Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shop Class

Photography has always required the photographer to be some kind of nerd.  The level of nerdyness depends on the kind of photographer you are.  Imagine the obsessive introversion it must have taken to make wet-plate negatives off a donkey cart in the Sierra Nevada in the time of Edweard Muybridge.  In some cases, the nerdyness is partially mitigated by the ballsyness it takes to get all that camera crap into the right place at the right time.  It takes a lot of effort and a lot of risk.  It's expensive.  It's tiring, the work never ends.  The constant challenge might be the best thing about camera craft.  It is always testing you.

Cameras are getting easier than ever to use.  Phones are amazing cameras.  Cameras are phones.  Sometimes, there's just one button.  You'd think this would all make for less work.  It does, but it doesn't.  It means you spend more time with the computer, more time with the gadgets and more time figuring out ridiculous ways to get your camera into some difficult place.  And it's all changing so very fast.  As soon as you figure it out, it's old news.  Maybe it means you spend less time thinking about the pictures.  Maybe you've made a mistake.

If you're not careful, the gear and gadgets and contraptions consume all of your energy.  You can be left with a pile of very amazing switches and buttons, reciting a litany of statistics for some robotic eyeball.  You forget the image, the story, the moment of photography.  You are a mouthbreather with some toys.  You have crossed the line.  On one side was the Artist.  Now there is only the Nerd.  Overthinking reigns.

I imagine it's the same for many of us.  Whatever medium you're working in, the constraints of it can consume you.  That focus is supposed to give you power, not just limits.  Whatever your trade, gear can always tempt the Nerd to overwhelm the Doer.  These nerds are all around us.  You know them well.  They have the thing that can do that thing and this thing, but it's another game altogether to actually do something with those tools.

And tools they are.  A good photographer can make a great photograph with anything.  The same holds true for a filmmaker.  We have lots of sophisticated gear, and the faster it gets more sophisticated and simpler to use, the faster we build more complicated systems.  The whole game is to have the technology down to such a reflex, you don't stay in nerd mode when it's time to do art.  What button do I push?  What settings, blah blah blah - that's not something you want to be thinking about in that crucial moment when the light and the subject and the emotion and your camera and your crew are all in the right place at the right time.  No time for nerdyness.  Only time to react.  And the right movement, the right buttons, and the right connection aught to all be part of your natural reaction.

Of course, it takes a nerdy journey to get to that place of comfort where your tools make sense.  It can take years.  But the pressure today with photographic gear is to get up to speed as fast as possible.  New tools are being created and discarded at an amazing rate.  You don't have years to get good at the next best thing.  When I started doing this, I never imagined that the desire to get a good shot (or just keep up with the Joneses) might eventually make me an amateur radio model pilot.  As if cameras weren't already nerdy enough.

All this is to say that the process of learning your gear down to a reflex can be painful and ugly and expensive for you, as well as repellent to potential mates.  But ultimately, despite the mistakes and ugliness (or maybe because of them) the process is rewarding in at least two ways.

1.  The things you are working with, the technology you are fighting, the conditions you are up against - these are all inanimate objects.  They are components of the universe that may never necessarily be under your control.  In the process of learning to work with them, you learn to bend and mold yourself to take advantage of them.  When you're up against a challenge or a problem, or you experience a setback, the personality of these inanimate objects are not to blame.  You might have to fix something 65 times.  Things just happen, they work the way they work, and there is only so much you can know at one time.  There is only one personality in the equation.  When you're working through a complicated system made of physical parts, you're really working on yourself.  It's not a new idea.  See: Motorcycles. Robert Pirsig.  Matthew Crawford.  Eadweard Muybridge.  Francis Chichester.

2.  You will eventually become good at that thing you were trying to figure out.  That is, unless you give up.  New lens?  Drone pilot?  Rope work?  Color correction?  Compression algorithms?  Valve lapping?  Carburetor tuning?  All just nerdy by themselves.  All potentially important ingredients to a great image or an amazing ride you might never forget.  And after you're through cursing the tools and begin to really use them, maybe someone else will get something out of it, too.  At least when you see the picture, you'll remember how hard you worked.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Orion from Apison

Elliptical orbits.  Geometric station.  Cyclic parameters.  Abstract location.  Celestial navigation.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Firefly season, Tennessee

In the summer when it's steaming and the sun goes down, little galaxies form.  Constellations of bugs.  Here, a strange planet.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gravity, Oregon

There are a lot of invisible forces in our lives.  Gravity is nice, because it's consistent.  Always in one direction, unless you meddle.  Things have weight, they have inherent power, because they can accelerate.  Straight down.  Dependably.

