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Enough with the dead butterflies (emilydamstra.com)
586 points by mjn on June 1, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 163 comments

I'm glad to have this pointed out to me. It's so "obvious" now that live butterflies don't look that way, I'll never not notice this now. It's similar to all the tricks video media uses for aesthetics and common familiarity: gun cocking noises, computer hacking images, punch sound effects, and the like. It also remind me of location specific tricks, such as how the pyramids of Giza, Egypt are shown in pictures, or how wildlife photographers sometimes do staged photoshoots.

I think it's a very good thing to be aware of this. So much of our information is received through indirect means, how many things do we watch on video without understanding how the image and sound has been enhanced? I've been surprised before to see something in person and realize the media representation is not accurate.

> such as how the pyramids of Giza, Egypt are shown in pictures

I was totally on the same wavelength with Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad when he discovered they were right next to the city. It's such a weird censoring -- would people value them less if they knew how close they were to development?

For reference here[1] is a traditional shot of the pyramids, and here[2] is an aerial view of the adjoining urban area.

[1] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:All_Gizah_Pyramids.j...

[2] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giza-pyramids.JPG

I was in San Antonio, Texas last week and while not exactly on the same scale as the pyramids, The Alamo has a similar middle-of-nowhere isolated feel to it when represented in the media, while in actuality it's smack dab in the middle of downtown -- surrounded by hotels and gift shops.

The Alamo was the most underwhelming historical anything I've ever visited. Not only is it in the middle of downtown San Antonio, it's also rather small, and San Antonio itself is a sticky tropical rainforest. Nothing like arid, lonely fort of the popular culture depictions of the Alamo.

You're likely aware of this having visited, but all that remains of the original mission is the chapel and a few walls.

This is what it looked like at the time of the siege; the city ended up growing around it


You can actually go visit the sets used for the Alamo movies here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamo_Village. Stick hot and sticky though :-D

Isn't the fact that it's small a big part of the historical significance?

Not really. It housed 200 defenders, but it was undermanned at that capacity.

That's hilarious. I've never been to Texas so I've always seen the Alamo depicted like this:


But it's actually this:


> would people value them less

Yes. Also there's a road running right next one of the pyramids, a pizza hut overlooking it, and tons of trash in the sand.

Darn right! There's more mystery and magic if you have to go on a six hour journey through the desert to even get a glimpse of them.

Consider the Great Pyramid complex was used as a stony quarry for the surrounding city for millennia. It makes their endurance all the more remarkable.

And often the Sphinx is shown in the foreground so it looks like it's on a similar scale. The Sphinx is tiny compared to the pyramids.

I always figured these pyramids were in the middle of the desert... thanks for enlightening me.

Nah, you need them close to some work camps or else the limestone deliveries take months. And then the work camps need to be within 48 squares of a populated residence so the work-overseer can find workers.

Source: I played a lot of Pharaoh as a kid.

> So much of our information is received through indirect means...

I suspect it is worse than that. Much of the actionable information that our civilization relies upon seems effectively "binary-only" and behind "firewalls" of field practice. Take water sanitation, for example. Exactly how does one set up an industrial-scale water sanitation plant for say, 5,000 residential units? There are design books and guides aplenty. But that aeration pump they say you need on page 315, how are you to know who makes one that will last, and is supported well? It's not like McMaster-Carr shows reviews from customers like Amazon. If you are outside the field, or new to it, then you come down to blindly guessing, getting told what to do by corporate policy, or getting the scoop from the grizzled veterans.

This seems pervasive to me, everywhere I turn. There seems to be a Simplifying Assumptions Field (SAF) around not just how information is presented, but how we actually model the information we consume, and it take assiduous effort to turn off in most people. Unless you place yourself into the mindset of "okay, if civilization ended and I could turn to no one else to figure this out, what problems will I run into trying to reproduce what I'm being told here from scratch, by myself?", it is all too easy to blindly accept the kinds of tricks you see on media, and one of the most pernicious tricks is accepting that being told information about something is almost as good as doing it, and doing it well.

I suppose this is why I'm not a fan of even most Internet-delivered broadcast media like Netflix/Hulu/Amazon-Video (not to speak of conventional media, aside from books): actionable information, that is, information I can take and reproduce an action/insight/process/result/object/etc. to the same fidelity/quality level (given enough practice), is very sparse in that part of the world. Documentaries are a gray area for me: if I could read a transcript and get the information 2-5X faster, I'd like them more, but I grow restless with the slow presentation in most documentaries (documentaries at 2X speed on YouTube generally can get my attention, though). Maker and MOOC content for example, seems more actionable to me, though of course YMMV.

