Friday, October 30, 2009

Night shoot

Even though I've been doing a lot of photography work lately as a poorly-paid assistant to The Wife, I haven't actually done any photography for my own amusement in quite some time. That includes work with models or infrared, which is unusual. My work on the Chicken Ranch book, and the Turkey City workshop story took up a lot of time and energy, yes, but shooting the Strutters reunion for Texas State and various wedding events are more to blame, I believe. In light of that, and The Wife's upcoming photoshoots where I'll be a busy assistant but doing little in the way of actual image capture myself, I set about to schedule myself a photo session with an actual, living, breathing model to whom I am unrelated. You know, to shake the rust off and try something new.

To my delight, I was able to book a shoot for next week in Austin with a talented newcomer who, in the space of just one month, has become very much in demand among central Texas glamour photographers. We're going to do an urban night shoot, using the state Capitol building and 6th Street as our backdrops. She has nothing like this in her portfolio, and jumped at the opportunity. The only problem was that I'd never done anything like this, either. And with lighting being one of my weaker areas as far as photography is concerned, well, that's a recipe for disaster.

Enter Dustin Diaz, aka "Lifesaver." Mr. Diaz is a photographer, and a darn fine one at that. What makes him special in this particular context is that he has undertaken one of those 365 challenges, in which he attempts to take a photo every day or the year. Specifically, he's undertaken this challenge as a theme, using off-camera strobe lights in a variety of creative ways (such small flash setups being commonly referred to as "Strobist"), blogging about it, AND POSTING EACH LIGHTING SETUP along with camera and flash settings for each photo. WOW! Now that's what I call dedication. I also call it extremely useful, because although he uses Nikon and I Canon, I've been able to discern enough information to give me a general idea of how to approach this looming night shoot.

But as book smart and street smart are two different things, I knew I'd be a fool to go into the shoot with no practical experience, so last night, after dropping Monkey Girl off at dance practice, I scooted over to downtown New Braunfels for a few proof-of-concept shots. It was too windy to use an umbrella reflector, unfortunately, so I went with a bare flash instead, which gives a harsher light. Using myself as a model was a challenge with focus and setup of the shots, obviously, and the aesthetics weren't too inspiring, either. But I persevered, and came away with several dozen shots that were well-composed with acceptable lighting. I even got confident enough to try a few little tricks, such as using a star filter for a few shots. Here's one of the more interesting results:


I'm pretty confident at this point that I can take some moderately competent single-light night glamour shots, so the shoot won't be for naught. I could do more with multiple strobes--gelling the light for different colors would be very cool--but alas, I'm not capable of that level of creativity yet. Still, I pull this off, I'll have increased my competence as a photographer by one more notch. That's not bad at all.

Now Playing: The Mamas & the Papas 20th Century Masters

Friday Night Videos

Here I was, all ready to treat viewers of Friday Night Videos with the Toyes' notoriously subversive parody of "Monster Mash" titled "Monster Hash" when to my dismay, I discover there isn't a single decent video to that song extant. Not even a tolerable fan video. So if you want "Monster Hash" for Halloween, you'll have to hunt it up on your own. Instead, I'll follow the path of least resistance: Here's Ray Parker, Jr., before Huey Lewis successfully sued him for ripping of "I Want A New Drug," doing his thing with the Ghostbusters theme song:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Electric Light Orchestra.

Now Playing: The Smithereens 11

Monday, October 26, 2009

Happiness is Turkey City in the rear-view mirror

So, I survived Turkey City. Significantly, I finished "Where the Rubber Meets the Road" Friday with just enough time to print out 11 copies for the workshop participants. On the downside, the story clocked in at 9,000 words--a full 4,000 more than the stated 5,000 word limit--so everyone there exhibited some form of shock and/or horror upon seeing the massive stack of my manuscripts.


