Monthly Archives: February 2016

Science Fiction and the West: Part 2

The western landscape is absurd. There are massive towers of rock, ancient ruins, and strange colors. There are fields of lava and dunes of drywall. In a recent post, I talked about how the west evokes much of the science fiction I read. Well, I went driving again, and I found more science fiction in the west. Specifically…


Underground kingdoms

Carlsbad Caverns lie under southeast New Mexico. At any moment, I imagined that goblins would pour out of the ceiling and down columns around me. Carlsbad evokes visions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Cthulhu, and Middle Earth. Right now, the elevators at Carlsbad are offline, so you must walk down into the gaping natural entrance. If you are a science fiction enthusiast, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you are on a journey to somewhere of lore.

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The Great Room in Carlsbad Caverns.


 

Strange pieces of history

There are some silos out west that look exactly like daleks. This one is by the city of Alamogordo. Nearby, I found a scrap yard full of derelict missiles and circuitry. Seriously, where does one find a silo shaped like a scifi creature next to cruise missiles other than science fiction and the west? (Okay, maybe the Ural Mountains.)

At first, it seemed rather extraordinary to find a missile sitting in a scrap yard a mile outside a mid-sized city, but this is the storage yard for the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Still, I prefer to think that giant daleks roam New Mexico, and they have missiles!

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A real life Canticle for Leibowitz

East of Albuquerque is the Salinas Mission National Monument, a set of three missions from the 1600s. The sites were inhabited by pueblo indians going back centuries. After the Spaniards arrived, they built missions to convert the indians. They also functioned as part of the salt trade, which is where the name “Salinas” comes from. After the pueblo revolted in the late 1600s, the sites were forgotten, and only rediscovered in the mid 1800s.

I visited the Gran Quivira site this weekend. It contains a pueblo village that once held 2000 people, a completed church, and an extremely large incomplete church that was in construction at the time of the revolt. From the site, you can see for miles around. There are a few ranches, but few other signs of inhabitance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I just reread A Canticle for Leibowitz. And wow did Gran Quivira evoke the book. The ruins of a church next to a town, just like the abbey next to the town of Sanly Bowitz. From the site, one could see a pilgrim traveling the road. Overhead, the sun bakes all. Okay, so the book was set in Utah, but it felt real to me!

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Salinas Mission National Monument–the Gran Quivira Site.


White Sands

Have I written about this place enough? It’s a bunch of dunes literally made from powdered drywall. I think I’m in love. It’s Tatooine, Mars, Arrakis, and Vulcan.

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And that was all in just one long weekend. If my former state of Virginia was for lovers, then New Mexico is for romance.

 

Altering reality in wide angle

Wide-angle lenses are lenses that, as the name suggests, capture a wide angle of view. They’re great for fitting a wide scene into a single shot. A wide-angle lens can catch a long parade marching down the street, spreading to left and right; it can catch a massive sprawling mountain range.

Wide-angle lenses can be tricky, too. Humans don’t see in wide angle, so these images are distorted and unnatural to our eyes. Sometimes, that’s a feature.


Wide Angle to make something feel large

Large things loom. Whether that large object is your parents when you’re a child, a huge skyscraper, or a thunder cloud, big objects have a sense of hanging over you. Wide-angle lenses can capture that sense, even for modestly-sized objects.

Below is a shrine at the Albuquerque Botanical Garden Japanese Garden. It’s maybe 15 feet wide and 15 feet high. But with the help of wide angle, it can fill a whole frame. The top frame is as a 16mm wide-angle lens captures the shot. All the lines that should be straight are curved, because this lens is a type of wide-angle lens called a “fisheye”. This could be the desired effect, or you can correct the curvature, as in the second picture. This time, I was pursuing the second image. Sometimes, the other is the goal. That’s one cool thing about digital photography–both are available in any given image.

The shrine at the Japanese Garden

Shrine at the ABQ Biopark Japanese Garden, with fisheye distortion uncorrected.

The shrine at the Japanese Garden

With corrected perspective.


Wide Angle to capture a wide scene

This one’s obvious, but still awesome. Some images need a lot of space. Sometimes, you can get a wide-angle image by stitching several traditional images together. But as in the top image, only a single capture can catch the ducks taking flight.