I sometimes wonder if we are too harsh on those presenting information to make the information easily-digestible, and too rigid to accept that sometimes we simply don't know pieces of information or can't get the perfect video shot, and settle for entertainment value instead of actionable value.

When I was a child I thought BBC science documentaries where amazing but at some point I realised I was just seeing the same material repeated over and over again at the same level with flashier graphics.

Same with documentaries on engineering, I've seen 5-6 on jet engines and none of them goes into proper detail.

I noticed when I was trying to learn how to program, everyone seemed to think it was trivial to just take a course online and learn it. Only once you've gone through a few tutorials do you realize how shallow most of them are. If you want to get beyond Hello World level, you need to pick up some thick textbooks or go to college, and there's precious little instruction available at the intermediate level. You have to learn everything on the job whether you like it or not.


I've just inherited a legacy software system and I've been hunting down every podcast episode I can related to handling legacy projects holistically and there is a dearth of material.

Lots of the real world things I've learnt over the years I haven't even seen in books, at best books are incomplete and at worst hopelessly naive.

I've considered writing a book called "The hitchikers guide to software development: Surviving the bosses, the deadlines, the insane team members, this weeks buzzword management style - Towel is optional", I want material on programming in the real world not the idealised "and of course you should allocate time for <insert thing your boss will never understand the benefit off>".

Also on a similar related topic, why the hell are software visualisation systems so bloody useless, everything is optimised for creation not maintenance, I know my IDE has the data since it has internal state for things like autocompletion/jump to definition but when I do a "find usages" it gives me a table with each line and the filename...which is a pretty horrible way of visualising it, why can't I see a neat graph and re-orientate it around things like "find usages in this class and it's descendants" or "show me the class with the most usages of <foo>".

Even the best IDE's (I use intellij which is generally wonderful) still approach the problem from the wrong side sometimes, even the limited diagramming tools it has are very useful but you can't do much to interact with them.

Seconding all your points, and especially the complaint about writing vs. maintenance. I complain about that a bit too, and spent a fair amount of time searching for tools facilitating efficient reading and exploring of code. I found nothing. The space seems to be almost empty. The closest I found to something useful was an old and probably completely abandoned Eclipse plugin that doesn't work with Java 8.

IntelliJ in particular should have such tools - the IDE has all the right information. Just no tools that would be particularly useful for exploring codebase structure.

Investigate the software archeology field [1]. There are offerings [2], but they tend to not be well-recognized because most software development management hasn't realized (or willfully denies) how big their technical debt has grown, in the form of poorly-understood code. There is a "map for the territory" cognitive bias working here, where the mere presence of documentation seems to lull most management teams into believing that conveys sufficient understanding. In light of that predominant situation, it is difficult to lobby for more structured and tool-assisted code meta-management.

I don't know if this phenomena you and I are talking about is just my emotion-based but factually-incorrect perception, or an actual trend. I like to think it is an actual trend, because I look at fields like truck driving, and the boundaries of what is required to be known today by even average drivers seems greater than say, the 1930's. But the more specialist drivers have to know far more. Same with nurses, farmers, pipefitters, etc. It seems that while the "table stakes" to get into the entry level of many fields have gone up, certain specialties and career development paths simply didn't exist in the past, and they're far more demanding than the field used to expect of the average entrant. It is like the complexity level exploded across many fields as technology moved us forward, and we're not preparing students for the complex reality of the fields they are entering.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_archaeology

[2] https://www.embarcadero.com/solutions/software-archeology

"I've just inherited a legacy software system and I've been hunting down every podcast episode I can related to handling legacy projects holistically and there is a dearth of material."

Might I suggest the book "Working effectively with legacy code" from Michael Feathers.

Second person to recommend that to me in the last week, I moved it up the list, thank you.

I agree about the intro courses.

I also agree about "precious little instruction available at the intermediate level". Though some is out there, if you're willing to spend a lot of money and sift through a lot of dross.

But I definitely disagree about needing to pick up some thick textbooks or go to college to get from Hello World to employable junior. What you need to do is work. Textbooks or college (or bootcamp) are certainly a possibility, but there's no shortage of free material, if one has the grit to do the work.

I mean, shit. Entry into an upper-middle-class white collar job used to be a project of at least 4 years of full-time effort, with a cost (on top of cost of living) at least equal to a year of salary of that upper-middle-class job. Modern educational opportunities in the area of software engineering drop that by a factor of 2 or 3 or 4. But some people (the "everyone" in your "everyone seemed to think...") figure it has dropped by a factor of 100. It's preposterous. Would-be programmers have got it pretty damn good... that doesn't mean it's miraculous!

