It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

And so I found out, courtesy of several people’s careless FuBar posts, that a kind of shirttail relative (my sister’s daughter’s significant other, which makes him I don’t know what to me but he’s reasonably cool so I don’t worry about it…) landed a solid role in the Sam Bass Community Theatre’s Christmas show, over in Round Rock. This left me with no options but to grab the little Panasonic and gas up the truck.

It was a very fine show… The adults were believable and the kids were a riot. Almost literally.

As Usual… pix behind pic. Click Pic.

Get Lost!!! (N29.76223, W95.56478)

Found myself wrestling with a bad case of cabin fever yesterday afternoon. Lots to do, as always, but the only thing I really felt like doing was throwing on a pack, grabbing a camera bag and my staff, and hitting the trail.

So I did. (It’s pretty hard to get lost here in the Big City with major streets everywhere, but you can lose the sightlines in the park and it FEELS much more “out there” than it actually is.)

It was a very grey day, which kind of limited the possibilities, but I found a few others…

They’re over HERE. Go look. If you’ve got money burning a hole, you can even acquire copies of your very own, suitable for hanging over the sofa, or the desk, or… (And if you don’t have money, or have better things to spend it on (food, housing, whatever) you can still look. Looking remains free.

Send Money…

As unlikely as this may sound, I have on occasion been asked: “Where can I buy prints of some of these pieces you shoot? Or some of the other stuff you’ve shown me before?”

And up to now, the answer’s been “Call me and we’ll work something out.”

Which sounds great, but somehow never seems to work, either because the controlled substances wear off, or the phone’s out of order, or there are bills to pay, or the victim gets help, whatever.

So I get why it doesn’t happen, but still… I’ve always wondered, “what if I could soak these lunatics while the insanity’s still in control?”

So I’ve decided to try an experiment.

I’ve signed up for a website where you can order some things online. At the moment the choices are just some few of the prettier Ecuadoran landscapes and people, and a handful of flowers, but I’m expecting to add more as time and technology permit. I’m also going back to shooting the sort of things that look pretty hanging on the wall.

Prints are available in several sizes and every level of finish from plain prints in envelopes to full bore mounted and framed “art” pieces, if that’s your thing. I’m thinking the prices are basically in a range from “low” to “reasonable” (but you’ve got to order big fancy pieces to get up into “reasonable”).

It’s all handled more or less automagically. Yes, they take plastic, yes, there’s a money back guarantee, And yes, the lab does good work. And no, the prints aren’t actually signed; we’ll still have to work that out between us.

The website is behind the kitty on the bicycle.


(I give you a kitty on a bicycle because (1) this is the internets, made up of equal parts cat videos, cat pictures, and pornography, and cat pictures are the only one of those I have on hand, (2) because Rhiannon DID like to stand on the bicycle, which is both cute enough and odd enough to be memorable, and (3) because people will sometimes reflexively click on cat pictures without thinking “what the heck am I doing?” and some of you may therefore wind up at the website. I think this is called product placement or some such thing.)

Enjoy. Have fun. Spend money. Remember Thanksgiving’s coming up and then the fat guy in red rolls into town.


Wandered over to the East End Street Festival yesterday.

Didn’t work as hard as I probably should have…. other things on my mind.

Like just precisely how in the heck did I manage to set the new PanaLeica to “exposure autobracket” with a HUGE spread in the brackets, rendering two of every three shots almost completely unrecoverable? Dunno.

Fortunately (or not) I didn’t ruin EVERYTHING.

Jessi Sifuentes, Potter and Mosaic Artist, had a table of recent stuff, much of which I like VERY much. He works in earth tones, mostly, and while I’m normally inclined to cool blues and greys, there’s a draw to his simple geometric designs.

(If I weren’t squeezing the budget pretty tight just now, SEVERAL of those pieces could have come home with me…)

And then of course there was this ultra-cool dood peddling some interestingly complex varieties of hot sauce, sold under the Bravado Spice Co. label.

