Cameras interdit: Forbidden images from Saltimbanco

Sunday we drove up to Montreal to see Saltimbanco, a Cirque de Soleil production put on at the Bell Centre. It was an easy trip Montreal was very quiet on a late December Sunday and there were no traffic or parking issues, and we had lunch at a nice quiet Indian restaurant on Peel Street, highly spiced food was just what I needed as I am nursing a cold that makes my head feel like a giant fuzzy cotton ball.

I had seen a Cirque show earlier this year and I don't think that Cirque is quite my cup of tea, maybe I'm too provincial and not sophisticated enough, or perhaps Gallic humor & perversity just don't appeal to me -- though I did enjoy the film Delicatessen recently. At least Saltimbanco did feature an acrobat doing tricks on a very nice fixed gear bicycle, a performance that I did enjoy.

Camera usage is strictly forbidden at these shows and I unfortunately had a very conspicuous front row seat (at one point, one of the performers mussed my hair) so I waited until the finale to covertly take a few photos, holding the camera, wrapped in a scarf, in my lap. I post these here because while I understand why they don't want flashes going off during the production, they also want to maintain control of Cirque images and I am not entirely sympathetic to this goal: Cirque is big business.

In other camera-related news I did order a Pentax K100D Super over the holidays, it's a very small DSLR, and should have greatly improved low-light performance. These images were very quickly cropped and adjusted with Paint.net, a quite nice and simple image editor that is less complex than gimp.


Nepal trek video

My office is closed between Christmas and New Years which is nice, however the weather this week is not really cooperating as there has been a thaw and the days are warm and damp and the melting snow has the consistency of mashed potatoes. During the last week of work prior to the break, of course, Vermont had a couple of feet of new powder blanketing the ground: Ski conditions *were* great.

Additionally I have been at home while a few automobile issues get resolved, so I took advantage of the situation to finally sit down and put together a video about my trek to Nepal. It came out "OK", it's not the greatest thing but it does give some narrative sense of the trek. I could add some spoken narration (my camera can function as a digital sound recorder) but the crude editing software was crashing frequently in the course of this project so I was happy to just wrap it up so that it can become part of my generally ignored youtube account.

This image is probably the best photograph I captured while in Nepal. One thing about Nepal, is that there is no zoning, power lines are everywhere (hydropower is abundant in the mountains) so it is difficult to get an image that doesn't have a powerline or two ...

My visa, coming and going.

UPDATE: I suggest viewing the version of this video that is hosted on vimeo, it's much clearer:


Old school: Stowe lift ticket, 1946-47 season

10 runs for $6...in 2007, it's $84/day (one of the reasons that I don't downhill ski -- though cost isn't the only factor). Times have changed.


Commodity fetish: A new camera?

Do I dare to eat a peach? -- Prufrock

That's a moose behind the sapling.

When I took this image (other, better moose pics here), I think that I resolved to buy a better camera. It wasn't that my existing point-and-shoot camera focused on the saplings in front of the moose instead of on the animal itself: My decision is based more on my lack of enthusiasm for the dim electronic viewfinder on the camera. I wear rather thick glasses and I am tired of only having a vague sense of the scene I am trying to capture, the viewfinder is small, murky and unclear and does not give a good sense of what the final image will be.

This is compounded by the fact that my current camera works best in bright outdoor light -- these are the conditions where the viewfinder, or the display screen on the back of the device, are least legible. Not all the errors in composition in my photographs are the result of my ineptitude and artistic failings (which are many): I don't see much detail at the time I am taking an image, it is very hit or miss.

The s3is does not thrive in low light.

The other motivation for my thinking is that there have been several instances in the past year where my camera (Canon s3is), with its fixed lens and small sensor, has been out its depth, and while I have captured some images at various events, the images have pretty serious faults. Unlike many users of the camera on Flickr, I tend to accept these limitations rather than endlessly and pompously complaining about the camera's 'failings' in user forums online. Some compromises must be expected in a $300 device, and my camera has some real virtues: It's light, compact, works quite well in a wide range of conditions (if one takes the time to learn its capabilities), and is a powerful multimedia device.

Tourists lugging lots of fancy, heavy, expensive gear to capture the sunrise at Poon Hill.

I know that a more powerful camera will not make me into a 'photographer' and there are times were I see people walking around with big chunky black DSLRs and to me, it just says very loudly, "I'M A WEALTHY TOURIST" (this happened in Nepal a few times) but it would be nice to have a better sense of what I am trying to photograph -- ie, to use a camera with a nice clear, sharp, optical viewfinder. I also have an interest in wildlife photography -- it's kind of like hunting without guns, which appeals to me: One of my 2008 projects is to try and get a clear photograph of a black bear in its natural habitat, not raiding a birdfeeder in someone's backyard, and I have some ideas on how and where this might be accomplished. So a relatively nice telephoto lens would also be good to have -- to save me from having to get too close to a large omnivore.

