Friday, January 13, 2006

Photo: The Trip that Started it All

...okay, so maybe "started it all" is a bit of an overstatement...let me explain...

I grew up with photography. My father had his old Minolta or Canon out often, and I still have boxes and boxes of slides of my brothers and I growing up and all of the places we lived travelling with the military. I actually remember taking a picture for him from the top of a pagoda at Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, because I could fit into the gap he wanted the picture taken from and he couldn't. I must have been six or seven years old at the time.

I bought my first camera, a Minolta X-500, with my first paycheck after I finished high school, and I set out to shoot as many pictures with it as I could. That camera even went with me to Air Force Basic Training, and I still use it today, when I get the urge to shoot film instead of digital.

But, growing up, no one ever told me about all the other stuff photographers are supposed to know about, like composition, and lighting, and exposure...and it seemed like no matter how hard I tried to take a great picture, I got garbage back. What was the point of spending money on a roll of film and more money to get it developed, only to see dozens of washed-out over-exposed pictures of my friends' faces, with eyes glaring red, and the tops of their heads chopped off like some lunatic tribe of b-movie Indians had rampaged through the developer's lab scalping everyone they could reach...?

I also made one of those life mistakes, and married someone who didn't appreciate my love of photography. It's very difficult to take your time and compose a shot and experiment with different settings with someone standing ten feet away, arms crossed, toe tapping, mumbling "is he done playing with that stupid thing yet...?"

End result...I might have shot five rolls of film between 1990 and 2000.

The two "D's" - divorce and digital - changed a bunch of things in my life.

Digital is a godsend to student photographers. To take better pictures, you need feedback; you need to experiment with a setting, or exposure, or pose, see how the picture turned out, and learn from the process. With 35mm, that process takes a long time--you have to finish the roll, then send it in for developing, then check the results against what you remember shooting...with me, that feedback loop often took weeks, or longer. By that time, I couldn't remember what I was trying to do in the picture.

Digital, on the other hand, shortens that feedback loop to nearly immediate. You can see the new picture in the back of the camera, and find out if you made any major errors, and reshoot immediately. Then you can download the pictures to your computer, and learn from the shoot that day, rather than waiting for the pictures to come back from the developer. And in my case...without wasting the money developing garbage.

With digital, suddenly photography was fun again.

When the company I worked for at the time announced a paid vacation trip to Whistler, in Vancouver, shortly after my divorce, I decided it was time to revive my old interest in photography. But this time, I wouldn't just be lugging around a Minolta and twenty rolls of film...I was going to take my HP Photosmart 215 and a laptop. I told myself that if I enjoyed taking pictures, I would seriously pursue it, but that if all I shot was garbage, then I would know that photography just wasn't for me.

I shot over five hundred pictures that week, and I really put that "learning photography feedback loop" through it's paces. I have no doubt that I shot at least 480 pieces of garbage, but I also set out to learn from each of them, and by the last day, I felt like I was actually shooting some pictures I would be proud to show off.

...yes, I'm doing the "vacation picture slide show" thing here, to illustrate my point about learning more quickly with digital. Do you have a problem with that...?

First shot is a creek across the street from our hotel. What I learned from this shot is "don't shoot into the sun." Oh, and "if you do shoot into the sun, you might be able to clean it up just a little bit in Photoshop." I almost threw this shot away because the flare was so bad, but a good friend convinced me to keep it.



Second, I learned that sailing across a cable at fifty miles an hour is an absolute blast. This is a shot from the launching point of the ZipTrek Ecotour wire. The mountain climbing harness is attached to the wire at the top, and to me at the bottom, and ten seconds after I took this shot, I stepped off and zipped across to the other side. It's over-exposed; the river is washed out, sorry for the pun. I named this picture Apprehension, because I was trying to capture the moment, standing there with your heels firmly planted on the platform and your toes a hundred feet off the ground, working up the nerve to step out into space...



Not a great picture, but I just had to share what is quite probably the coolest piece of playground equipment I have ever seen.




And finally, two shots of the mountains, taken from the top of Whistler mountain, on the very last day we were there.




No, these are not "fantastic!" photos. They were shot with the digital equivalent of a disposeable camera; there are no controls, or options, or bells and whistles, on that camera. I couldn't change shutter speed or aperture or anything, and I'm not even sure the resolution reaches a single megapixel. Just three months later, I bought my current camera, a Canon Powershot A80--one that does have some bells and whistles to it.