I’m really not sure I want to call them hot sauces, as they were brisk but a long way short of hot, and much more interesting than your usual “vinegar, tomato, and something with capsaicin” variety. I didn’t know it was even possible to do a mild habanero, but the “pineapple habanero” was something special (sweet with a very slight kick at the back edge) and the “jalapeño – green apple” was surprisingly agreeable. (I’m more into smoky peppers than straight hot ones, so it’s rare I find jalapeño ANYTHING to my taste. This was.)

And of course it’s not a festival in the East End or the Northside without artists. It just can’t happen. So I waved in passing at Elvira Diaz Ocampo and Lizbeth Ortiz (though Lizbeth was hiding in the back of the East End Studio Gallery booth and I’m not sure she saw me).

I didn’t get a good angle on Lizbeth as there was some good traffic at her spot and I didn’t want to break the flow… but got lucky with Elvira and only one customer…

And at that, they did much better than the guy at the Kroger booth.

Slow promo day, I guess. On the other hand he was sticking it out; a bunch of the exhibitors either had or were in the process of packing up about the time the festival hit the midway point… But oh well. Their business.

Of course the big thing about festivals is music… and unfortunately the light was ALREADY very harsh and hard, and the camera did exactly what I told it to do. Dammit. There are some things you can fix when you do that, but lots more you can’t. It turns out that the new camera goes VERY hot magenta when it’s overexposed to the point of being blown out, and my photoshop-fu isn’t strong enough to pull the color curves back to anything I liked, so that leaves only one option: drop the color out and say “Yeah, I meant to do B&W anyway.”

Yeah. Meant to do that.

¡Viva Mexico!

So it was Friday afternoon, I was feeling mostly broke (as usual), and I was (as usual) looking for something interesting to see. Ah. I know. I’ll go to Mexico.

Well, not south of the border Mexico, but Museum Mexico, at the ever-interesting Houston Museum of Natural Science. See, every so often they do a family-friendly party with a “someplace interesting” theme, and this week it’s Mexico.

I went online and paid for my fare (MUCH less than AeroMexico — and no body searches!!) and caught a bus.

C’mon, let’s go. D’you wanna live forever?

{insert hour-long bus-and-train trip here…}

Continue reading

The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

As some of you know from Facebook mentions, during the last run down to Space Center, I discovered that my favorite walking-around camera, my little Panasonic GF1, wasn’t working. So I took a deep breath and bundled her up (I dunno, some of my cameras are hims and some are hers, and I don’t know what the difference is, but the PanaLeica* is definitely a her) and sent her off to the Panasonic Factory Service shop.

It was too late. Apparently when you sweat as much as I do in the Texas summer, with a camera hanging off your neck, some of the salt gets into the camera and corrodes the internals. So she’s gone to an honorable “remember when?” spot on the shelf above my desk with other bits of personal history – things I’ve run across and can’t bear to part with. When I die someone’s going to wonder “what did he save all this stuff for?” and junk the lot… but until then they’re memories and they stay.

Thing is, I’ve gotten VERY used to having a small inconspicuous close-work camera and my Canons, wonderful tools that they are, are noticeable from half-a-mile away. So the loss of the PanaLeica leaves a noteworthy gap in my working bag.

Enter the GX-7 – the latest update in Panasonic’s scaled-down Micro 4/3 line. It’s essentially a GF1 with several years’ worth of development and refinement. And as a friend/inspiration source dude comments, it’s not nearly as pretty as the GF1 but with the new features and changes, it’s worth it. The friends at The World’s Biggest Camera Store were able to hook me up without leaving the rent unpaid…

Yesterday about 4:00 a new UPS guy swooped across the porch and dropped off a box. (The old guy was a shooter himself, and would usually stick for a few seconds to see what was in the box with the interesting return address…. This one’s not nearly so much fun.)

It took a few minutes of figuring out where the controls went and what some of the new settings do, and an hour or so to spruce up the charge on the battery, and then I tucked the new kid into the camera seat and went out to work. After the pay gig, on the way out, there was a quick stop for this:

The new kid and I are going to be friends. (Yup, this is a “him.”)

