Sunday slide 10

American bittern Botaurus lentiginosus not really blending in with the reeds
This week, we travel all the way to central New York, and back – gosh, I’m not really sure what year this was taken (so much for businesslike recordkeeping.) No, that’s not true, it was 2006, since it’s stamped on the slide mount. I was visiting family, and took a side trip out to one of my old haunts, Montezuma Wildlife Refuge at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake. And in the reeds directly alongside the viewing drive, an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) was endeavoring not to be seen.

Now, you can see some of the traits that assist in this, even though it’s not working terribly well here. When suspicious of being spotted, bitterns will raise their heads straight up and count on the camouflage lines along their necks and throats to blend in with the reeds, even swaying slightly to look like they’re pushed by the wind. The really cool part, which my model here unfortunately did not demonstrate for the camera, is that their eyes are set in such a way that they can see all the way around themselves when posed like this: they can look right at you with both eyes while their throat is pointed at you, as it were. Or ‘straight up’ from the top of their head, too. I’ve seen it just once, the only other time I’ve spotted a bittern, and it’s very cool.

Bitterns, by the way, are medium-sized birds, a little larger than an average duck but with much longer necks, so (in this position) stretching up to 40cm tall or so. And, when they realize the camouflage isn’t working, they’re also quite adept at sneaking off. Despite my proximity and experience with spotting/following wildlife, when this one drew its head back down and slipped off among the reeds, it virtually vanished, able to duck under and among the plants without disturbing them. On multiple occasions, I would spot it for a moment as it appeared in a gap and, when it disappeared again, I would watch for evidence of it ahead on its path – only to suddenly find it much farther along than I believed, having completely escaped my vision and slipped off with appreciable speed. As this was going on, I had been shooting out the open window of the car and was backing up to try and keep pace without being too obtrusive, only occasionally correcting the car’s path by taking ahold of the steering wheel, or checking in my rearview mirror (I could get away with this because traffic was almost nonexistent, and anyone coming up behind me would be moving at just a few kilometers an hour themselves, as well as coming into sight hundreds of meters back.)

While I think I’ve gotten glimpses of them in flight on a couple of occasions, as yet I have only photographed bitterns twice – have to do something about that.

Podcast: So you want to do this as a business?

Well, far be it from me to tell you how to do it – there are better sources of information out there. But while it’s slow and we’re both bored, I’ll go ahead and provide a little insight, a few pointers, towards approaching photography from the standpoint of making money. Don’t expect a lot, now.

Walkabout podcast – Business mode

Some quick notes:

EXIF Pilot will let you export the EXIF info from a whole pile of images as a CSV; if this confuses you, bear with me for a second. Digital images now all have a list of information added to the file, such as camera type, date and time image was taken, focal length, exposure settings, and so on – it can be very handy information to have, and it’s all stored in what’s called an EXIF file, readable by any serious photo editor, but if you’re looking for something, Irfanview can pull it up easily. EXIF Pilot will let you grab all of this information, or only the bits you find most necessary, and put them into a format that can be accepted by, for instance, a spreadsheet or database program. A CSV file is a common method of exporting – it’s essentially a text file and it stands for comma separated values, meaning each column of the data is split by a comma. Such a file can be imported into a spreadsheet program and will automatically line up the info into proper columns, provided you format it correctly – it might take a little playing around, and knowing how to handle importing and exporting in your spreadsheet program of choice can help a lot. It’s a moderately advanced technique, but the time it can save you is huge.

Sample of Open Office database spreadsheet
Open Office is a great freeware program to do all of this stuff, very close to the capabilities of Microsoft Office but infinitely cheaper. In my experience, it also handles the placement of graphics in text documents much better.

Also, I presently use FastStone Image Viewer to go through my images for sorting and editing – quite versatile, and fairly customizable.

Irfanview, mentioned above, can also do batch renaming and resizing, which at times can be a big help. I also routinely use Oscar’s Renamer to accomplish the filenumber alterations mentioned in the podcast – it can take a particular search string such as the initial “IMG_” tag at the beginning of each image filename, and replace it with whatever you want. It’s handy if you suddenly find, after several thousand images, that you should have some other detail in the filename (telling camera bodies apart, for instance.)

