Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

But I'm Huuuuuuungry!

This is the mooch I have to put up with every night when I’m leaving work and trying to set the alarms.

I don’t think there’s anyone in the plant he doesn’t hit up for food.

He doesn’t belong to any of us. He just came in one day and took over.

Year of the Ox/Moon of the Gnu

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hanging Forest

Woodside Road, Portola Valley, California

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Toys: Two Sets of Details

Warning: This is a really boring post. It’s meant more for my future reference than for anything else. Lots of technical garbage in here, and some droning on, and no pretty pictures or attempts at insight. Feel free to read on, but only with duly diminished expectations.

No, I mean really. It’s boring. Very much. Are you sure you want to keep scrolling?


You’re on your own from here.

11 October 2007, lens wide open

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom
(this shows what the 3264 x 2448 frame included)

11 October 2007, 6x optical zoom + 4x digital zoom = 24x zoom
(this shows what the 3264 x 2448 frame included)

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom + 5x digital zoom = 60x zoom
(this shows what a 1280 x 960 frame included: note resolution drops in digital zoom)

11 October 2007, 6x optical zoom + 4x digital zoom = 24x zoom
(640 x 480 detail: click to expand to actual size, pixel for pixel)

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom + 5x digital zoom = 60x zoom
(640 x 480 detail: click to expand to actual size, pixel for pixel)

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom
(this shows what the 3264 x 2448 frame included)

11 October 2007, 6x optical zoom + 4x digital zoom = 24x zoom
(this shows what the 3264 x 2448 frame included)

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom + 5x digital zoom = 60x zoom
(this shows what the 1280 x 960 frame included: note resolution drops in digital zoom)

11 October 2007, 6x optical zoom + 4x digital zoom = 24x zoom
(640 x 480 detail: click to expand to actual size, pixel for pixel)

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom + 5x digital zoom = 60x zoom
(640 x 480 detail A: click to expand to actual size, pixel for pixel)

20 January 2009, 12x optical zoom + 5x digital zoom = 60x zoom
(640 x 480 detail B: click to expand to actual size, pixel for pixel)

Some observations:
  • Picking up the gleam of light on the tiny hub of the hygrometer hand from across the room is pretty nice.
  • The camera with the more powerful lens (12x optical) has a twitchy autofocus mechanism, which makes it more tricky to handle. Still figuring out other controls. Could be better than old camera; could be worse.
  • Pictures taken with the old camera were never rebalanced to make up for dim light. Pictures from the new camera have been rebalanced. Don’t blame the old camera for a slightly murkier look. Normally I’d fix that if a picture needed it before doing anything interesting with the shot.
  • 12x optical zoom + 5x digital is theoretically a 60x zoom, but when you reduce the dimensions to 40% of the pixels in each direction, you really end up with more like a 24x zoom, in terms of the ability to make a large print or crop a tight close-up. Still, the results are dramatically better than the 24x zoom achieved the old way.
Actual-size comparison of the maximum zoom on the old camera (6x + 4x = 24x, left) next to the maximum zoom on the new (12x + 5x = 60x, 60x * 40% = 24x, right):

In terms of actual pixels taken up—absolute image size—the digits as captured by the old camera are larger. But the clearly superior image is from the new camera, even if officially it’s not as magnified. The clarity is much better. It has roughly doubled the size of the original 12x image; the older camera has quadrupled the size of an original that was only half as large. As you’d expect, the larger you stretch an image using digital expansion, the more you torture it.

Note that these are both from point-and-shoot style CCD digital cameras, not from digital SLRs with their nicer CMOS digital pickups. 12x magnification captured with a CMOS sensor would probably look even nicer.

Also note that if you really care, you’ll still be thinking in terms of what large-format film (120 film, for example, or larger) would do for you. I’m not bragging on what these cameras can do; I’m just testing to see how far I can push them—what they’re good for, and what’s too much to ask. You can get some neat effects even with the cheap camera in a cell phone, if you pay attention to how to play to how it works.

There’s still no camera that can naturally grab what the eye sees without even paying attention. To get close to what the eye sees, we have to give cameras all kinds of explicit instructions: no, brighter; no, closer; no, more contrast; no, yellower; no, now it’s too bright. Cameras are getting better. But eyes are pretty cool.