*When Panasonic decided to get into the digital camera field, they realized fairly quickly that they had some of the finest electronics engineers known to man, but they didn’t know much about building cameras or lenses. So they turned to the finest camera and lens designers known to man, the guys at Leica. And at about that time Leica had realized they needed to get into digital cameras (thousands of fans banging on the door screaming “Go Digital, Dammit!” will do that for you…) so they were agreeable to several kinds of collaboration – and the results of that were magnificent digital Leicas for the nobility and pretty damn superb digital Panasonics for the peasantry. Digital Leicas carry Leica-based price tags… worth it if you’ve got it but unreachable if you don’t. Digital Panasonics lack the famous Leica Red Dot, but they make first-rate images and they’re priced for peasants. So, since I am at heart and in wallet a peasant …

To The Moon! (1 of 2+)

It’s important to remember that while we (the Good Guys) were sticking tin cans on top of missiles, and stuffing brave young men into those tin cans, and launching them out into the big fat middle of nowhere, we were NOT alone. The Soviet Union (also known as the Evil Commie Bastards) were attaching little hollow balls to the top of their big heavy rockets and stuffing some of THEIR brave young men into those little hollow balls, and launching them out into the big fat middle of nowhere TOO.

And, in fact, that was a big part of our reason for doing it… because when the Evil Commie Bastards put Sputnik into orbit while we were still fiddling around with Cold War missile systems, it occurred to the brightest minds here, as it doubtless did to the brightest minds THERE, that where there was a beeping little satellite there could almost as easily be a bleeping big BOMB, and our geniuses and political leaders (the distinction matters) decided that if there was the possibility of death and destruction being rained down from on high, it should absolutely be US doing the raining down, since being the rained ON was not going to be particularly popular.

So we went full-bore into the “To The Moon!” effort… and having proven that we could blast men into orbit and bring them back home still functional, the next step involved building vessels capable of controlled flight. See, though most of us didn’t really realize this, the Mercury capsules were mostly ballistic. The astronauts had some attitude and pitch controls, but orbital trajectory was largely fixed at launch. Getting to the moon would require much more sophisticated equipment.

Thus Mercury Mk II (better known as Gemini.)

The focus was on building systems that could actually serve as working platforms, rather than simply experimental curiosities. Immediate goals were maneuverability, rendezvous and docking capabilities, better life-support, power supply, and long-term living arrangements. (There were conceptual plans for Mercury and Gemini-based orbital stations, though nothing ever seems to have come of them…)

And, of course… spacewalks. Which meant spacesuits.

There are a couple of panels in the Astronaut Gallery at Space Center dedicated to the rocket science involved in space suit building, because they’re essentially unpowered mini-ships and quite complicated to design and build. Rocket Science really IS more complex than most of us tend to think.

This is an exhibit suit described as “identical to the one Ed White wore when he performed the first U.S. Spacewalk.” It had to provide thermal protection, a pressurized atmosphere, maneuverability, and protection from micrometeorites… turns out space vacuum comes complete with lots and lots of itty-bitty flying rocks zipping around at a good clip. So the engineers came up with this version, which is basically an upgrade to the standard Gemini suit. It’s 10 lbs heavier (it weighs 34 lbs) and 22 layers thick PLUS a heavy felt layer for rock padding. The waist pack provides attachment points for the tether and umbilical package which kept White breathing and tied to the Gemini capsule while he was floating around. They put an emergency oxygen supply in the chest pack, just in case something went wrong.

For maneuverability, he had this gadget

which is basically a handheld spray jet with two nozzles about a foot or so apart (you can’t really see the one in back, but it’s there…) and a modified 35mm Nikon F camera on top. (As a strong proponent of “never go out without a camera because you just never know,” I heartily approve. Even if it IS a Nikon.)

And, over in the museum is White’s actual Gemini IV capsule hanging from the ceiling with another of the training suits used before the mission.

