Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Another Saturday Night

New theater in town

The joint just opened two weeks ago with a two-week, six-show run by the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks. I made it to the last show of the run. I had never seen either act, and I was looking forward to both.

I showed up very early because I was worried that parking would be hard to come by. So I had lots of time to take pictures before the show. Parking was pretty straightforward and close by . . . at least for people who got there way too early.

The Kings were playing across the way at Staples Center, so the Kobe burger was available.

On nights when the Lakers are playing, the cafe serves the Luc burger.

The Dixie Chicks gave us some songs from their latest album, including “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “The Long Way Around.” From that album, they also dug up “Easy Silence,” which I had never noticed before. It shone in the live performance.

The Chicks put on a short set, with just a little stage patter (“This is the last engagement of our six-show 2007 tour . . . There’s a reason they call us the least hard-working band in show business”), and plenty of material to choose from.

Incidentally, I was pretty pleased with how well my camera did that night. You can click on most of the pictures here to see the level of detail I got from the back rows. To be able to pick up a wedding ring or the tip of a moving performer’s spike heel at that distance has to go beyond anything Ansel Adams ever dreamed would be technically possible.

Not that any of these shots get near his level of artistry, and not that you couldn’t do better (these days) with even fancier equipment. But for a low-end consumer-grade digital point-and-shoot, I was fairly happy with the results.

Of course, it helps when the performers’ rings have such big rocks in ’em.

The Chicks played “Landslide,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Goodbye, Earl,” “Long Time Gone,” “Sin Wagon,” “Cowboy, Take Me Away,” and a mess of other hits.

I would have loved to hear them do “Traveling Soldier,” but time was short. The audience was pretty clearly glad to welcome them to Los Angeles.

The second band of the night warmed up with four numbers from their new album: “How Long,” “Busy Being Fabulous,” “Guilty of the Crime,” and one other I don’t remember. Joe Walsh’s voice sounded a little weak on “Guilty of the Crime,” but by the time we got into the thick of the evening with tunes like “Life in the Fast Lane,” he had come right up to speed.

First tune up after those four was “Hotel California,” with a long and wonderful trumpet intro.

This would be “In the City.” (Get the backdrop?) We heard a lot of Don Henley solo material, which didn’t bother me at all: “Boys of Summer,” “Dirty Laundry,” and “Sunset Grill” made the cut.

Joe Walsh was the only one that night who broke out of extremely tight versions of album favorites to interact with the crowd. Here he is with his “helmet cam,” which he used to put pictures of front-row audience members on the big screens over the stage.

This is during “Life’s Been Good,” which he freshened up with lines like “I got a limo/ I ride in the back/ I go to Lakers games/ And sit next to Jack.” The crowd ate it up. (Another: “I’m makin’ records/ My fans, they can’t wait/ They write me letters/ And tell me Don’s great.”)

Also during this song, at the lines “He’s cool” and “Oh, yeah,” the words flashed up big on the screen over the stage, for all of us to sing along. Joe knows how to ham it up.

I won’t swear what else was in the set list. No Glen Frey solo stuff. “Desperado” made a fine encore. “Witchy Woman,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” “Take It Easy,” “Heartache Tonight.” The band played for two hours. I didn’t take notes.

I had heard the band was also playing “Rocky Mountain Way,” which would have been fun, but it wasn’t in my night’s set. They did, however, dig up some old James Gang material. Half the fun of going to an Eagles show is hearing them play each other’s solo stuff. The horn section laid down an incredibly thick, fat sound.

As I walked back over to the parking garage, I stood at the corner while a Maserati pulled out of the VIP parking. I couldn’t see who was inside, but it looked like about four guys. Probably on their way over to the Sunset Grill.

Monday, October 29, 2007


I recently became the keeper of a few orchids. Imagine my thrill when I learned that I, a gardener of dubious merit at best, was about to get to watch them burst into bloom.

Imagine my chagrin when I found that someone else also liked my orchid buds.

I frantically ran to my orchid assembly instructions to see what to do. It named about a half-dozen midges, mites, weevils, roaches, and other pestilential scourges that love nibbling away at tender orchid buds. I studied the situation. I did not see whatever critter was doing the nibbling. At a loss to determine what was doing the drilling, I sprayed the buds with an all-purpose bug-killer. I drenched them well.

That apparently tasted good to the culprit. Every morning I’d wake up and find more damage done.

Finally I busted the midnight snacker. I don’t know where the slug had been hiding during the day (in the loose orchid soil, no doubt), but when I flipped on the light last night I caught it in the act.

I think it’s too late to save the buds.

