31 December, 2012

Runnin' on Empty

On my way up to the 25 Hours of Thunderhill back in November, I took an arbitrary exit to take a break and stretch my legs, and ended up in Arbuckle, CA. It was an early Saturday morning, and I stopped at a closed gas station right off the freeway.
Except it was more than closed; it was vacant. Empty. Barren. It was as if I had happened on the still-recognizable bones of a gas station that had fallen by the wayside untold ages ago.

How long do those bones take to go away? I don't know, but it felt like the gas station's destiny, if you could call it that, was only to answer a similar question.
Once I started walking around, the thing that struck me was how lonely it felt. The same way that a graveyard feels lonely when there's no one else in sight. I started to explore, trying to figure out why it felt so desolate, and that's when I started noticing the cobwebs. They were everywhere. On everything. Fewer of them in exposed areas, more in the secluded ones, but there nonetheless.

I also felt a tinge of… chagrin? at the realization that the brand of hoses was "Futura," but now that the future had actually arrived, that they remained stuck in the past. The hoses mirrored the antiquated… well really, the plain tired feel of much of the remaining equipment. As if they all had been standing guard, ready to be put back into service, but with the creeping suspicion that their days were numbered.

For instance, the spring on the support reel for this hose had given up at some point, letting the hose droop down in what can only be a trend toward ever-increasing levels of disrepair.
As my investigation continued, I began to discover more quantitative signs of the passing time. What had once been a windshield washing fluid reservoir had turned into little more than a convoluted core sample of the area, showing the rainy periods as well as the dry spells. But how long does it take to grow that many rings?
At last I happened on an actual date. 2007. That was the last year that Colusa County Agriculture Commissioner Harry Krug had verified and certified the calibration of the pumps. Moreover, the dilapidated condition of the seals illustrated the station's years of desertedness more clearly than the condition of the equipment, even without upkeep. Clearly, that stuff was built to last.
And finally, a glance inside of the station building. Surrounded by the unmistakeable aura of abandonment, the sign displays an optimism that simply didn't stand the test of time.

22 December, 2012

Hello from China

Here are a couple photos from the Guangdong province, in China (all shot with the NEX-6, for those who care; hover over images for settings). Enjoy!

10 December, 2012

A Night of Rolling Thunder

After having a wonderful time when the American LeMans Series came to Laguna Seca, I decided to go watch the 25 Hours of Thunderhill race that took place this past weekend. It was a blast, and falling asleep to the sound of racecars hammering down the front straight at WOT was an amazing experience.

More photos will come, but this post is a prelude of sorts; a tiny glimpse into what it was like to watch a race after the sun went down.
Swoosh! It's often difficult to appreciate the beauty of the land that Thunderhill occupies. During the sweltering, blustery days of summer, it's all you can do to find some shade and some water to drink — this is no Lime Rock. And even when the conditions are moderate, the flat light of the overhead sun hides the mounds and the curves that lend some character to the landscape.

At night, though, it all changes. Like the stroke of a paintbrush, the rise and fall of each passing car traces the outline of a terrain that's just like the miles of rolling farmland that surround it. It's easy to see the hills and the mounds that speckle the horizon, but it can be surprisingly difficult to realize that your vantage point is from just one such hill, perhaps prominent on the horizon of some distant viewer.
This view of the front half of the racecourse happened while the pace car was out, which minimized the gaps between the cars. Cars approach on the front straight, at the left. They cut to the right for turn 1, leave the frame for turn two, but come back just in time for turns 3 and 4, at right. They take the shallower crest of the turn 5 bypass, and then round turns 6 and 7 in the distance as they head toward the back half of the track.

The trail of lights exhibits features of the landscape that are obvious as you drive the track, but that somehow become invisible when you simply stand and watch.
And at last, the sunrise. Until next time…

05 December, 2012

Slip 'n Slide

While descending Highway 9 in the rain over the weekend, I spotted a car that had skidded off the road and over a steep embankment. I called 911 (as did another passerby), and after a short while, the first of several emergency vehicles arrived.

It hadn't struck me as odd initially, but the car's lights were off when I initially spotted it. After a thorough search for people who might've been thrown from the vehicle, the firefighters determined that the car had been abandoned. In the photo, L looks on as one of the first emergency personnel on the scene shines his light down the embankment.
Right around when the first responders were finishing up their search, the rest of the cavalry began to arrive. In the photo, one of the firefighters explains the situation to the recently-arrived ambulance as the other firefighters return to Engine 17 (near) and Rescue truck 17 (which has the large, flip-up light boom in the distance).

