Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Faith and Reason

Most religions run into trouble when they make the whole of their pyramid faith. An enlightened religion will make the base reason, the center wisdom, and the apex faith.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The second film

My second roll of film since returning from sea was a black and white. This was not the traditional silver-halide emulsion, but rather a color dye film that can be processed by your local one hour photo-lab. While toying with the idea of returning to developing my own film, I just didn't like it back in school, and I doubt that I will like it now, so for now, I just shoot this stuff, which comes in ISO 400 speed.

I typically shoot B&W film in my older manual cameras or my Leica Rangefinder. In this case, I chose the later, a Leica M7. I shot the roll in four different outings, and with only two different focal lengths, but with three lenses.

The first outing was to a country store located at a farm in the town of Dallas in NE Pennsylvania called Shadyrill. Brooke remembers fondly when the "store" was one part of a barn used mostly for equipment storage and had no refinements. Recently they have finished the interior somewhat, but still has that rough-hewn edge to it. Still it was clean, and they have a nice little cafe and various food and craft items from local suppliers and artisans.

My favorite photo of this outing was of the bags of apples they had for sale on a rough-plank of a table. being that it was late Fall, the low sun angled through the front door windows and cast the apples in a chiaroscuro mixture of light and shadow that offered wonderful pattern and texture, which is ideal for black and white.

The second outing for this roll of film was for reportage at a more serious photoshoot at the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Springfield, Ma. I was meeting a Master Photographer named Xenophon Beake and my mentor Fred Bird. Xenophon was to photograph the interior of the church which was going to take a lot of light. The church was built in a Gothic style with moderately high arches and illuminated mostly by stained glass windows. We had to light the whole place with strobes, and considering we were using a fisheye lens, the lights had to be carefully placed to hide them from the all-seeing eye of the camera. The photography took about five minutes, but the setup took three hours and the breakdown took about an hour.

While I wasn't running around dealing with lights, I took a few shots of Xenophon and Fred working as well as a few artsy shots. Due to the very low light levels in the church, I was using my fastest lens, a Voightlander 35mm f1.2 lens wide open with about a 1/15th second shutter speed. No camera but the Leica could have done this with ISO 400 film. My favorite shot of the day was of the baptismal font in the front of the church. the light came through a side window and shone on the wooden font while leaving the rest of the scene in shadows.

The next outing was a walk around downtown Wilkes-Barre, PA. I sometimes go wandering from Brooke's apartment to take random pictures, mostly of cityscape's. During this outing, I found a faded sign in an alley behind the F.M. Kirby center pointing to what was once the McManus Cafe. The McManus Clan has a large presence at the campground that Brooke's family is active in, so of course i am wondering if they are somehow related. Given the "small town" nature of this area, it would not surprise me in the least.

I finally finished this roll of film as we decorated for Christmas. I recorded the decorating of the tree and finished off by changing lenses to my 90mm for a few close ups of the ornaments.

My favorite shot was certainly the font picture, but I enjoy shooting black and white film because it forces me to look at things a bit differently. I must admit however, that I do not shoot it enough, and need to put a few more rolls of it through my cameras to hone my skills a bit more.

Samp Tomato Soup, part one

While samp for breakfast may have satisfied, or at least filled, my ansenstors, it did nothing for me. I will stick with the southern tradition and opt for grits for my breakfast side. Since I still have better than a pound of samp, I needed to go in a different direction. I opted for a more traditional soup, and figured that a tomato based concoction might be the way to go.

I was admittedly lazy in my first soup effort. I had some cans of V8 juice in the refrigerator so decided to throw three cans of V8 into the crock pot with a cup dried samp. The crock pot is definitely my friend when it comes to samp. I cooked it for about six hours in there until the samp had absorbed the liquid and softened up a bit. While it was edible, I wouldn’t say it was good. The samp didn’t work quite as well as I had hoped. I suspect that the viscosity of the V8 juice didn’t lend itself well to softening the samp. I ate most of it over the course of a couple days, but it is not something I will repeat. I will try again with the tomato combination with some tomato bisque soup but my pre-treatment of the samp will be a bit different.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A day with Tiffany & Co.

