Friday, June 01, 2007

Friday Photoshop Blogging: With a little help from my friend Percy Bysshe Shelley

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
       And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
       I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
       The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
       Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
       And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
       I arise and unbuild it again.

(Last stanza of "The Cloud," 1820)

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Honestly, is this really the best that we can do?

Let's face it, architecture that has an impact or takes a risk has rarely been a priority in Madison. Maybe it's because we're a process town, with lots of committees. Maybe it's because we lack the kind of public figures with the imagination, political clout and deep pockets that seem to be required to bring a vision of excellence into being. Maybe it's because we're more into development than esthetics.

Whatever the reason, we go for base hits rather than home runs, and even playing the short game we rarely break .200. While Milwaukee gets the world-renowned Santiago Calatrava Milwaukee Art Museum addition, we spend roughly the same amount of (Jerry Frautschi's) money to come up with the Cesar Pelli Overture Center, architecturally humdrum whatever its merits as a facility. With a few exceptions, this is true of the city of Madison, and it's true of the University of Wisconsin.

Especially the University. I snapped the above photo from the Southwest Bike Path over the weekend. It shows Dayton Street Hall, the new University of Wisconsin dorm that has sprouted up at Park and West Dayton. To my eye, it looks as grim as a Brezhnev-era Moscow apartment block in the old Soviet Union. Maybe it's just me. Wandering off to the University's website in search of a more balanced view, I came across their Dayton Street Hall dormcam, but, if anything, this view makes it look even more ugly and barren (click on the link to stream a view of the action.)

I know a lot of planning went into it. I know because the University has a comprehensive Master Plan and an even more comprehensive website dedicated to explaining just how exciting it is.
"This moment allows us to use our imaginations to envision a campus that is more workable, more livable and more sustainable — and one that will carry our teaching, research and service mission into the future." -- Chancellor John D. Wiley
If only comprehensive Master Plans could guarantee great architecture, we'd be in great shape.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Actually getting a seat on a plane can be a real Mickey Mouse operation these days

Adding to air travelers' woes is the increasing frequency of bumping due to overbooked flights -- and the increasing severity of the consequences when it happens. Gone are the days when people cheerfully volunteered to be bumped, pocketed the compensation and took a later flight. These days planes are so full and schedules so tight, travelers sometimes have to wait days to get on another flight. Today's New York Times takes a look at overbooking and bumping.
A look behind the scenes of US Airways at the widespread practice of airline overbooking shows the industry’s struggle to fill every possible seat, including those left empty by the millions of passengers who buy a ticket but then do not show up.

The effort at times pits a group of young math whizzes at the airline against battle-tested gate agents, who are often skeptical of the complex computer models used to predict no-shows and to overbook flights.

Some agents even take matters into their own hands, creating phantom reservations — Mickey Mouse is a favorite passenger name, for example — to keep the math nerds at headquarters from overbooking a flight.

“It’s a little bit of black art,” said Wallace Beall, senior director for revenue analysis who oversees overbooking at US Airways.
Want to make sure you don't get bumped and stranded? Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to get on a flight with one of those phantom Mickeys aboard -- ideally, just to be safe, one on which he's brought his whole phantom family.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Coming up with a bounce flash hack for my digital point-and-shoot at Indian Lake County Park

St. Mary of the Oaks
On the brow of a hill, one half-mile east overlooking Indian Lake, rests a tiny stone chapel. The structure was built in 1857 by John Endres in fulfillment of a religious vow he made in return for protecting the lives of his family during a diptheria epidemic. Aided by his son Peter, Endres hauled several tons of stone to the hilltop with an ox team. -- Dane County Historical Society, 1963

On Memorial day we took the short drive from Madison to Indian Lake County Park and hiked up the hill to the old chapel, which is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. The birch trees, unusual in this part of the state but flourishing on the cool north side of the hill, glowed in the late afternoon sun.