I love museum exhibits like this. To me, they give a better feel for what it might have felt like to do the “floating among the stars” thing. White floated in space for about 20 minutes, during which he also set some sort of record for the fastest coast-to-coast flight in history. While he was floating around (and what a trip that had to have been….) he told the pilot, James McDivitt, “I’m not coming in… this is fun.”

At the end of the programmed walk, when he was scheduled to climb back into the capsule, he radioed back to Mission Control (in Houston, for the first time) that it was “the saddest moment of my life.”

But he DID crawl back inside, came back to Earth, and finished the mission.

Which means I DO get to learn (and write) more of this.


Incidental note: I’m a member of a facebook group – “You Know You’re a Writer When…” and my latest contribution was “You know you’re a writer when you do crazy stuff just so you can write about what it’s like to do crazy stuff.” That much is autobiography.

Last time I was down at NASA I did the crazy stuff. Got into a spinning chair and let the guy turn my inner ears inside out, (surprisingly not too unpleasant until I tried to stand up afterwards and the floor just would not cooperate). Took a fast bouncy walk in 38% gravity (not too bad this time but I really like my feet to stay where I put them). Actually climbed to the top of a 9-meter (that’s a little less than 30 feet for you Old School USians…) scaffold, let somebody hook me to a cable that was supposed to reduce my “felt weight” to roughly 80 lbs, and yes, in a moment of total batshit insanity, actually jumped off the top of the tower. Honestly that was probably not the single craziest thing I’ve ever done, but at that particular moment my subconscious was really not interested in comparison shopping.

It was an interesting experience. I think.

The part of my brain that analyses and discusses these things is still mad as hell at me for shoving him into a closet long enough for me to tell my legs “Jump. NOW.”. He’s not really speaking to me at the moment. (Either that or he was just so freaked that I actually DID it that he really missed the event.)

The half-a-second of freefall before the cable caught me was simply wordless – not really long enough to have any emotional context at all, except to observe that a big part of my subconscious does NOT like freefall even a little bit. Then the cable caught, the winch screamed, and I kept falling just about as fast as before (None of this “float down like a ball of thistle” stuff for ME). About that time, the ground person looked up and said “bend your knees!” I did, and about that time my feet hit the ground and stopped falling. Unfortunately the REST of me kept on falling for another couple of seconds. When your feet stop and the rest of you doesn’t, it’s awkward. It left me half-sprawled on my butt at the bottom of the tower. I assured the ground crew folks that I was okay, then climbed right back up (Easier than you might think when you weigh a third of normal) with nothing broken but my dignity, and carried on.

I’m still not sure how I feel about having done this, but I have a new buff and polish job on my “crazy writer” credentials.

For whatever that’s worth.

Beautiful Belle…

Little-known and totally useless aviation factoid: I have a great liking for the old Douglas DC-3, the “Gooney Bird.” (I actually have a great liking for almost ANY old machine that just keeps going and going and going, year in and year out, far past any reasonable life expectancy. But even in that class, the old Douglas masterpieces stand out.) So when I read that the Bluebonnet Belle, a gorgeously restored and maintained 1944-vintage C-47 which belongs to the Highland Lakes Squadron of the CAF, was scheduled to make an appearance at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum down at Hobby Airport, I ditched my previous plan, “drink coffee and catch up on reading,” and headed down to see her. As with the majority of Gooneys, the Belle is designated “C-47″ because she was built for the military. The “DC-3″ (Douglas Commercial) is the civilian version (of which only a few were built before production was switched over to the war effort); it’s the same plane with a different badge.

Couple years ago the museum had offered a “quick hop in a C47″ (which was actually a C-49, a slightly later variant) as a promotional deal at one of their monthly Wings & Wheels events, and I went for that like a cat on a mouse. Sadly, when I got to the airport it turned out that the weather between D-FW, where the plane was based, and Houston, where the riders were, was bad (hail and funnel clouds) and they’d had to cancel – the turbulence was making the CREW queasy and hail and tornadoes aren’t really good for vintage aircraft. So I was hoping they’d offer a similar deal yesterday, which I could have (barely) afforded. But that plane wasn’t the Belle and yesterday wasn’t a promo deal – the price for rides was up where it needs to be, and my inner adult said “you don’t have it to spare today.” (Meanwhile, of course, the inner child was screaming, turning blue, and banging his head on the floor, but believe it or not he doesn’t always win.)

