I still have reasons

Four years ago, I posted a rant about smutphones, and why I wasn’t about to get one. And so we revisit the topic as times change, because now I own one.

If you’re expecting some epiphany, some radical change of opinion, even some abject hedging, well, I’m happy to disappoint you. Most of the stuff that I mentioned in that previous post still holds entirely true. There are just three things that are different now that caused, or permitted, or whatever, this change of heart:

1. I got it for $20;

2. I’m still using the same pay-as-you-go plan that I was using for the flip-phone, which means less than $15 a month for usage fees;

3. A few too many people that I know cannot grasp e-mail very well (in some cases, at all,) and have to periodically communicate by text message, which is inordinately painful on a numeric keypad.

I’ve had it for just six months now, and boy has my attitude changed! No, wait, it really hasn’t at all – I still find them almost as annoying as I did before I had one. I still refuse to use it in any way while driving, and don’t carry on conversations in public – the most I’ll do is make a quick call to, for instance, confirm details about something. Even with the advancements in technology in the intervening four years, touch screens are still ridiculous and awkward – versatile, from an input interface standpoint, but not really adapted to such a small size and poorly suited to the main purpose of entering text. I don’t have big clumsy hands or fingers, but they’re still far too large for phone screens.

My primary reasoning behind the purchase was, I intended to do some remote hiking and kayaking, and wanted to have something GPS capable. The cost was significantly better than any standalone GPS unit, though probably less capable and by far less rugged. And I will openly admit, it’s pretty remarkable to have a versatile computer that’s actually smaller than my wallet (no, I did not opt for a larger model.) So, how many ways have I found to enhance my everyday activities with this magical device?

Not many, really. And I could certainly be using more of the capabilities of the thing if I tried, but the demand really hasn’t been that great. Here are some (if not all) of the ‘major’ changes that are facilitated now:

1. A notepad. It’s fairly handy for notes that I’ll refer to frequently, or reminders of stuff that comes up occasionally, like the size of a picture frame that I’m keeping an eye open for.

2. Remote access to e-mail. From time to time, I have to refer back to a recent e-mail that I’ve received, like for a student’s phone number or meeting time. However, I don’t read e-mail on the damn thing, much less write or reply. Those still wait until I’m at my workhorse desktop computer.

3. Voice recorder. I use this less than imagined, but still occasionally.

4. Weather. Sometimes it’s handy to know what’s coming my way, and even handier to have something that syncs to my current location.

5. MP3 player (especially Bluetooth.) At my other job, we have a Bluetooth receiver/speaker system, so I can play tunes easily. However, it’s more often the tablet that fulfills this duty, because it has a heartier battery. The car stereo has its own MP3 player.

6. Bathroom breaks. Yes. Primarily sudoku. The number of other games I have downloaded for the phone can be counted on one hand – the tablet has slightly more.

7. The occasional amusing photo to harass friends with. Maybe as much as once a week, but usually less. I can’t say my life would be poorer without this.

What it’s not used for:

a. Selfies. What an unbelievably vain and fatuous pasttime. And I say this knowing that this is the primary activity of a friend of mine.

b. Conversations. I have a landline for those, and don’t engage in them very often anyway. No, not even

c. “Important business calls.” When I’m out, I’m busy, and especially when I’m out with a student or client, I’m not interrupting them for another call – I find it inexcusably rude. But even if I’m ‘free,’ I won’t have a notepad, calendar, or anything else at hand to handle business calls, so those go to voicemail and I get back to them when I’m in my office.

d. Boredom. I can usually find something else to do.

e. Social media. It’s even stupider now than it was four years ago, so no.

f. Watching movies and video. Holy shit, no. Why would I inflict such a tiny screen on myself in this manner?

g. Car GPS. I already had one for the car, and it’s far better than the phone. By the way, I still look up my route at the desktop before I leave, and generally use the GPS only to know when the turns are coming up, since the route-planning logarithms in GPS units invariably suck.

h. Remote web access. I have used this a couple of times successfully, and attempted it several more. The interface is abysmally bad, and the results rarely ever useful. It is far more likely to greatly increase my annoyance than to provide some useful information.

“But Al,” you say, “haven’t you discovered the plethora of apps that can be downloaded that are tailor-made to your own lifestyle?” And I thank you for implying that I can in any way be said to have a style. Yes, I’m familiar with apps, and have even selected a few that add a small amount to my nature photography pursuits – not a lot, mind you, and perhaps I’m missing some real gems. First off, I have to say that I have installed and subsequently deleted at least four times as many apps than I have retained, simply because they didn’t work as intended or had poor interfaces. It can get kind of tedious. And this says nothing of the huge number of apps that I looked at but never installed, because they wanted far more in the way of ‘permissions’ to snoop around on my phone and usage history than was warranted by the ostensible functions of the app.