So, even though the year ended at work with much more of a whimper than a bang (and I have some concerns about the coming year), and I have a very large bill -- which I plan on disputing -- from my latest domestic catastrophe, I have been spending a lot of time online reading DSLR reviews. I have played with Canon Digital Rebels and Nikon D40s in the local chain stores and I don't like them much, the Canon feels plasticy and neither has image stabilization in the camera body, and stabilized lenses are very expensive. I am torn between buying a Pentax k100D Super (small -- a good thing -- simple and straightforward, and very inexpensive) and the K10D, a much more fully featured camera, heavier, more complex, and weatherproof -- a plus for me, and I would never outgrow this device.

So at a time of year when I should be ostensibly focusing on other's needs and wants, instead I have been earnestly weighing the pros and cons of this rather frivolous and non-essential decision. I know I'm not a photographer, though I did give my boss a framed photo last year, and an interior designer friend of hers asked recently "who took this cool picture?", not knowing it was me, and I am also very aware that the eyes and the brain are the truly essential pieces of photographic equipment, not the camera. We'll see how this plays out.

Here are some photostreams put out by some people who are truly talented, one thing I admire, is the ability to make the prosaic memorable -- it's harder than it looks.

I find Flickr to be very annoying -- I don't think I would ever be bothered with a paid account -- but there is some talent on display there, along with some inane and poorly informed opinions.


It's always darkest before the dawn

I thought I would post this today, which is the shortest & darkest day of the year: Sunrise in Himalayas. The photo was taken as I climbed towards the top of Thorung La pass, 5400m high. Sometime over the weekend I will post the 'backstory' of my experience here, my body was very strongly and negatively affected by the altitude, I barely made it to the top, dizzy and very weak, and didn't linger.


Shopped out

Monday, Route 100, Stowe: A Christmas tree stand with only a few bedraggled trees left after a weekend's snow.

I have made it this far without really participating in the December festival of retailing but now I am running around trying to take care of some last minute items. As I get older I find myself becoming more committed to the idea of living with less: Acquiring more stuff usually just depresses me. I find that living without television is very helpful and refreshing as it keeps the tide of advertising at bay. When I'm in a space with television now it seems discordant and strange, filled with ads for products that I am only dimly aware of, and dominated by personalities that I am totally unfamiliar with. It's almost like being in a foreign country.


White December

The winter of 2006-07 was a strange season in Vermont. December and January were snow-less and very balmy -- the ground wasn't even frozen -- and then there was a huge blizzard in February and then the rest of the season was quite cold and snowy.

This year has been a contrast: December has been consistently cold and quite snowy. Today there is a big storm rolling through, it is cold and snowy out, and the snow accumulation is forecast to exceed one foot.

There is a difference between 'weather' and climate and with all the changes that are currently happening, too much can't be read into changes year to year. The long term trend in the Northeast is towards shorter, relatively warmer winters with less snow and more mixed precipitation events. Long stretches of consistently cold weather are becoming more rare: An outdoor speed skating oval in Williston that depended on cold weather closed this year.

Photos are scenes outside my condo this morning.


The continuing saga of my water heater

Wednesday I had the day off from work, I was supposed to go to my mother's place to make meat pies with my sister. My mother is determined to retire and move south away from the long cold dark Vermont winter and so this was really the last hurrah for this annual tradition.

I spent most of the day, however, hanging around my condo, unshaven and unwashed, waiting for a new water heater to be installed and cleaning up the soggy aftermath of the old heater's failure. The installers didn't show up until after 1 pm, I hung around for a couple of hours as they hauled the old heater away and installed a network of new and expensive code-mandated plumbing for the new system. I left before they finished because I did want to see my sister and I was tired of a day's frustration and relative inactivity.

When I returned at about 1opm, however, I discovered that a weld on the new system had failed and water was spurting all over the place. I called the gas company's answering service and got a hold of a technician who came out and reinstalled the system at midnight. I was not impressed by the job done by the first crew, they made some other errors as well, and the failed weld was not a just a little drip drip drip, water was pouring out of the joint.

And, the morning after, it still wasn't right, the intake at the top of the tank was not seated correctly and this required yet a third visit from a technician. I just left my place unlocked for the day as there was no way I could sit around waiting for another visit. The gas company said the new system is OK but I really don't much faith in them at this point but I will see: I was happy to see that things were dry upstairs this morning.


