Trouble Making

[Content Warning: Spiders]

Caine used to say I’m a trouble maker. I prefer to think of myself as a “craftsman of trouble.”

One of the things I enjoy doing is sending people random collections of stuff to do things with. This has been a hobby of mine for decades, now. Most of the time, nothing particular happens but sometimes it’s magic, and other times it changes someone’s life for the better. Caine used to mess with me by coming up with completely unexpected ways to use the stuff. So does Gilliel, who has been doing amazingly cool work with resin. And there was the jewelry kestrel made with my mokume…

Back in 2016, I needed a dance partner for swing-dance lessons and posted an ad on craigslist; that was how I met Becky N., an astrophysicist, who moved to Virginia and got married the next spring. When PZ posted a discussion about Richard Bradley’s lovely Common Spiders of North America [wc] I went a bit crazy and bought several copies, then mailed them out to people at random. Becky was one of the recipients.

See, I had forgotten that Becky is one of those people who collects critters. She’s had an impressive selection of lizards, toads, cats, and whatnot. Apparently she took the spider book as an invitation to become a spider-watcher – she’s been identifying and cataloging her spider finds ever since. When I realized that was what was happening, I sent her a clip-on macro lens for smartphones. There are a remarkable number of these kits available in various places so I won’t link to amazon but you can search for “clip on smartphone lens” and they’re about $10 for a kit.

The thing about the clip-on lenses is they work remarkably well, and are super convenient. I used to carry a set in my travel bag so I could take nauseating fisheye videos of airports to send people (“look! it’s me in an airport again!“) But the kits also include a mini-macro lens.

I’ll stop talking for a bit and you can look at some of the pictures Becky took of her latest find.

Apparently this lovely lady was living right inside the door to her apartment complex, just minding her own business.

You’ve got to admit that’s pretty remarkable for a $9 lens.

The spider’s characteristic “two finger” foot hook is clearly illustrated:

Going on a bit of a prowl:

Showing off her gang sign:

I love Becky’s notes: “found in apartment common area in corner.”

Thanks for sharing these, Becky!

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If you know a kid who absolutely must have a copy of this book and a set of clip-on lenses, let me know and I will wrangle a set together and mail them out. This appears to be a remarkably cost-effective hobby.

I have a Canon 5D with an Canon MP-E65 f2.8 1-5x Macro somewhere in my bag – it’s a magnifying closeup lens that makes your camera perform like a microscope. Hardcore macro photographers top one of those off by screwing a microscope optic into the end of the macro lens. You can do some crazy things with it, but it’s a very specialized application. I co-own the lens with several other photographers and we mail it around periodically if someone needs to do some macro stuff; it’s really not useful for much else. They are tremendous fun for about a week. If you want a similar effect you can stack a couple of extension tubes on a regular macro lens and get some pretty cool results that way. If you have a canon DSLR and are absolutely dying to play with an MP-E lens, I can probably lend you one for a couple weeks.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    The focal plane looks pretty sensitive, especially at the highest magnification.
    Black widows were quite common when I lived in Southern California, but I haven’t noticed them other places I have lived.

    I went a bit crazy and bought several copies, then mailed them out to people at random.

    Interesting. I have done the same with ‘Get Out Of Hell Free’ cards. Except the recipients weren’t quite random. And I sent them anonymously.

  2. kestrel says

    This is SOOOOO wonderful. I generally take photos of very small things but do appreciate the ability to take photos of EVEN SMALLER things. Like damsel flies! Or tiny golden spiders spotted on a bean plant. Or fungi… and what you can see in a drop of water from a pond, when looking through a microscope.

    The world is filled with so many amazing things if one just takes the time to look and appreciate them. I guess to some, this is not “exciting” enough but for me it’s amazing.

  3. voyager says

    That’s just… awesome!
    Appreciating the small things in life and then sharing them is about as good as it gets. Well done, Becky. Well done, Marcus.

  4. Jazzlet says

    If you’re in the UK the RSPB sells clip on lenses for smart phones – thanks for the reminder Marcus, my little brother showed me his before I had a smart phone and I thought I’d get one when I got a smart phone and clean forgot.

  5. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#1:
    The focal plane looks pretty sensitive, especially at the highest magnification.

    Depth of field is reduced by magnification, as is the amount of light, so it’s harder to stop the lens down. Not that smartphones have apertures or anything like that.

  6. says

    I have one of those lenses for my phone, but admittedly haven’t used it yet; mostly because I don’t like carrying things around (even a purse).

    Becky is quite brave. I can’t imagine being that close to a black widow and being calm enough to stay to photograph her.

  7. says

    Becky is quite brave. I can’t imagine being that close to a black widow and being calm enough to stay to photograph her.

    I believe she wears kevlar mesh gloves.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    This may interest you:

    Goodbye Aberration: Physicist Solves 2,000-Year-Old Optical Problem
    As part of this research, Rafael G. González-Acuña, Alejandro Chaparro-Romo and Julio Gutiérrez-Vega also published the article “General Formula to Design Freeform Singlet Free of Spherical Aberration and Astigmatism“ in Applied Optics, where they give an analytical solution to the Levi-Civita problem formulated in 1900.

  9. rq says

    Oh my, that book! The kids are wary about spiders, but they sure do take the time to point them out to me. *hinthint*

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