In the bottom image, the angular distortion from the fisheye lens is fine uncorrected, because there are no straight lines on that rock to betray the distortion. And the wide angle here allowed me to get the sun in the frame. The distortion to the sun here is called a “sunstar.” You can get them by shooting with small apertures, which leads to light diffraction. Here’s a nice brief article if you want to learn more about sunstars.

ABQ Biopark Japanese Garden wide angle, ducks taking flight

The pond at the Japanese Garden

Bisti Badlands and Sun Star

A rock formation at Bisti Badlands


Wide Angle for composition

Wide-angle lenses give a photographer different options in guiding the viewer’s eye in a photograph. You may have heard that long lenses compress depth, thus why they are pleasing for portraits. Wide lenses exaggerate depth. The righthand side-view mirror on cars is slightly wide-angle. This is why “objects may be closer than they appear.” Your side-view mirror has exaggerated the sense of depth.

Additionally, wide-angle lenses can focus on nearby objects. My 85mm lens has a minimum focal distance of 1 meter. My 70-200 varies from 1 meter to 1.5 meters. My fisheye can focus nearly up to the point I bump into the subject.

Both of these factors give the photographer different creative freedoms when composing with a wide-angle lens.

In the first image, I found this hanging rock fascinating. I put my lens right next to this rock when I shot, but because of the exaggerated depth, it doesn’t feel as claustrophobic as the shot was. The rocks in the background are only a few feet away, but they feel more distance. Here, I also employ the wide angle to make the rock loom large. That hanging arm was no more than 3 feet long.

In the second image, the ability to get close to the statue in the foreground meant I could fill more of the frame with it. And I can fit the building comfortably in the background. So I can make a relatively small object the same size in the capture as a large object.

Rock formations in the Bisti Badlands

Rocks and sun at Bisti Badlands

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University of New Mexico campus, and statue of school mascot, the Lobo

 

Did I miss anything? I love a good photo discussion, so let me know!

Science Fiction and the West: Part 1

Three events inspired this post: 1) I reread A Canticle for Leibowitz, set in future Utah, for the first time since moving west, 2) a member of my scifi club out east joined wordpress (check out his blog here), and 3) I visited the fantastic Bisti Wilderness Area in northwest New Mexico. All at once, I was reminded of sharing the west with friends out east, and confronted with the west in future fiction and the west’s natural absurdity.

I pondered my bookshelf. The genre is not as teeming with western themes as one might think of a genre that grew up side-by-side with the cowboys and indians craze. There’s Joe Haldeman’s Worlds, which briefly depicts a future lawless Nevada. I thought of an Ursula Vernon short story and a series by R.S. Belcher that I have yet to read. But nothing else. It seemed odd. Then I saw all the books about Mars—in many ways, they are books about the west. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Philip K. Dick’s hallucinogenic Martian books, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land… whenever Mars is a character, it feels a lot like the west.

And it’s no surprise that the Mars of fiction feels like the west. John Carter was filmed in southern UtahTotal Recall filmed in Nevada. Robison Crusoe on Mars filmed in Arizona and Death Valley. It’s more than just superficial: NASA has tested rovers at White Sands National Monument, because the dunes are similar to those on Mars. NASA even brought a piece of rock to Mars from New Mexico on the rover for calibration purposes.

This post is just the first on this topic. I’ve lived in the west for six months now. I’ve traveled it only a little. I need to read the science fiction of the west, the science fiction of Mars, and to experience the natural surreality of this land. But for now, I leave you with the science fiction west.

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Writing prompt: Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day

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

“Don’t cry over spilled milk day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

The warning message on my phone had been accurately dire. Only the charred beams of the house remained. I saw Bella and Sadie out in the yard, doting upon a firefighter with a bag of treats. I pulled up behind the firetruck.

“It’s a total loss, ma’am,” one of the firefighters approached me, bearing forms.

“So the message said,” I sighed. “Do you know what caused it?”

“Electrical short, we think. We won’t know until the simulation results are in, and they run overnight. You probably know what I’m going to ask next.” He looked apprehensive. He glanced at the dogs, and back to me.

“I back up every week,” I said.

He relaxed noticeably. “Thank goodness. You don’t know how many fires I see where the family hasn’t backed up in five years. It’s devastating.”

