Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dodging Breakers

A quick update. I have arrived in Phuket safely, after over 24 hours in transit, if you count the overnight bus from Kanazawa. Karon Beach is Paradise on earth, though the waves are a little on the large size. As in wow that giant wave just kocked me arse over teakettle. Still great fun, of course, this Mountain Man Colorado boy is having the time of his life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Next Stop: The Tropics

Vacations seem to have a habit of sneaking up on me, and it has happened again! On Friday morning I'll depart Kansai International Airport, again. This time rather than heading towards two feet of snow in Denver, with a few days stopover in Chicago, I'm bound for sunnier climes! Friday I'll be off to Phuket Thailand for three nights, followed by Bangkok for three nights finishing up in Vietnam, Hanoi for two nights with a trip to Halong Bay the last night. This is, quite literally, the trip of a lifetime for me. It will be my first time in the tropics, and also my first jaunt to mainland Asia. After all, Japan is kind of like Great Britain, an island nation and thus both a part and apart of the 'mainland' culture. Well I'm about to get a big dose of all that and a bunch of Thai green curry. Watch out South East Asia, The TravelinGrant is on his way!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Genius and Obsession

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel


The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology

Simon Winchester

In the past several weeks I have had the pleasure to read both of these excellent popular science books, and I was struck by the similarity in the stories. The time periods and individual breakthroughs achieved could not have been more different, but the difficulties encountered and the temperaments of the two individuals, John Harrison and William Smith, were quite similar.

In the late 1600's one of the greatest problems for science and commerce was longitude. Determining latitude, or how far north and south a sailing ship is was done quite easily using the sun and stars, but longitude, or how far east or west, was considerably more difficult. The problem for shipping was so severe, that in 1714 the English Parliament offered a "Longitude Prize" to the first person or persons who demonstrated a way to accurately determine one's longitude at sea.

Between 1730 and 1770 John Harrison battled technology, opposing theories, a hostile Longitude board, and his own perfectionism in the search for a clock that could keep accurate time at sea. This is much more difficult than we might suppose, being he had to contend with temperature variations, the rocking of the ships, and fluctuations in humidity. His designs were years ahead of their time, and he perfected some methods that are still in use today.

Sobel's prose is perfect, and her tale is very compelling. The story is littered with interesting people, like Sir Issac Newton, and fascinating facts, like the way we discovered the speed of light. One of the opposing longitude methods was timing the eclipses of Jupiter's moons, but the actual eclipse times kept varying from the predicted times. One man figured out that the difference was because light had a speed, and when Jupiter was on the far point of its orbit, it simply took a little longer for the light to arrive.

We go now from outer space and clock making to geology fieldwork and walking, lots of walking. William Smith was, like Harrison a tradesman, and not nobly born. Rather than a clockmaker, Smith was a surveyor, born in 1769. He was an expert on canal placement, drainage, and mining. It was his explorations deep under the earth in Southern England's coal mines that he discovered that the same rocks appeared in the same order, a thought that had occurred to no one else. He soon noticed one other thing, that while two rocks may look the same, the fossils in each formation were different, and could be used to tell the rocks apart.

Armed with this knowledge, Smith crisscrossed England, charting outcroppings, collecting fossils, and putting many miles on his shoes. While his efforts produced a beautiful, and essentially accurate, geologic map of England, the first of its kind anywhere, his profligate spending landed him in debtors prison, and enemies plagiarized his work. Luckily, Smith did receive due recognition, but it took decades.

As always Winchester layers in tons of details and facts, his book is considerably longer and more footnoted than Longitude. However, the story of Smith's rise, fall, and redemption reads like a fine play or novel, except that its all true.

Both Harrison and Smith were ahead of their time, and both sacrificed decades of their lives in their obsessive quests. One for a clock that wouldn't lose two seconds of time on a voyage that left normal clocks gaining and losing minutes a day and the other on a map of an entire unseen world. Both books provide a glimpse of England in an era of profound change. From farming and pastoral life to a life of commerce, mining, industry and science. I highly recommend both books, but if you are looking for a shorter, quicker read, than Longitude is the better. For those who enjoy a more in depth treatment, or who adore Geology as much as I do, then The Map That Changed the World is also a worthy read.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


The post below this one marks a bit of a first for me, in that it contains three images that have been altered in very subtle ways. Usually when I make changes to my pictures, I do it in a big way, and I let people know that this is different from my original picture. But for these three pictures, I didn't want big changes, I just wanted minor tweaks to contrast and such to make them look better. Usually I alert my readers to any modifications, but to do so would have interrupted the flow of the post. The question for both myself and photographers in general is, where is the line? When does a little tweaking become too much tweaking? Should I alert people whenever I change a picture, even if it is only minor changes? What do you think?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom

Last weekend was really the official start to Spring here in Japan, or at least, here in Kanazawa. The annual explosion of cherry blossoms is widely celebrated by spreading out a tarp and drinking beer and chu-hi at one in the afternoon. That is one part of the celebration I just can't really get behind. Drinking in the afternoon is, for me, a one way ticket to an early nap, and who wants to ruin their sunny Sunday napping?

