Night Vision and the Seven Sisters

By The Rook
Moving about “in the shadows” often, though admittedly not always, means moving about in the dark.  While simply utilizing a flashlight or other light source usually makes a great deal of sense when mucking about in the dark, it generally attracts unwanted attention to one who is trying to remain unseen. Night vision glasses are a marvelous tool, but not always accessible when needed, so it behooves the seeker to learn how best to make one’s way in the dark.
Many years ago, I was employed in a situation where I was expected to “close up shop” in a relatively large, dark network of rooms.  Naturally, I was provided a flashlight but I must admit that I was not always diligent in using it. It was frequently either misplaced or stored in some inconvenient location. I was, at the time, taking classes in the local university which covered aspects of vision that enabled me to learn to maximize by ability to safely work my way through this network.
In order to explain this, I’ll begin with an example. You may be aware of the constellation Pleiades, also called the Seven Sisters. This is a fascinating star group that is visible in the Winter in the Northern Hemisphere (well, almost). The Pleaides have the marvelous distinction of being marginally visible to the naked eye. This “sort-of-kind-of” visibility manifests in an interesting manner. If you were to check online to see when and where the Pleaides were visible in your area, then went outside to look in the precise spot where they were predicted to be, you will probably not be able to see them. However, if you shifted your vision slightly to the side of the location where the Pleaides are located, you will actually see this constellation as a blurry form in your peripheral vision.  It’s nearly irresistible at first to immediately stare directly at this blur to get a better look. Sure enough the Sisters vanish as soon as you do! It seems that this constellation is only visible to the naked eye if you catch it in your peripheral vision. One immediately wonders how this is so, and what on earth it has to do with a one’s ability to move around in the dark.
There are many kinds of cells in the retina.  The two of primary concern to us, however, are the rods and cones, the two major receptive cells.  These cells are responsible for transducing the information light carries into our eyes.  In essence, the more of these receptors get stimulated, the more information our eyes receive.
Still with me?  Hang in there, we’re almost to the practical stuff. Most of the information we get from light is collected by our cones.  These are rather large receptors that are very good at collecting color information.  The trade off for color sensitivity, however, is that cones aren’t terribly light sensitive.  These receptors do not get stimulated very well when the light is low (which partially explains why it’s harder to see color in the dark).   Since color provides us great information and since humans are largely diurnal creatures, this is usually a fair trade.  Our retinas have evolved so that most of the light information focuses right in a small divot in the back of our eyes called the fovea, which is precisely where the vast majority of the cones are found.  In short, the precise place where our vision usually focuses when we look at something directly has great color acuity and poor light sensitivity.
This means that our direct line of sight is probably the worst way to try to see in the dark.
Conversely, the rods are very light sensitive, but aren’t sensitive to color.  As a result, these receptors typically collect in the areas around the fovea, or in the periphery.  As such, our greatest light sensitivity (and best night vision) can be found in our peripheral vision.  This is why the Pleaides are visible only in the peripheral vision (where the light-sensitive rods are) and not in the direct line of sight (where we use our cones).
By using our eyes in such a fashion where we optimize the use of the rods, we find that we significantly increase our ability to make out objects in the dark.  Be warned, however.  While rods are quite light sensitive, the way the rods are wired to other cells in the retina results in fairly low resolution when compared to our cones.  We’ll be able to make out objects, but they’ll be somewhat fuzzy–much like the way we see the Pleaides.
We can do this by “scanning” our eyes back and forth rather rapidly back and forth across the area in which we are moving.  This allows for more light to be collected on the periphery and results in greater stimulation of the rods.   This requires a bit of practice, as some find this experience to be somewhat dizzying at first, and it takes a bit of time to build up trust in what you see in the periphery.  Remember, there is a loss of acuity, so things may look somewhat blurry and unfamiliar at first.  This relatively simple technique certainly does not allow someone to “see in the dark,” but rather takes advantage of low-light conditions.  Given practice and time, you’ll likely be surprised by the results!
Note: This is a brief article I wrote some time ago for the Ninja Information Database. Since I retain all rights to my writings, I also reserve the right to repost it on my own blog.