I hope the slug is a good swimmer. It’s far downstream by now.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Hole in One

Flats are normally no big deal when you ride a bike. You ride over a thorn, a piece of glass, a shard of metal, the tire goes soft, you swap inner tubes and ride on.

But I can’t remember ever getting a flat before from such a big tree branch.

Heck, it doesn’t even have a sharp point.

I swapped inner tubes and rode on.

Clearly Now

Plenty of fires are still raging south of here, but one by one by one the firefighters are corralling them.

Yesterday was the first day in more than a week when I could catch a glimpse of the hills of Orange County. To do even that I had to actually get to Orange County; this faintly visible ridge in the distance wasn’t visible from Long Beach (as it would be on a clear day).

We’ve had a few days now of moist, cool air blowing in from over the ocean instead of hot, dry winds from the Great Basin. That makes the firefighters’ job easier. The overcast these days is white instead of yellow, and the sky when it breaks through the clouds is a bluer blue again.

The one person I know who was evacuated from her home in San Diego is back again, with her cats.

With a little luck, the cooler weather will hold and this episode will be put behind us.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In the Throat

I have been deliberately slow to post any remarks about the fires we’re having around here this week. I’m fine. The fires are nowhere near me, but they’re all around me, from south to east to north. Their effect on the sky over me is hard to ignore.

But I’m not among the fires; I’m just surrounded by them. The nearest is probably fifty miles away. Except for what I see in the newspapers, I probably notice the effect of only one or two of the many fires all over the Southland. The rest are too far to touch my surroundings at all.

Thousands of people have lost their homes; hundreds of thousands—more than the total population of Long Beach or San Francisco—have had to leave their homes behind while fire crews fight the inferno. The net effect in my life has been to wipe up a tiny layer of ash from my kitchen drainboard.

But a couple of people by now have asked, just checking in to make sure I’m still breathing, I suppose. Yes, there has been a tiny whiff of wood smoke on the air lately. And the sunsets have been rich with color, if too hazy to burst with dramatic shapes.

“True” and “color” are a restless match. Our eyes are marvels, constantly adjusting to catch up with current lighting conditions, trying to represent the world around us in a way our brains can use. To us, a red beach ball looks about the same at night, by day, or under fluorescent lights. Sure, it’s not identical, but we recognize it each time. Cameras generally wallow along hopelessly behind our sophisticated system of visual perception. They usually start by trying to represent what a scene actually looked like.

Take a scene from a beach, a picture taken last Sunday. This is what the camera “saw”:

That’s already a little deceptive, because it’s actually how the camera interpreted the light that came through the lens, based on various settings I have adjusted. I let the camera decide how bright to make the picture overall, but I’ve got it set to skew the colors so they’ll be a tiny bit richer, and a little warmer. So it ingests the light, and then it applies a couple of adjustments before it ever records the scene. Then I get home and apply my fine tuning. Anyhow, what’s above is what came out of the camera, unadjusted.

“White balance” refers to an attempt to make sure that the various primary colors in a picture are equally well represented, ranging from absolute black to absolute white. It’s a dodgy business on a good day, but computers are getting better at guessing what’s right. Above is the same beach scene, using Photoshop’s automatic white balance adjustment. This actually overexaggerated the contrast from what I originally saw (trying to get an absolute black), and it made the shadows more blue than what I remembered.

This is the picture as I posted it on this blog on Sunday. I tried to preserve the relative balance of the tints (not skewing the shadows heavily toward blue), but I did enrich the colors a little, by both brightening the light spots and darkening the shadows. What did I really see, and what did the sand really look like? Those are both good questions. I was comparing what I saw on my (LCD) screen to what I remembered, not to the sand itself. And in the first place, I had never seen the sand itself. I saw the light from the sand through my polarized prescription sunglasses. That changes the color and also tends to boost the contrast (and clarity) of a scene.

Same scene, three different ideas of what it ought to look like. The Photoshop version is probably about what the sand would have looked like if the sky weren’t filled with dust: Photoshop took away the influence of the filtered light coming in through the sky making everything yellow-brown. In this case, that set of shades was the effect I was after, so I opted not to use Photoshop’s interpretation. That doesn’t make my picture accurate, except to say it more accurately shows what I wanted to show.

The New York Times Website has been running an interesting series of articles by Errol Morris lately about the tensions between photographs and truth, illuminated by (and illuminating) a set of photographs from the Crimean War. Morris’s photos are black and white. Color just adds another layer of confusion. Consider the following, and decide which is the true color:

In the veneer warehouse at work, we have green-tinted skylights. Plenty of light gets through, so you can see what you’re doing, but it’s all green. Most cameras represent scenes in the building with a green tint. When you’re walking around in the building, though, your eyes tend to adjust the green, automatically white-balancing everything, so you see an object’s colors fairly accurately, just as if you were in broad daylight.

