,”) and sailed down to Costa Rica to watch sunsets on the beach, a tradition that would eventually become our Thanksgiving holiday.

Well, okay, the Walkabout Fact Checkers (hard as it may be to believe, they really do exist, even if they’re not very good at their job,) have told me that this did not, in fact, happen. But it should’ve, and in that spirit, it’s what a friend of mine did this past Thanksgiving – the reason I haven’t featured these images until now is that I finally convinced her to send them to me. Okay, sure, it was a week ago, but you have to allow for editing you know – it takes time to add in that copyright tag. Plus all the research that goes into the accompanying text, because she sure as hell didn’t provide any to me. So we have pictures that are not mine, and not a lot else. I skipped the various ones from the resort hotel, because that’s just show-offy stuff, you know? I mean, so are these, but at least they’re scenic – you can see mojitos anywhere…

sunset among island at Costa Rica, by Wendy Hall
Now, if you’ve been paying attention to previous posts (a ha ha ha ha! Even I can’t type that with a straight face,) you know I’ve been talking about doing a major field trip dedicated to photography, and then she ends up doing this right under my nose, without even offering me a ticket! Worse still, she didn’t even bother sending along the pics during the dead weeks of winter, so we all could have basked by proxy at least. But then, then – and this is the part where I’m totally unforgiving – she used her fucking smutphone to take pictures! The Puritans would have burned her at the stake! Or, like I said, should’ve

sunset across sea, by Wendy Hall
mantled howler monkey Alouatta palliata eating inverted, by Wendy HallThe primate at right is a mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata,) one of four different species to be found in Costa Rica. I ended up editing this frame to bring out a little more detail because the smutphone failed to compensate (or even offer the option) for the backlighting, and in the process brought out the grain as well. Most smutphones have an “auto ISO” function built in, where they adjust the sensitivity of the digital sensor to the existing light in an attempt to thwart motion blur in lower light, and this of course means that quality goes to shit – one of the many reasons why I recommend against them. True enough, most DSLRs would suffer the same to some extent, but with those, you have the ability to choose the ISO, aperture, and shutter to best match the conditions. Any camera yields best results if you know what’s happening and how to adjust for it, but real cameras allow for this control. She has a real camera, but doesn’t use it. Go to her social media and mock her for it – she doesn’t listen to me…

sunset along rocky shore in Costa Rica, by Wendy Hall
Looking at a couple of the frames, I had to experiment a little just to see what the effect would be, so while the color images are hers, the greyscale ones are my edits. I’ll leave it to you to decide if they work or not.

same image in tweaked greyscale, by Wendy Hall
It might have been better if I didn’t show you the color versions right alongside.

One of these days, I’ll be here showing off and gloating about my own trip to someplace tropical and scenic. Just not if I have to count on my ‘friends’

sunsaet islands shot in tweaked greyscale, by Wendy Hall

Storytime 7

lone mushroom on embankment
“So, Al,” you inquire in a rather sharp tone of voice, “were you gonna do anything for Darwin Day, or what?” And, just this once, I’ll forgive your tone, because it’s at least a little deserved – there aren’t too many holidays, even semi-observed ones, that fall so well into line with the blog here. And I was actually trying to have something appropriate to post, but nothing came to fruition, and the best I can say is, I may have set up some future posts with the efforts this week, at least. I attended a short talk on epigenetics and plasticity too, which stirred up some possibilities.

In the meantime, we have this week’s storytime, which is a tiny little scene on the banks of the Eno River, where a solitary mushroom (or perhaps I should say toadstool) was failing to be unobtrusive. There’s something faintly unreal about this patch of landscape, a bit too detailed, as if it’s a model railroad layout or something. Even to me, it doesn’t seem quite right; the loose dirt should have eroded away fairly quickly. I get the impression that these conditions changed soon after the image, and might well have.

But wait – what’s that?

If you know anything about my shooting style, you should know this isn’t quite how I typically frame things – or at least, isn’t if my intended focus was the mushroom. So perhaps that wasn’t the intended focus.

pickerel frog Lithobates palustris peeking over edge of embankment above mushroomIn truth, I’d spotted the pickerel frog (Lithobates palustris) first, and was working around it cautiously to see how many different methods of framing I could accomplish before it spooked and leapt away. With the mushroom so close by, I chose it as a faux center of focus, going low enough that the eyes of the frog just peeked above the edge. The idea, of course, is to present the viewer with a sudden discovery, but the question always remains, whenever you stage something like this: how effective was it? As long as I remember the circumstances – or recognize that the image is stored in the Reptiles/Amphibians folder, which is it, but it’s also in the Leaves/Plants/Trees folder which is where I dredged it up this time – then I know to look for the frog, or spot it automatically. So how often are people surprised to find it themselves? Well, since this is the first public appearance of the frame itself, I can safely say no one has spotted it before now, but I suppose that’s not significant. Maybe someday, I’ll put a couple of these attempts into a gallery (you know, if I ever decide to do another exhibit) and watch for the reactions. It’s important data for some reason, I’m sure.