Ways to be a Hero Without Using Your Fists

First, I’d like to say that the vast majority of the following is not my work.  Delta, a fellow RLSH compiled this list and posted it on the message board in an effort to help newcomers answer the question “how do I get started?”  Indeed, more experienced RLSHs have benefited from it as well! I found myself referring back to it while talking with others so often that I begged his permission to put this list on my blog for easier reference.   The list began to grow as more and more people added their ideas (credits noted) and at this point, we have 31 ways to be a Hero Without Using Your Fists!
1. First things first. Take a first aid course. Be ready to help someone in an emergency situation. Don’t assume someone else will be able to do it.
2. Be a hero, donate blood. Better yet bring a friend. Can you imagine the publicity the Red Cross could get out of a photo of a half dozen RLSH at a drive?
3. Look for paint, not pain. Go on a graffiti patrol. You don’t necessarily have to get rid of it yourself. Document it and report it to the town/city officials. Some places, like the City of Boston has a special graffiti phone hotline.
4. Serve up kindness. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or free community lunch. What could bring a smile to a downtrodden face more than a hot meal … having that meal served by a caped do-gooder of course.
5. Brown-bag it. Put together a meal in a paper bag, write “for the homeless” on it and leave it where a homeless person can find it. (credit to Knight Hood)
6. Get around. Walk around your neighborhood in order to get to know your neighbors. You can find out who needs what kinds of help and meet people who might be able to help in the future.
7. Be a “Super Scout”. Aim to do one good dead every day. It could be as small as holding a door open for someone or returning an empty grocery cart to the store entrance.
8. Curb appeal. Offer a free lawn mow or snow removal for a neighbor who might have trouble doing it. You could also offer to sweep the walk or wash windows. If they want to reward you have them pay it forward.
9. This is a job for … Trash-man? 1. Get a garbage bag. 2. Go outside. 3. Pick up trash until you fill the bag. Picking-up trash is about the least glamorous thing I can think of, but it can still inspire others to be less apathetic.
10. Clean house. Go through your stuff and set aside anything you don’t really need or want anymore. Take it to a Salvation Army or other charity store and donate it. This one gives you a clean room and the feeling that you’ve done something good. Talk about win/win.
11. Cut back on the caffeine. Skip your coffee/soda habit for a week and give the money to a charity you believe in. You could also buy it and give it to someone who can’t afford it.
12. Go back for a second course. Take a CPR class. Go back to number 1 for the reasons.
13. Speak up! The next time you hear someone say something you know is just plain wrong, call them on it. Write a letter to the editor at your local paper to bring attention to a problem you see. You don’t need to wear a cape for this and, somehow, that seems more heroic to me.
14. Be prepared. Put together emergency preparedness packs for home and travel. Put aside a little extra for others. If you are ready for a disaster you can better help those that are not.
15. People watch. Visit these sites to see if you recognize a missing person.;; There are more sites if you look for them. (Rook’s note:  I like posting these to my Facebook account and asking others to share. The heightened exposure will hopefully increase the chances of someone being found)
16. Get out the vote. If you are old enough to vote, VOTE. Encourage others to vote. Pass out literature showing how to register. Democracy works better if everyone participates.
17. Do the write thing. Everyone loves to get real mail. Write to someone who doesn’t get out much, an old friend or a member of the armed services. Every letter you send will brighten up someone’s day. Don’t forget about postcards.
18. Food, glorious food. Organize a food drive. It could be as small as your classroom or office. If you can go bigger try to get the whole school, company or place of worship involved.
19. Walk the walk. Many charities have walk-a-thons to raise money and awareness for their cause. Put on your best cape and most comfortable shoes and join in. Once again a crowd of RLSH will really get some notice for the cause.
20. Now you’re cooking. Make a meal for someone who can’t get out or has recently suffered a traumatic loss. If you don’t do the cooking at home it might be a nice gesture there too.
21. Will someone think of the children? You may still be young yourself but there is always someone younger. Visit a children’s ward, tutor someone, read stories at the library and/or be a mentor. Spending time with kids is a top way to prevent crime in the future.
22. Make a dog happy – Dig a fire hydrant out of the snow or cut the weeds back around one. The time it take someone to attach a hose in an emergency can make the difference in the loss of life and property. Heck, unclog a storm drain while you’re at it.
23. Go undercover – Join the local neighborhood watch in your secret identity. It’s a great way to get to know the area and its trouble spots. You may also get some training and possibly a recruit or two.
24. Sign up for amber alerts –Every set of eyes count. It doesn’t matter if they are behind a mask or not (Rook’s note:  See #15 regarding Facebook).
25. Go ahead and jump – If you have a car make sure you have a set of jumper cables and know how to use them. (I keep a cheat sheet). Stow a few other emergency supplies in the trunk like a spare blanket, bottled water and some rope. You’d be amazed how many ways they can be useful.
26. Give of yourself – Sign up to be an organ donor. I know it’s a bit morbid to think about, but if the worst should happen you can still save a life or lives.
27. Be a good listener – Sometimes the biggest help we can be to someone is to be someone they can talk to when they are experiencing hardships. You don’t have to be a therapist to let someone open up about the things that are bothering them the most. It’s not necessary to try to “fix” their problems, just be that “hearing ear” that they need. (credit to The Muse at VisualAdjectives)
28. Go in feet first – Take water lifesaving training. You never know when you may have to dive in and save someone from drowning.
29. Say it with Flowers – Take flowers to a critical care or cancer ward. (credits to Kindrid and Rook)
30. Walk for Pennies – “You wouldn’t believe how much change gets dropped on the ground. While on a boring foot patrol I started picking up trash that turned into finding loose change all over. When I started looking I started finding more than I expected. This sparked the idea, once a week at the least, we should all go out and do a Penny Patrol, you can donate this money to The McDonald houses at any McD’s location or donate to any local cause you may have. You’ll be surprised how many quarters and dimes you will find while doing this.” (Credit to SupermanX of the Super Samaritan Society)
31. Oh, Shoot! – Get certified with firearms. It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t want to own or use one. Becoming certified gives you a grasp of what guns can do. It is an excellent idea to know what you are doing if the unthinkable ever happens. Think of it as knowing (and having a healthy respect for) your enemy.
I’ll update this as they become available.  Many thanks to Delta for putting this together!