03 December, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NEX-6

After a long wait, I finally replaced my X100 with Sony's NEX-7 back in March of this year. I paired it with the 16mm f/2.8 pancake, and despite its lousy low-light performance, it trounced the Fuji X100 in actual usability — it felt like I no longer had to worry about my gear unexpectedly letting me down, which was a big relief. Over time, I came to realize three main gaps in that setup: the low-light performance was mediocre, the lens itself wasn't very sharp, and the lens was simply too wide for the subjects I tend to shoot. I had really liked the 24mm (35mm-equiv) on the X100, but I still wanted a compact package, which is what kept me with the 16mm.

So fast-forward half-a-year to September, when Sony announced the NEX-6 along with its kit lens, the 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 pancake zoom. Though nowhere near the size of pancake zooms for other systems, it is as far as I know the second-shortest AF lens for E-mount, period, after the 16. And the body promised better low-light performance (having only a 16MP sensor) as well as improved AF performance. I pre-ordered the kit that same day.

The kit arrived a few weeks ago, and I was immediately disappointed. I had my fingers crossed for a way to move AF off of the shutter release, but that wasn't the possible. For me, that means I treat it like a manual-focus-only body, which means I can't benefit from the AF performance improvements. Beyond that, the 16–50 isn't a good manual-focus lens, and the aperture would negate at least some of the low light improvements from the sensor.

So I swapped lenses, which helped some. I got extra reach and framing control while walking around with the NEX-7 during the daytime, and I could switch to the NEX-6 for low-light shooting. I still had to live with the downsides of the 16, but at least I had low-light performance that was a bit better than the NEX-7.

On a whim, I bought the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 prime on a $150 Cyber Monday sale. I finally got it on my camera Thursday evening, and in the 3 days since then, it has completely changed my impression of the camera. The 19mm is sharp, the focus ring speed is really well-tuned, and the focal length is just a lot easier for me to work with. Moreover, because a given subject is now larger in the viewfinder, it's a lot faster and easier for me to achieve critical focus.

This all came to a head last night, when I spotted a car that had slid off a dark mountain road in the pouring rain. After the first rescue vehicle arrived and discovered the vehicle to be empty, I started taking photos. The setup was a joy to use in the darkness, and the small size combined with the speed with which I could adjust settings, adjust focus, and take a shot meant that the camera didn't get too soaked, in spite of the downpour. In a word, the experience felt effortless.

And when I got home, I found that I had taken photos that I would not have been able to take with any other camera I've ever owned — my favorite (saved for a forthcoming blog post) was 1/13s at f/2.8 and 3200ISO. With the X100, I wouldn't have been able to focus (especially in the darkness); with the NEX-7 or D300, 3200ISO would have been unusable. So despite my early frustrations, the NEX-6 has earned its place in my arsenal of cameras.

01 December, 2012

¡Mambo! Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra

L and I went to a concert last night. I should note: when thinking about the concert, my ability for rational thought is diminished, as is my power to construct coherent sentences. In the photo, two people cheer and wave the Venezuelan flag during a curtain call at the end of the concert, in celebration of the homeland of both the conductor and the orchestra.

Now, let's go back in time. Gustavo Dudamel is L's favorite conductor. While searching for him on YouTube some number of years ago, I bumped into this video of him leading what was at the time the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. It was by far the most moving orchestral performance I had ever seen; I still can't watch or listen to it without dancing in my chair.

And then I found the encores (click here), which redefined for me what an orchestra could be, and how it could behave. They combined joy, pride, and musicianship in a way that I had never seen from any other orchestra.

So suffice it to say that when a friend pointed out that they'd be performing at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, my wallet practically leapt out of my pocket and threw itself at the ticket ordering website. And man, was it worth it!
To be honest, last night's concert even bested the videos on YouTube. The orchestra was again cheered on to two encores, and they again played Leonard Bernstein's "Mambo" as the second encore. In the photo, Dudamel directs the audience as they sing along to the piece. ¡Que chévere!