But that trip was where I restarted my photography hobby, and re-dedicated myself to learning more about taking pictures, and figured out the basics of the Photography Feedback Learning Loop.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rant: Yahoo Ate my Email!

Now, I'm an understanding and patient guy. And I've been a Yahoo email fan for years. Check the profile (data_devil) and you'll see that I've had my email address for nearly eight years. I don't know of any of my friends who have managed to keep a Yahoo address alive that long, before it became deluged with spam and totally unuseable.

I was there when Yahoo barely gave 4mb of storage, not the amazingly large numbers you get now. I was there when Yahoo bought up Egroups and merged them into the Yahoo network. I've always reccomended Yahoo email to friends who were new to the 'net and needed someplace to check their email.

I'm having a really hard time doing that anymore.

My Yahoo account is screwed up somehow. On my computer at home, the Yahoo screen locks up right after it puts the logo in the top left. Sometimes a Refresh will get it going, other times I just have to close the browser and start over. It happens on the main Inbox screen and at every email. It happens in IE and Firefox, but not on other people's computers. I've checked over everything I can think of in my settings and can't figure out what's locking it up.

...and if that were the only problem, then I wouldn't be so upset. After all, that's a problem with my computer, not Yahoo. I've probably got Yahoo's banner ad generator in my anti-popup or anti-spam program or something, and just haven't figured out how to fix it yet.

But that's not the only problem.

My Yahoo service has been getting increasingly bad over the last few months. Back around Halloween, it was "hey, how come you didn't answer my email?"

"What email?"

The one that arrives after three days of sitting on some dusty streetcorner out on the Information Superhighway, trying to hitch a free ride on a digital turnip truck instead of zipping around in electronic Corvettes like most other emails do. This was happening once or twice a week back then.

Then my outgoing emails started disappearing, too. The mass email with pictures of my new daughter never made it to nearly every recipient. Again, if I was forwarding jokes and chain letters, and the Internet's anti-spam functions killed them, I wouldn't be so upset, but when my father complains that I still haven't shared pictures of the new baby when I know I sent the email...I've got friends who think I'm not talking to them anymore, when the real reason is, either I, or they, haven't been able to get through.

Then the rejections start trickling in. "I'm sorry, I've held onto this email for four days now, and the person on the other end just hasn't gotten it, sorry for any inconvenience." Well, thanks for letting me know that the email was never going to arrive...three and a half days after I talked to them in person about the same topic.

This week, it's reached the absolute worst yet. Five emails I've sent, and at least a dozen emails addressed to me, have never arrived, and this is just to and from ONE person, and just TODAY. There's no telling how many other emails I don't know about have not arrived and how many total of my own emails have just never made it over the wall that Yahoo has apparently built to imprison my emails.

Who do you complain to when a free service is screwing up? It's not like you can go to Yahoo and withhold your payment until they get their act together. What, am I going to write them an email refusing to look at any of their ads until they fix my email issues?

...with my luck, that email wouldn't arrive either...

So I'm doing the only thing I can do, really. Venting.

"Why do you hang onto free email when you could just go through your ISP?" Easy. ISP's change. Maybe a competitor will offer me a better deal, or maybe I'll move out of state. I'd rather have a permanent address, one that isn't tied to my current ISP, than be forced to send out a mass of "oh, by the way, update your address books..." emails.

Enough...I give. I've championed and fought and tried to hang on, but I can't accept the level of service that Yahoo is now offering me. Just this morning, three emails in one hour ended up in a digital ditch, even though two emails before them and three emails after them, from the same sender, all arrived just fine.

So, it's time to abandon Yahoo, once and for all. It's been fun, but from now on, all of my important emails are going to route through Gmail instead.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Photo: The fine line between "Macho" and "Bonehead"

I had a project to do, about a month after my
girlfriend and I got together. A major storm had
blasted through and torn up a tree outside my mother's
house. There was junk everywhere, from that tree and
all the nearby palm trees, and it needed to be cleaned
up. My best friends were helping; this wasn't
unusual, they lived next door and had the same
problem. And my new girlfriend pitched in just so we
could spend some time together.