It was cold outside yesterday, and since I felt like doing some photography, yet still not freeze, I decided to set up for some close up product shooting.

Shooting in an apartment limited the amount of space you have, both to shoot and to store equipment, so I tend to go minimal, which means shooting small objects. Jewelry tends to be my favorite subject, and I am well equipped here to photograph it.

The subjects for the day were a couple of Tiffany & Co pieces that my girlfriend Brooke has bought recently. The first is a ring that she bought. My favorite image of the day paired their holiday red bow on their signature box, along with the pouch and ring on a glass table.

For lighting I used natural lighting from a window,, which came in at a fairly low angle and used a small macro flash (SB-200) hand-held above the scene to fill in the shadows. I was using my D700, as normal these days, and for a lens I used the 85mm f2.8D PC Nikkor. For those not familiar with lenses, this is a lens that allows up half life size magnification and provides movements to control depth of field and "keystone" distortion. This lens is ideally suited for this sort of table-top photography and offers excellent flexibility and image quality.

The second piece was a cross necklace that Brooke gave me for my birthday. Since it was much smaller, I opted to use the pouch for the back ground and concentrate on just the crosses. I used a similar set up, but instead of using natural light, I used two macro-speedlights for the lighting. One was positioned to the right side to fill in shadows with the main light above and to the left a bit. I needed a bit more magnification than my 85mm could offer naturally, so I used my bellows set to get a bit more extension. DOF was controlled by stopping down the aperture as well as a bit of tilting. Exposure was first guessed, and then fine tuned, but the iTTL flash feature of this camera does an excellent job despite no information from the lens.
I was quite pleased with the results and posted them to Flickr as well as here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Samp for Breakfast

Samp (aka coarse hominy) is like supersized grits. It is corn with the hull removed and cracked once or twice. Grits has the hull removed and ground to a powder.

When I was a kid, my father would make Samp about once a year. He'd soak it over night, then simmer it with hamhock. Sadly due to health concerns, no additional salt was added. At the bowl, my brother and I added quite a bit of salt and pepper to make it edible.

I have about two pounds of it that I bought at the Jamesport Country store. My father can regal any interested listener about obtaining the stuff over the years and the efforts he had to go through to get it. In any case, I need to consume the stuff, so I am experimenting a bit in the kitchen.

Since Samp is super-sized grits, I figured I'd try cooking it in a similar way. Being alone for breakfast, I opted for generally the same recipie. Here's what I found from day 1:

3 Tablespoons grits

1-1/4 cups water (need more water than grits because it cooks much longer

1-1/2 tsp margarine or butter

salt to taste

Combine water, margarine, and salt. Bring water to a boil, add samp. Reduce heat and simmer for 32 minutes. Serve hot.

The key is to cook it long enough to soften the grits enough to remove the crunch.

The next samp experiment will be Samp for dinner. I am thinking modifying a corn chowder recipie and see what comes out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The first roll.

As you can imagine, I don’t get to shoot a great deal of film when I am at sea working. While I carried a film camera during the first few years of my career, the outfit was cumbersome due to the fact that I had to carry an always limited amount of film with me. In addition, I had to wait until I returned home in order to get it processed. This added up to little motivation to shoot film on my trips.

Home is a different story. Most of my cameras are film cameras. In fact, there are always a few that do not see a roll of film cycled through them during my four-month vacations. I just don’t shoot that much film. Much of it is due to the cost I am afraid. I have a weird sense of “cheapness” where I will spend thousands of dollars on a lens but will baulk at buying a few hundred dollars of film and processing. This is not just in photography, but in other things as well, but beyond the scope of this.