By the way, routinely back up not only your image files, but also your recordkeeping; externally is a necessity, but offsite is also recommended. Here’s the deal: an internal backup such as another internal harddrive (I have three total) is just as susceptible to a virus as the main drive, and only slightly less susceptible to corruption by, for instance, a bad motherboard or power supply. So an external copy dodges all that. But an offsite copy (for instance, at a friend’s house, or in a safe deposit box) is protection against a fire or flood in your home office. It all depends on how valuable the images and records are to you, but I’ve been bitten by harddrive failures before, and someone I know lost nearly everything he’d shot for years in a flood.

Cloud storage? If you ask me, cloud storage can fuck off and die. First off, you have no control, and no guarantee, that whatever provider is going to keep your files a) safe, b) confidential, and c) accessible – an awful lot of businesses have been nailed for various things like helping themselves to client information and files, not to mention including this theft within their license agreements (meaning you supposedly agreed to it when you started using them, one of the many reasons I pulled my shit from Facebook.) And then of course there are the ones that simply go out of business. I’ve already re-uploaded my website twice in the past few years due to hosting failures, and if that had been cloud storage, wave bye-bye. Skip it, is my advice.

Do your own website? That’s up to you – it’s a lot of work initially, and a fair amount when you start doing updates and reformats. But this can also cost you a bundle to have someone else do it, not to mention all of the fancy-schmancy stuff they’re likely to tell you that you “need.” Remember SEO (search engine optimization)? That was a buzzword a few years ago, a screaming necessity if you asked any site builder or web marketer, but it’s almost vanished now, and with good reason: nothing really increases your visibility except traffic. You could have spent a lot on SEO for no reason at all, and with no results – same with social media marketing. Nobody buys stuff because they see it on Instagram.

Like I said, it’s a start, but if you want to get serious about it as a business, do the research and get as much input as you can. Just be sure that you really want to, first.

The triumphant return of the RC-1

I’ve got way too many posts where I recognize that I haven’t been posting enough, so let’s just say “ditto” and move on.

Back in 1997, I think, I got my first “serious” camera, the Canon Elan IIe. It’s relative, of course – while the Elan IIe was never considered a professional grade camera, it was a huge step up from the secondhand Olympus bodies I’d been using before then, and new to boot. With it came one of the brightest ideas Canon ever had, a simple infra-red remote control called the RC-1. Half the size of a cigarette lighter, the RC-1 could not only be used to trigger the shutter remotely (for, you know, the old-school style of selfies,) it could be set for two-second mirror lockup delay. The utility of this takes a little explaining. The sudden sharp movement of the reflex mirror within the SLR body sets up a small degree of vibration, and when doing very high magnification work, such as with a long focal length and a slower shutter speed, this vibration was enough to actually blur the image slightly in certain conditions. Thus, getting the mirror movement out of the way two seconds before the shutter opened could eradicate this vibration and make the images sharper. And of course, the remote could also be used for camera traps, or long exposures of the night sky without touching the camera (and setting up vibrations from that.)

The best part about it was the price, about 20 bucks when I bought it, unprecedented for just about any kind of camera equipment. It even came with a little click-in holder that could attach to the camera strap, and while I never use camera straps (hate the damn things,) mine went onto the zipper tab of the main camera bag and was always available.

Unfortunately, the remote didn’t work with the EOS 3 I later switched to, but I still had the Elan IIe as backup, so I kept it on the bag. Years later I got my first DSLR body, the first edition Digital Rebel (the grey one,) and I found that the RC-1 could be used for that, and so it came back into rotation. I think I even got a spare when I purchased that body, though my original from 1997 was still working fine (and on only its third set of batteries, I believe – it really doesn’t use much power.)