Understand, I have no problem with a $200 fee, any more than I do with the price of a Leica. I simply can’t spare the money. Old aircraft are terrifically expensive to fly and maintain, and the CAF folks are mostly “ordinary folks” with ordinary incomes, many of them retired and with virtually NO incomes. And officially, the Belle costs almost $600 an hour to fly, just in gas and oil. Tires, other consumables, maintenance, and all the thousands of other things are extra.

These old radials shove a lot of oil out the exhaust in a hurry when you start them up. (They also have “new engines someday” on the “gotta do” list – at 180 grand for the pair. Ouch.)

So I settled for the ground tour, courtesy of John Long, who knows his C47s AND the Belle.

The Belle, in her current role as an educator, is fitted out in a unique pattern to show four of the major roles filled by the C-47 during the war. There’s a cargo section (bare floor with lots of tiedown points), a passenger section (coach class or less), a patient transport section (stretchers hung on the walls), and a paratroop section (hard metal seats along the sides).

(Patient Transport Configuration)

The Gooney Bird was basically the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft – does anything, anywhere, anytime. There was even an early fork off the predecessor DC-2 design which became the B-18 “Bolo” medium bomber. Those were used primarily as trainers, though some were used for offshore patrol and one is credited with sinking a German U-boat in the Caribbean during the early days of the war. (The things I learn doing this…)

C-47s were also used heavily for towing gliders and ferrying troops and cargo (including jeeps and field artillery!). Over in the Pacific, they were the backbone of the India-China route, the fabled “Burma Hump,” where they kept the war effort in China alive, and paid for it as they and their crews died by the hundreds.

Aside from learning historical stuff, the best part of the tour was being able to climb (yeah, there’s quite a bit of slant to the floor when she’s on the ground – old taildraggers are like that…) right up to the cockpit. Not quite so complex as the Space Shuttle, no, but there’s a family resemblance.

As fascinating as the wartime history of the DC-3 is, for me it’s much simpler: This is what an airplane should look like.



Happy 70th, Beautiful Belle.

Esplanade Escapades (29.75741N, 95.34261W)

Last night was fairly quiet, even for Saturday night, and I just couldn’t find the lede for the next part of the NASA set (It’ll get there. It just wasn’t falling into place right then….) so I climbed into Andromeda (the Backroads Expeditionary Vehicle) and dropped by the East End Management District’s “Evening on the Esplanade.”

It was a quiet evening there, too.

But the management district has put a bit of time and money into turning part of the Navigation Boulevard Esplanade into a park of sorts, suitable for small events and very small street festivals.

The decoration theme appears to be “Papel Picado” done in steel.

It’s nicely executed though I could wish the street-level railing signs were done in something besides this ugly neutral grey-brown. I suspect there are city ordinances in play here, though.

The overhead “shade” pieces are colorful, though…

The “Evening on the Esplanade” is a new thing, just getting started, and it wasn’t particularly bustling… a couple of dozen people, maybe, three vendors and a food truck.

The budget rarely stretches to festival food, tonight being no exception, but the barbecue smelled wonderful and by report was excellent.

All in, it was a pleasant evening; a little warm, but cooling down nicely. I spent a bit of time talking with Adriane Wiltse, one of the artist/vendors. (I ducked out of the way when the cash customers showed up, not being inclined to wear jewelry myself…)

It’s nice work, gold fill and sterling with all sorts of semi-precious stones and vintage beads and knickknacks.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one who liked it…

A pleasant evening all around….