I grabbed the biggest branch from the downed tree, and
couldn't move it easily. So, under the mind-altering
influence of clean Arizona air and (very likely) an
overdose of testosterone, I came up with the brilliant
idea of breaking this branch with a karate kick.

I dragged the branch to a low wall, propped it just
so, and called on my vast knowledge of karate skills
(that is, four lessons in tenth grade, plus dozens or
even hundreds of hours of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and
The Matrix), and delivered what I hoped was a clean
and powerful and impressive-looking snap kick.

The kick was perfect; the branch snapped, right where
my foot landed. However, I only had half a second to
celebrate.

The heavy end of the branch, now totally disconnected
from the dead weight of the leaves and branches,
decided to come back for revenge. It spun perfectly
in the air, 180 degrees, and nailed me with a broken
stub, right between the eyes.

I opened my eyes to blue sky, and the faces of my
friends and family--all torn between horrified
concern at the blood on my face...and hysterical
laughter that I had done something so incredibly
stupid to myself.

I learned something that day...I learned not to karate
kick trees. Well, without an assistant holding the
victim down, anyway.

So, how do you tell the difference between "Macho" and
"Bonehead?" I suppose the best measure would be the
results. The end result of that particular
misadventure involves my friends and family and
girlfriend never letting me live down my stupidity.
Here's another example, and one that turned out much
better.

What does a photographer do with a perfect sunset and
way too much garbage between him and the horizon?
Why, he does whatever it takes to get the picture.

I was experimenting with my camera and sunset shots,
and I turned on the Vivid option, and as soon as I saw
the bright blues and reds in the LCD screen, I knew I
had to get a better picture. But, I was surrounded by
houses; I couldn't find a vantage point that would get
them all out of the shot. On the ground, that is.

So, I went to my next-door neighbor's house, and
climbed the railing around their deck, and shot my
picture with one hand--while hanging onto their roof
with the other and balancing on one foot on the
railing. Definitely ranks right up there with
knocking myself out with my own karate kick on the
"bonehead" scale. But, in this case, no one got hurt,
least of all me, and the final picture was most
definitely worth it.



The point of all of this random mumbling into my
personal acts of stupidity? Simply this: Don't be
afraid to try something new, like experimenting with
the settings on your camera. Sunsets taken with Vivid
turned on can be almost otherworldly. Just be careful
not to step over that fine line between "Macho" and
"Bonehead" along the way.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Obsessions and Contradictions

I'd like to welcome everyone to the inaugural edition of Shards and Phractures.

What is this blog for? Basically, it's a place for me to rant and vent about the things that annoy me, and cheer on--or maybe just babble about--the things that don't.

Writers write. They need to write; it's almost an addiction, or maybe obsession is a better description. A cool color combination in the sunset, or an interesting phrase from the morning DJ...anything can spark an idea, and lay the foundation for an essay, or an article, or a novel...

I am a writer. I've been a writer for as long as I can remember (I had a third grade school principal tell me that one day he was going to read a best-seller written by me). I've tried to deny it, by putting down the pen for months or years at a time. I've also tried to support it--I originally got into computers to "support my writing habit," and I now have over twenty years of experience playing with them.

So, Shards and Phractures is my outlet, my place to write about...well, whatever it is I'm going to write about. Some days I'll talk about photography and share some of my pictures. Other days I'll rant about politics, or education, or some news story that caught my attention.

Sometimes I'll probably jump in and get right to the point, and other times, I'll go off on a meandering side-story tangent that has practically nothing whatsoever to do with whatever it was I started talking about. Heck, some days, I'll probably just brag about my kids--I've got six, I've got a lot to brag about.

Who am I? I am a bundle of contradictions.

I've never been the first across the finish line, or hit the winning shot at the buzzer. I've never sky-dived, bungee-jumped, or gone spelunking. But I did learn how to ski in the Swiss Alps, and I've also dangled from a cable, a hundred feet over a river, moving at 50 miles an hour.

I've never changed the course of human events. But I was present at the births of all of my children--which is closer than I'm ever going to get, and ultimately, more important to me anyway.

I don't fit anyone's pre-conceived notion of who I am or who I should be. I'm my own person, no masks, me and nothing more.

Thank you for stopping by, you're all always welcome here. I hope to entertain and enlighten, and if I'm really lucky, even inspire. And I hope I never commit the one unpardonable sin of boring you.

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