Monthly Archives: June 2014

Writing prompt: Expand upon a character in an in-progress work

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Expand upon a character in an in-progress work”

Jada has loved nature since she was a little girl. She grew up with a brother and two half sisters in a pretty small house, so nature was a literal retreat. She would walk through the woods by the train tracks and draw pictures of different plants and birds’ nest, and take pictures. She wasn’t always a good student, especially if there was a window in the class for her to stare out of and daydream.

In high school, Jada’s good friend Ella helped her get serious about her homework, and eventually apply to a state forestry program. Ella and Jada eventually had a falling out over a boy. Jada retained her determination in academics. Ella’s family was more studious, and before meeting Ella, Jada just hadn’t really considered what studying could lead to.

After the falling out with Ella, Jada was a bit disillusioned about relationships and boys, and is highly wary of the drama that they can lead to. After starting on the Blue Ridge project, she started dating coworker Axel, maybe against her better judgment. That ended messily, though they still had to work with each other. She doubts herself in the matter, and wonders if the relationship ended due to the flaws she saw or failure that she was always anticipating. (Axel is bit of a jerk; he can be unempathetic.) When Jada gets upset, she has difficulty articulating why.

Jada’s favorite color is turquoise, but her favorite color to wear is red. She likes very spicy food, and she really wants to travel, having never been outside the US and Canada. Her most treasured travel was to Redwood forest. She would like to visit the Amazon, but especially the jungles of Papua New Guinea, partially because her mother is partially of that descent.


Writing prompt: Lie detector

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Lie detector”

Blood flows in the face indicate certain emotions. Rage is one pattern, confusion another, fear (perhaps of getting caught in a lie) yet another. Some cameras could detect subtle changes in face color from the blood flow, but better yet were cameras that reached into the infrared, to see the heat of that blood flow.

Trish first loved the science of this technology, but after she was denied tenure for lacking funding, she found a new purpose to it. Business.

With google glasses so common as they were, it wasn’t much of a trick to fit hers out with the additional infrared range camera and write the code to show the blood flows overlaid upon their face. She became a human lie detector, able to fox out the lies and bluffs of all but the sociopathic (who incidentally had their own telltale patterns). Perhaps the preponderance of the sociopathic shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did.

Still, the funding came in now, and she started up a company. Not with her own special technology, of course. It was her ticket to a bright future. Some other good but less phenomenal idea.

That was, until the meeting with Ms. Teller, who seemed oddly apt at dissecting Trish’s own lies and sidesteps. Reading up on her, Trish discovered Teller’s background in pattern processing and optics. Suddenly, the marketplace had grown just a little more crowded.

To Trish, the solution was obvious—she had to destroy Teller or join with her.


Color runs through our lives in many ways– it’s how we pick out the ripest strawberries and cherries, it’s how we put together an outfit, it sets a mood and conveys symbolism. Red is passion and blood, white is purity, blue is serenity or even depression.

Colors are human. We see only a tiny range of electromagnetic waves, and the colors we see depend upon the frequency of that light. The colors of the world are there because our brains and eyes interpret them into the tints we see. Our brains give us that beauty.

Human history is full of color. Painters strive for vibrant shades that withstand the degradation of time. We use colors in food, makeup and clothes. Often, though, we don’t consider the origins of color, and how we obtained these colors throughout history. Many were toxic, such as lead white and red cinnabar (a combination of mercury and sulfur). They chemicals were so valuable and prized that people used them even for makeup. Today, we still use eyeshadow and cherry sodas with crushed bugs, which while slightly icky, is vastly safer.

Although we have many more synthetic compounds and colors, these old colors are still sometimes the best. The titanium white we use today is more opaque and less lustrous than lead white, and some suggest it may not hold up as well over time. Red cinnabar used in Roman art retains its color 20 centuries later. In the last two centuries, we have discovered a whole new range of color compounds with the advent of chemistry and globalization. But our goals are always the same, to stimulate the part of our brain that sees color in wiggles of light.