Then a few years back, I switched over to the 30D (in case you haven’t determined by now, I don’t chase the latestgreatest nor worry about ‘professional’ equipment – it’s the photographer that makes the shots.) The RC-1, naturally, did not work with the 30D. I finally detached it from the bag and packed it away, sorry to see it go. I don’t understand Canon’s attitude, from both price and lack-of-option on the higher bodies, that this is a amateur/tourist bit of equipment, but so it goes.

beat-up Canon RC-1 remote with custom battery coverAnd then, just recently, I picked up a Rebel T2i body solely for the option of doing video work, and once again, it works with the RC-1, even though the model has now been discontinued and is supplanted by the RC-6. Even more usefully, it will trigger video recording (this has to be activated within the menu,) so it will come in useful for the high magnification macro work where the camera will be locked onto a tripod to avoid inducing motion sickness from the viewer – I will be able to start and stop recording without touching/wiggling the camera. So yeah, welcome back!

That’s my original in the pic, though it’s safe to say it doesn’t normally look like that. On a trip to the north Georgia waterfalls (the same trip where this was taken,) I fumbled the little thing from my grasp and dropped it down a steep trail. I recovered the remote, but the battery door had popped off and gone missing. In need of one before a new remote could be shipped to me and good with plastic working, I fashioned a new battery door from clear acrylic as an interim fix, and the damn thing still remains.

You can even see it in the pic for this post, which not only shows how small the RC-1 is, it tells you which camera was used for that photo.

Sunday slide 9

First off, the backstory, because it leads into the image better.

I think it was 1999. I was touring Florida on one of my photo trips, and working my way back north along the Atlantic coast, having gone down on the Gulf side. Sitting in my motel room one evening, I was determined to make one more significant stop someplace before wrapping the trip up, but didn’t have any good ideas. I was a member of the NC Zoo at that point and thus of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which provided reciprocal discounts at various aquariums and zoos across the country. I had thoughtfully kept the member list in my wallet with the card, and took it out to see what might be nearby. Just names were listed, not cities, and when I came across “Brevard Zoo,” I was delighted to discover that I was spending the night just south of the county, and the zoo itself was perhaps fifty kilometers away, about a half-hour drive directly up the interstate. Kind of a no-brainer at that point.

It wasn’t a large zoo, but it had a wide variety of geographical areas covered, and some quite interesting species – I was especially fond of the tapirs, which excitedly accepted some bananas from a keeper as she sprayed them with insect repellent, but I was also pleased to see capybaras for the first time. Look both of these up if you’re not familiar with them because they’re cool.

Standing alone under an overhang of grapevines, if I remember right, I was looking with chagrin at the enclosure of the black-capped squirrel monkeys (Saimiri boliviensis) from behind a barrier. The wire of the cages was too prominent, and squirrel monkeys too “handsy” to let people get within reach, so I wasn’t able to do the typical trick of getting right up against the cage and either shooting a tightly-cropped version that avoided the wires, or fuzzing them almost to obscurity with a short depth of field. I resigned myself to not being able to get anything useful from a stock photo standpoint – it would be too obviously a zoo shot.

When I was switching to a new roll of slide film and was juggling the film can, one of the monkeys became captivated by this sight, and seemed quite familiar with the object in my grasp. Stretching out from the front of the cage, the primate beseeched me, soundlessly, to hand over the film can:

black-capped squirrel monkey Saimiri boliviensis requesting a gift of a film can
I toyed briefly with the idea of tossing an empty can to the monkey, sure that it couldn’t get it through the wires even if it did successfully catch it, but I was also sure that it could manage to get into other mischief with it, even if only intense agitation when the can couldn’t be pulled through the wire. Also, zoos tend to frown on that kind of thing (with good reason.) But of course I snapped a few frames, with the flash producing an intense sparkle from the eyes that only seems to enhance the proffered handshake. It’s always bad news to shake any hand extended through a barrier.

Two little items of trivia. The souvenir sea turtle shirt that I purchased in the gift shop remained my favorite for better than a decade, becoming The Girlfriend’s favorite once she laid eyes on it some years afterward – I still have it but it’s not really in condition to wear now, and we’ve searched in vain for a new one. More interesting, however, was that when I lived in Florida from 2002 to 2005, I lived in Brevard County, but never got the chance to visit the zoo again, one of my bigger regrets. And I’ve been saving my film cans too.