Our tether to gravity is visible, it has knots.  So too do our invisible ties.  That may be why certain men are drawn to work with ropes, work at height.  There's the persistent promise that you will surely be pulled away, predictably.  Probably in an unpredictable fashion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Show

Ever wanted a wine rack made from a trilobite?  Done.  A perfect specimen of psilomelane? Yes.  A shiny block of purple whateverite?  Check.  Riebeckite from Russia?  Tigereye, lapis lazuli, thunder eggs, jungle jasper, fire agate, emeralds or sapphires?  Uvarovite from South America?  Dinosaur from Mongolia?  Lost Chrysler parts sculpted into a life-size model of Alien VS Predator?  Got em.  Pterodactyl kites.  Petrified wooden tables.  I can tell you just where to go.  Tucson, Arizona, month of February.

You can buy rocks from tents.  You can buy rocks off of tables, fossils from sidewalks, carvings from hotel dressers, boulders from backs of cars, and crystals from bottoms of barrels.  I'd be surprised if human skulls were not available somewhere in this town during "the Show."

People walk around carrying wizard staffs buying bags of beads and diamond saw blades.  Gem shows are carnivals of weird, studies in the world wide ridiculous.  But they are enormously telling.  They are about what people want.  They are seldom about need, unless your need involves satisfying other people's wants.  There are shiny things, yes.  Colorful pretty things, yes.  But there is some good meat hidden in there between the candy.  Some vitamin phenocrysts in the Wonder Bread.

During these 10 hour days selling lapidary tools on the floor of a tent with its own weather system, I'm trying to sniff those gems out.  Patience, it may take a while.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mineral Distance

The Basin and Range province is loaded with fancy crystals.  Where there are fancy rocks, there is money.  Where there is money, there are mines.  Out here, the paths to nowhere are paths to money.  Sometimes the money is there, but sometimes you just end up with a road.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Arctic Flux

There was this high pitched scream coming from the motorcycle.  And not the kind of exciting, sporty lets-go-real-fast kind of sound you want.  It was more the sound of internal spinning objects vaporizing each other.  Then the motor stopped.

Even after looking at the insides of a lot of engines, I'm still amazed that internal combustion works at all.  When it does, success depends on the perfect cooperation of lots of metal.  Distances between pieces are described by numbers like 0.002 millimeters.  It's really hot in there.  Important objects have to skate past each other easily, hundreds of times per second.  If not, the whole thing seizes up, a useless crackling wad of inanimate foil.

Oil is supposed to ride inside all those thrashing cracks.  That screaming sound was a no-oil sound.  Instantly, graphic images of metallic mutilation flooded my brain.  Everything sucks.  Blue and bashed cam lobes, blackened rockers, toasted valves.  After two days of pampering this little monster, it was throwing a royal tantrum.  A lot of work had seemingly just evaporated.  Nameless units of traffic are bitching at me.  I coast to a halt beside some stupid grass in a dumb parking lot near some asscake building selling some godawful furniture.

Sympathy creeps into the acrid burn, I touch the motor where it is hurt.  Singe the crap out of my fingers.  Nope, still hate this thing.  I'm broke, unemployed, and standing by a strip mall in the desert.  I'm going to have to wait here and figure out what to do.  If only these sprinklers would turn on and spew recycled sewage all over me.

What does this have to do with the Arctic?  The answer is flux.  It's flow, or change.  To a metallurgist, flux is a catalyst that makes some given process easier.  Flux; stuff that transfers heat, or insulates from oxygen, or lowers a melting point.  It can be anything - tree sap for soldering, limestone for melting iron, cryolite for getting aluminum.