Desert Sage

“Hey…” she said, “go give that guy a water bottle.”
The homeless man she was nodding toward was sitting on a bench with an overstuffed shopping cart.
“Man,” I chided myself as I made my way toward him with my water in tow, “I didn’t even see this guy. She’s better at this than I am!”
Later, I smiled as she beckoned a waitress in a conspiratorial tone. ?See that older couple at the table on the other side of the dining room?” she asked, “Do you think you can put their meal on our bill, please? Don’t tell them though, it might be seen as a bit creepy.”
The couple, previously invisible to me, was sharing a small meal and positively glowed as the waitress removed their bill.
She’s much better at this than me!
Using her Facebook account, my wife gathered donations of soap, shampoo, lotions, and other toiletry items to place in bags to distribute with the water bottles. As we sat at the table at home, she commented “I read your blog…I had no idea you talked about me so much.”
“Of course,” I affirmed, “All of my best ideas came from you.” In fact, it would be helpful if you would choose a name so I can stop referring to you constantly as “My Wife” when I write.
She thought for a second. She bounced around names of muses, mythological deities, and a few Shakespearean characters. Finally, she decided.
“Watson!” she exclaimed proudly. Soon, she had determined her logo. The silhouette of a Victorian gentleman with a bowler making an “At-Your-Service” bow. It was humble, and emphasized her service orientation.
While stuffing the bags, she thought of the Rook labels that I place on the water bottles.
“Perhaps we should label these bags with both of our logos.” She mused.
She had indeed done most of the work with these.
“True. However, many RLSHs, when they combine forces, often form a kind of team, with a new logo.”
“Yes, but just two of us, we hardly constitute a ‘team,’ and I really don’t want to form a team with a bunch of people I don’t know.” She confessed.
A new voice joined the conversation. Our daugther’s fiancee’, who sidled up to the table and began stuffing bags noted “I’ve already chosen my name…Sage.”
“Nice!” I nodded, “It’s a plant indigenous to this area, it is often used for cleansing, and has a double-meaning for wisdom.”
My daughter wasn’t too far behind. “My name’s always been ‘Ember.’ I’ll use that one.”
I grinned over at my wife and she nodded.
It looks like we have a team now.
Soon, our new RLSH group had chosen a name (Desert Sage), adopted a logo (a simple line drawing of a sage leaf) and made plans to create a Facebook page to generate awareness, contributions, and support. Alas, “Desert Sage” was taken in Facebook, so we had to create it under a different name. The RLSH team Desert Sage, consisting of Watson, Ember, Sage, and myself can be contacted at the “Arid Sage” Facebook page at:

Dissecting Bystander Apathy

Sometimes I wonder if there’s an RLSH alive that doesn’t know the Kitty Genovese story by heart.  When I taught Social Psychology, this story was a centerpiece in my group behavior component, as was my own “Genovese Experience.”
Phoenix, Arizona has a tradition, it seems in welcoming new residents to its warm embrace.  It seems that everyone I know who has moved here found themselves in an auto collision within a few months of setting down roots.  Perhaps it’s a form of initiation, but my family and I were no exception.
My wife was driving our smallish Toyota Corolla though an intersection when a Bronco pulled out of a gas station on the corner and stopped directly in front of us.  She slammed on her brakes and cranked her steering wheel, but we didn’t stop in nearly enough time.   When a Corolla collides with a Bronco, it’s easy to determine the winner.  Our poor car became a large metal accordion with screaming children in the back seat.  Ever choleric, my wife immediately leapt from her side of the car to confront the other driver.
The children were screaming and, twisting about, I saw that they were each bleeding from the area of their eyes.  I tried the door on my side of the car, but it wouldn’t open.  I called out to my wife.
“Honey!  Call 911”
She kept screaming at the other driver instead.
“Honey!  The kids are bleeding from the eyes!  Call 911 now!”
My wife, ever relentless, began to scream at the other driver about how our children are now bleeding from the eyes.
It was then that I realized that we had drawn a crowd.  Accidents almost always draw quite a bit of attention.  This one was no exception.  There were approximately 10 or 12 people standing near the intersection, staring with intense interest and doing nothing to help.


It’s not that people don’t want to help,  I told my class, it’s just that the situation dictates that they do nothing!
People most often determine their behavior in groups by a few basic rules:  Social referencing, efficacy, and diffusion of responsibility. I remembered saying, Let’s take a look at a few of these.
I started writing up on the board…

  • Diffusion of Responsibility:  People generally want to help.  They really do.  However, they don’t want to step on one another’s toes in the process.  If someone else is going to do it, who am I to get in the way?
  • Efficacy: People like to feel competent.  Often, they won’t help if they don’t know what to do to help or if they feel that it’s not in their competence to do so.
  • Social Referencing:  Probably the cornerstone of conformity, we tend to do what others around us are doing.  In doing so, we learn what behavior is appropriate in which situation.

The bad news, folks, is that when Kitty was being stabbed, each person was thinking that the next person would do something, everyone silently watched—which established a norm via social referencing, and no one seemed to feel as if they could safely intervene.  One person who did consider calling the police felt that she would get in trouble, as she was an undocumented immigrant.
The good news is that this can be remedied.  All that needs to be done is for someone in the observing crowd to be assigned the responsibility of some simple, helpful task that should be well within his or her competency.  As soon as he or she does this, in theory, social referencing dictates that others will follow suit and help on their own.


I looked back out at the crowd of bystanders.  Ignoring my wife, I pointed at the most salient person in the group.
“You!”  I shouted.  “Call 911!”
The young man’s glazed stare changed quickly as he blinked away his socially induced apathy.  A light seemed to come on in his eyes and he nodded quickly and sprinted off.
I never saw him again.
I set my sights on another person.
“You!” I pointed at a young woman in the crowd. “Do you have a cell phone?”
She nodded, already digging in her purse.
“Please! Call 911 now!”
She nodded again and began dialing.  Everyone else fell into roles like well-placed pieces in a puzzle.  One man ran into the gas station and bought water bottles for my children and a young lady used handkerchiefs and bottled water to wash the blood from my children’s faces to reveal very small cuts above their eyes.
One thoughtful gentleman suggested that I climb out of the car on my wife’s side.  I felt a little silly then.
Soon, the ambulances arrived and my children were in much more calm spirits thanks to the aid of the not-quite-apathetic bystanders.
Bystander apathy is indeed endemic to the human condition.  However, it can be countered with some very simple techniques.

