January 19th, 2010 - Oh, Deer.

I came across some photos recently that I took during a snowstorm at Springbrook Nature Center in 2007, and thought they were worth a another view.
It was 2:30 in the afternoon on one of those murky and snowy December days, the kind of days when it looks like it's dusk at all hours of the day, and the snow just keeps coming down.

The deer and squirrels were feeding heavily at the birdfeeders (a misnomer) and I think they were having a hard time seeing us inside the nature center. The large pane windows have a light tint, and with the lights off inside and a lot of snow outside they become sort of a one-way mirror.
It seemed like the animals could hear us but couldn't see our movement, so they just gave us the hairy eyeball and tried to snarf down as much as they could before the feeders got snowed under.

This gave me ample opportunity to try some different things with the camera. I had my little tripod and was sitting on the floor shooting through the glass without flash the whole time.
Most of these were taken at 1/30th of a second at f5.6, ISO 250, and auto exposure. I think I started with auto-focus and ended up going to manual because the glass was fooling the camera too much.

Above we see the progression of deer and squirrel sharing the feeder tray. The snow was making it just too much trouble for either of them to disagree with one another too much, and finally they came to terms on separate sides of the feeder and joined together to keep an eye on the common enemy (me, or at least the sounds behind the glass.)

Time for a shake-off. I think this is what is known as a 'localized blizzard'.

Wha...? Hunh...? Why are you guys touching your noses...?
Oh man, how embarrassing! A birdseed mustache. I hate that.

What. I wasn't do'in nuthin.
In Minnesota some folks like the deer, some hate them, some are indifferent. I like them, I'm not a hunter, but I realize the importance of 'management', or population control. They are just too prolific to be allowed to run rampant in a small area with no predators remaining for them. And the effects without it are not very pretty. Starvation, and diseases caused by food deficiencies are the result, not to mention much tree damage from over-feeding on the available natural food source: bark.
It's sad sometimes too, as even in our small samples, diseases and abnormalities begin to show up in the herd because there is little outside population control. We don't have the wolves and coyote packs that used to naturally control the herds.
I will always remember a natural resources biologist telling me that we have to be conscious of our public hunting policies, as the human tendency is to take the 'best'; the biggest, strongest, most well-formed, trophy animals and leave the less-desireable underlings to procreate and breed the stock, changing the gene pool if left to extremes. I guess this is true, but we seem to do an adequate job, from what my narrow urban view can see. At least we have much more technology and data to base our plan upon than we did in he past. Minnesota does have a doe season and reduces the overall numbers this way, but still, everyone wants the biggest, best, 'celebrity buck.'

She's got that look like trouble's afoot, or that she just heard the warning from others. They are interesting to watch at the feeders. The alpha male buck will approach cautiously by himself first, checking out every sound and smell and feed very gingerly, almost as a cover for checking the place out, then he will stomp his foot a number of times to call the others out of hiding. Fascinating. Even here, in their protected environment inside the nature center grounds, they haven't totally given up their instinctual 'prey mentality'.
At the time these images were taken, there was a herd of at least 15 deer within the 120 acres of the park. Since then the herd has been 'managed' and thinned down, but because of their range and the ease of travelling over iced-up lakes and rivers during the winter, their numbers are never certain, even with aerial surveys. So far this year I have seen about five or six 'regulars' in the woods, including two different 6 point bucks, and earlier in the year, two newborn fawns.
Love them or hate them, they are an interesting story to watch play out, virtually in every backyard.

January 14th, 2010 - Space Power

I came across an interesting article the other day that I had saved from years past.
Having been schooled in the Black Arts of Electricity myself (it's still just a theory kids, never forget that) in what now seems like a former life, (and yes, my fellow Hogwarts at school - there were three distinct groups of us: the "Wire-pullers" = "Electricians", the "Sparkys" = "Industrial Electronic Technicians", and the "Propeller-Heads" = "Computer / Consumer Electronic Technicians" - I was one of these) did learn more than how to stuff a garbage bag into a fooseball table and play all day for a quarter, and what happens after you put a giant ball of Silly Putty into a microwave oven and turn it on, but that is another story.
So with that 'knowledge' and from recently spending considerable time inside commercial airliners buzzing through the Earth's stratosphere, I again found the piece particularly interesting.
The article concerns the running of electrical systems aboard  spacecraft.
It's something I hadn't considered very thoroughly, thinking that space is nothing more than a dead vacuum and what would there be out there to interfere with anything...?

Duh, wrong. At least in the case of the ISS, (International Space Station) which cruises around the Earth's ionosphere in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at around 17,500 mph (it orbits Earth about once every 90 minutes) there is plenty to bump into.
And they don't call it the ionosphere for nothing. They call it that because it is ionized by solar radiation, and is filled with "charged plasma," which is something of a "particle Minestrone" filled with all kinds of tasty space stuff.
It seems that before the dawn of the ISS, electrical power on spacecraft was operated at a fairly nominal +28 VDC, which was a standard inherited down from the aircraft industry. Most cars these days use a battery at +12 VDC, which keeps bringing to mind an image of the craft used in the movie "Spaceballs" when I think of the +28 volt standard.