(I won’t even get into the whole issue here of whether you want to capture what the eye sees or what the mind sees. All kinds of photography can be exciting.)

Further note apropos these shots: I almost never shoot using the digital zoom, because I’d usually prefer to use my computer’s tools to enhance the zoom, which give me results I like better than what the camera does on the fly. The computer has much more time and horsepower to devote to getting the expansion right. So the maximum optical+digital zoom is a bit of a moot point. I’m testing it to see what’s there.

What drew me to the new camera was the 12x optical zoom. That by itself is worth some learning curve. And it will occasionally be worth the extra weight to carry, depending on where I’m going. If the new camera can do more than that, or improve in some other ways on the old camera, that’s gravy.

I got the new toy (the one with the 12x lens) for well under $200 (new), not as a replacement for my main camera but as an auxiliary for shots where I want tighter close-ups. From what I had read, and from what I have now experienced, it appears it won’t be as handy for quick, off-the-cuff shots. For a shot from my bike seat, where I keep pedaling but whip out the camera to squeeze one off, I’ll use the old camera, which fires up fast and has a smooth, swift response as I adjust settings. When it’s worth stopping to frame a picture more perfectly, I can try the new camera, which wants more fiddling before things are perfect.

I expect my knack with the new toy to improve over time, which may affect how often it gets taken out. It’s still new, and I haven’t tinkered yet to see how it compares in terms of capturing colors, capturing smooth gradients without grain and digital noise to make them look less rich (think sunsets), how it does in low light, or any number of other situations where your eyes tell you there’s a picture but a camera might not see it without specific instruction. Time and experience will tell.

I would expect the old camera and the new camera to deliver similar results on 80% of the pictures I take, with the old camera remaining more convenient to use. For certain pictures, notably extreme telephotos, it’ll be worth having the new camera around.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why It Burns

1874, Castle Creek Valley, South Dakota

Same location, 1973

In nature, as in human life, it’s hard to pin an event on a single cause.

A half-degree change in average annual temperature translates into a winter warm enough to let a particular beetle survive from one year to the next. The beetle, let’s say, is from another continent but was brought to this forest by tourists or free trade.

And just for fun let’s say the dominant tree species in the forest used to be less common, but because of loss of habitat—subdivisions have been popping up all over the hills—the deer that used to eat its seedlings are no longer around. So the trees have grown in thick where they used to be sparse.

The beetle, able to survive the recent milder winters, decimates the dense forest, leaving the trees dead but standing, tinder-dry in fire season. A fire starts. Subdivisions are threatened. What’s the cause of the fire?

Duh. It’s kids playing with matches. It’s always kids playing with matches. That’s the first lesson of wildlife preservation.

In 1874 Bvt. Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer—yeah, that Custer—led an expedition 1,000 strong into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, winding through what today is eastern South Dakota and parts of Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.

They took a photographer, William H. Illingworth, from St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1973, American West published a series of Illingworth’s photos in tandem with more recent shots, from the same locations, taken by Donald R. Progulske, head of Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at South Dakota State University, and Richard H. Sowell, a university photographer, as they retraced Custer’s route.

Eventually Progulske published a book with more photos in it. I don’t have that book. But I did run across the American West article lately, and the pictures tell quite a story.

Near Deerfield, South Dakota

1800s European explorers in the heart of Africa were convinced that the natural state of the continent was dense jungle cover.

What they missed was that (watch for gross historical oversimplification) dengue fever epidemics in the 1790s had caused a collapse in widespread farming populations. Without farmers tending fields, the jungles encroached. Does that mean the untouched land would naturally have been all jungle? Probably not.

It means the jungle had been first and fastest to take over formerly tilled land. If Europeans had arrived 100 years before, they might have described the continent differently. A hundred years later, first impressions could have been different again.

Preservation is a funny critter. Do you preserve something in a frozen state, not allowing it to change, like a book or a Victorian house? Do you freeze a process, allowing change but only according to the way it used to be done, like planting and harvesting crops in Colonial Williamsburg or choosing a President in the Electoral College?

When you “preserve” nature, who’s to say what a natural state is? No buildings—O.K. so far. But if a redwood tree takes 2,000 years to grow, how can we watch it for 40 years and assume the environment it’s in is typical of what it’s had for the other 1,960? Nature’s natural state is one of change.

