Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday photo

Flag reflected in rain puddles. University of Michigan, April 2011.

How can you miss Oregon when it's been raining every day in Michigan for the last couple weeks? It seems like every day, anyway, although the National Weather Service may have statistics to prove otherwise. But rain is visually interesting, so I dawdled my way across campus the other day, trying out a few shots that featured the rain and its effect. This one came out ... not especially attractive, but interesting in its own way.

Freezing the flag's motion, and the ripples' motion, gives it an entirely different look than in real life. It's barely identifiable as a flag, but a touch of extra saturation brings out enough red to trigger recognition. The bricks are red, too, but reflect the overcast sky so strongly that they remain a particularly ugly shade of greenish-gray.

To my cynical eye, it almost looks like a pool of blood flowing across the bricks, which is not any effect I had in mind when I took the photo. Nor did I intend the flag to represent any political critique of our country. But now that the photo is there, it almost seems to have its own ideas on what it's going to mean. Or, to take more responsibility, my own mind doesn't reject the association of American flag + blood on the streets = some appropriate commentary. It's just too easy these days, with Americans now fighting in three different Middle Eastern countries where they too often can't tell what they're shooting at, and too often kill people who only want to be left alone. And supporting a few other countries where the rulers are celebrating spring by deliberately shooting down their own people in the streets.

I wish our flag didn't trigger those associations so easily. One of the more painful moments for me is to watch the Olympics or the World Cup and watch fans waving their nations' flags with joy and pride. I can cheer for our athletes, but it's hard for me to wave our flag; it's been coopted by the uglier nationalists in our midst, whose cry of "God Bless America!" always seem to carry the subtext, "(and no one else, unless they toe the line)." Most often, that phrase carries an overtone of belligerence, and too often the vocal tones are undeniably angry. While other nations have their ugly nationalists, too, I just don't get that impression of hostility when I hear hockey fans give a full-throated rendition of "O Canada", even if that sort of national consciousness surely must owe a lot to awareness of those noisy foreign neighbors.

As I said, I get jealous. I wish my flag triggered a more innocent kind of pride.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday photo

Tower Fall. Yellowstone National Park, May 2002.

It's peculiar that I had lived in Yellowstone for so many years before I ever caught Tower Fall at the right time of day for this scene: the massive spray from the waterfall backlit by strong sunlight, filling the entire canyon with a dazzling light. I have this scene in both slides and born-digital images and may have to scan one of the slides someday for comparison.

Tower Fall is a fine example of a hanging creek, a small river that's cutting downward as fast as it can, but just can't keep up with the more powerful and erosive river that it empties into. In this case, Tower Creek has to drop 132 feet in order to catch up with the mighty Yellowstone River just a couple hundred yards away. Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon, is an especially spectacular example, if you happen to be going that way.

The creek and waterfall were named by the members of the Washburn expedition of 1870 early in their explorations. In his account of the expedition, Nathanial Langford added this footnote to the story of the naming of Tower Fall:
At the outset of our journey we had agreed that we would not give to any object of interest which we might discover the name of any of our party nor of our friends. This rule was to be religiously observed. While in camp Sunday, August 28th, on the bank of this creek, it was suggested that we select a name for the creek and fall. Walter Trumbull suggested "Minaret Creek" and "Minaret Fall." Mr. Hauser suggested "Tower Creek" and "Tower Fall." After some discussion a vote was taken, and by a small majority the name "Minaret" was decided upon. During the following evening Mr. Hauser stated with great seriousness that we had violated our agreement made relative to naming objects for our friends. He said that the well known Southern family -- the Rhetts -- lived in St. Louis, and that they had a most charming and accomplished daughter named "Minnie." He said that this daughter was a sweetheart of Mr. Trumbull. Mr. Trumbull indignantly denied the truth of Hauser's statement, and Hauser as determinedly insisted that it was the truth, and the vote was therefore reconsidered, and by a substantial majority it was decided to substitute "Tower" for "Minaret." Later, and when it was too late to recall or reverse the action of our party, it was surmised that Hauser himself had a sweetheart in St. Louis, a Miss Tower. Some of our party, Walter Trumbull especially, always insisted that such was the case. The weight of testimony was so evenly balanced that I shall hesitate long before I believe either side of this part of the story.