I always go into these things with a mixture of hope and dread. Hope, in that the people there will confound my self-doubt and extol the genius in my work. Dread, in that my biggest fear is that they'll ferret out the very inadequacies in my prose that taunt me mercilessly. With "Rubber" I entered the critique particularly exposed, as I'd originally conceived the story as a 5,000-word jaunt and it ballooned on my uncontrollably. It became progressively more difficult to write as the deadline loomed closer, and there was a lot of literary flailing about as I crammed everything but the kitchen sink into it in an attempt to work through various plot and character deficiencies. The ending, in particular, was a mess--not one I wanted, but one I settled for because I couldn't think of a poignant, against-the-grain resolution that satisfied me.

The other writers jumped all over that stuff. It seems that the places I were unsure of myself and story were pretty transparent to the readers. The elements of the story with which I was most confident were the ones that worked best for everyone else. Which makes sense, but is interesting nonetheless. The happiest revelation came in that the bat cave scene--which I'd worried muchly would be derided as tacked-on and out-of-nowhere--proved the most popular sequence in my story. In fact, Bruce Sterling, who so laser-like identified what I was trying to do with my previous Turkey City submission "Europa, Deep and Cold," why I failed and what I needed to do in order to fix it did the same thing here again with "Rubber." This time, he distilled my problems with five straightforward words: "The story ends with guano." Which, in hindsight, makes a whole lot of sense, and lends itself to my desire for a conclusion that finds some measure of victory in failure. Bruce described the story as "a business caper" which hadn't occurred to me, but is true, since the economic element is the whole plot motivator. Chris Nakashima-Brown called it "an Aggie version of Mad Max" which is indeed true, although the only A&M connection is the fact I graduated there. It's more of a Tejano Mad Max, but however you define it, there are Mad Maxian elements in the futuristic dystopia.


Other positive comments focused on the economy and the decaying future I'd constructed for the story. Often, money is a mere MacGuffin, but I succeeded in showing the desperation, the hardscrabble need for it and where the green stuff actually goes. It's a scavenger economy where the deck is stacked heavily against the little guy, but one I succeeded in pulling off, even if one reader remained unconvinced by my underlying assumptions. My story's biggest failings (beyond the universally-reviled ending) were character and motivation. Which I can't argue with. Motivations changed several times as I was writing the piece, and the result is inconsistent at best. That will be a challenge to fix, but it shouldn't be insurmountable.

My biggest problem to tackle is the ending. Using the bat cave as a climax makes sense on many levels--particularly since it got raves because of the tension it evoked. I can't follow that with anything that isn't anti-climactic. But turning that "failure" into an inadvertent win is going to take a lot of work to keep it from coming off as a Deus ex machina or a "Why didn't they just do that years ago and avoid all the crap they just went through?" kind of ending. I guess challenges like this exist for me to prove my salt as a writer.

For anyone who's interested, I published more pictures from the workshop over at the No Fear of the Future blog.

Now Playing: Johnny Cash American IV: The Man Comes Around

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Night Videos

I haven't featured Electric Light Orchestra on Friday Night Videos for a while, so here's a goody: "Hold On Tight." The video itself doesn't make a lick of sense in relation to the song, but that doesn't matter, because I'd happily watch all of the fake movies featured therein. "Jungle Lust" is particularly intriguing with all the bizarre anachronisms (not to mention the title) but it's undone somewhat by being in color. Ah well, can't please everyone.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Hollies.

Now Playing: Johann Sebastian Bach Harpsichord Concertos 1

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A few errant lines

Apropos of nothing, here's a short exchange from my in-progress Turkey City story, "Where the Rubber Meets the Road." It amuses me far more than it should, so I feel compelled to share.
Lupe lit up a grapevine and blew the harsh smoke out the window in a long, tenuous stream.

"You been smoking the vine a lot, lately," Manny said.

"Can't afford tobacco and dope interferes with my sunny disposition," she answered, braking and swerving enough to avoid a pair of panicked emus running along the concrete median barrier. "You rather I take up drinking on the job?"

