Category Archives: Methods

Writing prompt: Junk Food Day

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

“Junk Food Day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)


The priest reached under the alter. With reverence, he placed three relics before the congregation. Antonia craned to see. She could see them through the plastic, bright yellow and emanating well-being. The packages were adorned with ancient symbols and decorations. Though these decorations had smudged and flaked in places, the contents remained intact. It was through the bountiful blessings of the Hostess goddess.

“Behold,” the priest said, “these relics have passed through the generations to us. And today, we shall share these Twinkies in Holy Communion.”

He recited an incantation, said to be the words of an ancient “commercial,” or a spreading of good will. Antonia recognized some of the words, like “fun for the whole family,” but others, like “snackalicious” were beyond her. The ancient civilization had been so advanced. Her father said they couldn’t have been human, or that they must have had the help of clever aliens. The ancients had built mysterious temples thousands of feet high, and roads hundreds of feet wide that extended beyond the farthest known horizon. Today, they knew so little about the ancients. But on holy Junk Food Day, they tasted the Twinkie and rejoiced. The priest went around, slicing off bits for the devoted.

 

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Writing prompt: this day in history, the first Ringling Brother’s Circus

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

This day in history: Ringling circus premier (see this list of Days in History)


Macy heard a low rumbling on the horizon. She continued grinding the grain, staring in the direction of the noise. After a while, an electric humvee came over the horizon. It was painted bright pink and blue and it played a merry tune.

“Dan, come out here!” Macy called.

“I’m not done yet—” her brother protested, for once invested in his chores.

“It’s a circus truck, Dan!” she said.

He ran out, hands still red from handling the meat.

The truck inched forward along the road, the music growing nearer. When it finally arrived, it pulled to a stop.

“Hey kids, have you ever been to a circus?” the man inside said. His face was painted white except for a red nose and blue around the eyes. Macy could see a scar across his lips. His left eye was glass. On the ceiling behind him, she saw a large gun. No doubt he had more closer, but the ceiling one was for show. It wasn’t safe to be a traveling salesman. A desperate man could get a lot for the battery’s in the circus man’s car.

The children shook their heads.

“Well you’re in for a treat!” the painted man said. “Never in human history has there been such a rich display of freaks and oddities. Ringling and Barnum would have blushed to see such things. Fallout and gene wars have finally given back to the human race. We have a two-headed baby, a man-sized venus fly trap, a goat that glows in the dark, and a Christmas Tree with legs.”

Macy stared at the painted man, awestruck and silent.

“Come to Hilldale City on Saturday and see the show in the big red and white tent! Can’t beat some classics! Admission’s just 5 bucks!”

Macy and Dan sagged. Hilldale City. Grandma would never allow it.

Writing prompt: Designer babies

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response.  So I added mine, though it’s a bit too early for the pint yet.


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

“designer babies”

“Designer babies!?” the headline shimmered in her mind’s eye. She engaged the article and read further. She shouldn’t, she knew. Nothing good ever came from reading media coverage about your own research. The journalists would never understand the science, and accuracy came second to eyeballs. The strategy worked, she mused, as even she was looking at the article.

“The FDA recently approved the so-called Designer Baby program at Johns Hopkins,” the article began innocently enough. Anitra scrolled down through the background, seeking what she knew would be there inevitably. “The program has drawn a number of ethical concerns. It’s hard not to share those concerns. Say you splice in elephant DNA to have a child that will never forget, but then that child will be terrified of mice and always gain weight. Or a child with the DNA of a cat will be lithe and clever, but doomed to be a jerk.

“In seriousness, though, the program raises the question of what it means to be human. If humans and oragutangs share 99.9% of their DNA, how much fiddling will fundamentally rob a child of it’s humanity? The program guarantees fertility and a variety of other qualities in its embryos, but there is no known measure of a soul.”

Anitra mused to herself that it always came down to souls with these people. People who politically wanted to go to war and wanted to punish bad eating habits in children were worried about the godliness of the embryos. It was always just an excuse to muck around past their intellectual depth.

But… well the concern mongering, as ill-informed as it was, she kept reading it because there was something at the edge of her own mind. A concern she couldn’t quite articulate after interacting with dozens of designed children from age 1 to 6. She kept reading these articles because each time she hoped this one would cast the light into the shadow of her mind that she could not see. Alas, not this time.

The delightful illustrations of George Barbier

I am two years into a project of science fiction illustration inspired by Hiroshige’s 100 View of Edo. I’m working on 100 views of Vironevaeh. I’ve completed 75 line art drawings, and am satisfied with 44 of them. It’s a project that ebbs and flows, and I constantly seek new sources of inspiration. The floor of my office is littered with books tabbed with post-it notes—a photo essay of the Koreas, French war illustrations from World War I, a Western photo essay, amongst others. This weekend I found art deco master George Barbier.