Friday color

Yeah, I could have had this up sooner, but let’s be real: there aren’t that many people checking in routinely to see what’s being posted anyway.

possibly cherry blossoms, I don't know, white against a blue sky, okay?
The Girlfriend tells me these are cherry blossoms, so we’ll go with that since I’m not knowledgeable enough to tell otherwise. They’re the first of the trees in bloom in the immediate area, and everyone feels this is pretty early, rivaling the daffodils. But it was nice out today and I managed to do a few shots here and there, even though overall it’s still wintry-looking; the almond tree in the yard is just starting to bud, and the rose bush is kicking out a good number of leaves, but nearly everything else still looks bare.

The Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were cavorting in apparent recognition of the unseasonably warm weather.

Canada geese Branta canadensis splashing about
This looks like a composite even to me, but it’s simply one frame where several geese just happened to act at once. There was a lot of activity going on, short take-off runs only to plunge back into the water 20 meters away, sometimes disappearing entirely under the water. Maybe there were some localized gravity fluctuations happening…

Okay, more than a few

For the Sunday slide entry two weeks ago, I mentioned that I might be back “in a few days” to elaborate on another aspect of the shot. I figure I might as well bring it up now before the original gets pushed below the ten post limit I set for the main page.

The image had originally appeared to illustrate a “middle of nowhere” post some years back, which I think it does nicely. So much of photography, however, is just as much about what you don’t show as what you do, and in this case, the viewer has no impression that a high-rise resort hotel sat only a few hundred meters behind where I was standing for the shot. Granted, it was down at the end of the road on the barrier island, the last little bit of ‘civilization’ before empty dunes and marshes, but this was Wrightsville Beach east of Wilmington, NC, which is much more developed than I prefer, and certainly more than the photo indicates. If you like, this link will take you right there if you have Google Earth installed, or you can enter “34.237377 N 77.776623 W” in the mapping service of your choice.

I always have misgivings about revealing ‘secrets’ about photos, because the primary appeal of images is what you see, not what was real – I especially don’t like taking a chance of ruining an impression. But I also find value in teaching people how this works and how to be particular about their scenes and framing, so I’ll sacrifice an impression for the greater good. Or something like that – I can make it sound even more dramatic if you like. Regardless, it wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, but I’m fine with calling it the edge of nowhere if accuracy is important – very desolate if you faced in one direction, not very isolated if you turned around. And far enough from the really developed areas not to have traffic or construction noise and all that ‘civilized’ rot.

As I was mentally framing this post, I started wondering where my most isolated photos had been taken, ever. And came to the conclusion, pretty quickly, that none of them were all that isolated; I’ve never done long hikes out into the wilderness to find that remote locale, and while I don’t mind exploring, there’s a certain risk to venturing out alone a long ways away from, for instance, ambulance access and fresh water and all that. It might produce some unique photos, true – and it might not. I’m usually not struggling to find something to photograph with even short hikes out into the woods or down the beach, so the amount that I’ve been “out there” is minimal, really.

Right now, I’m pretty sure I know the remotest location, and again, it’s not that impressive, but it’s still noteworthy. Back in 1999 or 2000 (the processing lab that I used at the time did not print the date on the slide mounts,) I took a ‘business’ trip out to Portsmouth Island, one of the barrier islands on the coast of NC between Ocracoke Island and the Cape Lookout/Beaufort area. It was ostensibly a fishing trip, though for most of the guys I traveled with this translated to drinking like fish, and very little angling was done. I don’t drink, and I was planning on getting up before sunrise, so the evening was rather tedious for me. Portsmouth is a largely undeveloped island, though, with only a handful of buildings, mostly rental cabins, and no roads whatsoever; access is by ferry, and you’re only allowed onto the island if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle that can handle the sand – we rented one for the occasion. There wasn’t even electricity, so cabin lights and heat were provided by propane, and food was kept in coolers and maintained with ice deliveries by daily ferry – lettuce, as I was to discover, doesn’t like being kept in a cooler full of ice.