I agree with you in general. But I suspect it is a little better than that.

For instance, you remark

> But that aeration pump they say you need on page 315, how are you to know who makes one that will last, and is supported well?

And to that I would say that first of all there are general strategies that can be applied to answering questions like this (systematically breaking down the problem). Second, with a very small amount of training in how to research and learn things it's often possible to track down that indirection. To pick on your specific example, I bet you that there is a textbook out there that college civil engineering majors use in their class when they study public works and it probably has a chapter on pumps that would at least help you figure out the specs necessary.

There is also an argument that by omitting facts that can change based on location and time (companies go out of business) the information becomes more timeless and easily propagated.

But like I said I agree with you in general. I think part of the problem is that the scope of human knowledge is becoming ever more complex and high level. In general people seem to accept that "getting the scoop from the grizzled veterans" is a necessary part of the process.

I think you may be underestimating the real-world messiness of this water sanitation example, and other types of problems where location-specific factors WILL make or break the project.

There's an enormous gap between knowing the specs of a pump and knowing which company will make one that won't break and will provide decent service for it. A water sanitation plant that would work in one part the US (or one part of a state) might fail in another due to any among hundreds of factors.

Any time you're doing something that involves silt, algae, microorganisms, weather, human factors... etc... those factors are likely to make a fool of you and your textbook. The "scoop from a grizzled veteran" suddenly becomes essential.

There's a well-known example of a sludge field that worked on a small scale but did not work when executed on a large scale. Total disaster. Hugely expensive project, requiring hugely expensive cleanup.

Sure, there are plenty of realms within tech where "grizzled veterans" aren't needed and where solutions can transfer and scale nicely. You can't safely extrapolate that to real-world problems.

In many endeavors, local knowledge can't safely be ignored, and hubris leads to tragedy.

Nina Munk's reporting on the Millenium Villages Project is illustrative of the difficulties one can be blindsided by when trying to get something done with insufficient regard for local conditions: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/01/nina_munk_on_po.htm...

>There's an enormous gap between knowing the specs of a pump and knowing which company will make one that won't break and will provide decent service for it.

With a few fast and hard rules mostly based on country of origin and price you can go a long way( specifically talking about water pumps ).

A while ago someone mentioned an author who had a series of books on starting a civilization from the ground up. If anyone remembers it, please let me know!

edit: a thread on this, although not exactly what I was thinking of: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9084466

Were they fiction?

I mainly watch some of the fluffier informational content like semi-educational youtube videos and documentaries as a blend of relaxation and low efficiency passive learning.

I find that information density and technical depth are inversely proportional to my ability watch this content when I'm trying to relax or if I'm tired :)

Not a terribly surprising finding, but I'm glad some of this "more digestible" informative content is increasingly available. I'd usually rather watch that type of stuff than most fictional shows. I do like a good novel now and then though.

I think of them like movie trailers for the in-depth stuff. (Particularly Ted talks.) Nothing wrong with that, but the problem is when you try to go deeper and there's nothing there.

But its not actually 'true', right? Butterflies in flight move their wings through all positions. That the one in pictures show the most wing, just like when pinned to a board, doesn't mean that a photographed butterfly is dead; just that it looks like one on a board.

Likewise a picture of a sleeping person may look like a dead person. Stop with the pictures of dead people all over the place already!

> Likewise a picture of a sleeping person may look like a dead person. Stop with the pictures of dead people all over the place already!

I think a more accurate equivalent would be a widespread trend of depictions (pictures/tattoos) of people doing everyday activities with their eyes closed: surfing, winning awards, at the Eiffel tower, etc. That would certainly bother me because that is not the usual state for a waking person's eyes.

Edit: L'esprit de l'escalier moment - I should have used the arms-crossed-over-chest corpse-pose rather than eyes closed. Sometimes people assume that posture while living, but I mostly associate it with dead bodies prepared for burial.

I think the point is probably valid. I just spent some time watching slow-mo videos of Butterflies in flight on YouTube. The closes the got to the dividing line between wings approaching 90 degrees to the body, the wings were in a curved configuration. The rest of the time the line seems to be significantly slanted backwards, which does look like it's a much more natural pose in reality.

My pet peeve: people using digital SLRs that have an overlaid film motor drive sound. Argghhh! Just the shutter sound will do, thanks.

I don't think I would have ever noticed this but now, I think I will always notice it.

For what it's worth, the specimen pose is justified to get a full view of the texture of the wings. If they overlap you'll have a hard time seeing them.