Now Playing: Bowling for Soup Drunk Enough to Dance

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Made some good progress on "Where the Rubber Meets the Road" last night, to the point where I have only three scenes left in the story to get down. They're big scenes, though, and I'm doubting my goal of finishing tonight so that I can do a once-over tomorrow is realistic. Wordcount's all screwed up because of my issue with Courier, or lack thereof, so I'm not clear how much I actually wrote. More than a thousand words, certainly.

Two things struck me last night at the end of my writing session. Firstly, I didn't have any legit reference for a particular item's cost in my future economy. I'd just made up a number that suited the story, but that's as far as it went. A bit of research this morning revealed that my "invented" cost was actually very much in line with my background world building. That's nice when it happens. The other thing I learned was that I'm woefully ignorant of a tangential technology that key, though minor, role in the narrative. I knew enough generalities to fool myself into thinking I could fake it-- until it came time to actually write that part. Oops. Hand-waving will have to suffice for now, because time for more thorough research is a luxury I don't have.

Time remaining to Turkey City: Two days.

Now Playing: Shania Twain Greatest Hits

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What happened to Courier?

Okay, so maybe I'm unobservant. So sue me. I've written a considerable amount in the past year, but for various reasons I haven't paid close attention to word counts and manuscript format. But with the Chicken Ranch sample chapters and the current Turkey City WIP, accurate word counts have suddenly become more relevant.

So tell me, what the hell happened to my Courier font?

Courier, that plain, dull, workhorse font that pretty much every manuscript formatting primer swears by for its uniform character spacing and ease of word-count calculation, has vanished from every single computer I work on. How did this happen? When did this happen? Why did I not notice before now? I first noticed this on my old Dell 4600, my home office PC that I do the vast majority of my writing on (I use Word Perfect to write with, just so you know). A month or so back, I did a complete re-install of Windows XP because of some lingering instability issues, and over the course of several days, re-installed all of the software I normally use. At this point, I noticed that some of my writing--those using the courier font, natch--were showing up with ugly square blocks where the quote marks were to go. If I tried to print, the whole document reverted to "Courier New," an invention of Microsoft's that is over-sized and not a particular favorite of mine.

No problem, I though. I'd simply move the files to my laptop and print from there (the laptop running Windows Vista--not my personal choice, but hey). Lo and behold, no Courier there, either. With growing concern, I pulled out a huge CD set of clip art and font files I keep on hand. No Courier there, either. Nor was plain Courier to be found on my computer at work (which runs MS Word). I'm finding Courier (W1) and Courier PS. There is a whole family of Courier New variations, and also Adobe's Courier Std variants. But no plain, simple Courier.

Did I miss the memo on the planned obsolescence of the Courier font? You folks out there paying more attention to these kinds of things, what are my font options for manuscript formatting?

Now Playing: Prince The Black Album

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How to photograph in the dark when you have no flash

So tonight The Wife had the big Texas State University Strutters 50th reunion to shoot. It's the largest photography contract she's gotten to date, and wanted me along because 1) I knew more people there than she did, and could help manage the interactions, and 2) there were so many people there, a second camera was almost necessary to cover all the different situations that needed to be photographed.