Where There's Water, There's Life

I flopped bonelessly across the bed and stared, unfocusing, at the ceiling.  I slowly closed my eyes against the harsh light of my thoughts.
I felt my wife’s weight on the bed as she sat down next to where I was laying.  Her voice floated toward me:
“What’s wrong?”
“Oh…I’ve failed.” I grumbled in what I hoped was a matter-of-fact tone.
“What do you mean?  Failed at what?”
Our daughter was visiting a friend’s house that evening, and it was arranged that I would pick her up.  As I turned onto one of the less savory streets of our city, my daughter pointed out a man sleeping on a bench at the bus stop.  “How sad…” She commented.
“And I just drove on.”  I groaned.  “I didn’t stop or anything.  My daughter watched me as I passed by someone who was apparently in need.”
I felt my wife’s hand brush across the top of my head.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I’ve got a thousand excuses.  All cop-outs.  I didn’t have anything to give to him. I couldn’t get to where he was without crossing several lanes of traffic, then parking at a grocery store, then walking over to the bus stop while leaving our kid in the car.  In that neighborhood.”
My wife’s hand stopped. “What else?”
She had accurately sensed that those were all just excuses I created after the fact. After I had failed to stop and give help, I came up with all sorts of ideas as to why I didn’t.
I sighed.  “I didn’t think of it until I was about three blocks down the road.  I wasn’t thinking much about helping others, I was just “being Dad,” concentrating on getting my kid home. I suppose I could have turned back, but then all those excuses came to mind and I just kept going.”
She resumed her hair-stroking.  “Your reasons don’t sound too much like cop-outs to me, but I think you may be feeling guilty because, for a moment, you’ve forgotten who you are.”
We sat in silence for a few heavy moments, then her voice reached my ears again.
“Why don’t you try this…”
Now, in the front seat of my car and within easy reach lies a small duffel bag.  It is always stocked with water bottles, each bearing the Rook symbol.  They not only serve as a constant reminder of who I am as well as my mission, they provide ready access to something everyone who lives in my neck of the desert needs.  It’s an easy, convenient way to help others when you’re busily going about the other part of your life.

Feeding the Ill

My wife sat hunched over her computer and beckoned me with her free hand.
“I just got an email from someone’s mom.  Her son can only eat Jevity and there’s a lapse in their insurance, so she’s looking for any cans she can scrounge up until they come through.  What do you think?”
“Perfect.”  I grinned, “Let’s feed him.”
Jevity is a liquid food substitute for people who cannot eat solid foods for whatever reasons.  I had this stuff pumped directly into my stomach via a feeding tube for several weeks while I was undergoing cancer treatment.  Unfortunately, this formula of food-in-a-can is quite expensive.  I was lucky in that my insurance company paid for it.  Others aren’t quite so fortunate.
When I had my feeding tube removed, I had a few extra cases of Jevity left over.  I decided that this would be a novel way to feed those who were not only in need of the rather expensive food, but are ill as well.  My wife and I locate cancer clinic and chemotherapy treatment centers and donate these cans—all adorned with the Rook symbol to those whose insurance doesn’t cover the food completely.
In this case, we had a specific person in mind.  He had been in an accident and is apparently dealing with a lifetime of living off of this particular liquid diet.  We loaded up a couple cases and ensured that her son will have something to nourish himself with until his insurance straightens things out.
It seems that there are many ways to provide food for those in need.