In a field guide or specimen collection, I think it would make a lot of sense to show the whole wing. I don't think it's at the level of gizography and fake gun sounds (now those are a major pet peeve of mine, especially the suppressor misconception).

To be honest, the dead butterflies do look aesthetically more pleasing. I can't tell if it's because the image is culturally ingrained or if the shape is simply more elegant. That said, I welcome this knowledge which opens a whole new opportunity for me to be pedantic at parties.

I have to agree - the live butterfly shape is clearly more aerodynamic and realistic, but that long leading edge perpendicular to the body just makes me think of a stealth bomber or 747 for some reason. The dead butterfly shape is delicate and elegant. Besides identification, maybe that's another reason that they mount them that way.

I wonder how tightly tied your perception of 'delicate' and 'elegant' is with 'impractical' / 'less capable'?

It reminds me of this blog post on the topic of 'cuteness' in Japanese culture:

> Female protagonists in Japanese genre productions have to be cute, apparently. And cuteness is, I’m told, context-dependent. Big anime eyes and tiny pointed noses may be necessary but they are not sufficient. There must also be jeopardy.

Source: http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=4843

'delicate', yes I think it's absolutely tied to 'impractical' in my mind. 'elegant' maybe isn't the right word for what Im' feeling here. As an engineer, I see elegance in practicality, efficiency, and straightforwardness.

'artistic' or 'aesthetic', maybe, for the second one?

Like you, I tend to see efficiency as most beautiful, especially when one simple structure fulfills several complex requirements simultaneously. A tiger or a gazelle is beautiful because it's very close to optimal for the niche it's evolved to fill.

The Gazelle, perhaps, but what's optimal about orange fur for a jungle dweller?

I dunno but maybe it's the equivalent of countershading camouflage? Tigers are ambush predators that attack from above. If a tiger's fur only accounts for a small percentage of the sky above you, and orange and blue are complementary colours, then small bits of orange fur plus blue sky shouldn't stand out.

Yes! A B2-A is exactly what it evokes for me too. There's something not aerodynamic, and thus "inefficient" about the dead butterfly shape that makes it pretty and sophisticated.

To me, the aerodynamic butterflies are more aesthetically pleasing.

It's not identification or elegance; they're mounted that way so that you can see all of the wings. The live butterfly position has overlapping wings, and you can't see all of the detail.

I got the same reaction from the pictures on the article, but after some reflection, that's probably a consequence of how people frame the drawing.

You can't just mentally replace the dead butterfly with a living one on the same image. You have to keep in mind that the artist would create a completely different image for the living butterfly... And I really don't know how that would look like.

They look bereft of "nature", like a spatchcocked chicken.

I'm no scholar of Japanese Art, but by removing that which nature puts into the thing, you remove the beauty of the thing.

Fortunately, we're bridging art and science here.

The things I'm not allowed to talk about at parties:

Religion, politics, JavaScript and now butterflies.

> Religion, politics, JavaScript

Why are you repeating yourself? ;)

Hacker News: helping all of us be fun at parties, since always.

- Look at all those butterflies, isn't her shirt lovely?

- They're all dead...

The life of the party!

Fascinating! I have a dozen dead butterflies, pinned in frames at home (I really like http://www.bugunderglass.com/ if anyone's interested in unique home decorating -- I'm not associated with them in any way, but I've been buying their bugs for almost 6 years now!) and I used to raise moths from local caterpillars when I was a kid (you know, back before I found computers and actually played outside).

I knew the difference between dead and alive butterfly/moth wing positions, but never consciously noticed the difference in artistic depictions. Heck, I volunteer at the Boston Museum of Science every week and must have seen that Monarchs poster a hundred times without noticing.

Comparing art that "did it right" and art that "did it wrong" -- yeah, if you do it right, it looks a LOT more realistic and "lively," even if I wouldn't have known why before reading this article. I'll have to keep an eye out from now on!

Raising a death's-head hawkmoth was one of the coolest projects my mother did with us when we were children! It is really neat to experience their entire development process firsthand.

My wife had an interesting perspective I'll share:

"Maybe it helps to think of illustrated butterflies as a kind of iconography...One of the first things little kids (especially girls) learn to draw is “a butterfly” (meaning, a dead butterfly). It will not have anything like natural coloring, and might have big friendly eyes, but will definitely have two curling antennae and spread, uplifted wings. It’s a heraldic image, like a lion rampant. Lions don’t look like that, but the symbol says what it needs to."

Now all I can think of is the perl6 butterfly, Camelia...

