Archive for January, 2007

Slow News Day

Posted by Arlo on Jan 30, 2007 under Thought Objects

A Young EagleIt’s Sunday morning.  Oksana is at work on her MBA class – I’m asleep on the couch after misjudging when to get out of bed – when the power goes out.  Her homework on hold, she joins me in napping on the couch.

Yesterday, I read in the paper that the cause of the power outage was an eagle flying into a power substation.  The eagle had been carrying a “deer head,” scavenged from the local landfill.

Today must be a slow news day, because the story has been picked up by the AP Wire and is making the rounds online.  I’ve seen it on at least two popular blogs.

Why does this fascinate people so?  Is it because a bald eagle fried?  Are people imagining that it was hauling the equivalent of the deer bust you’d see mounted above the mantle in someone’s den?  Or is it just a slow news day?

Actually, I think it has more to do with the Alaskan mystique.  For the people who live here, Alaska is pretty normal.  With only 30,000 people, Juneau’s small by Lower 48 standards, but that doesn’t mean we’re the frontier town that resides in most people’s imagination.  No igloos, dogsled teams, or rampaging grizzly bears here.  No friendly moose roaming the streets, at least in Juneau, a la Northern Exposure.  Tourists fresh off the cruse ships may not bat an eye at a Hummer driving down the road — it might fit in with their preconceived notions of an Alaskan vehicle — but I think most would do a double take when one of the local Dodge Vipers passes by.

Sure, their skewed perception of Alaska does have some basis in fact.  Salmon, halibut, and king crab practically jump into our frying pan, waves from calving glaciers are a real cause for fear and panic, humpback whales frequently collide with boats, hungry bears break into homes for food, the aurora borealis is out every night, we never see the sun in winter, and bald eagles fly off with the pets and infants of the unwary.

Yeah, actually, not so much.  But tell a tourist in the street that you live here, and they’ll probably ask you about one of those things.  And where they can exchange their American dollars.

When I heard that an eagle was the cause of our power outage on Sunday, I mentally shrugged and moved on.  Happens all the time.  Take a look at the Alaska Electric Light and Power website:  Eleven outages in 2006 were caused by “animals;” many previous incidents are listed as “Bird,” “Squirrel,” and one rogue “Raven.”  (It looks like they stopped specifying the type of animal sometime in 2003.  You can bet that at least some of the “animals” listed now are “eagles.”) So why haven’t the AP Wire and the Blogosphere run with this story before?  Maybe it’s the deer skull.  My vote’s on the slow news day.

Nags Head Pier

Posted by Arlo on Jan 26, 2007 under Photography, Postcard Valet

Nags Head Pier

My grandparents have a cottage on the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina.  It’s one of the places I think of as “home,” and I try to get back there as often as possible.  Nags Head has grown up a lot in my lifetime — it’s actually quite crowded in the summer now — but photogenic scenes still abound.

As a kid, I was always given a downstairs or back room in the cottage.  On the last couple visits, however, I was given what I still consider to be an “adult” bedroom.  (Not because I was all grown up; I’m still in the third generation down on the totem pole!  I was simply the oldest family member visiting at the time.)  Other than my grandparents’ room, this is the only room facing the ocean.  At night you can open the windows and let the salt air and surf lull you to sleep.  Early in the morning, the sunlight pours into the room as the sun climbs up out of the ocean.

I’m not a morning person.  Given the choice, I’ll take my camera out of its bag for the latter golden hour.  I spent most of my last Nags Head vacation reading in the hammock.  I never built up the motivation to go out picture hunting.  But on my last morning there, that warm, bright sunlight came streaming in the windows and pulled me out of bed.  One last walk in the sand before heading off to the airport.

The Nags Head pier is only about a half mile down the beach from the cottage.  On a morning with a calm, featureless ocean and an empty expanse of sand, it was the only obvious photography subject.  I walked up to it, under it, right beside it, trying to find the best way to fit both it and the morning sun into frame.  I took about a dozen photos, varying the exposure and switching between portrait and landscape shots.  This was my favorite.