Because of the relatively low voltage back then, interactions with charged plasma in LEO were not really an issue. However, with the ISS, the standard needed to be changed to a higher voltage to reduce power losses and to reduce the overall system weight. This came with a trade-off of some electrical "issues."

It's like this; electrically conducting surfaces of the ISS that are highly negative in respect to the ionic soup in LEO tend to undergo electrical "arcing." This is not unlike what happens when you put a giant ball of Silly Putty into the microwave or hold the coil wire of a car close to the distributor and turn the key.
Because the electrical potential is great enough, an electrical current in the form of a spark or "lightning bolt" jumps the air gap between the two conductors without them actually physically touching. This can look cool, but it is also the principal behind 'arc-welding', which if continued will cause pits and burn marks on the metal's surfaces, and could eventually generate enough heat to be able to weld metals together.

So not only does this arcing damage the outside surfaces of the spacecraft, but because there is a current flow though the  plasma, there are intermittent power drains both on the local area that is doing the arcing and over the entire 'power array' of the ship. This causes 'sputtering' (electrical farts) and significant electrical 'noise', and even more worrisome it causes differences in electrical potentials between the different areas of the ship's power array. This is generally considered a bad thing. Notably because you are pretty much a dead duck in space with no power. It's cold, there's no breathable air, not much light; you get the picture.
Conversely, the solar arrays and parts of the ship that are at a highly positive electrical potential compared to the atmospheric plasma begin to collect ions from it, which causes a parasitic power drain to the ship's systems. Also a bad thing.
Due to the physical differences between the tiny particles involved, when the potentials are high, weird things begin to happen, such as materials that are normally electrical insulators (tend to stop current flow) become electrical conductors (allow current flow). Again, bad thing.
Because the spacecraft is plowing through the ionosphere like a boat, the "ram & wake" effects in the plasma near the leading and trailing edges of the craft begin to occur causing large differentials in voltage from one end of the ship to the other.
If that weren't enough, the electrical characteristics of the plasma outside of the ship are constantly changing, and can vary even more with 'solar storms' and 'sunspot events'.
In some cases the differences can be as large as what the ship's solar arrays can put out! This little problem can lead to loss of contact with the geosynchronous satellites guiding the craft (Are you with me, Major Tom...?)
When the conditions are bad enough, the insulating surfaces of the ship actually begin to conduct electricity and all of the parts of the ship can be enveloped in a "conducting plasma", also known as the "sheath effect."
It's kind of like putting your spaceship into a wool sock and sending it through the cosmic dryer without a fabric softener sheet. You can imagine how well your onboard computers and electronics appreciate this.
To reduce the problem, engineers have learned to play a 'reverse psychology' game, saying "if you can't beat the plasma, join it" and coating the outside of the ship with conductive material to eliminate electrical differences around it's outer surface. The next step is to use a clever device with a cool name, called a "plasma contactor" (not related to the flux capacitor of 'Back to The Future' fame, sorry).

A bunch of these objects resembling little spark plugs attached to the outside of the ship act as grounding rods, connecting it to the "local environment" by discharging their own stream of ions and electrons into space. They use a small amount of gas to create this ion stream, which the excess surface charges of the ship follow like a hoard of lemmings.
This all sounds groovy, except for one small issue. When the ISS has a problem with say the gimbals that support the mounts of it's solar panels as they face the sun, some lucky astronaut gets to go out there and work on them with the plasma contactors turned off, effectively creating an electrical 'float' or difference between parts of the ship of about 260 VDC. (Bad thing.)
At the time of this writing, it is not known whether straws are drawn, coins are flipped, or if it's always 'the new guy' that gets to go.

More from your intrepid space reporter after we come out of radio silence around from the dark side, and more data flows in...

January 5th, 2010 - Three On The Tree

Yesterday, after scraping off both the outside and inside of my windshield, I began driving my -10 F car down the -10 F street.
Before I continue here however, I have to point out a serious flaw in the movie 'Fargo'.
In one of the early scenes of the film, William H. Macy portrays what is supposed to be a typical Minnesotan chipping thick ice off of his windshield at an outdoor airport parking ramp. Admittedly, his character is very upset and frustrated because his blackmail scheme is backfiring, but this is what he does:
He walks up to his car, unlocks it, gets his standard Minnesota-issue combination snowbrush and ice-scraper out of the back seat, and begins failing away at the bombproof layer of ice on his windshield. Fatal flaw. Real Minnesotans and I would assume any other day-to-day cold weather commandos, ALWAYS start their car before doing ANYTHING else, to get the essential engine heat circulating and the defroster defrosting, and more importantly, to make sure the damn car is actually going to start at all, as why waste time and energy chipping ice off your windshield when there is a chance your car won't even start. (Always a possibility in MN. We call it playing the 'Car-Starting Lottery', though usually our odds of the car starting are a leetle bit better than winning the lotto.) And these Cohen brothers are from where again...? Preposterous.