Things that go drip in the night

Entropy: a: the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity b: a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder

I live in an old condominium unit -- it was built during the Reagan administration, as I was finishing college, and trust me, that's a long time back. Condos are usually not built to the strictest construction standards and this complex is no exception -- though I've seen worse, and I knew this when I purchased a unit here. I also knew when I moved in that the utilities (heat and hot water) were original and approaching the end of their lifespan, although in the almost 18 months I've lived here, there haven't been any big failures.

Last night, however, this changed. To use a ridiculous cliché, it was a dark and stormy night with snow & mixed precipitation falling outside, and at about 4:30 am strange watery noises woke me. I got up, first thinking that the snow had turned to rain or something, but that didn't seem to be case. Stumbling downstairs, I discovered the cause -- water was pouring through the ceiling, down a light fixture, and onto the dining table: The hot water heater (unwisely located on the 2nd floor, and not in a pan) had failed, and the contents of the 40 gallon tank were percolating through the floor and ceiling below, a big unsightly soggy mess.

I'm not sure why this bit of personal news is showing up here, the failure of a water heater in a condo complex in Waterbury Vermont is certainly an event of absolutely no cosmic significance whatsoever, but this situation is going to cost me a shocking amount of money, and will put a further damper on the already small-scale holiday season I had planned. I was seriously considering biting the bullet and acquiring a better camera (Pentax k10d) but now I will have to think long and hard if I want to spend the money on a discretionary item like that now.

I was logging on to homedepot.com this morning at about 5 am and the site was down... so much for 24x7 online shopping.


"The Big Switch": Thank you Nick Carr

One of the blogs I read regularly is Rough Type by Nick Carr, it covers trends in technology and also has a generally dubious take on trends in Web 2.0 and the value, both psychic and monetary, of online social networks (Myspace, Facebook, etc.). This subject matter is a happy convergence of personal and professional interests for me, in my job (recruiting for a major consulting firm) it helps me to be conversant with technology trends like Software as a Service, trends in data centers & 'cloud computing', the strategic direction of firms like SAP and Oracle, etc.

On a personal level, I am curious and somewhat appalled about how Google is becoming the modern oracle (in the original, Greek meaning of the word) and acquiring vast stores of information about me and my activities online. Why is this company getting such a pass in the court of public opinion? Probably because one of its main competitors, Microsoft, is both relatively inept and quite unloved... Why is Google Adsense such a huge money generator? Why does advertising have to be so pervasive and why won't people pay for online content? Could Google go the way of Netscape -- huge in the 90's, basically non-existent today? And isn't there something just a little creepy and unnerving about what goes on at the Googleplex in Mount View, CA.? Rough Type covers these topics and the writing is both sharp and accessible.

Anyway Nick Carr has a new book, The Big Switch, coming out in 2008, and in November there was a blog post offering 100 free copies of the book to bloggers, no strings attached [Note, this offer has expired]. Thankfully there were no restrictions on either blog subject matter, or levels of readership, or Midnight Modern Conversation would not have made the cut. I sent in my name, and a very few days later a pre-publication copy of the book showed up. It looks to be a very accessible (not dry, heavy and academic) take of the same themes that are discussed on Rough Type. My office shuts down between Christmas and New Years so maybe I will post a short review here over the holidays, but for now, the book is available for pre-order on the sites of the major online booksellers.


First storm of the season

Stormy Monday: The weekend was cold and gray and now the first real accumulating snow of the season is falling today. It would be nice to work from home but I guess I will go to work...eventually. I can do almost every component of my job at home if need be so there is little reason to venture into the office but conditions aren't really that bad... so into the office I will go. With the price of gas continuing to increase it may be that working from home will become economically attractive for me at some point.

Stowe, Vermont: The evening commute -- A plow after a long day clearing town roads.

Sunday, sullen gray skies as the storm moved in. It is almost comical how dark and gloomy Vermont is at this time of year. Daylight is fleeting, pale and wan.

A small woodpecker silhouetted against the overcast sky.


Beautiful dreams and terrible nightmares: Return to "Twin Peaks"

Since returning from my trip to Nepal, I have been spending far too much time online. One would think that 12 days trekking in Himalayan countryside, far removed from commonplace technological contrivances of 21st century American life (television, Internet, telephones, etc), would at least somewhat lessen the dependency on my part, but no, rather the opposite.

So sometime in October after returning home, I was reading an article on Slate, most of the time I am very good at tuning out online advertising, but one particular ad did capture my attention... for the new, definitive box set of the television series Twin Peaks, which, possessed by an obscure compulsion, I promptly ordered from Amazon.