Sadly, butterflies and other insects are pinned like this for entomological examination, which requires the wings, antenna, legs etc are fully extended so that all manner of detail can be seen. Many species are different in minor ways, having reached a very similar body design by evolutionary convergence. Numbers of spines, hairs, scales etc are all enumerated. Once dry, they get very very brittle and you can not spread wings/legs etc in fear of breakage. It sounds strange, but a number of beetles, butterflies and other insects have been discovered that look the same - until you examine some of these esoteric aspects. Genomic analysis is the gold standard in these matters. read a few of these search hits. https://www.google.ca/search?q=entomological+examination+of+...

Your comment reminded me of something I read recently:


Yes, insects are full of mimicry...

This is one of those things you can't unsee. I'm going to be walking around the world now seeing butterflies drawn in death-poses.

Heh so true - I've seen "dead butterflies" at least 3 times since reading this this morning! Enlightening and frustrating in equal measure!

But do all dead butterflies get into that pose? I'm sure some of the ones with more natural looking poses are dead too.

I think it's like when you have a human corpse with his wrists crossed on top of the chest. Sure, not all or,actually, hardly any people are buried with that pose. It'd still be weird if you always drew people sleeping like that.

True, but if it's natural looking then we can give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it's alive. The dead looking pose doesn't happen naturally, it's arranged like that by humans, and that's only possible if the butterfly is dead.

I'm pretty sure none of them naturally die in that pose; its an artificial death pose rendered for the sake of identification

I think this may just be another instance of the coconut affect.


I once had a job making ice cream and it bothered me that I had to add yellow food coloring to the banana ice cream. We used real bananas and didn't add banana flavor. But I was told to add yellow color anyway.

There is an old cooking adage that, "You eat with your eyes first."

Making food aesthetically pleasing does add flavor to that first sample.

I saw something about a restaurant where the food is served in the dark a while ago, so that this can't happen.

Wow, I'm not sure I'd want to eat in a restaurant that purposefully prevented me from seeing what I was eating!


Thinking about it, it's weird that people expect the ice cream to be yellow anyway, since I can't say I've ever seen a banana with yellow flesh.

Here are the bananas that were used when all of these recipes were originally written: http://www.ars-grin.gov/npgs/images/may/musa/TARS17155-fruit...

Banana flavoring is also based on the flavor of Gros Michel bananas, which is why it doesn’t taste like the Cavendish bananas commonly available today.

If you want to see a very yellow inside of a banana, get a very ripe plantain (completely black peel) and fry slices.

In defense of leaving statues unpainted, what is the point of using marble if you're going to paint over it? It's a beautiful rock. Painting the statues originally was the wrong choice.

Also, the reproduction paintings were very unlikely to be faithful reproductions of anything but the base coat, and the base coat of any painting is going to look like crap.

A lot of the reasons old structures and sculptures were painted was to highlight wealth. Most building materials were common wherever you used them, so you could imagine the marble mine used that led to the statue was probably not more than several hundred miles away.

The paint, however, may be very exotic. Certain colors and tones were infamous in the old world for being extremely expensive, be they hard to make or find, and often had to travel thousands of miles. When you painted your stuff, it was to show off that you were not only locally rich, but you had the connections internationally to get the really care stuff.

Not sure if that was the case with the Augustus statue in question, but it is common throughout Greek and Roman architecture.

The point of using marble is that it's soft enough to be easy to work and still tough enough that it won't break easily.

Thanks for the term. I can now compress a nebula of irritation into two words.

Horses running in a city do sound like that. And old movies were not that long after cars took over the scene (most urban people would see horses around, even if only rarely). The sound of horses running over dirty would probably be unnatural... Although the lower frequency parts would sound just great in a movie.

Also, nature is loud if you don't disturb if.


LPT: If a friend has a tattoo that you now recognize as a dead butterfly, you probably shouldn't tell them.

I have a tattoo that is a butterfly with a skull in the middle. It's wings are in the upright position, meaning it's dead and pinned so uh I guess it's okay? It's a bad tattoo either way and has become a pretty regular joke.

If any of my friends are reading this; it's too late to tease me.

Butterfly? Deaths Head Hawk Moths have a skull on the thorax (http://www.ukmoths.org.uk/species/acherontia-atropos/adult-3... )· They're hawk moths, not butterflies.

I'm aware, it's been mistaken for a butterfly (mostly my friends teasing me) a few times so I've somewhat owned the joke now.

This is more representative: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/Ac...

Don't anyone show her what a human heart actually looks like.

This is clearly not that; everyone knows that the common icon for a heart is a cartoon. I - and probably most people - was not aware that the common depiction of butterflies is in a form they rarely take during life.