ANYway... After about ten minutes of freezing-my-ass-off-driving I began to realize I was 'warming up' enough to fold back the tops of my 'flip-back' mittens. They are the sort of affair where the tops of the mitts fold back and you still have "fingerless gloves" underneath. I really like them, especially for photography out in the cold, you can pop your fingers out for a short bit to adjust your tiny camera buttons and then flip them back in for "added warmth"; psychological or otherwise.
I also wear these whole mitts under some heavy-duty army surplus choppers on the killer cold days, and they are pretty versatile, what with all the different finger possibilities.
The thing is, they have these tiny Velcro tabs on the back for the finger and thumb fold-backs that don't always stick, so sometimes you get this floppy fabric waving around on the back of your mitts until you "flip back in."
This reminded me of something that brought on a chuckle the other day.
I had a flashback to the days of driving a "three on the tree." Nowadays automatic transmission is nearly ubiquitous. Back then, most cars, or least most old trucks, had manual gearing. This meant using the foot clutch and either a floor-shifter (if you were lucky) which usually was a four-speed (four-on-the-floor... hey, hey, really "racey") OR the dreaded "three-on-the-tree," which meant the gearshift was on the right side of the steering column, (screw you if you were left-handed) but it had the basic "H" shift pattern:
So the "H" was on the right side of the column facing the driver's window. You started out in 1st gear, or 'low', which put the shift lever down by your right thigh. As you picked up speed, (normally about halfway across the intersection) you depressed the clutch with your foot and rammed the shift lever diagonally up into 2nd gear as fast as you could, so you didn't lose much speed with your five ton vehicle of the day, this put your hand and the gearshift up over the dashboard.
The company I used to work for was known for being, let's say, 'frugal' and bought the cheapest beat-down fleet of vans possible. Many still had three-on-the-tree, and this was in the 1980's when manual transmissions were becoming a bit of a dinosaur.
So the funny bit was, and I was amazed at how many times this happened, was as you were jamming your three-on-the-tree into 2nd your hand would come over the dashboard and stay there until you built up enough speed to go for third, and people that you had never seen before, would start to wave to you at intersections! Hey howdy! Just going into second here, thanks for the greeting! Have a nice day! Must be what is known here as 'Minnesota Nice.'
It's strange how we build up relationships with cars, but there was one van the company bought that I spent a lot of time in, and we bonded well. It was a 1980 Ford Econoline 150, red, with a converted interior for sleeping. It had over 350,000 miles on it when I first got in it, and I can't remember how many after I left the company after nine years, but it was still going. It had something like a 235 V-6 engine and I towed a U-Haul trailer to hell and back with that thing. I remember going from Minneapolis to California and back twice during two weeks one summer.
It started out with a three-on-the-tree, but the shift linkages began to slowly wear out and it would get stuck in a random gear or neutral just as you were needing to get a across a busy intersection or climb a steep hill. Cursing, you would then have to coast to the side of the road, usually pulling a trailer, get out, get under the truck, and free the shift linkages any way possible from below to get back to a place that you could make it shift back into first. Finally after getting soaked in a huge downpour in Oklahoma after doing this, I said I wasn't going to drive it anymore unless they fixed it. The "fix" was to install a three-speed floor shifter. This would have been pretty cool were it not for the fact that the transmission on a vehicle like this is actually behind the driver's seat, so when you were shifting, it looked like you were either getting up from the driver's seat to take a walk into the back of the truck, or were reaching for a beer in some far-away cooler. It did get you some strange looks. Good times, good times. I still miss that truck though, we went through a lot together.
So back to the present day. Another funny thing was, sometimes when I wore my flip-back mitts that wouldn't stay flipped-back, people I had never seen before would wave to me as I was making a left turn through an intersection! Same sort of deal. Howdy! Minnesota Nice.

I also used to have a 'very' old truck that I loved dearly; my '62 Chevy Panel.
It had a "straight-six", with no oil-filter, no seat-belts, no back-up lights as standard 'non-options'. I drove it all around California, and then back to Minnesota when it got too cold to surf. It went about 50 mph top speed no matter what amount of weight was in it or was being towed, and would get about 15 mpg with a strong tailwind. It had a great vibe though. We called it the Magic Bus, after the Who song. It actually had an 8-track tape player with a Bob Marley tape in it when I bought it.