Only one problem. We only have one strobe to share between two cameras--my Canon 430 EX. Since The Wife is the better photographer, has the better camera in her 50D, and the better lens in the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8, there was no doubt that she'd have the flash by default. Which left me in a quandary--since the reunion was being held in the San Marcos conference center, lighting would be abysmal. It always is in hotels. My Canon XTi produces very noisy images above 800 ISO, and even 800 can be marginal. Assuming I'd be using my EF 50mm f/1.8 mark I lens wide open, there still wasn't enough light available to produce anything but murky images. On-sight testing proved this true. I was in real danger of becoming a useless second photographer.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, so I invented, in pure Strobist fashion. I have an old Nikon-mount Star-D SDG480 flash I inherited from my father-in-law. It's at least 20 years old, and strictly for film cameras. The voltage feedback would likely fry my camera if I tried to use it, and the whole Nikon-Canon incompatibility is an issue as well. But we do have a set of CyberSync radio triggers. I mounted the transmitter to my camera, then attached the trigger to the Star-D, wrapped the cord around my palm and slipped the bulky receiver/trigger into my sleeve. Holding the Star-D strobe in my left hand and my camera in my right, I made the rounds and took more than a thousand photos. I downloading all of them now, which is why I'm typing a blog entry and not asleep. For the most part, the jerry-rigged light source worked. I had to go full manual on the controls, and often the old flash charged too slow leaving me with dark images, but I got significantly more keeper shots than I initially expected. I felt like an old-time photographer, walking around and holding that T-rail with flash powder in it. The only thing missing was a huge puff of smoke.

I hope to not have to undergo this particular experience again, however. My hands are sore from the awkward setup. A flash bracket would've helped immensely in this situation, but were not rushing out to buy one. Instead, with the payment for this job, The Wife is getting one of Canon's nifty 580 EXII strobes for her camera, which means I'll get mine back and all will be right in the world.

Anyone curious to see our work can visit Lisa On Location. The first batch of Strutter images should be uploaded into a gallery by Sunday evening, with more to come throughout the week.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd The Final Cut

Friday, October 09, 2009

Friday Night Videos

The Hollies. "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." Fantastic song, and one that takes me back to my college days, watching Aggie baseball games at Olson field with the legendary D.D. Grubbs in the announcer's booth. I still hate LSU.

Is it just me, but would John Fogerty covering this song be anything but sublime? Have a great weekend, folks!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Pink Floyd.

Now Playing: Silly Wizard The Best of Silly Wizard

Thursday, October 08, 2009

New MEMORY: Music of the spheres

Please try to contain your obvious shock and disbelief at the news, but I've published a new chapter of Memory over at No Fear of the Future. I know, two weeks in a row is almost unheard of lately. This marks the 41st installment of my Moorcock/Zelazny/Vance cosm-spanning heroic adventure, the one in which Flavius comes eye-to-eye with something far larger than himself, searches for his lost sword and winds up doing a fairly passable imitation of Bilbo Baggins on the Forest River:
Flavius sat in the dark, barely breathing, praying the Ketza'qua would go back to sleep... or whatever the gigantic serpent did.

The eye snapped back open, the strange, emerald glow spilling over Flavius. A subsonic rumble rose up from deep inside the Ketza'qua. Its massive scales clattered against themselves like a cavalry charge across a field of cobblestones. The buoyancy spheres shifted again, and Flavius hastily considered the inherent instability of his footing. All around, the protesting groans and whines of cables and scaffolding reverberated through the spheres.

The Ketza’qua sensed opportunity amid the chaos. The opportunity for freedom.

As always, feel free to comment, recommend to your friends, blog about, send money or anything else The Story compels you to do. Or ignore it quietly, the choice is yours (but Flavius may take exception...)

Now Playing: Various artists Celtic Moods

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


This has not been a good year for my passion flower hobby. The drought took its toll. The relentless heat wave took its toll. There were times, I confess, that in my carelessness I over-watered, and that took a toll as well. And then there were the caterpillars who stripped down not only my Incense and caerulea vines, but also consumed several more rare plants I had potted up, a trauma from which said smaller passis never recovered. The long and short of it is that I lost a bunch of plants this year, when my goal had been to replenish my collection to make up for those lost last year. Included among the casualties are my vitifolia, my Lady Margaret and my beloved p. tenuilobas and p. mexicanas. I just couldn't catch a break. Even trades for new plants fell flat, with cuttings refusing to root for me. My frustration is not insignificant.