Getting There

From Downtown Houston, head east on Franklin under US59. The road curves left and dives into a tunnel under a railroad right-of-way. When you come out of the tunnel, you’ll actually be ON Navigation. To get to the esplanade, go straight through the first light, which is Canal St., and take a right at the second, which is the continuation of Navigation. The esplanade park is four or five blocks up, in the middle of the street. I usually find the phrase “you can’t miss it” to be very dangerous in driving directions, but here, well… you’ll have to work hard to miss it. When you get to the longhorn at Plaza Laurenzo, you’ve missed it. Good work.

Alternatively, you can catch Metro – the #48 line goes right by the Esplanade, in and out. I’ve been riding Metro semi-regularly for a couple of years and have found that they’re reasonably good about meeting schedules – but they are not designed for urban transport so much as they are for commuting, so many of their lines don’t run late hours. Check the schedule and allow a little extra for connections.

From anywhere else: Get to Downtown Houston, then follow the instructions above.

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…

There’s a quote, variously attributed to John Glenn, or Alan Shepard, or possibly John Glenn QUOTING Alan Shepard, about waiting for liftoff in his Mercury capsule, “feeling as good as anyone could while sitting on top of a rocket built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

I always heard it was Glenn, but I’ve been wrong about a bunch of other things, and The Internets don’t seem to know for sure exactly who said it, or exactly what the words were or in what order. It’s a great line, though, so I’m going to go with “attrib uncertain.”

In any case, when you’re standing in what amounts to NASA’s Museum of Space Exploration looking at Gordon Cooper’s “Faith 7″ Mercury capsule
the first thing that pops into your head is “Where did these guys keep the kind of balls it took to DO this?”

I’ve seen a couple of the other capsules and it always surprises me just how TINY they are. Officially a Mercury capsule is a little less than 7 feet long and a little over 6 feet across. Most of that was taken up with equipment and electronics, though. There’s barely enough room for the pilot, and stretching the legs just ISN’T in the program.

For perspective: imagine being strapped into a phone booth (or a coach class airline seat) for several hours, zooming around a hundred and twenty miles up at ungodly thousands of miles per hour… and being expected to do a full range of experiments and observations all the while. If the astronauts weren’t volunteers we’d call it torture. Rocket Science isn’t for wimps. (Just for perspective, “breathable air” stops at a bit less than five miles up, and if you blow a seal, there’s no way to hitchhike back down.)

The idea of slithering into that silver space suit and then climbing into that little tin can on top of one of these things to get blown 120 miles out into the middle of nowhere was appealing as hell to my 8-year-old geek self, but that was a while back. At this point, reality has led me to different dreams, and I think I’d have to pass. I’m not ten feet tall, bulletproof, and invincible any more. I look for different (not quite so adventurous) adventures now….

Still, at the time, this was THE cutting edge of science, literally the best anyone had, and the rickety old crate always looks ricketier in the mirror. But still, Rocket Man had big brass ones.

And it was a tight fit.


The thing hanging just to the right of the capsule in that top frame is a replica of Explorer 1, the US’s first orbital satellite, launched in early 1958. It was designed by a scientist, James Van Allen, to detect cosmic rays. It worked, which is why we now know about the Van Allen belts, magnetic fields that block some of the aforementioned cosmic rays from hitting the earth. (Educational content… Most of you probably learned something you’d forgotten you ever knew.)

Beside that, in its own panel, going even further back in time, is a replica of Robert Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket, an amazingly primitive thing made of insulated metal tubing and imagination. It used gasoline and liquid oxygen as propellant, and flew about 184 feet, peaking at about 41 feet altitude. This was 1926. Every space rocket the US has ever launched calls this one “grandpa.” (With a variable number of ‘greats,’ of course, but this truly WAS the Alpha point. It all starts here.)

I remember reading about this when I was very small… six or seven or so. I’d never been able to figure it out from the picture, but seeing it “live” I realize that the reason I’ve never been able to figure out how it worked is that the information I had was wrong. The propulsion unit is at the top; the bottom is simply fuel tanks. Now it makes more sense. And it’s still seven kinds of awe-inspiring.
Dreams DO count.