Funny story - just the other day my 4 year old daughter was wondering if the hearts in our bodies looked like the shape she knew as a "heart" because it didn't look that way in the Magic Schoolbus episode she'd just watched about Ms Frizzle's vascular system (where the heart was depicted in a more-or-less anatomically correct manner). It was an adorable moment.

Yes, yes. I was just poking fun. Like the other commenter, I too have small kids and have had to explain to both of them the shape of the human heart and how it differs from the heart shape.

I always thought it was supposed to represent fusing 2 hearts together. A bit grim but hey... https://i.imgur.com/5DtIqYg.jpg

The heart symbol is a silphium seed pod.

(See also: Cunningham's Law)

Well, the inverted scrotum we use right now is a better symbol of lust anyway.

Is it? I'm not sure I'd be feeling so lusty if someone inverted mine.

Great, I'll never be able to un-see that.

Let me introduce you to the record label called Love Records and their logo.


For a very long time I thought <3 was a variation of :3

Thank you, you will now make me picture a scrotum with eyes everytime I see that.

I always thought it looked like a butt, from the point of view of a person getting oral from the owner of said butt.

The heart shape may come from the shape of the seeds of the extinct silphium plant, which were associated with love and sex because of their use as a contraceptive.

Meh. The heart icon has nothing to do with the anatomical heart, but it represents love. Love has nothing to do with the anatomical heart. So, apart from the name, they don't share any aspects; they're not workable drop-in replacements for each other.

See also: ubiquitous depictions of bright red shrimp, crabs, and lobsters swimming around in the ocean.

As a rabbit "parent", I now shake my head at every depiction of a rabbit with pads on its feet like a cat(!) (Rabbits' feet are padless and entirely covered with fur.)

viz. every cartoon with visible foot bottoms here: https://www.google.com/search?site=&tbm=isch&q=easter+bunny

Also… rabbits don't typically eat carrots, they eat carrot tops. (Just like how cats don't drink milk, and mice don't eat cheese. Sure, they like it, but where would a mouse find cheese in the wild?)

I guess as long as there has been cheese, mice have been eating it.

Don't red shrimps, crabs and lobsters exist as well?

I guess we all have pet peeves but this one (while interesting) is a bit silly. Pillow designers are looking to create an attractive pillow that will sell - let's face it, a dead butterfly is more aesthetically pleasing than a living one due to the outstretched wings.

A dead butterfly may fit more "snugly" into the frame of a square pillow, but personally -- and aesthetics, after all, are rather subjective -- I would dispute that it is "more aesthetically pleasing" than a living one.

(Disclaimer: this has long been a pet peeve of mine, too, as my wife could testify!)

Yes, I didn't mean to speak for everyone - I'm sure many people prefer the living picture which has more emphasis on the body and less emphasis on the wings.

Not just the body, but also the layering or overlap of the wing segments which makes the sheathing mechanism apparent - that is very beautiful in itself (even if I don't know the right terms for these things). The typical image looks unnaturally stretched and two-dimensional in comparison.

I found the article aesthetically as well as scientifically persuasive.

I definitely do. After seeing her drawings of a butterfly with correctly positioned wings, now I can't help but notice how bad the other more typical depiction looks.

Just look at it as a special projection method that has been applied to an image of a living butterfly :)

Tell me what you're expert in and I'll find examples of its misapplication that are really annoying to you. This kind of dismissal-by-ignorance is one of the reasons we can't have nice things.

a dead butterfly is more aesthetically pleasing than a living one due to the outstretched wings

No it isn't; you're just used to seeing them that way. There's an excellent scientific reason for it, since it facilitates species identification, but I'd rather see butterflies portrayed alive than dead unless that's semantically appropriate (eg for a gothic aesthetic). I have a garden and we let it run fairly wild to attract bird and insect life, so I have lots of real butterflies, bees etc to look at.

"No it isn't; you're just used to seeing them that way."

Being used to things looking certain way is always factor in what people find aesthetically pleasing. It goes for color preferences, shapes and pretty much anything else too.

You know, I went on to address that in the very next sentence.

Aren't "pet peeves" kind of silly by definition? if it weren't silly, it would be a legitimate concern rather than a pet peeve.

I did find this really interesting though. Sort of a window into a world i'd never otherwise think about.

I always thought that it was weird to keep peeves as pets.

Now it's been pointed out, it's blindingly obviously wrong to me, for one reason: the "live butterfly" looks more aerodynamic. Entertainingly, this is no less wrong: the one time a live butterfly is likely to have forward-stretched wings is in flight.

> Entertainingly, this is no less wrong: the one time a live butterfly is likely to have forward-stretched wings is in flight.