The second evening that we were there, the sky cleared and we drove down the strand a ways to the end of the island, where some of the guys actually started fishing (spending about 1/10th the amount of time doing this that they had drinking the night before,) while I tooled around looking for photos. Overall, I shot maybe two rolls of 36 exposures on the entire trip, probably less – that’s not a photo trip, as far as I’m concerned, but some of that was due to bad weather rolling in the evening we arrived. Nonetheless, I have some nice keepers from the trip, including two images in the main gallery, one here and the other linked from that page. And of course, there is a Google Earth placemark on both, but it’s the same one so clicking only once is enough. Or use “34.855740° N 76.316729° W”

Technically, the photo location is only about 3.5 kilometers (2.25 miles) from the nearest road, which would not be considered an arduous hike except that this is measuring directly across Core Sound, and if you can hike that, more power to you – it was farther than that up the island to the cabin where we were staying. And to get there, we had to take the ferry up and around the tidal shallows, so the actual path was 14 kilometers (8.75 miles,) half of that by boat. Granted, most of it was still spent in the truck – I wasn’t enduring any hardships getting there.

But now it gets interesting. This link (34.898682° N 76.257028° W) is the ferry access, just northeast of the cabins, and if you compare the two locations, you’ll notice they’re not even on the same island. They were, back at the turn of the century (I love saying that,) but barrier islands are like that, subject to radical reshaping by storms. A few years after our visit, a new channel cut across the island, while the channel that I shot those photos alongside filled in and joined another island farther southwest. The Immobile Mr Bugg had said that he wanted to visit the island to shoot from the same location, but he actually can’t since it technically doesn’t exist anymore.

[I’ll take this opportunity to mention the same thing that I’ve told him: while some locations are photogenic, most times, it’s not the location that’s the key to a great photo, but the conditions – with the right light and sky and grasses and all that, many locations might provide a lovely scenic shot, but you have to recognize and exploit the conditions when they come together, and often this is subject to the vagaries of the weather, not to mention your skill as a photographer. Hiking out to the same spot Ansel Adams shot from doesn’t mean you’re going to get his images.]

This is where using Google Earth is more interesting, because you can roll the dates back and see the aerial images from earlier, watching the island reshape itself – it’s pretty dramatic for that particular area (I wouldn’t recommend buying property there.) And this brings us back to the original location from the Sunday slide post, the marsh channels off of Wrightsville Beach. Back in 1992, I had trekked a short ways off of that loop at the end of the road, up past the hotel, and had camped on the sand dunes, having a pretty miserable night from the summer heat. In trying to get some breeze into the tent I had left the rain flaps open, but screens aren’t adequate to stop blowing sand, which was often carried into the tent with every gust to adhere to my bare and sweaty chest – I’ve had better nights. A couple of years later I revisited the area and out of curiosity intended to go back to the general spot where I’d camped, but was stopped quite distinctly by the fact that it was under at least two meters of water by then – a storm in the intervening time had gouged a channel through the island right where I’d been sleeping fitfully. You can roll this back in Google Earth too, any date from 2002 and earlier, and after that you can even see the planted beach grasses to stabilize the dune and hopefully prevent the water from coming as close as it did to the hotel. I imagine the insurance rates for the building are astronomical.

Just a small aside here. This image was also taken during that trip, obviously aircraft parts, but I have no information on how they arrived there – one beach wreck survey that I came across speculated on them washing ashore from an artificial reef, ones usually created by sinking derelict ships, but I don’t imagine aircraft parts are the material of choice in such a turbulent coastal area. There has always been a lot of military activity in the region, including a small airfield just inland, so there are a lot of ways this could have arrived. I found it a curious little tableau, myself.

Sunday slide 8

Mediterranean house gecko Hemidactylus turcicus on artificial setting
This week, we hearken back to my brief interlude in Texas, when I stayed in Houston for a couple of months in 2001; September and October, actually – I had two job interviews on September 11th, and to no one’s surprise, didn’t nail either of them. Which I’m kinda glad about, because I really didn’t like Texas, but that’s irrelevant. My photography was sparse then, yet one of the few subjects that I captured (literally) during my stay was a Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus.) Geckos are adept at clinging to any surface and can run across a ceiling with ease, which of course meant that my methods of housing this one for even the short photo session had to take this into account. The setting seen here is all artificial, a small sprig cut from a variety of landscaping bush placed in front of a house plant. It really didn’t take much, which you’ll understand once you see the size of my model here. But first, let’s take a closer look at that eye.