30 November, 2012

Signs Point to Rain

It's been raining off and on — though mostly on — for the past few days. As a product of the eastern half of this country, I consider that to be a good thing.
You see, I like rain, and I always find it a little bit saddening when the rain is falling as I awake, but dries up before I set foot outside. Thankfully, this week has had plenty of exception to that general trend.
And when the rain does stop, it leaves wonderful clouds

20 November, 2012


17 November, 2012

Rain Drive

Stopped a few miles after turning from Skyline Blvd. onto Page Mill Rd. Driving in the rain is one of my favorite things.

16 November, 2012

Lo! I am the destroyer of shift linkages!

During the Thunderhill LeMons race a few months ago, I was at the helm of our most cherished Saab Story when, lo, did the shift linkage break, leaving me stuck in 4th gear. After barely making it over the T5 eagle's nest, I taxied it back to the pits, where we discovered that a bolt had backed itself out and was nowhere to be found. Quick fix and we were on our way again.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered yesterday that my Cayman knew the same trick! I was in 3rd on a highway onramp, went for the 3rd->4th upshift and… wait, why am I still in 3rd gear? I drove to my destination, survived two red stop lights, and managed to find a parking area with lots of space.

It was kind of nifty that the tow truck had a matching paint job, though…

14 November, 2012

Red Bull Flugtag 2012: Falling With Style

After literally years of anticipation, I finally attended my first Red Bull Flugtag this past Saturday, November 10th. The sun was out, the aircraft had a light headwind, and visibility was clear. That is, conditions were perfect for the teams to fly straight downward and cannonball into McCovey Cove.

For those not familiar, Flugtag ("fly day" in German) is an event that invites people to design and construct purpose-built flying (and/or falling) machines, to be judged on some unpredictable combination of distance, creativity, and showmanship.

The Flugtag world record of over 200 feet illustrates the distance that a well-engineered, well-flown craft can accomplish. What I saw on Saturday, though, was essentially a demonstration of how stylishly a craft could trip off of the edge of the flight deck and casually face-plant into the water.
The event started off with lofty ideals and delusions of grandeur. As the MC directed our attention skyward, two skydivers from the Red Bull Air Force descended in a graceful and utterly controlled manner, beneath well-designed and well-constructed parafoils that were tried and tested.

As the poem goes, though, "even the best laid plans of mice and men do oft go awry." And after the two skydivers stuck their respective landings, the era of "tried and tested" was well and truly over.

The crowd seemed to have a great time throughout the event (as did I), and many of the competitors seemed to put all of their enthusiasm into the competition, but as an engineer, I was admittedly a bit saddened by how few of the craft managed to glide any appreciable distance.
The hangar area was open for two hours before the competition, which officially started at 13:00. Toward the end of that preview period, the teams that had built flying (rather than falling) apparatus could be seen checking their flight surfaces and generally preparing to give it their best shot.

Despite this preparation, many of the aircraft (or launching devices) encountered malfunctions which restrained their distance. For instance, the Flugtag Barons (pictured) had a well-engineered biplane, but from what I could tell, their rolling launch platform failed to fully detach from the plane after it left the launch deck. The plane managed to drag the launch trolley along in a surprising feat of aeronautic stability, but it landed well short of where it might have.
After the preparation, the flight attempts began. There were generally two types of craft: those with aspirations of flight, and those that really didn't have functional wings. In the photo, the pilot from The Nine Amigos team leaps off of their shark-themed craft as a wheel fails at the edge of the launch platform. All of the team-members are Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmers, which inspired their theme.
After each attempt, the event staff made quick work of clearing the landing area so the next team could go. With help from the SF fire and police departments, the turnaround time was quick enough to not break the momentum of the event. In the photo, a member of the cleanup crew attempts to lasso a large, red, stiletto heel craft that was piloted by drag queen Frida Lay of the Chicago-based team Hell on Heels.
Every once in awhile, though, the stars would align and a well-designed, -constructed, and -flown craft would carry on for a bit of distance. In this case, it happened to be one that also had fantastic decorations. Team Sugar Skull 138 flew a día de los muertos-themed craft to a second-place finish.

When all was said and done, only a handful of craft made it anywhere close to the 40-foot mark, which makes the 200+-foot world record mark all the more impressive. Perhaps it simply goes to show just how difficult it is to build something that will defy gravity for such a distance. Even so, as the movie Toy Story reminds us, when you can't fly, you can still fall with style.
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