In any case, I take a camera out and load it with film and then see what inspires me to shoot. The cheapness I have with film has one advantage however, I am always thinking when I depress the shutter of a film camera. I know that I only have twenty four or thirty six frames to use, and that slows me down. With digital, I have hundreds on a card, and after a five-minute download, have hundreds more to go, with little immediate cost. Digital is great for sports, but you also get sloppy.

When I returned home this time, my first roll of film was a roll of Fuji Velvia 50 slide film into my Leica R8. The film is a fine-grain, highly saturated slide film that is designed for nature and wildlife. The slow speed means remarkably fine grain and the colors really “pop” when they are projected on a screen. I like this film with the Leica because the Leica lenses really draw well with this film. The color rendition and sharpness of the lenses really allows the film emulsion to shine. The only two real drawbacks are that the film does not do well with skin tones and it is quite slow.

I shot this roll in three outings. The first outing was a walk in the new river-walk park on the Wilkes-Barre side of the Susquehanna River. I brought only one prime lens with me, as is often the case with my Leica’s, as I only have primes, and I rarely carry more than one. This day I decided on a short telephoto lens in the form of a 90mm Summicron-R. To those new or ignorant to Leica terminology, “Summicron” refers to a f/2 lens. This one is the last generation spherical lenses, and is quite sharp and has lovely color rendition.

Being that it was late fall, there was little color to take advantage of, so I tuned my eye to form and shapes rather than the color of things. Perhaps I could have used B&W film instead, but I did not. The Market Street Bridge and the new concrete walkways in the park lent themselves most to this outing. My favorite image is one of the statue of Jesus with outstretched hands at King’s college across the street appears to stand on a a slightly blurred concrete wall with grass in the foreground. The foreshortening effect from the telephoto lens helped with this to make the statue appear somewhat on the same scale and plane as the wall, despite being at least a quarter of a mile away.

The second outing was with my widest Leica, a 21mm f4 Super Angulon. This time I went to the Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre. They had set up their Christmas tree and a local Church had set up a crèche as well. I got up close and low to the crèche and while I liked the composition, the image fell a bit flat with some lost highlight details on the frame. I also shot a rather banal image of the tree, and since it is blocked in by a chain-linked fence, there is nothing terribly artistic about it. The favorite image of mine from this outing was an image similar to the crèche, only with the statue of Christopher Columbus. There were wreaths and flags around the statue, and the image really worked. The vignette inherent with this lens added some darkening to the sky which emphasized the statue even more and was most pleasant to me. After a bit of scanning and post processing, I even had an image printed from this frame.

The final outing with this roll of film was to Kirby Park in Kingston, PA, which is right across the Market Street Bridge from Wilkes-Barre. There is a small pond in the middle of the park and I wanted to see if there were any wild fowl there that might be so kind as to allow me to photograph them. As you can imagine, birds, even the large ones like geese and ducks, require long lenses to photograph effectively, as they usually don’t allow you to approach them without great stealth and effort. For this outing, I had a long telephoto lens, a 560mm f4 lens. This is a large and heavy setup requiring my heavy tripod and gimbaled head. I went a bit “rogue” for this shoot as far as wildlife shooting is concerned by leaving the motor drive at home. The R8 had a nice drive, but the manual wind is much quieter and I was not expecting to be shooting action sequences in anycase.

This was my first time using this lens and it lived up to expectations. While it is manual focus, the geese I shot were slow moving enough for me to get exacting focusing and careful compositions. I gleefully shot off the remaining half of the roll before breaking down the rig and carting it back to my car. My favorite of the bunch is an image of a lone Canadian goose as he wearily eyes my activities from my perch. The sun had come out at just the correct time and was behind me, which offered wonderful lighting to capture them as it was late afternoon during the “golden hour.”