“I bet.”

“Do you know how to initiate the rebuild?” he asked. I shook my head and he walked me through the process.

“By next week, your house will be back at the state of your last back-up. A few details might be less current, say you hadn’t scanned a closet for a while. The insurance will put you up at a hotel until it’s ready.”

I looked over the ruins of my home, ruins of my memories. In a week, they’d all be back. Maybe not the same piece of paper I’d received at graduation, not the same toy my dogs loved to fight over. But nearly. I sighed.

“Are you all right ma’am? It’s a lot to take in,” the fire fighter said.

“No use crying over spilled milk.”

Photo theme: Quarter Windows & Side Mirrors

Last weekend, I attended the 25th annual SuperNationals Car Show in Albuquerque. It was a sea of chrome and gleaming paint. There were silly low-riders, beautiful antiques, and fine-art automotive sculptures.

So amongst all that overstimulation, I tried to stick to a few themes. And one of them is the subject of this post: Quarter Windows and Side Mirrors. Quarter windows are the small (usually triangular) windows in front of the front windows. On old cars, they could swivel open to allow airflow.

The shining chrome of the quarter window tracing around the silvery side mirror–that’s a theme I will see again and again. There’s a lot to play with. Reflections in the flat glass, warped reflections in the chrome, angles, lines, light. This is what I have for now. To be continued…

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Writing prompt: create a vacuum day

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

“Create a vacuum day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

 

“Aren’t you the asshole that wiped out Charlottesville?” the woman said, spotting me from across the diner. She walked over.

“Well, technically no, it wasn’t me,” I rubbed my arm. I felt eyes study me from all around.

“Your work then. Whatever. I didn’t think I’d ever see you in person, or at least not without a fake beard.”

“I’m not ashamed of what happened,” I said. “Regretful, yeah, but not ashamed.”

“How do you work that out? Wiping out thousands of homes and businesses because you did something stupid?”

She looked genuinely curious. I was used to being berated. But maybe she would understand. I launched into the speech I’d recited in my head so many times. The speech no one ever let me speak. “Have you ever seen a vacuum chamber setup? A real, scientific one? For trying to create nothing, the suckers are enormous. And chock full of specialized equipment, like pumps that can literally be destroyed if they have to push thousands of atoms rather than tens. Frankly, I thought it was all a mess. I thought I could do better,”

She cocked her head to the side. She looked like she thought I was nuts, but she didn’t look angry.

“It was a wild idea,” I continued. “So wild I didn’t tell my advisor. But I didn’t need to tell him, I had the materials to get it done on the cheap.”

“Yea, yea, yea,” she waved her hand. “You decided to make a black hole in one instead, I watch the news. And trust me, no matter how you tell that part, it won’t sound clever to someone who lost a house to it.”

I looked away. “I can’t do anything about that now. I ran simulation after simulation that looked fine. I still don’t know what happened.”

“You got it wrong.”

“I really don’t think I did,” I said. “And I’m not afraid to be wrong—really, go find my undergraduate biology professor. I don’t have any data, it all got destroyed, but something other than just a black hole happened that day.”

She frowned. “You got it wrong. Apparently you are afraid to admit it. How sad that you can’t even see that.”

She walked away.

“Excuse me,” an elderly woman with a colorful scarf said from a booth nearby. “I can’t help but have overheard your conversation. And I have a theory about what went wrong that I’ve entertained for a while. Are you willing to try to reproduce your experiment?”

 

Photography: Patterns

Every now and again, it’s fun to rummage through your old photos and look for categories. Pictures of bicycles, pictures of cats, pictures of cats, pictures that are purple… you get the idea. But it does take a while. So today, I rummaged through my photos for pictures of patterns.

I was inspired by Flickr’s new organizational features. Under the new “camera roll” is the magic view, which allows you to look at various pre-determined categories according to Flickr. There’s various kinds of animals, landscapes, and people categories. My favorite is the style. Below is my “pattern” category. Not every image hits the nail on the head, but it’s a cool way of looking through your photos. I’ve got over 7000 on Flickr, so I can see photos with similar attributes across the years. Some of the categories were ones I already had thought of, but some were new ideas.patterns

So, some of my favorite pattern pictures!