I’ve written about my interest in art deco and art nouveau before. (see: Victor Horta’s architecture, Alphonse Mucha’s posters and Walter Crane’s childrens books.) When I found a book of George Barbier illustrations on my shelf, purchased over a year ago, but forgotten in a cross-country move, I found inspiration.

The book is the top Barbier hit on Amazon, though it is mostly in Japanese with some original French. Barbier was one of the top artists in France after World War I, but disappeared largely after his death in 1932, a fate that seems to happen to many of the commercial artists of this period. Blissfully, he is in ascendance, even if the most accessible manifestation at the moment is an unreadable rendition in metallic blue. The illustrations are good enough that that doesn’t matter.

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The book has hundreds of illustrations from what seem like a variety of sources. The impenetrable Japanese let my imagination run wild. Below are just three.

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One inspired me rather directly. Can you tell? Time to take my scattered brain back into the world of inspiration.

 

Writing prompt: A pint and prompt!

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response. And once I had a pint, I joined in the fun.


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

“She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.”


There was something synthetic about the motion, but maybe I was just looking for it, looking for a reason to discount her reaction.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. She straightened. She was waiting for a response.

“Oh?” I said, trying to sound coy, but feeling more self-concious than I liked.

“I see it all the time. My kind makes you nervous. Without the veneer of plastic pores and synthetic hair, you can’t dehumanize me.”

“You aren’t human,” I said.

“Which is why you wanted me. I can do things women can’t do.”

I coughed and looked away.

“You want to feel better than your partners. I can give you that feeling.”

“Well, why don’t you? Why haven’t you?”

“Maybe in addition to my hair and my cuticles and my lips, my feelings are less synthetic than the last model too. Maybe it’s shit doing business all day with people that want to take you down a peg.”

I felt bad. It is what I had wanted. “Maybe this isn’t the line of work for you.”

“I got debt. I was made with it. And this pays the bills.” She looked away and undulated her shoulders. She stretched. When she turned to look back at me, her eyes held a different look. It was like a different woman. I could see the hunger in her, calling to me.

HDR: Nik Software is now free!

Last week I posted about using software to merge HDR or High Dynamic Range images. Well, just a few days ago, that software went from $150 to free. So that means an awesome refund for me, and even more incentive to try Nik Software for everybody else. Nik Software includes an HDR merger and a variety of effects ranging from black and white to faux vintage. I’ve had the package for three weeks, and I’m still finding new and exciting aspects.

I spent the weekend in northern New Mexico and Taos. I’m behind on everything, but I still couldn’t wait to assemble a few images. Without comment, here they are below. Happy photo editing!

High Dynamic Range photography: beyond Photoshop

Have you ever taken a picture where the brightest areas were lost to white and the darkest areas were lost to black? It’s an old photographic challenge with fun new solutions.

For over a century, photographers have used clever techniques to incorporate large brightness ranges in images.  Ansel Adams used dodging and burning to compress the dynamic range of film to the smaller range possible on paper. For challenging scientific shots, scientists produced film with three layers, each capturing a different film speed. Today, given multiple exposures of a scene, computers can auto-merge the best parts of each image in a process called tone mapping. The resulting shot has become known as an HDR or High Dynamic Range image. In just the last decade, the process has become much simpler and more useful.

Photoshop is the most famous of the merging softwares, but it isn’t the best. For years, I wrestled with Photoshop’s clunky and artificial looking HDR outputs. If you think of HDR as a pejorative, Photoshop may be why. Fortunately, there are other pieces of software out there that do a better job. I recently purchased the Nik Software package, which includes HDR Efex 2. I have several hundred old captures that I gave up on in Photoshop that are new and exciting and beautiful again. If you’ve ever tried making HDR images and felt disappointed, you should check out the market again. The results from HDR Efex and Photomatix are glorious. Happy tone mapping!

A note to Mac users: as of March 2016, the HDR Efex plug-in for Lightroom does not always work. I had to email the company and get them to send me a module file. Their email was detailed enough to suggest that this bug is common. With the module file, it was an easy fix, so contact the company if you too encounter this challenge.


HDR Efex (left) and Photoshop (right)

In the case of the cave image, I vastly prefer the HDR Efex image. The Photoshop controls aren’t intuitive, and even their built in presets mostly look awful. Some of the Nik presets are too extreme for my usual preference, but many of them look great immediately. In the case of the waterfall image, I prefer the HDR Efex image, but I don’t dislike the Photoshop image. The light is more exciting in the HDR Efex image, and I did it quickly and easily.


I’ve had HDR Efex for about three weeks. The first two weeks are free with a fully functional trial copy. Below are some of the images I’ve assembled. I’m pretty happy with it so far, especially after years of feeling uninspired by Photoshop’s HDR function. Happy photographing!

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