Writing prompt: A door that goes anywhere

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“You discover a door in your house/apartment that will lead to any door in the world that you want it to.” (I found this writing prompt through the Reddit Writing Prompts sub forum. Check it out for hundred of writing prompts on all kinds of topics, including this one.)

It was strange coming back to my childhood home after so many years, but probably not so strange as living with my parents after I’d gone forth into the world, expecting my obvious greatness to be recognized. Instead, I was 30, in debt, and back with the folks in rural Missouri. It was humiliating. What I wouldn’t give to be back in Belgium at the chocolate shop or in New York in central park. But most of all, I thought, I’d like to be away from people—Moab. But I didn’t have money, so these thoughts stayed dreams.

In the five years since I’d returned home, mom had redone the kitchen and redecorated my bedroom into a hobby room and dad had given away a good portion of my toys to cousins kids. I don’t think they were thrilled to have me back either. The heavy bookcases of the living room were gone, and I realized I’d never seen that wall. The old wallpaper behind where they had stood was brighter, showing their outline.

Hold on, I thought to myself, noticing another line in the wallpaper. I went closer. It was a seam in the paper, about 7 feet high and 3 feet wide. A door? There was a dent at about the right place for a handle. I pushed, tentatively at first, but when I felt give, I pushed harder.

The door popped open. Moab’s grand orange arch stood in front of me, the blazing hot and dry summer air pouring through the door. I stood and gawked, and several dozen tourists turned and snapped my picture, looking delighted. I pulled the door shut with a slam. Why was there a door to Moab in my childhood home?

The whole front of my body still seared. I could feel the beads of sweat form, half from apprehension I think. I pushed the door open again, bracing myself for the heat. Instead, a rocky coast full of fog and mist stretched before me. Canon Beach in Oregon. The air was refreshingly cool, and then it occurred to me that the door was taking me where I wanted to go. I closed the door.

“Prague, Wenceslas Square,” I said, and opened it again. The square stretched before me, with tinges of twilight falling over it and the National Museum and the Jan Palach memorial. I shut the door again.

“Gabriel, what are you doing in there?” My mother rushed in. “Get away from that wall!”

Technology and art in the rail photography of O. Winston Link

If you are interested in rail photography, or if you’re like me and really never gave it a thought, the O Winston Link photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia is a fascinating visit. O (short for Ogle– I think I’d go by the initial too) Winston Link photographed steam locomotives in the 1950s, at the very end of their widespread use. The Norfolk and Western rail lines he snapped ran through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and other parts of the coal belt of Appalachia.

In his photographs, Link captures the end of a powerful technology, but he also captures life in 1950s Appalachian rail towns. People play in a pool twenty feet from a roaring locomotive. People read in their living room with a cat sleeping on their lap as a train passes the window. Folks chat on a porch as the N&W rolls past. In the image below, the train passes a drive-in movie.

Hotshot Eastbound, by O. Winston Link.

Link captured images with such technical precision that they would still be difficult shots today, barely possible without rare equipment until very recently. Link was a civil engineer, hired out of college as a photographer; during World War 2, he used his scientific and photographic backgrounds at the Airborne Instruments Laboratory.

Link’s railway shots rely heavily on both science and photographic techniques– in order to better control the lighting and thus the composition of his photos, he often shot at night. Because, he said, “I can’t move the sun — and it’s always in the wrong place — and I can’t even move the tracks, so I had to create my own environment through lighting.” This required the use of flash bulbs, one-use bulbs that burned metal to produce brief, intense illumination. According to the museum, one of his shots alone used illumination equivalent to 10,000- 100 watt light bulbs, although that light only lasted for a moment. Reading that, I wondered what the experience was like for the train conductor, driving through nearly black rural Virginia, when light so bright it might as well be lightning flashes. His first power source was too unreliable, and so he designed his own power source. Link invested $25,000 into the unpaid project, closer to $125,000 in today’s currency.