I like that the guy casting his pole creates a little bit of action for the scene (in the 8 MegaPixel original, you can just barely make out the fishing line.)  I like the small details, like the seagulls waiting on the rail, and the guy on the end of the pier with his pole pointed straight down.  Often, digital cameras add weird color gradients to pictures of the sun.  I love how the red and yellow rings came through on this one.

There was only one thing I didn’t like, and it was easily removed.  There used a small smudge in the sky above the cast fishing line.  I’m almost positive it couldn’t have been a fingerprint on the lens — the photos taken before and after this one are clean.  Perhaps it was a small bug, passing in front of my camera, I don’t know.  At any rate, Photoshop’s healing brush made quick work of it.  I also used Photoshop’s Level tools to darken the shadows just a tad.  It gives the photo just a little bit more of that silhouette feel.

Canon Digital Rebel XT
Date: 30 June 2006; 6:20am
Focal Length: 55mm
Shutter: 1/800 second
Aperture: F/5.6
Photoshop:  Levels adjustment, removed small, blurry smudge in sky

Jeez, I just realized that all the photos I’ve posted so far have some sort of body of water in them!  Well, except Moscow Thunderstorms, but even in that one you could argue that rain was in the background.  I gotta find a dry picture next week.

Share This

Posted by Arlo on Jan 24, 2007 under Website

Web Stats for Jan 2007When I wrote the first entry on this blog, three-and-a-half years ago, I had certain Ideal Readers in mind.  The imaginary audience I was composing for was made up of family members.  This space was my 21st century replacement for all the absent correspondence and neglected thank you notes I always intended, but never managed, to write.

Have you noticed, lately, the subtle shift in the voice of my writing?  I have.  My Ideal Reader has changed, and I don’t know who exactly I’m writing for, anymore.

Tinker with a blog long enough and you’re bound to see your readership grow and change.  I’ve had friends tell me funny stories about how they stumbled across my website.  Juneau’s small, but big enough that I’ve been introduced to people that already knew something about me because of what I’d written here.  I keep an eye on my referral logs, and every month I’m surprised by something.  Google is by far my biggest referrer (likely because my logorrhea produces plenty of keyword matches), and its search strings are enlightening.  Probably the biggest spike I’ve ever had was when Steve Irwin died and hundreds of people hit my post on the Manta Rays of Hawaii.  I’ve even had a New York Times Bestselling author post a comment here (though, I admit, that’s a bit of a cheat.)

I love looking at the world map, seeing where all the incoming visitors are from.  Is that my friend from Japan?  Are those hits in Moscow someone I know?  What the heck are people from Eastern Europe doing reading my blog?  The point is, I can no longer pretend that what I write here is only read by a few friends and family.  Which is cool, actually.  I can deal with that.  I’m just struggling to find my Ideal Reader again.  If I can, it’ll make it easier to decide what I’m going to write about. 

I’ve thought about it, and rather than worry about who’s watching, I’ve decided to embrace the new readers.  I have no idea if my ping-pong thoughts will mean anything to anyone else, but as I see it, there’s no harm in putting (most of) them out there.

With that in mind, I installed a couple new WordPress plug-ins.  The first one should serve up a mobile version of my blog for cell phones and such.  Partly this is because I want to play with the data capabilities of my new phone, but it’s also because, believe it or not, someone actually requested it.  (Note to You-know-who-you-are: I expect you to read even the 15,000 word posts on your Blackberry!)

The other plug-in is more visible.  At the end of each entry (even in the RSS feed) there should be a new link called “Share This.”  I honestly don’t have any expectations for how this will be used, but after doing all that Web 2.0 thinking awhile back, it seemed like a worthy addition.  If you think something I post here is worth sharing, feel free to pass it on.  I’ve only played with the E-mail and Google Bookmarks part of Share This.  If you use any of the other services listed —, Netscape, Technorati, Yahoo, etc. — give the plug-in a spin and let me know if it works.