I'm sorry, do you have evidence for this assertion? The author specifically addresses this, saying the position is atypical even during flight.

It just seems rude to me to dismiss the author's argument so flippantly with what seems to be an unfounded supposition.

Ugh. Off the high horse, please. I'm not disagreeing with the author.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7a7ZAqWBIs&t=79 shows a butterfly manoeuvring in flight such that it stretches its wings forward. My statement was simply that if a butterfly is ever going to have its wings forward, it will be while it is in flight. Stop looking for drama where there isn't any.

Is it really more aesthetically pleasing, or just more familiar?

Aesthetics are subjective and often driven by familiarity; the two options you present aren't exclusive alternatives, the second explains one reason why the first would be true rather than providing an alternative to it.

More pleasing because the underside of the wings aren't as colorful.

Ah yes - the undersides of butterfly wings are just SO dull, aren't they?


You don't necessarily see the underside of the wings in a natural pose.

Yet we don't illustrate other colorful animals as though they are being drawn and quartered. The aesthetic pleasure is diminished when we think that the subject is dead.

Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder; personally I find the live one more aesthetically pleasing.

Yeah, I'm with you. They're meant to look pretty, anatomical/biological accuracy is not the point. I'm sure there are many, many such inaccuracies in illustrated animals one could find, if one cared to.

It's silly because the depiction does not show a "dead" butterfly per definition: this is something that the human viewer makes of it (through reference to the prepared butterflies), and in this case the article writer is trying to enforce that view on us.

For all we know, a butterfly could find such pictures attractive.

Half-baked analogy. A person in split-leg position is not natural. We rarely see people in such position. But to say that [1] is a picture of a dead person would be clearly nonsense.

[1] https://images.clipartof.com/small/28591-Clipart-Illustratio...

Agreed - who cares, other than the odd nut like the author. The wings are spread out further and show more of the wing. It looks nicer.

If you find the author to be an "odd nut" for caring about scientific accuracy, you may possibly be on the wrong website.

I find this attitude fairly disgusting.

A bit of a tangent - it seems to be common for folks to express disagreement with a certain sentiment by labeling the sentiment or the person expressing the sentiment as some adjective of repulsive, immoral, or gauche, rather than describing what about the position they disagree with. It is a bit lazy on your part.

You're exactly correct. It was lazy.

This is hacker news and we have something special here. One-liners like that are deserving of your response.

That was the feeling evoked by the comment. I was taking a break from work and didn't spend time explaining.

There are so many reasons I find that comment bothersome. But mostly it's probably my upbringing in the deep south where any intellectual pursuit would put you into the category of "odd nut" whose time spent on a subject was worthy of dismissal because of "common sense" is more important.

I can understand how an illustrator could be bothered by something like this. It is your job to be accurate yet you see so many examples where others do not meet your own standards.

Slightly off topic (and related to moths not butterflies), but this sites includes wonderful detail on how moths are prepared high resolution scans: http://ottawa.moths.ca/technical.html

I started following a bunch of paleo-artists on twitter and now I find it hard to look at kids' dinosaur stuff anymore. http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2010/03/03/zombie-h...

Interesting article. Something else I'll notice everywhere, like bad kerning. Thanks ;)

This is a great example of how detailed, specific nerd-ery about just about any topic can be super-cool and interesting!

I rarely see any butterflies these days

The population of Monarch butterflies in the U.S. has declined quite a bit since the 90's. I'm not sure if other species have had similar declines.


With butterflies, it doesn't matter much if you set them in their wings-flat resting position, as you can still see all of both pairs of wings, but with other lepidoptera it definitely does make a difference. With few exceptions, when moths are resting, their hind wings are hidden, but setting them in the traditional way allows both wings to be seen. So I suppose for consistency, butterflies are set the same way that moths (i.e. all other lepidoptera) are.

Incidentally, with a bit of practice you can sneak up to resting or feeding butterflies and photograph them close-up (e.g. with a smartphone), provided you don't make sudden movements. So now you can have proof of sighting and a permanent visual record without the need to kill them.

I never noticed, but it is indeed a bit odd that most drawings show butterflies in a position they would't assume while living. Of course there is artistic freedom, but when a realistic display is intended, a more true-to life posture should be used.

The reason why nature illustrations look a particular way is actually really interesting. I don't have a source to show, but we actually learned a bit about biological illustrations as part of my biology degree.

To make a long story short, illustrations tend to depict what you are trying to show. An unnatural position might be the best way to illustrate an organism if you are providing a guide for people to classify them with, especially if you can only provide a single photo.

The more natural depictions of birds, etc. can all basically be traced back to John James Audubon. Before then almost every illustration looked exceedingly staged.