The Rook: Origin Story

He was my cousin and at the time, my best friend. Almost a year older than me, and infinitely more confident, I looked up to and admired him. We differed greatly in many ways.  He was militant, where I was more of a pacifist. We were both interested in the martial arts, however.  He was much more skilled than I was, having achieved a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do by the time we were thirteen. We were both conversant with comics, but not as interested in them as many of our friends.  He was more interested in science fiction movies and I was a fan of mystery novels.
Nonetheless, like many adolescents, we decided to adopt superhero personas.  An avid–though not very skilled–chess player, I always had a chessboard set up in my room to take on anyone willing to play a game.  There weren’t many chess aficionados in my social circle with the exception of my father, which may account for my mediocre abilities.  Nonetheless, the board maintained a prominent position in my room—if only as mostly décor.
It was the chessboard that provided the initial structure for our superselves.  He took a seat behind the white side of the board and picked up a horse-shaped piece.
“I’ll be The Knight.”
“Man,” I grumbled.  “You got the cool-sounding one.”
“No problem,” he grinned.  “you can always be the Queen.”
I made a face, a rude comment unfit for this blog and muttered “Not likely.”  Though fairly liberal in my attitudes of that day and place, there was no way I–as a barely teenaged heterosexual boy–was going to allow myself to be saddled with that moniker.
It did get me thinking, however.  Although the Knight was probably the most “super” sounding chess piece, it wasn’t my favorite.  I picked up the rook from my side of the board and considered it.
More advanced players than I had critiqued my over reliance on this piece, though I found it terribly useful.  Also, the general shape made it easy to use in various super-devices.  The hilt of a sword and the handlebars of the motorcycle could easily be fashioned into the shape of the rook.  It was also an easy figure to draw.
I placed the black rook next to the white knight on the board.  “This one’s me.”
Over the next several months, we drew pictures and designed fantasy weapons and vehicles incorporating our symbols.  All the while the Knight told stories of the adventures he had with his faithful sidekick, the Rook.  Though cast as a sort of assistant, these stories didn’t keep Rook in the shadows dependent on the Knight.  Rook was quick, strong, and powerful, often taking adventures on his own.  Although I was none of these, I found the stories liberating and empowering.
Eventually, my family moved and the Knight and I fell out of touch.  I understand that he joined the military as I went off to college.  The Rook paced nervously, penned up on the back burner of my psyche, while I found myself busily earning a Ph.D., raising a family, and eventually securing a job as a research scientist.
The Rook ground his teeth in frustration as my career waxed, waned, and turned while I became a professor and then left the lab to work in a small clinical practice. The Rook experienced some reprieve as I managed a bit of free time to resume my pursuit in the study of martial arts, the occult, private investigation, and other fields of study that struck my fancy.  My family was growing, my career was developing nicely, and I was developing personally.  Things seemed to be going rather well and the Rook stood alone and almost forgotten, occasionally practicing katas.
That’s when I was diagnosed.
It started out innocently enough…a large lymph node in a non-smoking, non-drinking, relatively youthful and otherwise healthy individual.  None of my doctors could believe that it was anything other than a node that was reacting to some otherwise minor infection.
No one expected me to have stage 4 cancer.  Least of all, myself.
Radiation and chemotherapy have a relatively similar objective.  Try to kill the patient, hope they survive and that the cancer cells die instead.  As such, a cancer patient undergoing such treatment has three adversaries attempting to kill him:  Chemicals, Radiation, and Disease.
I often told my students “We’re all terminal.  We all have an expiration date, we just don’t think much about it. The big difference is that those who have an identified terminal illness know ‘how’ and have a better idea than most of us as to ‘when’.  Having the illusions of immortality stripped from us in this fashion leaves a person with a distinct existential crisis:  ‘What does my life–and death–mean?”
What I failed to tell them is that your disease need not necessarily be terminal to have this effect.  While I attempted to recover and heal from the onslaught of cancer treatment, on the hope that I will survive the disease, the fact that I may easily die became increasingly evident.
What, really, had I done with my life?
I managed to carve out a pretty decent career and my family seemed happy and well cared for.  These were pretty much the end of my goals.  However, was the world really that much better off for my having been here or was my existence as consequential as a wisp of smoke?
Someone pointed out my wife, children, students and clientele in an answer to that question and, although I value each of them very highly, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was enough.
“Perhaps,” a familiar voice echoed in the back of my mind.  “But you could do more.”
The Rook was waiting, ever-vigilant, in the dark recesses for his opening.  He is now the symbol of my attempts to improve the world, bit by bit, beyond the confines of my immediate sphere of influence (family, career, etc) with the time that I have left.
However long that may be.