The series originally ran in 1990-91; at the time I was living in rural Vermont in a succession of not very appealing apartments; some of my colleagues at work considered "Northern Exposure" and "Twin Peaks" to be frighteningly realistic portrayals of rural life. This was also the pre-Internet, pre-DVR era so watching a series like Twin Peaks, which is extremely strange, convoluted and multi-layered without a wealth of online resources was a whole different experience than it is today. Now there are easily accessed resources online that explicate a lot of the nuances and hidden references involved in the story.

Anyway Vermont in November and December is almost laughably dark and gloomy -- David Lynch would probably appreciate the atmosphere, especially because the picturesque rural countryside sometimes conceals of stories of desperation and violence -- so I am watching the convoluted story of 'who killed Laura Palmer' unravel again. The story holds up pretty well though it's almost twenty years old and is definitely more intriguing than most things on contemporary television.

David Lynch is known for incorporating music into his work in very interesting and compelling ways and the opening of Twin Peaks is a particularly haunting credit sequence, the music and images work perfectly together:

As a final note, Amazon managed to ship me two copies of the DVD set, I am going to donate one to the Stowe Library, this will augment the already pretty interesting DVD collection (films by Pedro Almodovar, Spike Lee, etc.) there.


Blogging Bob Dylan: What is popular?

Most of the time, this blog is much pretty ignored by the wider world -- it's too self-absorbed, obscure, diffuse and lost in a vast sea of similar self-created online dreck (I've come across other personal blogs that are much, much better than this one, but others that are much worse). In this context, it's hard to stand out, most months, this blog averages about 150 visitors, and 200+ page views, total.

There have been a few events (cabarets and bike races [and here]) that I have written about that have attracted some small bits of attention, but this is more the exception rather than the rule. I also don't usually post about politics, guns, sex, or other exciting and salacious topics. I once read an article about "How to have a popular blog" and it held up as a model to emulate, a rather witty blog about movies and the film industry, that was liberally sprinkled with images of topless starlets...

My post about the recent Bob Dylan Wannabe Contest, however, was somehow picked up by Expecting Rain, a Dylan fan site that publishes a daily user-compiled list of Dylan links... and this single link resulted in 250 vistors to this site on Thursday, coming from all over the world (lots of Scandinavians & Eastern Europeans). I am sure that this was an anomaly but this shows how the right topic can get picked up and visitors will find it.

The more long-term question is, I suppose, will any of these fleeting and far-flung visitors return? Or did they end up here once, take a quick look, and resume their online wandering in pursuit of information about the enigimatic Bob Dylan? I don't know, but this seems likely to be the case.

In the off chance that anyone does return to take a look, here are some more images from the event, and there's a longer snippet of video up on YouTube as well that includes two complete and very funny performances -- it's worth checking out.


Would the real Bob Dylan please stand up? 4th annual "Bob Dylan Wanna-Be Contest", Montpelier

We went to the 4th annual Bob Dylan Wanna-Be Contest in Montpelier on Saturday, I'd heard of this event before, but this was the first time I had attended. It was also the first time that admission was charged -- the event was a fundraiser for an as-yet unbuilt central Vermont YMCA -- and about 350 people turned out. The performances ran the gamut from very good to campy (a Dylanesque cover of "YMCA" by the Village People) to more amateur and awkward but it was a fun (if long -- there were 19 Dylan wanna-bees) evening.

The winner, "Visions of Johanna", a pretty dead-on Dylan nasal cover, shut your eyes and it was like listening to Blonde on Blonde -- but I'm not sure I would have had this as my #1 performance.

2nd place, she had a good voice, and sang "Don't Think Twice it's Alright". There were only two female performers all night and they both covered this song.

3rd place: A hilarious (and good) cover of "Man Gave Names to All the Animals", see video clip below.

A very campy nasal cover of "YMCA" also very funny and apropos.


Something wild: Moose in Little River State Park, Waterbury

Hiking in Little River State Park in Waterbury on Saturday, I figured that I would be safe enough even though this is the last weekend of deer hunting season. I saw lots of signs of hunting groups in the woods but didn't meet anyone, and like last weekend, didn't hear any gunshots (see here for more about why caution is needed in the woods at this time of year).

This area is prime moose habitat, I encountered a moose in almost exactly the same spot earlier this year, and it's very mucky, so moose tracks are usually plainly visible in the mud.