Metallurgists made this shimmering hot engine possible.  They melted aluminum into the shape that holds all these hard gnashing gears and searing parts.  Aluminum is in most rocks, some more than others.  It's everywhere.  It's the most abundant metal on the face of the Earth.  It's pretty much invisible, it almost never occurs by itself.  There are no aluminum nuggets.  Until about 100 years ago, it was more precious than gold.  I wish this motor was made of gold.

The only good way to get aluminum from a rock was invented by an unemployed nerd named Charles Martin Hall in his mom's woodshed in 1888.  He was obsessed with the idea of producing a cheap metal.  Before the woodshed, he did his experiments in the kitchen.  After that, aluminum went from priceless to wrapping your baked potato.  I wish I had a baked potato.

Young Mr. Hall submerged a couple of electrodes into a really hot wad of rocks.  There's no way he could have gotten a useful melt without the flux.  Cryolite was the flux, this one weird mineral let him electrocute the mush until he got a couple of convincing, shiny droplets.  From there, he helped establish the Aluminum Company of America, and now we fly around in airplanes and climb stepladders you can pick up with one hand.

In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee said of Geologists, "They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky."  Cryolite and electricity make that possible.  Aluminum might be everywhere, but Cryolite occurs almost exclusively at the bottom of Greenland near the busted town of Ivigtut.  After the mine was empty, they went back to the tailing piles and used those.  When that was gone, they hauled away the pier.   There isn't any left.

ALCOA built the first hydroelectric dams to power aluminum smelters - dams that were later bought by TVA.  Using all this juice, they turned out Tennessee tin roofs, siding, and mag wheels.  Lakes backed up, turbines turned, extra electrons flew into the valleys and hollers.  They lit up bug zappers and did peoples' laundry.  Electricity we got.

The Arctic is getting warmer.  Ice is melting.  Water is flowing.  Ground that used to have an ice cap is now fair game.  Greenland is in flux, it is melting into the sea.  ALCOA would like a new aluminum smelter.  This one will be in Greenland.  A Fiord will be plugged, the water suspended to electrify a huge aluminum churn.  It won't be built by Depression-era laborers, but by 2,500 imported Chinese workers, shipped to the Arctic for one purpose.  Tin foil.

Carabiners, beer cans, bicycles, bottlecaps, boats, airplanes, macbooks, baseball bats, and the 1979 Honda CB 650 crankcase, pan, top end castings oil passages.  Ok, thinking time over.  All I can do now is tip the whole bike over and hope enough oil runs down onto those dry cam lobes to turn them and get home.  Hoping nothing has siezed, I get back on the bike, crank it up and baby her miraculously down the back streets.  The other bike is made of aluminum, too.  I'll ride it today instead.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


There is no index to this heap.  A strewn graveyard without headstones.  Miles of meandering footpaths through the fallen.  Here is an acre of ground roughly corresponding to Japan before 1990.  There is the Yamazuki quadrant. That stretch yonder is more modern.  Behind you, a waterfall of naked motors corralled by a couple of tractor trailers.  Over the wall, maybe some American iron.  A warehose of electrical stuff.  Its twin, stacked to the rafters with tanks.  There are bicycles with motors.  There are motors without bikes.  There are wheels and frames and twisted gothic traffic carnage.  This is a junk yard so big, you can practically see it from space.

Bob's motorcycle parts is a wonderful place.  The ads say 'pack a lunch.'  Your telephone can get you here.  It works to find the number to call.  The satellites may suggest that it is vast.  But once you set foot inside the fence, you know nothing.  It is a salvage labyrinth, and you may not get out alive.  You'll be lucky if you only take home tetanus.  Google does not work here.

You have to know exactly what you are looking for.  Not only must you know exactly what it looks like, you have to be able to imagine what it might look like mangled, half gone, and thirty years stranded beneath the bleaching desert sun.  Some proud, some sad, some murmuring.  One scrabbles after your feet whispering pick me, pick me.  Some just lay there, cyclopean eyes blank, dripping oil, oozing seat foam.  Rusting out loud.

And when you've finally found what you came for, you're not done.  You can't trust it to be just what you need.  You have to get creative trying to imagine just why it is there.  Poke the sleepy ruin.  Was it given up over a bad coil?  Or did it die of carelessness, choking and baking itself into a welded hunk of unmaintained metal potpurri?  Horrors.  If you're lucky, the front is twisted and folded, decked with scraps of fairing.  A true wreck.  It's a hopeful sign of a healthy heart fallen in battle.  Its pristine innards might be waiting, perhaps begging to be reincarnated.  A gasping donation to your own personal combustible frankenstein.