So imagine my utter surprise and delight this weekend when I discover my p. edulis flavicarpa blooming. It's only done so once before, and I'd been considering whether I should pull it out of its pot to make way for something more willing to flower. The sneaky thing had grown up all through my pomegranate bush and begun flowering--I count a dozen or more buds--on the sly. Many more flowers are set to open. It's an attractive flower, with white petals and a panda-looking purple-black center. It also has a sweet licorice scent. Now, I don't like licorice, but this is a pleasant odor, soft and mellow, not sharp and astringent like that of anise. I've tried pollinating it with my incarnata flowers--some of the few passis that have survived the summer for me--so we'll see soon whether or not it will produce fruit for me. Here's a pic:


Now Playing: Clandestine To Anybody at All

Fahrenheit 451

Monkey Girl started 5th grade this year, and last week we learned from her teacher that she's reading at an 8th grade level. This prompted obvious parental pride and a discussion of books The Wife and I read in high school. The Wife mentioned she'd read Stranger in a Strange Land as assigned high school reading, and I just about choked, what with all of Heinlein's sexuality and free love themes running throughout. I answered that the most scandalous thing we got in Columbus was Fahrenheit 451. Monkey Girl entered the conversation at that point, and her interest was piqued.

"What's that about?" she asked.

I explained that it was about censorship and the control of knowledge. Books are illegal, and "firemen" go around with flame throwers, burning books when people are caught with them.

"Cool! I want to read that!" was her response. Yes, my heart went aflutter.

Except that I couldn't find my copy. I know I have it in paperback, but after searching my bookshelves several times, and the book cabinets and boxes as well, I gave up. It's vanished. So I broke down and picked up a 50th anniversary paperback from Half Price Books--the one with the tattered cover art made to look like an abused hardback originally published in 1953. Monkey Girl was pleased, and we had a conversation about different cover designs and editions of books. She was particularly impressed to learn about the legendary asbestos edition.

She's got it now, mixed in amongst the three or so other novels she's reading simultaneously. I've let her know that I've got more Bradbury if she wants it.

Now Playing: Clandestine Music from Home

Monday, October 05, 2009

To the Batcave!

Last week the family and I went on an expedition to Bracken Cave, home of the largest bat colony in North America. It's also the largest concentration of mammals in the world, with 20 million Mexican free-tail bats concentrated in a cavern approximately 100 yards long (the underground complex itself is thought to be somewhat larger, but a wall of guano has blocked any further exploration). There is an old vertical mine shaft at the back end of the cave through which the army used to harvest guano for gunpower manufacture. The pungent stench of ammonia coming out of that hole is staggering, easily burning nostrils and making eyes water uncontrollably.

The main opening to the cave is at the bottom of a sinkhole maybe 50 yards across. The angles of the sinkhole are such that the opening (above) appears to sit on more or less level ground. Not true. The sink hole is pretty deep, and obviously wide. The bats spiral out in a vortex that is very, very impressive. They create their own wind as they emerge. And do they emerge...

The Bracken Cave is a breeding colony. The males arrive from Mexico in the spring. As soon as the females arrive, the males depart for scattered bachelor colonies--one is located under the I-35 overpass at Walnut Street in New Braunfels. The females give birth to their pups in the cave. The temperature in the cave would normally be a steady 70-something degrees, like most Texas caves, but because of 20 million warm bodies packed in tightly and tons of guano decomposing on the floor, temperatures hover above 80 degrees at the floor of the cave and rise to 110 or so at the roof.

Ammonia and CO2 concentrations in the cave are lethal to humans. Doesn't bother the bats, obviously. The floor of the cave is also crawling with carnivorous, flesh-eating beetles, which brings to mind a potential setting for a new Indiana Jones film. With 20 million bats in the colony, it takes nearly four hours for all of them to exit each night. For comparison, the famous Congress Street Bridge bat colony in Austin is home to about 2 million bats. Carlsbad Caverns is home to about 400,000. When the bats exit Bracken Cave, the plume shows up very clearly on Doppler radar. Amazing stuff.