As someone who dabbles in photography, the difficulty of Link’s task and the quality of his work (60 years ago!) deeply impressed me. Bear with me as I explain some technical details of modern cameras to convey the awesomeness of Link’s work. Today, we might just be able to reproduce such shots without flashbulbs due to advances in digital photography. Flash bulbs (using combustion) are still brighter than any modern flash (using capacitors). A single flashbulb produced about 1 million lumens (the unit that measures the brightness of light) while a modern camera-mounted flash produces about 100,000. Many flashbulbs may be used at once, so the flashbulb is great for extreme illumination. Only one manufacturer of flash bulbs still exists. Their photo gallery is pretty neat.

Today, we have cameras that are more sensitive to low light, called high-ISO cameras. Camera speed, whether digital or film, is measured in a system called ISO-sensitivity. In this system, a film with double the ISO requires half the exposure time; a two-second exposure with 200 ISO film would take 1 second with 400 ISO film for the same level of exposure. In the 1950s, the fastest film was ISO 400-640. The Sony Alpha 7S, releasing in July, has up to ISO 409,600, 1024 times  faster than ISO 400. A shot requiring 30 seconds of exposure on ISO 400 would require roughly 1/30 of a second on ISO 409,600. This is really new technology; as of 2013, no ISOs above 10,000 existed.

So, in short, Link’s work is a beautiful hybrid of science and art, a testament to their combined power. Link’s scenes of rural 1950’s Appalachian life are beautiful, and remind us of the era of the man behind the lens. New advances behind the lens are happening today. What new wonders will they capture?

Writing prompt: Feeling spooked while camping

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Feeling spooked while camping”

I’m not really a camper. But still, I couldn’t turn down an invite from a friend to go camping in the newly opened Blue Ridge preservation area. Even with trees designed to sequester radiation, no one but researchers and workers had been allowed in for nearly 200 years, after the one that missed DC. Now my researcher friend had passes for the soft opening, and what could I say? The Appalachian Mountains were nearly 500 million years old, and I’d never seen them except in pictures of spooky decaying ruins—Monticello falling into the Earth and the old Blue Ridge Parkway cracked beyond recognition in some vids online.

Jaden set up the tent. He’d camped before, but not in this area of course. Tonight and this week, 500 people tested the park, carrying dosimeters and basically giving things one last look-over. I helped Jaden build the fire that night, and I imagined eyes watched us from the trees. I’m sure they weren’t, and I focused instead on what a tricky cooking medium fire and charcoal could be. I couldn’t even tell the cooking temperature.

Insects began as twilight grew deeper, unnerving and yet exciting. These must be the eyes I imagined watching me.

The Blue Ridge Parkway


The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long, connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is managed by the National Park System, though it is not a national park itself. Still, it has been the most visited part of the National Park System every year for over 50 years.

This weekend, I drove and hiked along a portion of it between Vesuvius and Roanoke, Virginia. It rained last week, so the vegetation was especially lush and the waterfalls especially spectacular.SONY DSCCrabtree Falls bottom-most waterfall, off mile marker 30 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Highway 56, which leads to Crabtree Falls, is a beautiful drive whether you go east of the Parkway or west. We stayed in a cabin near these falls, and at night, we could hear the water rush.

SONY DSCThe James River.

SONY DSCOverlooking Buena Vista, Virginia shortly before sunset.

SONY DSCFurther into sunset near Buena Vista, Virginia.

SONY DSCVegetation approaching the Apple Orchard waterfall trail.

SONY DSCBlooming azalea bushes lined the trail to Apple Orchard waterfall.

SONY DSCApple Orchard waterfall near mile marker 78 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

SONY DSCAnother waterfall on the Crabtree Falls trail. In 1.5 miles, you can see 4 different falls, though on the weekends it can be somewhat crowded. We went on Monday and shared the path with a different and slightly-too-exciting crowd: a rattlesnake and a six-foot long black snake. Nature!