Inside the tiny, 150-year-old chapel nestled between the trees at the summit, we saw the altar, which is a lot newer than the chapel. Naturally I wanted to photograph it. But there was a problem. It was too dark in the dimly-lit chapel to shoot without flash (or a time exposure, but there was no place to brace the camera for a self-timer shot). I really don't like to use flash, and I certainly didn't want to overpower the scene before me with a head-on blast of light, with all the harsh shadows that would produce. The situation called for bounce flash, but on most point-and-shoots, including mine, the tiny flash heads are built-in and don't swivel. The cameras don't do bounce flash.

Or do they? Necessity being the mother of invention, I tore a little piece of paper from my pocket notebook and propped it in front of the flash, aimed at the ceiling. I held it with my middle finger while pressing the shutter with my index finger.

This is the result. The homemade bounce flash did indeed cast a lovely, soft light -- and one that, appropriately for the subject, came from above. It also produced what looks like a celestial aura hovering above the figure of Mary. It made for an unusual visual effect, but not somethng I would want in every photo. My point-and-shoot bounce flash technique seemed to require further reasearch and development.

To which I devoted part of my day today. I could see that the flare in the photo had been caused by some of the light from my improvised bounce card had reflected back into the lens. I could see that I needed a second reflector between the card and the lens (cameras with the lens mounted lower than the flash wouldn't have this problem) -- something simple I could keep keep taped inside the plastic baggie that holds my spare battery and card, something that could just be taped to the front of the camera when needed. Just fold it into position, maybe with a little finger pressure if necessary.

Here it is. It's still not perfect. There's still some point-source light bouncing off the front of the camera, so the net effect is a combination of direct and indirect light. But it's better than nothing, and I can keep tinkering. Maybe the front part of the reflector needs to be higher... Anyhow, I thought I'd post it in case it inspires someone to come up with something better.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Hiking in Hemlock Draw nature preserve

We spent some time over the weekend hiking in the Nature Conservancy's Hemlock Draw nature preserve, west of Baraboo in the Baraboo Hills near Leland -- a little more than an hour northwest of Madison. From their website:
What is a Draw?
A draw or hollow refers to a valley or long narrow gorge between two clefts of rock.

Why You Should Visit
Of all the hollows in the Baraboo Hills, Hemlock Draw supports the most stunning contrast in vegetation. You can see plant and bird species typically found in the northern areas of the state growing close to those typically found in southern Wisconsin.

These northern species, such as hemlock and yellow birch, may be relics from the time, some 13,000 years ago, when the edge of a towering ice mass stood just a few miles to the east.

You can see narrow pillars of rock, called "sea stacks," which are a remnant of ancient times when the Baraboo Hills were a chain of islands in a vast sea.
My photos are just a quick once-over from a short visit. For a more comprehensive photo portfolio spanning various seasons, check out The Elemental Landscape, the website of Madison photographer Mike Bailey, whose terrific photos of Hemlock Draw are accompanied by text giving more information. His website also lists the art fairs in Wisconsin at which he exhibits, including the Art Fair Off the Square in Madison in July.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dame's Rocket in Olin Park

In various times and places also known as Damask Violet, Dame's Violet, Dames-wort, Dame's Gilliflower, Night Scented Gilliflower, Queen's Gilliflower, Rogue's Gilliflower, Summer Lilac, Sweet Rocket, Mother-of-the-evening or Winter Gilliflower.

A traditional English garden flower, Dame's Rocket came to America in the 1600s and made itself at home to such an extent that some consider it an invasive species. Others welcome it and are driven by their interest to track down the origins of its unusual name.
I consulted The Herbal or General History of Plants by John Gerard (first published in London in 1597) and found it listed under the name Dames Violets or Queens Gillofloures, where he remarked that it was grown in gardens “for the beauty of their floures.” and “The distilled water of the floures hereof is counted to be a most effectuall thing to procure a sweat,” implying that it was used to help break a fever. As to the common name of rocket, I was perplexed. Surely there were no rocket-ships in the days of Gerard! I hunted around to see if I could find the origin of its name. Finally, I looked the dictionary and learned it is derived from the French roquette, or what we know today as arugula.

Though considered an invasive species by some, I welcome Dame’s Rocket every Spring as she lights up the woodland edges with her festive blossoms, providing nectar for hummingbirds, moths and butterflies, and fragrance for the soul.
A flower with a long history, in a Madison park with its own interesting history.