Mediterranean house gecko Hemidactylus turcicus eye closeup
This is a full-resolution crop of the original slide (even the one above it was cropped a little from the full frame,) and you can see the limits of the grain and focus, with some potential loss from the Minolta Scan Dual III scanner. But those pupils! I get a kick out of the different types of pupils displayed by some animals, and knowing how the shape of the opening affects focus quality, I’m curious as to what difference this makes to the species that have them, but as yet I have no real information – it’ll be a subject for a later post. Now, let’s see why this was so challenging to show clearly.

Mediterranean house gecko Hemidactylus turcicus on dime for scaleI’ve been having a hell of a time getting the color register right for these slides and I have to see if I can zero out the color balance of the scanner, but this one, unlike the slide above, has a better excuse: I had forgotten to calculate the light loss from the extension tubes that I used to get closer for this frame, so the slide was too dark, lightened in editing for my purposes here. The key part, of course, is the dime for scale, showing just how small my specimen is, and while this might be slightly smaller than average for the species, it’s not by much. Take out a dime for comparison right now, because the eye was about the same size as three digits of the date, and this was before I had developed my macro skills and equipment to the point they are now. The Sigma 105 EX Macro was a good performer (up until the aperture started acting up,) but I don’t think it compares to the Mamiya 80 Macro.

I mentioned geckos’ ability to climb, and this is due to the special structures of their feet. A few years later in Florida, I captured another variety and housed it in a small macro tank for some detail shots of the feet.

close up of gecko foot pad, unknown species
This specimen is different from the Mediterranean house gecko above, and much larger, but I didn’t pin down the species while I had it, and didn’t get any good shots of the eyes. While the foot looks petty cool, the structures that actually allow geckos to cling to just about anything are microscopic and not going to show in a mere macro photo. This is still the Sigma 105 and extension tubes, by the way – the subject was much more restrained in movement and I wasn’t worried about having to snag it before it ran away across the apartment, so that probably helped my steadiness and subsequent sharpness.

This shot is done vertically and believe me, the gecko wasn’t having any difficulty running up and down the glass. I didn’t see anywhere near enough of them and caught much fewer (I think these represent the only two that I’ve ever had my hands on and both were released after the photos,) but they’re very cool to observe. Since they’re nocturnal, checking out the places where lights sit near foliage are the best places to look, since that’s where they’re most likely to be found hunting insects.

Just because, part 22

Still the slow season for photography right now, but getting better by centimeters. In the meantime, a couple of pics from the fall.

bare trees and blue sky reflected in still creek
I had passed on posting both of these back when I took them, but they keep catching my eye from the blog images folder and I have to admit I like how the colors work for both. I would really have liked some hidden little detail for this one, something lurking on the opposite bank, but it was not to be.

You’re still looking for it though, aren’t you?

tall trees in fall colors from underneath
Actually, I’d like to do something like that from time to time, have a little something that can be seen in the images if you’re paying attention, but staging it could be hard. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Or has it already?

Inspired to do… what?

So I’m sitting here with a free day, recognizing that the posts have been thin and that I should get something up here, but I’m lacking a little motivation to get it going on. Lucky for me that this is the interblobs, and it’s not hard to find an inspirational message that will fire up my spirit and get me to pump out a couple of posts before Sunday rolls around again. Let’s see, what can I find here…

“You’re great!” Well, that’s obvious, but I’m still not great enough to be writing something.

“You’re special!” Special? In what way? That’s kind of an amorphous and subjective term, isn’t it?

“You have the strength within you.” I guess, though it’s not exactly strength I need right now, but something to either spark the creative process or get me pissed enough to rant about.

Curiously, this is the nature of many inspirational efforts, from the motivational posters in work that no one took seriously because they didn’t tell us how to deal with an asshole boss, to the simple images that can be found in so many locations online anymore. And I have to wonder whether they actually accomplish anything at all, even with the bar set so ridiculously low. Because, let’s be real, exactly what kind of emotional state or psyche is going to be affected by such simple and especially indirect messages?