Once the roll was finished, I packed it up into one of my pre-paid mailers and sent it off to Los Angles to the lab I use for my E-6 processing. This is an at least ten-day round trip to send it to the West Coast and then back again, so as usual, the use of slide film is not only expensive, but an exercise in patience. Still, when that box arrives in the mail, it is a good feeling to place the slides on the lightbox and then to project them onto the screen for the best photographic viewing. Slide film is what I really love about shooting film, and is well worth the wait.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A letter to Dad

We had a fire today in the galley. Ironically, I was wearing my last EVFD T-shirt today. I was on watch and it was 1645 when the fire alarm went off. I sent my AB Gill down to the galley deck with the radio, but he hadn’t gotten far when I got a call from the galley saying that the stove (grill) was on fire. I told them to hit it with a fire extinguisher and immediately sounded the fire/emergency signal on the general alarm. The captain was there about a minute later and I was out the door racing down the outside ladders. On my way down I heard the engineers call out that power was secured to the galley.

I got to the galley and found that some of the serving windows were still open and the 3rd mate firing off his second 15# CO2 extinguisher at a fire that was licking out of the back of the grill. I threw the windows shut and screamed for him to drop the CO2 and grab some dry chemical extinguishers. He was a bit out of his element and was just blasting away. I told him to hit the fire which seated it, but it flared up every 30 seconds or so. I grabbed another can and started showing him where I wanted him to spray the agent.

Of course now the galley was getting smoky and full of dry chemical, and I didn’t have SCBA or a suit on. I screamed down the ladder for a pack, but my Bosun, in his excitement, started suiting up instead. FF1 material they are not, and I finally had to run down there myself, and shoving people out of the way, threw a pack in about 30 seconds and ran back up to tend the fire.

Finally I had three other guys there with extinguishers and fire suits and SCBA. We had the fire beaten down, but we couldn’t get to the seat with the grill lid. I used some fire gloves and tried to lift the grill but couldn’t get enough grip or leverage to get under the thing. I ran out the door and grabbed the nearest fire axe and headed back; but not before yelling out the door for another axe. Apparently there was a bunch of crashing about before another axe was located, and with the axes, we pried up the grill lid and my boys hit it with a cross stream of dry chemical. With that the fire was out, but there was smoke and agent all over the deck.

I used a combination push/pull ventilation on the deck with a positive supply in one door and then a suction out the other door. I then alternated doors to air out each space individually. I also had the CE fire up the galley hood exhaust fan to clear the galley a bit.

The second mate watched the exposures and we had a successful execution of the fire. The biggest irony of this whole situation is that three days ago I told the captain that I wanted a fire drill underway. I told him that I didn’t know the crew and I wanted a drill. I also knew that one of the galley people was brand new, and another had just gotten back from vacation. So, naturally I had a galley fire in the drill. Not only was it in the galley, I told them that it was the grill on fire. They weren’t quite clued in at that point, but I walked them through it and we had a full dress response to the fire. Afterwards, the 3rd mate demonstrated fire extinguishers at the safety meeting. 48 hours later we were putting all of that training to good use and of course it didn’t go at all like we trained. Still, no one got hurt and we isolated the damage to the stove and some food loss.

As for cause, there was a 400V ground that hit the engine room literally minutes before the fire started so I suspect that one of the heating elements or other wires under there had some insulation failure and arced, causing the grease in the grease trap to light up.

After the fire, I told everyone that we were having a picnic on the stern and the steward had to put out tuna and other sandwiches he had in the refrigeration boxes since the ribeyes they were about to cook weren’t going to eatable. I also got the captain to spring for a couple of cases of soda. As I dropped the cases on the table, I said that I’d love to give everyone a double ration of rum, but I didn’t have any, so Coke a Cola would have to do.

This has been a heck of an opening act for this tour. I hope the last of the excitment is over.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009


When Brooke and I were in Dallas this weekend for a wedding, we wandered into a Williams-Sonoma store in the mall and found egg rings. These make perfectly circular eggs that fit on an English muffin. They are 3" diameter rings designed to work on the stove top with little handles that allow you to manipulate them without the threat of burning yourself. While I am sure that they work quite well with eggs, I wanted them for baking instead.