Because days are getting shorter, the bats don't exit until a good bit after sundown, so lighting was problematic for photography. We hope to return at the height of summer, when they emerge before sunset, and attempt some more shots under better lighting conditions. But for not knowing what we were doing, I think our shots are better than could be expected. All in all, it's an awesome sight.

Now Playing: Aerosmith Pandora's Box

Friday, October 02, 2009

It's official: Rick Perry wants to burn in Hell

"That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved."
-Benjamin Franklin, 1785

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a death penalty opponent. I believe there are some crimes, and some criminals, that are simply too heinous to be dealt with in any other way available to society at this time. In light of that, the death penalty should be applied with utmost caution and respect for the gravity of said punishment. Texas Governor Rick Perry apparently believes a skewed reversal of that maxim applies to after-the-fact investigations of Cameron Todd Willingham's execution for the arson deaths of his three children--better to cover up the wrongful execution of an innocent man than to jeopardize a reelection campaign. That heavy-handed intervention has invited a scathing editorial from the Dallas Morning News:
Since Perry signed off on the Willingham execution in 2004, his own accountability is at stake. So perhaps it's no surprise that two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was to proceed with the case this week, Perry replaced the chairman and set things back.

This has the stink of avoidance for political reasons. It sends the message – intentional or not – that the governor was displeased with the speed and direction of the inquiry.

Critics are on the mark in comparing it to President Richard Nixon's "Saturday night massacre," when he replaced top Justice Department officials as they were tightening the noose in the Watergate case. Perry's heavy hand suddenly has that creepy Nixonian feel.

Perry has put forth the simplistic argument in the past that 1) Texas doesn't execute innocent people; 2) if someone was executed, then they were obviously guilty; 3) if you have evidence to the contrary, please see clause 1. And according to Perry, scientific experts aren't really "experts" unless they deliver reports supporting the governor's preferred conclusion.
But Gov. Rick Perry has not let expert reports or modern science shake his belief that Willingham must be a murderer. So certain is the governor that he's delivered his own guilty verdict without bothering to wait for the Forensic Science Commission's own conclusions in the case.

Perry flippantly dismissed the findings of "supposed experts." Just in case his sarcasm wasn't evident, he added air quotes with his fingers to dismiss the nationally respected scientists.

The governor says he's seen nothing that would cause him to question this capital murder conviction. That's disappointing.

Perry, of course, is telling the truth. I'll wager dollars to donuts that he hasn't so much as skimmed the Forensic Science Commission's conclusions or related reports simply so he could hold onto this flimsy thread of plausible deniability. What's the definition of a tyrant? Someone who'll do anything, damn the consequences, to hold onto power?

Here's some additional reading on the topic: Texas Governor Defends Shakeup of Commission,
The governor was in office when Mr. Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004. He denied the condemned man a reprieve even after a detailed report by an arson expert said the evidence that Mr. Willingham had set the fire was flimsy and inconclusive.

and the New Yorker piece that brought it to national prominence:
Todd Willingham, looking on, appeared to grow more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck and tried to calm him down. Willingham explained that his wife, Stacy, had gone out earlier that morning, and that he had been jolted from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!”

“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,” he said, adding, “I couldn’t get my babies out.”

While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, cradling Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, who was twenty-three years old and powerfully built, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the babies’ room. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan later told police. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators that, at an earlier point, he had also held Willingham back. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said.

As a father, I'm horrified by the very idea of losing my children this--or any other--way. But to see how Willingham went from tragic victim to railroaded scapegoat is beyond the pale. Remember, Rick Perry's the same person who's pandered to secessionists in recent campaign events.

Perhaps he does not fear Hell because he has no soul?

Now Playing: John Mellencamp Mr. Happy Go Lucky

Friday Night Videos

I had a different video lined up to feature today, but then I realized my Aggies are playing Arkansas tomorrow at JerryWorld in DFW. How often do I get to feature cool old Pink Floyd video in such context?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Van Halen.

Now Playing: John Cougar Mellencamp Uh-Huh