Pop psychology is a hard thing to avoid, partially because it’s human nature to try and understand other people, but also because pop psychology is so ubiquitous that, when we see it, we’re inclined to think that it must have some value because everyone else keeps doing it. Yet in many cases, like inspirational messages, it reflects an incredibly condescending and demeaning attitude towards other people and the problems that we all face. Those that suffer from depression, clinical or just the generic kind, are tired of hearing, “Cheer up!” – it simply doesn’t work that way, and to believe that this would be effective implies that the recipient has a infantile mind. When someone is injured, no one is stupid enough to say, “Just stop feeling pain,” but somehow emotional or mental states are much easier to fix, it would seem.

Yes youNow, there are effective methods of outreach, and some of them aren’t too difficult; I don’t want to diminish the real and useful efforts that can be found. But often this is specific to an individual, and almost always consists of something more than a passing positive comment or pretty picture. I tend to view most inspirational messages now as “slacktivism,” that new term that applies to internet activities where someone posts something on their wall, or asks for upvotes or whatever, and thinks that they’re making a difference with virtually no effort expended at all. How often are such things merely a placebo, letting the person who posts or forwards them believe they’re fulfilling their personal obligation to do something useful? “Ah, there we go! I tapped my touchscreen in a couple of places and now the world is a better place!”

Yet there’s a more pernicious tendency within the topic, closely related to this, because such a large percentage of these kind of things are aimed at making an individual feel better about themselves, often without any particular reason. And what, exactly, does this accomplish? While I am sure there are a few people that are desperately in need of a little reassurance, a little boost to self-esteem, I can’t imagine it’s a lot, and the number that would receive a benefit from an anonymous assertion that they were great has got to be so trivial it can’t be measured; seriously, if we’re not fooled by this, how much stupider do we think others are? And, even if this did work, do we really need to foster and emphasize self-absorption?

We have superlatives for a reason. When we want to distinguish the extraordinary efforts of someone, when we take note of the qualities above the average, that’s what we can, and should, reasonably consider “great,” or any variation that you prefer. That’s what we really want for ourselves, isn’t it? Do I want to be just as “great” as everyone else? No, actually, I’d like to be even better than that, to stand out, to be recognized for something particular to me (if I ever find this, I’ll let you know what it is.) But even that is just ego, and right now we probably have enough of that in this country; I might go so far as to say that we have a surfeit. Maybe, and I’m just throwing out wild ideas here, we can consider recognizing and even encouraging behavior that positively affects others, that genuinely improves our community overall? Does anyone have an argument against that?

To me, that’s the kind of inspiration we should encourage. There’s far too much “me” in our society, and not enough “us” – too much emphasis on how good we feel about ourselves, as if this made some difference to anyone else at all, much less provided some improvement to the world at large. To say nothing of the ridiculous amount of time we spend actively competing against others of our own species, whether it be the progress of a sports team or whether we’re making more money than our neighbors or even how we drive on the road. Why not turn that around, remind people that helping others or improving our conditions are immeasurably better goals? Hey, maybe we feel shitty for whatever reason, but there are others that have it worse and can use our support. Or maybe we can just spend a little time helping out, teaching someone, throwing a few bucks at a decent cause, whatever.

And you know something? It not only produces a real, measurable, meaningful improvement to the world, it makes us feel good too – the same thing that the vapid inspirational messages attempt to do, but this method is a lot more effective. Why encourage being wrapped up in ourselves?

Hey, look, I found a topic after all…

Sunday slide 7

matching spider webs in mountain trees
This week, we have a shot from 2005, I think, my first trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The fog was lifting (or the clouds passing – way up in the mountains it’s pretty much the same thing) and a couple of dew-covered webs were catching the emerging sun.

“Catching the sun” – isn’t language stupid? Spider webs are amazingly strong for their mass, but even the toughest probably couldn’t actually catch the sun, should it come close enough to earth to even make it possible. The sun would likely break free eventually…