Given Nathanial Langford's track record with campfire stories, I wouldn't hesitate an instant before disbelieving every side of this part of the story. His tale of the origin of the national park idea, that the party was camped at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers (to form the Madison) discussing the profits to be made from claiming the areas around the waterfalls and geysers under the Homestead Acts and charging tourists to see them, when one of his companions solemnly declared that they should reject such base scheming and work to have the area given over to the people as a national park -- well, that story has long been debunked, with a corresponding decline in Langford's reputation as a scrupulous man.

In any event, Walter Trumbull ended up marrying a woman named Slater, while Samuel Hauser married one Helen Farrar only a year after this supposed campfire spat. You'd have thought naming a waterfall in the first national park after your lover would earn you a few more boyfriend points than that, but women are fickle, I suppose. Neither man ever managed to marry a Miss Tower or Miss Rhett.

This William Henry Jackson photo nicely illustrates why "Minaret" would have been an entirely appropriate name for this waterfall. The sketch below was made by one of the soldiers on the Washburn expedition and, as far as us white folks go, is certainly the very earliest pictorial representation of Tower Fall.

By the way, if you click on the Jackson photo and look closely, you'll spot a small boulder perched precariously on the edge of the waterfall. For over a hundred years, tourists enjoyed speculating on how long it could stay there; it looked like it should fall any minute, but maybe it would last another century, or two, or three? Well, it didn't. Spring floods knocked it off the edge in 1985 or 1986, shortly before I first laid eyes on Tower myself. Alas.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Who wants to play?

Surely I'm not the only one who hears the term "mixed martial arts" and thinks of this?

Friday photo

Sand Dune. Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, April 2002.

I made my one and so-far-only trip to Death Valley at the end of a winter season in 2002. It was late March, shading into April, and I was still acclimated to winter in the Northern Rockies. Shouldn't be too bad, I thought, since the average high in DV this time of year is around the mid-80's. I can do that.

I probably could have, but that isn't what I got. It was already as warm as June when I got there, topping out a few degrees into triple digits. And it turns out there isn't much shade in Death Valley - who knew? I lasted about three days, then decided to spend the rest of my break in Bryce Canyon, at 8000', where the temperatures were a little closer to what I was used to.

I had seen Ansel Adams's photos of sand dunes in Death Valley and from them had ignorantly concluded that the entire park is full of dunes. That's not so, but there is an impressive sandbox-of-your-dreams at Stovepipe Wells. As the interpretive signs explain it, the configuration of the surrounding mountains is such that the normal wind tends to drop in speed, which means it can no longer carry its load of sand and dirt. Thus the dunes pile up in that particular location. I spent most of my time there, because it was the dunes I wanted to shoot.

If you try this, be aware that you want to get up early in the morning. First, you want to be active before the sun gets too high and you can benefit from the long shadows (as this photo does). You can get the shadows in the early evening, too, but that's point number two: it's a lot cooler in the morning. Finally, you're not the only one there and before too many hours have passed, the dunes are thoroughly marked up with footprints. The night breezes will erase the previous day's trampling, but you need to get up pretty early to catch them while they're still clean.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday photo

Topnotch Peak. Yellowstone National Park, June 1998

Here's a photo of Topnotch Peak, one of the more identifiable peaks of the Absaroka Range that forms Yellowstone's eastern boundary. It's a fairly generic photograph, just a mountain top rising above the forest. It doesn't even give you a good view of the eponymous “notch.” In fact, I find the photograph so non-descript that I'm slightly surprised to have found it still amongst my 35-mm slides.

I recall a conversation in the Employee Dining Room at Lake once: one of my coworkers was explaining to someone how he had thrown away thousands of slides over the years. “Oh, you throw them away because you don't have room to keep them?”

“No, I throw them away because they suck!”

I've thrown away a lot of slides over the years, for both of those reason. Some were just too dreadful to ever pass muster with the editor (me). Others were not bad, but I didn't have room to save every slide I ever shot. I was traveling between Yellowstone every summer and wherever I was during the winter. I lived out of dorms for the entire 1990's, moving at least twice a year and having to pack all my belongings into a Ford Escort. You get good at packing; I recall having to empty the entire car to get at the spare tire on the side of a Nebraska highway one night, repacking to get back on the road, then repeating the process at the tire shop the next morning. One of the guys in the shop just shook his head in amazement: “I never thought that would all go back into that car.” Having my entire photo collection whittled down to three 3-ring binders was just one way of keeping the load manageable.