As I worked my way uphill I saw a yearling calf browsing out of the corner of my eye, and instead of rushing right over to take a look I managed to get organized, get my camera out, check the settings, and worked my way through the thick underbrush, snow cover made it easier to move relatively quietly. As I got closer I realized that the yearling was not alone: Mother emerged from behind an evergreen to check me out. These pictures don't do justice to how big this animal was: I was looking up at her. My presence eventually did disturb the pair and they moved off but not before I managed to get these pictures.

I consider myself very fortunate to live so close to a big patch of undeveloped public land, it is one of my favorite places to get away from crowds, noise and the distractions of my life (image from World Wind and my GPS).


Post mortem

Unlike many people I had to work today but truth be told I really didn't mind too much, I had no intention of going anywhere near a shopping mall today and the weather was cold and grey with snow flurries and a biting wind, very wintry. I did attempt to go for a walk around lunchtime -- the idea being, to burn off some yesterday's excess -- with my camera but it really was too cold to be out for very long without gloves.


Peace out on Thanksgiving

Just an image from my trip to Nepal, I want to read up on the iconography of Buddhism, but the idea of Nirvana is appealing when surrounded by all kinds of excess -- too much food, family, shopping (something in which I will not partake).


Still time to ride

Sunday afternoon in Waterbury. There is a dusting of snow in the woods and it's still hunting season, but somewhere along the way I acquired a bright orange jersey with fluorescent yellow trim, and with this pulled over a couple of layers of winter gear I figured I would be plenty warm enough as well as highly visible (no chance of being mistaken for a deer) -- and this proved to be the case. I met a couple of hunters but they were friendly and respectful and also saw plenty of tracks in the woods, but heard no gunshots.

This trail has a series of short steep climbs and descents and the non-traditional setup of my mountain bike means that climbing is very taxing (I am thankful that I didn't get a single speed -- I think that it is too hilly around here for that to be very practical); being maxed out on a climb will warm you up in no time at all. This is one of my favorite times of year to ride in the woods, in the summer it would be wet, buggy, sticky and very hot.

The image (from NASA's World Wind program) shows some of the changes in the Vermont woods. There's a loop on the top of Blush Hill that is lined with large new houses on big private lots -- this development is plainly visible from the summit of Camels Hump. There's also a new development going in on the lower slopes as well. I really wish that land use patterns were more efficient and conserved more of the land: People aspire to live in big houses on big lots out in the woods.

I recently read an article on the decline of hunting in Vermont that noted how many dirt roads have been widened and improved and now development has spread further out from town and village centers. Sometimes I mock myself for my condo-dwelling existence but at least it is high density housing and I can walk or bike to the grocery store, bank, library, etc. unlike these places in the woods where a car is pretty much mandatory to do anything.


Cyclocross coverage from the archives: October 2006

Getting viral (as in 'viral marketing') with it: I sent a link to the video I put together of the West Hill Cyclocross race to the folks at the West Hill shop, thinking they would have an interest, and they posted both a link to the video on YouTube, and a link to this blog, on their site, which has led to a surge in visitors. Who would have guessed that the website for a bike shop in New England gets visitors from the deep south (Alabama, Louisiana) and the far west (Wyoming)?

Since creating new content is hard, one content management strategy is to recycle what you have. In October 2006 I took some pictures at a cyclocross race hosted by Catamount in Williston; it turned out that Vermont's largest newspaper (that's not saying much) was doing a story on this fringe sport... which they illustrated with some of my images. The posts about this are here and here.

There is also extensive coverage of the Green Mountain Stage Race on this blog as I am involved with promoting that event -- it's my one ongoing involvement with competitive cycling. See the September 2007 & 2006 archives for these posts.


Shave and a haircut (in Kathmandu)

A funny sequence of pictures sent to me by Emily Stebbins, who was part of our trekking group in Nepal. I planned on getting my hair cut short prior to leaving the US because I figured that showers might be kind of rare in the countryside. As it turned out showers were common at lodges where we stayed, it was hot water that was scarce. Ongyel, the trip organizer, encouraged me to wait until I arrived in Nepal to go to a barber... for the experience. These photos were taken on a very rainy Saturday in Kathmandu, we left on the trek early the next day.

A vigorous face massage precedes the shave. Ongyel, in the background, is engrossed watching a cricket match being shown on Indian television. This was taken late on a Saturday afternoon, I had last shaved on Wednesday morning before leaving the US.

The cricket match proved more interesting than my being shaved with a large straight razor -- there's a first time for everything, this was a first time experience for me.

After the face massage, shave, haircut, the whole procedure concludes with a brain-rattling scalp massage, it was like the barber drumming on my head. It's too bad there's not a video clip of this because it made an impressive amount of noise -- loud pops and cracks.