Above on the left you see what the camera picked up with my usual default settings. On the right is the same scene, but with the camera set to adjust the white balance. I didn’t do anything fancy—I just let the camera make its own adjustment. But now take a look at what the home computer does:

Here I have used Photoshop to automatically white-balance each of the original shots, using its algorithms. See how much warmer the original shot comes out? That’s probably the way you’d want the wood to look in a final reproduction. Compared to this, the camera’s automatic white balance has rebalanced the shot to avoid green, but in the process it has ended up looking washed out. Part of this is a matter of taste. With wood, it’s actually important to give a customer a realistic representation of what the end product will look like—shade, grain, contrast. (Not all wood is the same shade of brown.)

It never surprises me when a full-blown computer with all the time in the world does a better job of enhancing a photo than a digital camera can do on the fly under adverse conditions.

So I could post more pictures of what the sky looked like today, but I’m naturally reluctant to give the wrong impression, whether it came from the camera itself or from postproduction.

As Laurie Anderson pointed out, “It’s a sky-blue sky.” Even when the heavens are choked with smoke, they are definitively sky-blue. Or sky-yellow. Whatever that sky color is called.

From a somewhat different perspective, the shots below are from the excellent NASA Rapidfire site, which quickly posts satellite shots a matter of hours after they’re taken. In the top shot, I have added two green spots. The lower spot is where I live, and the upper spot shows where I work.

Monday October 22, 11 a.m. Pacific time. Along with the white plumes of smoke, notice above the large brown plume of dust blowing out to sea. On Sunday I remarked at how much grit was in the air. This shows the same happening Monday morning. Winds remained high.

Tuesday October 23, 8:25 a.m.

Tuesday October 23, 11:40 a.m.

Wednesday October 24, 9:10 a.m.

Wednesday October 24, 10:45 a.m.

Even with all that smoke looking as if it was choking the area, I didn’t get enough ash falling on my windowsills today to make it worth posting a picture of it. And outside this evening I didn’t especially taste wood smoke in the air, as I have (slightly) for the past couple of days.

The winds have shifted; no longer are strong winds from the east pushing streamers of smoke tens of miles out to sea. Last night the air felt damp for the first time since the weekend, a good sign. This morning and tonight, the wind was blowing from the west again, a welcome harbinger of cooler air for all of us in fire country.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Fire When Ready

I could work out in a gym. I’m sure I’d get a more balanced workout, as far as keeping all my muscle groups in tone. I wouldn’t have to worry about wind or rain, or sunsets, or getting my hands greasy resetting chains and sprockets and derailleurs. But when you get out in the real world you get to see a deer crossing the road in front of you, a windmill buried deep on a forested hillside, an egret poised in a still morning pond—or the Long Beach Fire Department out for the day, breaking the heat with a test of waterfront fire-fighting capacity.


The correct name for the wind is Santa Ana, but no saint has a guitar as scorching as Carlos Santana’s, so I call the burning hot wind a Santana.

For the first time in quite a while, I had the free time this weekend to do some proper cycling. With days getting shorter, I can sometimes squeeze in a quick half-hour workout before or after work, but nothing that really stretches the legs or gives the eyes much new to mull over.

So if you have the chance to go riding, what’s a little 20-m.p.h. wind?

I took the same route today that I took yesterday, and it took me about 25 minutes longer to ride 30 miles. It felt good, though, because all the rough plowing into the wind was on the way out. Normally the wind whips me along faster on the way out, and only on the way back do I find out what a serious mistake I’ve made. Today I knew from the start that the road home would be easy and fast.

I took the pictures above to record those beautiful sights for posterity. I almost never get to see these flags and windsocks blowing in this direction.

I let Photoshop do a standard white-balance on the second shot, which makes the sky much more blue. The comparison gives you an idea of how yellow the sky really was today. There’s a lot of dust in this wind.

I should also note that further west of here, the wind is also carrying a lot of smoke. Malibu is on fire, again. But where I was riding, I think most of the yellow in the sky was desert sand blowing in from the east, not smoke. [10/22 add: Later on in the day (around 6 p.m.), a fire started in Orange County, to my east, but by morning the Long Beach sky still wasn’t filled with smoke.]

Windy days make for good beach riding. Not many people have patience for sitting at the beach getting sand blown in their faces, in their sandwiches, in their suntan lotion. So the beach bike path is almost deserted.

The down side is that the same blowing grit can get in all your exposed, greasy sprockets and derailleurs and chain links. Life is a compromise.