One of my students made sure to point out that traditionally the Hanami parties were about viewing the beautiful flowers, and then translating that physical beauty into haiku. I think the poetry got lost on the way to the excessive alcohol consumption.

Which doesn't mean that the general idea isn't sound. Actually, gathering friends together to chat and cavort in fine spring weather is a fantastic idea. Get people outside and enjoying the fresh air for the first time since late November. Of course, being the psycho Photo-Boy that I am I had already gone to Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen the day before the schools Hanami Party. Most of Kanazawa joined me there, or so it seemed. Anything worth doing in Japan is worth doing by everybody!

The Sunday of the party dawned bright and clear, a rarity in Ishikawa. We had a few interlopers tho, one of the avian kind, and a couple of crazy kids.

One of my students brought her two delightful young children to the party. She told them about me before they arrived, so upon seeing me they both rushed at me yelling, "Grant-sensei!!!" They then spent an hour running round, rolling down the hill and generally making a mess of their clothing. A great time was had by all.

I then met up with some friends and we absconded to the Mexican place for a long overdue dinner of enchiladas and tacos. After that we headed back to Kenrokuen for the night lights. Despite having hundreds of megabytes of pictures from the garden at night I brought my camera and tripod, much to all the disgust of the girls.

Of course I promptly got separated from the group. It took a disgustingly long time to get back together, being it was pretty dark and really really crowded. Despite that, and the chilly April night, we had a good time, and the lights were a beautiful cap to a pretty good weekend.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Odds and Ends and a taste of Sakura in HDR

To start things off, here is a nice exterior shot of my new apartment building. It won't win any architectural awards, but I suppose there is something to be said for the functional modern box look.

I was glad last week that the aftershocks finally stopped waking me up. Seriously we had a pretty good number of aftershocks hitting the area at seven or eight in the morning. For a guy who works from one to ten this is incredibly annoying.

But this is Japan, so of course we had something new to wake me up hours before my alarm.

Mayoral elections! Hooray! Yup, Kanazawa got a new Mayor over the weekend, and in the days leading up to the elections the city was besieged by candidates speaker trucks. The super right wing fascist speaker trucks are pretty annoying, but relatively limited in number. But when you have a whole stack of candidates on the stump in a city the size of Kanazawa it can get pretty bad. Songs, announcements, bored looking pretty women waving a pedestrians. It seems a strange way to try and get people to vote for you. Hey, lets be really annoying and piss off the electorate! To be fair, I guess TV attack adds in the states are pretty bad too.

I'm not entirely sure, but I think this is the list of candidates. Oh, and with the election safely out of the way, I figured on a nice long sleep in this morning. Well, that was before the LP Man spent 30 minuted manhandling large, empty, loud LP bottles into his truck. It sounded like some crazy steel drum/ gong instrument. Argh!

The Cherry Blossoms are out this week, and it is much better than last year. Spring 2006 was really cold and rainy, and the flowers were late and strangely spread out. While Denver has been braving snow, Kanazawa's early April has been pretty nice during the day, though nights have been pretty frigid.

Ironically enough I hadn't intended to make any HDR images of the Sakura. After all, there isn't a High Dynamic Range to capture. Lucky me, I accidentally clicked on the wrong file name, and created the picture below.

For an 'accident' I really loved the strange 'glow' effect on the flowers, so I quickly fiddled with a few other pictures. While the original is still the best of the bunch, I think some of these look really great.

The effect is certainly very different, and while it won't supplant more traditional looking pictures anytime soon, I enjoy both creating and viewing HDR images. That said, I have to admit that while these look interesting and cool, the original images do look better, and will be posted soon.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Nagoya Aquarium

Since I had been foiled by an early close on Saturday, I made it a point to go to Nagoya Aquarium on Sunday. Sadly, I hadn't counted on one thing...

Large cultural attractions, at 2:00 Sunday Afternoon are filled with screaming children.


Now, thats not to say I didn't enjoy it. The fish are awesome, and I had fun trying to get good pictures. But the sheer size of the crowd was pretty mind-boggling, and about half way through I got really antsy, and pretty much just jetted for the exit.

Well, that was two lessons learned. Make sure you go to attractions before they close, and don't go on Sunday afternoon.