I doubt anyone will Digg one of my posts, but if you want to, hell, I’m game.  Bring it on.  I’d love to see what a metric butt-load of internet traffic does to my server. (Just as long as it’s not pointing to one of the videos.  God forbid half a million people try to download Pimp my Couch!)

Vanity Press, Done Right

Posted by Arlo on Jan 22, 2007 under Here's an Idea

What ifHere’s an idea.

Recently I read about some bloggers who had been devastated by the loss of their writings.  It sounds like this wasn’t just a coincidence, but rather a global problem with the service they were using, Blogger.  Doesn’t matter; I run my blog with WordPress.  But it did get me thinking.

Once upon a time, I installed a word count plug-in on my blog.  It’s right up there at the top of this page.  As I write this, the total is up around 168,000 words.  That’s a hell of a lot of information to lose.

Oh, I’ve got backups.  My web host can roll back to a previous image of the server at a moment’s notice.  Plus, WordPress has a MySQL database backup option.  Heck, if worse came to worst, I could go back to the original text documents I used to compose each entry.  Of course, they’re often not the final edits, don’t contain the photos posted along with them, and they’re spread out among four computers and various backup discs…

You know what would be cool?  Getting a copy of my blog printed as a book with one of those online vanity presses.  I’m under no illusions that it would be of interest to anyone but myself, but you have to admit that it’d be a pretty neat-o way to archive all I’ve written.

I’m psyching myself up to tackle this daunting project. has a very robust offering of printing methods; I’ll probably use them.  And while I’m confident that, in time, I can figure out their processes, I’m not looking forward to formatting 168,000 words and photos to their precise requirements.

Someone should create plug-ins for the major blog services (WordPress, Movable Type, Blogger, etc.) that automatically download the entire contents of a blog and saves that information in pre-defined, ready-for-the-press, .pdf templates.  Templates ready-made for specific-size book formats on a site like would be perfect.

Wouldn’t it be cool to order a book version of your blog with just a click or two?

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Taku River Dawn

Posted by Arlo on Jan 19, 2007 under Photography, Postcard Valet

Taku River Dawn

The day my Canon XT was scheduled to arrive was the day we planned to leave for a 3-day weekend up Taku River.  UPS opted not to leave the package at our door that afternoon, so our only recourse was to try to pick it up sometime after the truck returned to the warehouse.  I managed to get my hands on it with barely an hour left before we had to leave.  The XT’s proprietary batteries were the same ones used in the Canon s-series, so I borrowed a charger from a friend who owned an s70 just so I could begin charging all three batteries.  Within 45 minutes I had at least a partial charge on each.  I had no idea if they’d last through the weekend and the cabin we were going to had no electricity.

That weekend, I mostly shot on auto as I learned how to use the new camera.  Two of the days were grey and overcast, but Saturday was beautiful.  I woke up at 5:30am for some reason, and looked out the window.  The sun was just rising over the mountains behind the cabin, and only a few wisps of clouds painted the sky.  The air was still and the river was so flat that the reflections in it were almost mirror quality.  I crept downstairs and out the door, hoping that I could catch a few “golden hour” photos.

While everyone else slept, I stood on the banks of the Taku and experimented with my new camera’s settings.  I also peed behind a tree.

Often, when I’m looking through my photos, I pass by pictures like this with barely a second thought.  I think it’s because landscapes like this are common where I live (at least when it’s not raining), and I don’t appreciate them as much as the exotic (to me) landscapes I see while on vacation.  I’m thinking about my reaction to the HAVO Lights picture I posted last week.  Do I enjoy that photo because it’s a good photo, or do my memories of the evening tint my appreciation of it?  The opposite may be true here.  Does this picture capture something special or is it just another blasé Southeast Alaska composition?  I don’t know if I can trust own opinion.