I purchased them and when I got back home I looked up a crumpet recipe on the Internet (this modern technology is great for this kind of thing). I made a quick run to the grocery store for yeast and some all-purpose flour and was in business.

Crumpets look a lot like English muffins sans nooks and crannies. They are made from a batter rather than a dough, hence the need for the rings. They require a lot more time to prepare than biscuits which is probably why they are not terribly popular. I tend to have them with tea and jam and until now have had to buy them imported from England in specialty shops. As you can imagine, they aren't all that great after coming across the pond and waiting on the shelf until I can buy them.

Crumpets are actually quite easy to make. All you need is water, sugar, yeast, flour, salt, baking soda, and milk. First you activate the yeast by adding it to the warm water and sugar mixture. This has to spend time "activating" Once the yeast solution is all bubbly, you mix in the dry ingredients and the milk. This whole batter has to then rest for about 30 minutes.

Towards the end of the rest period you preheat the pan on a fairly low heat with the rings (I spray both pan and rings with cooking spray to make it easier). When you are ready, you spoon the batter into the rings and let them cook for about 12 minutes on the first side. When this time has elapsed remove the rings and then flip them like pancakes to cook the top for about 2 minutes (the top will be brown).

This whole process takes a good 90 minutes with my four rings so its not a quick meal by any means, but then again, anything you do with yeast is going to take quite a while.

Once they are cooked you can have yourself a nice cup of tea with crumpets and your favorite jam.

Nikon F4 and "G" series VR primes

While the Nikon F SLR mount hasn't changed since 1959, the ability to mount the lens on the body doesn't necessarily mean that all lenses maintain all functionality on all bodies, even if they have compatible mounts.

The F4 era camera bodies were the first generation of autofocus and program exposure bodies that were made by Nikon. The tricky marketing problem Nikon faced at this time, in the late 1980's was maintaining compatibility with the older MF lenses that most users owned from the manual focus era. The Nikon F4 maintained remarkable compatibility with most of these lenses, but as time progressed, the lenses were updated and full compatibility with the newest lenses is no longer feasible with the F4.

The newest Nikkors that own are AFS "G" lenses and some have vibration reduction (VR). The biggest issue with the "G" lenses is that they do not have aperture rings that were required by the F4 to control the lens iris in the exposure modes most often used by advanced users. The loss of manual and aperture priority exposure modes is a big loss while using the F4. In addition, the VR feature is not supported by the F4 as it does not have the multiple AF sensors that are required to use this feature. This is not a huge loss in compatibility compared to the exposure modes, but still frustrates the user of a high-end lens to have a key feature disabled on a longer lens.

While most users are aware of the aforementioned limitations of the "G" lenses on the F4, it took some experimentation with my AF-S 200 f2G VR and F4s to find some other quirks in the lens/body combination.

The first thing that I discovered is that the DOF preview lever does not work properly. On later model bodies, the DOF is an electronic operation, but on the F4 is is still a mechanical operation where the button operates a cam that moves the iris control lever. With the "G" lens, it moves the lever to the f22 position and will not depress to the camera-selected aperture.

The second issue that I found concerns the selection of the buttons on the front of the lens. The function of these buttons can be selected to perform one of three tasks with modern bodies: 1) AF-lock, 2) memory recall, and 3) AF-on. The first two functions work quite well. The AF memory can be set and the focus point recalled in an instant with the AFS motor. AF lock also works quite well, but the AF-on button not only fails to function, but will totally disable the AF system in the camera. So if your AF doesn't work when you mount this lens, check that you aren't selected to "AF-on" on the lens itself and see if that doesn't fix the problem.

While the new "G" lenses aren't the greatest thing to try and use on the F4, you still have the option if you move to the correct exposure mode and don't mind loosing the VR (if the lens offers it as an option).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Romance in 1864

This is a diary entry from my Great-great grandfather Barabus T. Billard on when he got married:

"Cold with snow on the ground. Towards night I went down neck* and took a wife unto myself during the evening."