(In a city, preservation gets even more complicated. How do you preserve a neighborhood? How do you keep the open-air greengrocers from closing and changing the way the streets feel? Preserve it the way it was 40 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 200 years ago? Does a tenement have historic value? Do you preserve the cockroaches? The Saturday-night knife fights? What does it mean to preserve Tin Pan Alley? Difficult questions.)

Whatever you’re trying to preserve, in someone else’s eyes it was probably ruined already when you first set eyes on it.

In these pictures the landscape has changed vividly. Is the burgeoning forest cover part of a natural cycle—one that starts with bare meadow and builds up to a climax level, then gets wiped out by fire and restored to bare meadow?

Or do we preserve the number of trees that were there when Custer first saw it?

Or do we preserve the grasses and cut down the trees? The grasses fed the elk; the elk fed the grizzlies. When trees choke the meadows, the elk leave, and then the bear. What should we be preserving?

Near Custer, South Dakota

And if a single cycle of alternation between pine forest and grassland takes 200 years, how long do we have to watch—how many cycles—before we’re comfortable that we have seen all the major variants in that cycle? Who judges what’s abnormal? Who has time to wait?

The U.S. Forest Service is committed to “many uses” for the resources it manages. The 1973 American West article notes that, perversely, a thicker forest tends to yield less lumber, since the “trees do not reach saw-log size and proper thinning becomes costly.” But nearby property owners tend to get sniffy about unchecked wildfires. The extent of Yellowstone National Park’s 1988 fires raised a lot of media eyebrows. When smoke rises on the horizon, politicians need something to thump their chests about.

But it’s easy to see in the pictures above that a fire in the 1870s would have moved through the more widely spaced trees with a whole different force from the firestorm that could devour the thick stands of the 1970s.

“Only you,” says Smokey Bear, “can prevent forest fires.” Maybe it’s also fair to say that only a human would try to.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Few from Yesterday

Kinda a nothing shot, except for one tiny white mark just left of center.

Yup, it’s the sign, as seen from Palos Verdes. Not as clear yesterday as it was last weekend, but obviously not bad. The plane flying in right over the sign was a stroke of dumb luck. (Standard LAX flight path.) That would be, uh, about 25 or 30 miles from the road I’m riding.

The sign shows up offhandedly in shots taken all over the L.A. basin, sort of the same way the Empire State Building crops up incidentally in a lot of New York shots. Remember how it was visible out of every window in Liquid Sky, a running gag?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

No Yolk.

An egg by its very existence implies a spiritual question. But reaching beyond that, this morning’s breakfast, passively finding transformation against the pan, spontaneously took a yin-yang form, embracing a void, inviting the hungry to contemplate the distinction between egg and no-egg, the possibility of simultaneous alternate truths.

Or, read as a two-panel cartoon, maybe it dares the artist to create in negative space.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tour Up Over

Update: New pictures added from cell phone feed, with comments as posted live during the ride.

800 ft climb so far. Clear. Warm. Light breeze.

Palos Verdes Peninsula offers some fun climbs.

Roadside flowers depend on season and time of day.

Santa Barbara Island, about 45 miles off the coast. When you see it, you know it’s an unusually clear day. I have seen it before from this ride, but usually I don’t.

The western tip of Catalina Island. From this angle, you can see over the tip and into the ocean beyond. On a less clear day the horizon might not be visible so far behind the island.

Catalina Isthmus. Again, those who know the geography will notice the far horizon over the thin strip that links the island’s ends. Not a tall isthmus at all.

The whole Catalina. Great day for sightseeing.

Other parts of the country enjoy different weather.

Legs happy lungs workn.

Looking west along the south fringe of Palos Verdes.

After some huffing and puffing (and before some more), this is looking east along the same stretch of coast we saw before—looking back at where I’ve been. In the near distance is Orange County.

More distant, the land you see sticking furthest out into the water is probably La Jolla’s Mount Soledad, about 100 miles away (nearly to San Diego). Normally the furthest you see is about 50 miles south: Dana Point.

This bit involves work.

45 is no limit. Pleased to be over that hill.

This was kinda fun to see. Forgive the rushed splice job. If you click on it, you can see the panorama of the L.A. basin in fair detail. In the far distance (right of center) are white-topped Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto, most of the way from here to Palm Springs: again, about 100 miles of clear visibility.

Nice day for a bike ride.