One could write an analogous article about birds. In painting the 435 images in The Birds of America, John James Audubon probably shot at least a few of each species. And then stuffed and mounted them.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_James_Audubon#/media/File...

This lady's art is stunning. I highly recommend not leaving at the dead butterfly article. The portfolio, in particular.

This would be like to say "please stop to drawn the parts of a flower and opened fruits in botanical illustrations. Is gruesome to see all those mutilated plants".

There is a reason to drawn both wings in the same plane, is much easier to classificatory purposes and is needed in some special cases because butterflies can have totally different marks in its right and left wings.

I've never seen such a shocking injustice I cared so little about!

Although it's a silly pet peeve, it's interesting to realize that the standard pose society has adopted for butterflies is one in which they're typically dead. Definitely changes the way I look at pictures of butterflies.

This is really incredible. Thank you for this insightful post

Are their wings not outstretched mid flap?

I seem to recall that looking down on flying butterflies has them look an awful lot like I see in pictures, or even when they wiggle their wings perched, but that could be memory being fickle.

My understanding was that it's not that the pinned position is just outstretched, but also pulled forward. It's that forward position (I think) that they rarely ever take.

My kids like to visit those butterfly gardens we have in some local parks. I never noticed anything, in real time, that conflicted with my mind's image of the standard "dead butterfly". I'll have to pay more attention next time.

Please, enough with the blog sites that do not show any article at all without javascript!

I fully agree that people should stop doing that when making blogs, but you can hardly demand that people stop submitting interesting content just because said contact has been hijacked by hyperactive designers/service providers.

Boycotting a technology you don't like is ineffective unless it's monopolized and there a single provider on whom to focus the boycott efforts. Extensions that filter out such annoyances (like adblockers) are somewhat effective but result in arms races. Subversion through 3rd party tagging or the creation of other undesirable second-order effects seems like the best strategy. Perhaps someone with more technical knowledge could come up with better suggestions.

It's a valid problem, which I encourage you to consider, write up, and submit in its own right.

This one, like many others, is perfectly readable without Javascript if you disable CSS (in Firefox: View, Page Style, No Style).

OK you pronounce "Bejing" with a normal, regular, everyday hard 'j' sound as it's supposed to be pronounced (not some fake exotic sounding airy zzzhhhhhh sound you and everyone else just made up out of thin air) and I promise not to kill or pin any butterflies.

I really thought the peeve was going to be about pictures of butterflies on people's mouths (Silence of the Lambs). That bugs me, but I guess with the movie it was supposed to.

Do you want it pronounced like "edging" or "aging"?

The ei sounds like a long a, so it's closer to aging.

Do you pronounce those differently? Where'd you grow up? In all the English dialects I'm familiar with, those are pronounced the same.

Regardless, it's the "j sound" of "James" (as well as of both "edging" and "aging" for those of you who pronounce them the same) and not the "j sound" of "Jaques" (or the "z" sound of "azure").

(For those familiar with IPA, /be.'dʒiɲ/ not /be.'ʒiɲ/)

If you really want to get pedantic, it should be an unaspirated "ch" (as opposed to q, which is aspirated like "ch" usually is in English). And if you want to get even more pedantic, it's a dual-articulated sound and not a pure postalveolar sound like in English.

That is, IPA [t͡ɕ]

Edit: And if anyone's curious, there are four sounds in Mandarin that English-speakers will interpret as forms of "ch", varying based on aspiration and point(s) of articulation. In Pinyin, all four have distinct romanizations (which is one advantage Pinyin has over Wade-Giles).

    Pinyin  IPA  Articulation           Aspirated
    ch      [ʈ͡ʂʰ] postalveolar retroflex  Y
    zh      [ʈ͡ʂ] postalveolar retroflex  N
    q       [t͡ɕʰ] dual alveolo-palatal    Y
    j       [t͡ɕ] dual alveolo-palatal    N
By contrast, English "ch" is postalveolar but not retroflex, and aspiration depends on context: IPA [t͡ʃʰ] or [t͡ʃ].

Am I correct in my recollection that the sound represented by "b" is actually closer to the unaspirated "p" in words like "spin" and "spot"?

Indeed you are.

I think he is referring to the "e" not the "j".

I don't know IPA but BAY-jing (aging) vs BEH-jing (edging).

Well then there's the intonation, so let's call it bay-JING (likewise not IPA, just some characters on the screen).


Lol good point. Nicely peeved out, well done.

I know right? ...mildly surprised someone hasn't pointed out it was a Hawkmoth. Have a picture of a dead one (apparently)


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