And you know, I did drop a hint with that “toadstool” bit…

A little tip

I’m not in favor of generalizations, and especially not ‘little tricks’ that supposedly tell you so much about someone, like, “If she isn’t wearing her engagement ring she’s not serious about her engagement.” Or, you know, she works someplace where it’d be dangerous to wear, or it needs to be refitted, or she’s not the kind to show off, or she’s not so unbelievably vapid to think that a ring is necessary in any way (and especially not buying the horrendous bullshit about diamonds in the first place.) That said, there are definitely situations that can set off warning bells, at least, because the pattern of behavior is undeniable. And just this morning, I was reminded of another one: “Keep an open mind,” especially when used in the context of something curious or mysterious.

On the face, it certainly seems like sound advice – don’t be dismissing any possible explanations out-of-hand, and this is certainly what it’s always meant to imply. In practice, however, it is overwhelmingly used to justify someone’s desire for some state of affairs that has never come to pass. We’re talking supernatural and religious explanations/causes, and cryptids like the Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and ghosts and auras and astrology and so on and so forth. “You don’t believe in the chupacabra?! Well, I’m going to keep an open mind!”

Michael Shermer, I think, coined the adage, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out,” which isn’t bad advice at all, but I still think it falls a little short – everyone is confident that they’re being perfectly intelligent and rational in their beliefs. I’m a little more specific: I don’t care about possibilities, I’m after probabilities, and what has the strongest evidence behind it. Because, in all honesty, I have considered, for instance, supernatural occurrences and the chance of a large hominid in the forests of the northwest North American continent – including whether we’ve actually established that such a thing could exist and how, and whether there’s a decent amount of supporting evidence, and how easy it is have multiple explanations for any given evidence, and the probabilities of those. Which is precisely why ‘Bigfoot’ falls to the bottom of my list of potential explanations: it scores abysmally bad against the rest.

Sometimes, it’s simply stupid. Let’s say that you’re hearing odd noises from a house, and “ghost” is one of those things that you’re considering with your ‘open mind.’ But if you haven’t proven some other explanation, there is no remaining ‘default’ option, or indeed any fixed list of things to consider, so settling on anything, or even thinking this constitutes ‘evidence’ in the first place, is corrupt in itself. And unfortunately, if we have not actually established the existence of ghosts or gods or Jersey Devils or whatnot, then there are no specific traits that can actually be tied to such, are there? Sure, plenty of people will tell you that ghosts appear in the period dress of their times and so on, but how does this even make sense? Are you telling me their clothes have a soul too? If someone says they saw a vague, undefined humanoid shape, can I tell them that it’s not a ghost, because ghosts have clothes and expressions? Or do we simply make up the rules as we go along, taking whatever someone says at face value and then attaching a label that’s supposed to apply to each and every story anyone cares to spout? Can I start a whole new set of criteria by telling people I saw a translucent being in the shape of an adding machine, which must indicate the ghost of an accountant? Hey, we already have more than a few accounts of ghost buses and trains because, you know, those must have unfinished business that prevents their final rest…

But okay, let’s jump way ahead and assume we have ‘enough evidence’ to claim that there’s such a thing as ghosts. What now? We’ve established, to some arbitrary standards, that ghosts exist – what are we going to do with this information? Interview them? Put them to work? Publish a paper on memory retention and development despite the lack of brain cells and functioning synapses? [I was talking about the ghosts, there, but hey…] Is there something that we can do with this information other than pat ourselves on the back and say, “I knew it!”? That’s the whole purpose of learning anything, right? Being able to use it? C’mon, I’m maintaining an open mind here.

Not done yet; what about considering that any given account, or indeed every last one of them, is simply a hoax? Or someone desperate for attention? Or bad vision, or bad mushrooms, or mental illness? Let’s keep an open mind here, and consider everything. Are we absolutely sure it’s not one of the forgotten gods? Are we absolutely sure it’s not a government conspiracy? Are we absolutely sure it’s not a glitch in the program that we inhabit (or a hidden level)? The next time someone tries to use this little ‘open mind’ admonition on you, have at it – hit them with everything you possibly can, overwhelm them with just how open bare, undefined, undeveloped possibilities can get. Be creative – we’ve just been urged to have no rules at all. And then, watch them hesitate, watch them splutter, watch them get defensive… because the only openness they were interested in, by a large margin, is just enough to let them come to a favored conclusion, and nothing more. Being open to the idea that they were completely mistaken is not on their list.