We are scavenging.  Circling vultures.  We are looking for something killed by the world so we can take the useful bits and make them part of what moves us.  If you have come here on purpose, it is because you can see through what these metal shapes are and imagine what they mean.  It's all just a pile of junk.  But to trudge around in the silent glare knowing that fire and noise and speed and wind are only waiting to be coaxed from this discarded rabble of ore?  To imagine that just past that flaking rust, there lurks some crucial puzzle fragment to match the clockwork of your own valiant machine?  That's Archival Combustion.

You might get the same feeling from a warm horse picking up grass.  Scavenging plants that scavenge the saved sunlight.  Its stomach is a burning vessel, setting fire to the field.  Making strength, speed.  We burn old oil in these metal chambers, all scavenged from the rock.  Melted and sparked to give a blast of that ancient sunlight in the dark heart of the beast.  To twist a wheel.  To make us grin.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Meme bank

Late.  As both of my Twitter followers know, I just got a smartphone.  And I'm feeling dumber by the minute.  I'm constantly looking at the thing.  It seems so big because it contains so much stuff.  It is a thin swiss-army wafer that is the unification of gadgetry.  It's a camera, no, a post office, no, a geologic compass.  I still have to use wrenches to transport my body, knives and fire to keep it fed, but this small glowing object can do just about everything else.  If I don't know how to use that wrench, this phone will tell me.  If I need you to come get me, I'll call.  If I didn't know how to use a spoon, I could find out.  

We are humanity 2013, highly derived, suckled on information.  It has happened shockingly quickly.  I was astounded by texting in my mid-twenties, and I haven't had internet on my phone until last week.  Confused, fumbling with this thing, I've never felt so old.  It's fun to catch up with everyone and learn its place in my life.  I keep imagining what it must be like to grow up with this, to have no frame of reference for it.  I fear the coming incarnations of digitally gridded first world humans.  Our new overlords are born with contact lenses that transmit to mother's nanophone.  How shall they survive a solar flare?

It's not a new idea.  When mass extinctions happen, it is always the complicated who suffer most.  In the last one, it was stuff that could fly, and most of the stuff that walked.  Modern humans are bending the rules, but the rules are still there.  Earth could be wiped clean down to the mudskippers.  Life will go on millions of years hence, and social primates would probably emerge once again to play Angry Birds.  

It's night shift in the emergency room.  After work, nurse Katelyn reminds me that there is a vast underclass of people who are not wired, and are not reaping the glorious benefits of the digital age.  My first overwhelming reaction is 'that's a very good thing.'  To these children, Droid Doesn't, and it's nothing to mourn.  Whatever the unfortunate social implications, someone will be left who knows how to read the space around them for clues, how to forecast the weather by seeing clouds instead of relying on the nearest electrified tower.  How to find food that has no barcode.  How to keep an appointment.

We have an enormous, resilient human population.  From the top of 2013, we can see a huge maze of risks and problems that are very significant for our species.  Chances are that most of us will make it just fine.

But in the event of the only kind of apocalypse likely for our large networked society of human drones, the world will belong to a goatherd from Azerbaijan who has no use for electricity.  Haven't you ever seen someone in a remote place perform an amazing learned task?  Hone a knife?  Tie shoes?  Smoke out a beehive and weave a honey carrier out of leaves?  Unwired.  Rewound.  The Analog will inherit the Earth.

I think most people sense this in different ways.  We have Robinson Crusoe stories in many flavors.  Unabombers with cabinfulls of guns and canned goods.  Of course, there are apocalyptic cults and back to the Earth movements, but we also have things like the Svalbard Seed Bank funded by the Gates Foundation.  Even Monsanto paid for some of it.

But where is the human meme bank?  The poor?  The isolated?  The backward hipster dumpster divers who Will Not have a Facebook page?  Populations of humanity that globalization has marginalized?  Homeless urban survivalists?  Pygmies? The Amish?  No, chances are that if humanity experiences the worst, our heirs will be people you have never heard from - and never will.