It means that there are some feature or places for which I have no photographic record at all, because whatever picture I took of the place didn't survive the editing process. If I didn't like it as a photograph, I didn't save it as a “record shot.”

Now that I don't need to save space, it's ironically so much easier to save space. I no longer throw away – i.e., delete – digital photographs, because I can easily archive everything onto a hard drive that's smaller than a desk phone. And those two bulky cases filled with 120 cassette tapes are gradually being replaced with MP3 downloads (the later collection of CD's having already been ripped to disc) and I can have as much music as I desire without worrying about where I'm going to fit it all.

The electronic gadgets sure makes the peripatetic life more comfortable. In fact, I read a blog entry a couple years ago about a young man who was experimenting with being homeless. He had a duffle bag with clothes and a few electronic devices that gave him all the music and reading material he needed, while still being able to carry everything he owned. He was also depending on a network of friends to provide him with couches to sleep on, so I don't expect he's made a permanent life out of it. But the idea that you could have such an array of cultural amenities without a permanent home to store it in still amazes me. How Young Me would have envied Old Me!

What are we teaching teachers?

Disturbing reference interaction today: "I need help looking up information on x. I'm a teaching major, so I've never had to look up information before."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Virtual physical library

Via the Daily Dish, a 360-degree panorama of the Philosophical Hall in Prague's Strahov monastery. You can zoom in close enough to read the spines of individual books, or zoom out enough to see the entire room. Don't forget the ceiling!

Story here at Wired.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Efficiency in publishing

For a streamlined publishing experience: The Journal of Universal Rejection, proudly proclaiming itself to be the most prestigious journal in the world (as measured by acceptance rate). Also, no page fees.

Via UM's Desktop Support Services newsletter

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday photo

Elk, Madison River. Yellowstone National Park, May 2004

An indecisive leader. This cow was at the head of a small herd crossing the river and had picked out a spot on the opposite bank to climb out when -- how unexpected! There was this stupid photographer standing in her way. Not at all sure how dangerous he might be, she hesitated and the rest of the herd stopped behind her while she dithered.

I hadn't meant to be so obnoxious. I just saw the elk in the river and thought "cool picture." It wasn't until I had snapped a couple that I realized what was going on -- I was a strange animal standing in her path and the elk were being extra cautious about me.

It's a funny thing about elk, and bison and bears and moose as well. They get used to seeing people in certain places, especially along the roads. They'll scarcely notice. I remember reading a magazine article once where some young environmentalist claimed, "If you look at photographs of animals in Yellowstone, you can see the fear in their eyes from the crowds!" It's nonsense, of course. Even if you could accurately judge an elk's emotions from a 1/250 seconds glimpse of its face, the fact is that wildlife can become quite accustomed to humans.

I've often seen elk grazing right alongside the roads in some place like Gibbon Meadows, where they had a mile or more of unoccupied meadow to retreat into if the people bothered them. Or the herds that regularly descend on Mammoth Hot Springs and its manicured lawns, scarcely less human-infested than Old Faithful itself.

Speaking of Old Faithful, I recall one summer when an old bull bison decided he liked the shade between the Bear Pit lounge and the Inn's back door (a busy door, since the parking lot in the back is much bigger than the one in front of the Inn). It lasted about a week or two, with the rangers blocking off the sidewalk whenever the bull showed up; the crowds certainly didn't intimidate him in the least.

But as I said, that's in certain places. Hike just a little ways from Mammoth and that same herd of elk will not allow you near them; I've had elk stop and stare at me from half a mile away, and then turn and run over a hill. I'm about the size of one large wolf, if it stood upright, which seems to be enough to alarm an entire herd of 500-lb cows. Even a herd that wouldn't blink at an entire busload of 200-lb Americans unloading a few steps away, had they been down the hill in Mammoth. But they do get alarmed. Some places they expect people. In other places they don't, and in those cases they don't have the same expectations of harmlessness. It's almost as if they don't recognize that it's the same sort of animal in the woods as it was by the road.

The cow above had just come from the side of the river opposite the road. She was coming from the backcountry into the frontcountry and I don't think she was prepared to see people at all. So it triggered all the attentive caution that is natural to heavily-predated animals. "Wait! What's that in front of me? I don't know, but it's looking at me. This could be trouble; better stay put until I see what it's going to do...."

I didn't want to be an asshole, so I snapped the last photo and scurried back to my car. The elk finished their crossing in peace.