It also had a bit of weird shifter, in that it was the basic 'four-speed' modified 'H'...
But 1st gear was 'granny-low' and topped out at about 2 mph, so you could only use it for pulling trees out of the ground or engine-braking down vertical inclines and such. You commonly started in 2nd gear, pretended it was 1st, and drove it like a three-speed. Reverse was some sort of magical "push-down on the shift-lever and feel around until you start going backwards" kind of thing. I miss that one too. I sold it to a guy in town, and years later saw it parked outside a bar on the West Bank in Minneapolis. It had my same picture of the surfer riding a deep curl in the back window, and my Marilyn Monroe postcard still stuck in the driver's visor. I felt good.
So in conclusion, and in the spirit of comradery, I suggest you make your left turns with an open palm, and leave your hand up top just a faction of a second longer than necessary. Leave your flip-backs up. Maybe it's the first step to a 'Global Village', and world peace. If we all start waving to one another, positive communication cannot be far behind.

January 2nd, 2010 - We Have An Answer...!

And it's not "42." Well, not this time, anyway.

The results of the poll started back on November 20, 2009 which asked the burning question, "Do You Prefer To Write With A Black Or A Blue Pen...?" have been recorded into the annals of history.
The people have spoken.

Of our 35 votes, an overwhelming 1.92 to 1 majority of respondents chose black as the preferred pen color over blue. Margin of error = not quite sure. I left the poll open for 41 days and even gave people the option to change their vote, though you could not vote for more than one selection. So I consider that about as accurate as it gets. If you didn't vote, you didn't exercise your democratic authority, so you can go live in a hole or accept the will of the people. Black is the pen color of choice these days.
And if all that highly scientific research wasn't convincing enough, a quick web search finds "danielle" asking Yahoo Answers whether she should get a pair of black or blue Converse hi-tops. Her results: Black 6. Blue 1. Neither 1.
I rest my case.
I do wonder however, if we could roll back the clock to say 1965, if the results would be the same. Either way, here is a fascinating article about the invention of the ball-point pen and the battle between ball points and fountain pens. There were no indications about the evolution of the black or blue trends in the article however.

Amongst other unfinished business of 2009, we have this impressionistic photo I took of the prairie at Springbrook Nature Center in the fall:

And just one more picture of 'The Pump' that I found while looking for other things:

Obviously it was not taken in the last few days since it's been about 10 below zero here. Not a whole lot of melting going on right now.
Okay, we've got closure.
That's a wrap, let's break for lunch.

January 1st, 2010 - A Blue Moon & The Eternal Fires of Hiawatha

Here we are at the end of the decade, with a New Year's Blue Moon that comes by only once every 19 years. So even though it was below zero outside, I felt I had to take advantage of it.

There is so much 'light pollution' from the sodium-vapor railway lights, streetlights, traffic, and incidental lighting at night here that I wasn't sure where to set my white balance. I ended up with it mostly on 'incandescent', though I tried a few on 'shade'.
On the shot above, I did a - 2 EV pre-flash followed by a 30 second exposure.
I blew out the moon in every shot I took. Maybe a polarizer would have helped, I don't think I've ever tried that with the moon.
By the end of an hour I was having trouble with my hands, nose, camera and flash controls, and finally my battery, so I got what I got.

This the same shot off of the same tripod. (A very cold, heavy metal tripod, I might add. Cold metal which I could feel seeping into my shoulder, even through my thick jacket as I carried it.
I gotta put some foam on the legs or something.) Anyway, same shot with no flash and something like 20 seconds at f8. That stupid flash needs a button you can actually turn off when it's 10 below without taking your gloves off. Curse, curse. Lots of stars out though.

On the other hand, the artificial lighting was doing some BIZARRE stuff to the light off of the snow and ice on the weir going under the Hiawatha Avenue tunnel.
It looked like Dante's last steps, especially when I got down under the road.

Steam was coming off of what little open water there was in the weir and the tunnel looked normal, but the light at the end was not so comforting. I checked out the ice carefully (by running across it as fast as I could in Sorels...
Kidding, it was refreeze but pretty darn thick) and tried some exposures with me holding a flashlight down at the other end but the time was so long I'm barely a phantom photon.

This one is kind of interesting. I got the idea to focus with the zoom lens all the way wide-angle, then set the self-timer and after it tripped, have the flash go off and s-l-o-w-l-y zoom the lens all the way out as it was exposing, in theory ending when the shutter tripped, 20 seconds later. It was pretty close. Can't believe I didn't shake the camera more. Fun experiment.

Back in our neighborhood, the cross-lighting from all the light pollution weirdness was bordering on psychedelic. Nice ski tracks all up and down the creek though. Looked like some opossum tracks further down the trail too, I could see their 'tail drag'.

Hey, it's a New Decade! New Game! New Year!!! Enjoy it everyone.
Above all, think a lot, and talk to people about the stuff you think about.

- T.