Who cares?  I can enjoy this picture for its instructional merits.  This was one of the first photos I took that pushed the XT’s exposure latitude to its extremes.  I like that the snow on the mountains maintains almost all of its color information, while the deep dark tree line just barely has any detail left.  In the original, the log jutting from the river was inky, too, but in my Photoshop experimentations, I decided to apply a curves-based gradient from the bottom edge of the image to the shoreline.  In effect, this lightened the lower half of the image — pulling out some detail in that log — without overexposing the snowy highlights above.

I also applied warming filter (85) after the fact.  It added just a hint of color that I (romantically, perhaps) think was there at sunrise, anyway.  Besides, with the exception of the sunlit trees on the left, the domination of blue and whites made for a chilly photograph.  It seemed an injustice to such a warm, Memorial Day weekend. 

Oh, and those batteries?  I shouldn’t have worried.  Since the XT is an SLR, it hardly uses any juice.  Compared to the point-and-shoot s30, which uses its LCD screen for practically everything, it seems like I hardly ever have to recharge.

Canon Digital Rebel XT
Date: 28 May 2005; 5:31am
Focal Length: 55mm
Shutter: 1/400 second
Aperture: F/14
ISO: 400
Photoshop: Applied Warming Filter #85, brightened lower half of image.

Click “more” for a comparison of the final image to the original.

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Fellowship of the Cinema

Posted by Arlo on Jan 17, 2007 under Here's an Idea

Movieslut!Here’s an idea.

How many times have you gone to a movie and had the experience ruined by others?  The ringing cell phones, the obnoxious laughter, the giggling teenagers, and those damn kids with their laser pointers!  My wife and I are not averse to paying $30 for a couple hours entertainment, but that’s only if we’re not seated next to an inconsiderate lout.  Despite the lure of the big screen, it’s easy to understand why people wait for DVD.

The tragedy is that seeing a movie with an audience can be a great experience.  You don’t get moments like these sitting at home on your couch:

  1. Throughout the epic car chase in the mediocre Matrix Reloaded, tension in the audience was wound like a spring.  It was released all at once when an onscreen character, echoing our own feelings, thrust his hands in the air and yelled, “Yes! Yes!”
  2. In Jacob’s Ladder the audience created a loud shifting sound when a needle was slowly injected into the protagonist’s forehead.  It was the sound of hundreds of people squirming in their seats. 
  3. Seeing a fan favorite like Serenity on opening night was even better.  There’s nothing like hearing 300 people gasp at the same time when… well, you know which scene I’m talking about.

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HAVO Lights

Posted by Arlo on Jan 12, 2007 under Photography, Postcard Valet

Kilauea Steam

Purchase a Print

The great tourist myth of Hawaii, perpetrated by all the television travel documentaries, is that you’ll see rivers of flowing lava.  Indeed you will, if you go to any of the museums with video display terminals.  Apparently, the really fantastic displays occur, oh, every ten or twenty years.  And when they do, cars are piled up for miles and miles as even the locals cram closer for a look.

That’s not to say that you won’t get a chance to see some geothermal activity if you visit.  A heli-tour over Kilauea might give you a peek down into its active crater.  Sulfur steam vents abound in Hawaii’s Volcano National park.  And if it’s the frozen black lava you’re after…  Well!  The Big Island’s got more of that than you can imagine.

One of my favorite nights on Kona was spent watching lava spill into the sea.  The active craters of Kilauea are miles inland, but underground lava tubes transport a steady stream of molten rock to the sea.  Where it meets the water, a huge cloud of steam billows upward.  Due to a terrible parking space, we had to hurry to get out onto the lava field before dark.

Canon Digital Rebel XT
Date: 16 August 2005
Focal Length: 48mm
Shutter: 30 seconds
Aperture: F/4.5
Photoshop: Cropped, minor cloning away of lens artifacts,
somewhat extensive use of burn/dodge tools (never exceeding 30%)

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