Thursday, May 28, 2009

Things I Didn't Do

While recently driving around the US for three and a half months I got to see and do a number of really cool things, some of which I've described previously in this blog. There were also a number of things that I wanted or intended to do, and then didn't do for one reason or another. This is a post about the things I didn't do. For obvious reasons, there are no photos, so here's a picture of fireworks from this past Memorial Day.

1. Watts Towers in Los Angeles. I was in LA, I intended to go, and then it was sort of just time to move on, and I hadn't gotten to it yet. No excuse. Next time.

2. The Lightning Field. 200 stainless steel poles, each 20 feet tall, spread in a grid across a square mile of western New Mexico? Sweet. Turns out that it's a big expensive pain in the ass to visit, you can't just drive up and check it out. Pft.

3. Trinity. The site of the world's very first nuclear explosion. Only open to visitors two days a year. I just wasn't there at the right time.

4. Chimp Haven. It's a retirement home for chimpanzees. Really. The entertainment industry only has use for juvenile chimpanzees, once they're adults they're too surly (and strong). So their working life is about three to five years, and then they live another 40 or 50 years before they die. With most animals, we're content to kill them when they're no longer useful, but apparently not with chimpanzees. Thus Chimp Haven, and other similar institutions. Open to the public for visits seven days a year, I missed the March 21st open house by one day.

5. Rocket launch. I've always wanted to see a rocket or shuttle launch. The last time I was driving around the US, in 2003, I watched a rocket sit on the pad and then go nowhere when the launch was canceled nine minutes before liftoff. This time I hoped to see the launch of the GOES-O satellite, scheduled for April 6th. It was postponed, so I ended up skipping Florida entirely this time (despite the fact that Saint Petersburg, Florida has the largest collection of works by Salvador Dali outside of Spain). The GOES-O satellite still hasn't launched, and is currently scheduled for June 26th.

6. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Murderous little dollhouses, what could be better? Other than a rocket launch or chimpanzees? The Nutshell Studies are currently housed in the Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, and are allegedly viewable by appointment. I called, and was told to fax a request to the Chief Medical Examiner, which I did. I never heard back. I certainly wouldn't ever suggest that you should incessantly send crank faxes to anyone. Certainly not. On an unrelated topic, the Chief Medical Examiner's name is Dr. David Fowler and his fax number is 410-333-3063.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Road Trip in Numbers



After driving around the US for the past three and a half months I have arrived in Minnesota where I'll be visiting my parents for a few weeks before leaving the country. I thought it would be good to recap with a few numbers.

Length of road trip in days: 106

Miles driven: 11,445

Friends visited: 13 (multiple friends living under the same roof are counted as one)

Highly unlikely coincidental meetings: 2

Run-ins with the law: 1

Museums visited: 15

Dollars spent on gas: 848.15

Hospital visits: 1

Oil changes: 2

Cameras purchased: 2

Cameras built: 1

National parks visited: 10

Photos taken: 5764

Blog posts: 16

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gateway to the West (and All That That Implies)

There are certain things you've seen pictures of a million times which, when you see them in person, are vaguely disappointing. And then there are things you've seen pictures of a million times which, when you see them in person, are way, way better than you ever thought. The Grand Canyon. The Great Wall of China. The Gateway Arch in Saint Louis.

As a monument it is a bit odd. Memorializing westward expansion strikes me as being in somewhat poor taste, since presumably one is then also memorializing the accompanying displacement of indigenous peoples. But right or wrong, the arch is certainly an unapologetic masterpiece of soaring mid century design.

If you wish to photograph the Arch from across the river, silhouetted by the setting sun, you must trespass on private railway property.

Let me ask you, what do you suppose the Alton and Southern Railway Police have to do with their time other than shoo away photographers? Given that I was surrounded by no fewer than three cop cars, I'd say "not much."

Officer Bradey was very polite. Friendly, even. He asked me what I was doing there, inspected my identification, and asked me a surprising array of personal questions, making a careful note after each answer.

"Any tattoos?"


"Any scars?"

Um... No.

"Are you currently employed?"


"I'm sorry to hear that."

And, as we were finally parting ways:

"OK Ben, sorry to keep you. Did you get some good pictures at least?"

You be the judge.

This is the first time that I've posted a panoramic photo, mostly because they display so poorly at small size. Click the photo to view full screen. When viewing full screen, double-click anywhere on the photo to zoom to that spot, or use the pan/zoom controls that will appear on the left.

Monday, May 11, 2009

New York, New York

New York City is like that recurring dream you have of discovering an extra room in your house, a room you never knew was there. That expanding sense of space and possibility. You could wander New York for a long time and never run out of rooms.

It's also decrepit. Endless, sprawling decrepitude. I don't say that as a criticism, it may actually be no small part of New York's appeal.

Or maybe it's not decrepitude that I'm noticing, so much as an overwhelming sensation that it's a machine that could never be paused and restarted. Like that proverbial shark, New York must keep swimming, or die. You get a real sense of this when you start thinking about everything that's necessary to keep a city of this magnitude running.

Example: New York has the highest per-ton waste disposal costs of any city in America, mostly due to transportation costs. All five boroughs now ship their household garbage to neighboring states.

Example: There are over 700 pumps, at 280 locations, pumping water out of the subway. If all the pumps were to fail, the tracks would be submerged in less than eight hours, and the entire system flooded in less than a day.

Example: In July of 1977 the power in New York failed for a single day. Looters rioted in the streets. When I was a kid in Saint Paul, Minnesota, we once lost power for three days. Our ice cream melted.

But so what? Whatever it is that forms the "hate" part of New Yorkers' love/hate relationship with their city, it's a small price to pay for a breadth of cultural diversity unrivaled anywhere in the world.

It is, as they say, a hell of a town.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Best Laid Plans

This past Sunday was World Pinhole Photography day. Needless to say, Alex and I built pinhole cameras. Alex took the smart approach, and modified an existing camera, removing the lens and replacing it with a pinhole. You can see Alex's very successful results here.

In contrast, I took the "lots of cardboard and silver tape" approach:

This approach proved to be considerably less successful, as can be seen from my finest result of the day:

Wadda ya mean you can't tell what that is? Maybe you should try squinting. And ignore the dark blobs on the right, since that's just stray cardboard fibers or something. No? Still nothing? How about now:

This picture was taken at the Essex Steam Train yard in Connecticut. If the scan looks a little weird, it's because the scanning was almost as improvised as the camera itself. Walgreens was, shockingly, unable to adequately scan my utterly whacked and irregular negatives. The "photo cd" that I got from them contained only this:

Which, now that I'm thinking of it, might be a better picture than the one of the train. In any case, I scanned the negative myself. Lacking a film scanner, I used a flatbed scanner, and backlit the negative using an iPod touch with the Flashlight app:

Necessity is apparently the mother of both crappy cardboard pinhole cameras, and crappy film scans. Next time I'd like to try modifying a digital camera. Maybe I'll use my FX37. Which, incidentally, Panasonic has returned to me, fixed and good as new, at no charge.