* "Neck" meant down a road to his wife's family farm.

I can only imagine what the actual proposal sounded like. I find it interesting that he began with the weather and then didn't even mention his wife's name.

To be fair, I have read some of his letters from the battlefield to his wife Maria Jane, and he definitely showed a softer side in those writings.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

10 Things we will never see in Washington

1. The child of a president attend the DC public school system
2. Defined Contribution Congressional pensions
3. An actual decrease in the gross expenditures of the Federal Government
4. Repayment of the Social Security and Medicare “Trust Funds” by the Federal Government without additional borrowing from other sources.
5. A politician who donates more than the required taxes to government and refuses to take deductions
6. A pay freeze on elected officials until the budget is balanced
7. Reading every page of every bill by every member of congress before voting on the bill.
8. Congressional Term Limits
9. An end to gerrymandering
10. Reducing government involvement in the lives of the Citizens.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Today is the day, no I don’t mean tax day, as that is nothing new; but rather it is the day that the US Coast Guard starts issuing the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC). The MMC looks almost exactly like a passport on the outside, except that it is a unique color and doesn’t have the word “passport” on it. Inside are pages, with artwork reminiscent of the license. The MMC will have pages giving the same verbiage as the License, Certificate of Registry, STCW and/or Merchant Mariner document. Essentially people with multiple credentials will now have a single booklet instead of several pieces of paper. To add endorsements, the USCG will now send stickers to adhere into the booklet instead of requiring the booklet to be sent to them.

I am not a fan of this new credential. While it will certainly be easier to manage, I also believe it will be easier to manipulate by those who wish to add greater endorsements to their MMC. Once the MMC is issued, I think that it will not be too difficult to create stickers that can be attached to the book that gives ratings in excess of the current credential. Given that people will not start looking closely at the inside pages, and will probably just scan the document, it worries me that there is an opportunity for fraud.

I am just glad that I was able to get one of the last paper licenses issued, although I do feel saddened that I was unable to get my chief engineer’s license in the same form. It will be a funny thing to see in the next few years as 8x11 inch licenses hanging on the wall of the ship (a legal requirement) will slowly be replaced by a photocopy of a document much smaller and much less impressive looking.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reflections on Piracy upon earning a Master's Ticket

On April 9th, I was issued a license by the US Coast Guard to serve as Master (Captain) of Steam and Motor vessels of unlimited horsepower upon the oceans. This has long been a professional goal of mine and I will always remember the circumstances surrounding this short period of time around the time when my license was issued.

While it was a great personal achievement to earn this license, it came at the same time that pirates off of the coast of Somalia were holding a US flagged merchant ship hostage. While the ship was soon liberated, the Master, Capt Phillips was being held captive by the four rogues who had boarded his ship. This brought home the realities of my career and the risks and responsibilities associated both with shipping in general and the job of Master in particular. Capt Phillips took decisive action to mitigate the attack which undoubtedly allowed the crew to quickly retake control of the ship, yet in doing so, put himself in harm’s way by surrendering himself to the pirates, and was held hostage for several days until the US Navy SEALS were able to free him unharmed.

Just after Capt Phillips was freed on Easter Sunday, I called my parents and my father pointedly asked what I would do under these circumstances. I had to be honest and say that I really didn’t know. I am not sure that I would put myself into the hands of pirates like he did. It would be easy to proclaim that I would certainly follow in Capt Phillip’s footsteps, but until tested in such a manner, it would indeed be hard to say if I would react in the same way.
The episode certainly dampened my celebration of getting my license, and has hardened my resolve to better train my crew in security, but there is a job out there and these ships need to move. I hope that in conjunction with the navies of the shipping world, we can end this piracy epidemic on the horn of Africa and make the seas safe to navigate.