[Before you ask, I’m using Android, for reasons that should be obvious if you look at the costs above, but also because nothing that I have ever seen from Apple in the past fifteen years has been impressive in the least, while numerous traits have been serious game-stoppers, like ‘proprietary’ horseshit and their attempts at exclusivity.]

But here are a few apps that I have found of some use:

Heavens Above – I’ve been using this on the desktop for years, and the app is even cooler. Let’s you find visible passes of satellites, including the ISS, and will even give you a live pointer if you hold your phone up to the sky (and have the necessary hardware, which most have nowadays.) But much better on a bigger screen, so the tablet is the go-to device for this app, really.

3D Compass Plus – Not just a compass, but will overlay the pointer of your choice onto the camera’s view, so fairly useful for orienteering when you have to plot a precise compass direction – say, that tree is right at 272°, so we walk in that direction. There are a ton of other options out there of course, but I settled on this one from among those that I’d tried.

GPS Status – A very fast and handy plotter; no directions, but good for precise location as well as speed, altitude, magnetic declination, and so on. Good inclinometer too, which means it can be used to level the camera for those crucial applications.

LightMeter Free – Knowing how to use an ambient and reflected light meter can be fairly handy for photography, especially in situations where the camera’s onboard exposure meter can be easily fooled. Dedicated meters can be bulky and awkward, so this is a nice little substitute, and so far, has proved pretty accurate.

DoF – A handy little depth of field calculator, with a nod towards the crucial bit, which is how big you intended to display the resulting image (the bigger the enlargement, the lower the impact of depth of field – blurry stuff becomes blurrier with enlargement.)

Airport + Flight Tracker Radar – Nice realtime flight tracker, able to be used to know when someone’s flight is due in (before you get into the terminal snarl,) or just to see which aircraft are approaching the airport of your choice when you’re doing long exposures, as I used here. Not a huge help to most nature photography applications, but if you like light trails…

Timely Alarm Clock – One of perhaps a gazillion out there, but this one has been in use for a couple of years now, only on the tablet – I don’t leave the phone alongside the bed because I am not about to be woken up by cell calls or random alerts. Anyway, this alarm clock works great, especially in using a sound file of your choice as the wakeup tone. Years ago I had an alarm clock that played cassettes for just this reason.

And two more from the tablet:

ISS HD Live – Yep, realtime video from the International Space Station as it orbits, though occasionally defaulting to archive footage (courtesy of NASA, not the app.) Also plots the current position of the ISS on a map. Pretty cool.

QuickPic Photo Gallery – Mostly used for the students, but also just for showing friends (sometimes forcefully) a few of the images that I’m most proud of. I tried several different apps for photo albums but this one has been serving well for a couple of years now.

You are welcome, and in fact invited, to pass along anything in particular that you feel can benefit nature photography (or critical thinking, or wretched attempts at humor, et al) – I’m more than happy to examine the possibilities. So far, however, I just haven’t found any significant enhancement of my life from smutphones, even when I’ve embraced them – albeit distantly, like that aunt with the mustache.

Now, if there was an app that actually worked to market my images, well, then we’d see…

Let’s do it again

harvest moon rising over Jordan Lake
Today, October 6th, is International Time Warp Day, and to celebrate, I’m going to use the oft-ignored option in WordPress to publish this post at a random date, either ahead of or behind when I’m actually typing it. I couldn’t ever find a use for the function before, but I realized it was handy for this holiday.

Last night, the Insurmountable Mr. Bugg and I went out to Jordan Lake to try and capture the sunset, which, as I’ve said before, can be hit-or-miss – it’s really hard to predict just how the colors might turn out, even just an hour in advance. You might think that conditions like completely clear skies or complete overcast would let you predict that the sunset would be crappy, but I’ve seen things change in only minutes to produce some really great colors and skyscapes. Just, you know, not this time…

The moon, however, was more cooperative. As you can see from the widget on the sidebar there [okay, maybe not] the moon was full last night, and rose with a lovely golden hue. For reasons unknown, I hadn’t brought the tripod along, so I was forced to shoot handheld, not the best of options for clarity in telephoto shots. The old Canon 100-300 L lens was in my corner though, and I got more detail than I really expected. To give you an idea, the image to the right is the full frame of the detail crop that’s coming below.

By the way, I will repeat something that I’ve often mentioned, here and to students: you can’t try to shoot the moon with autoexposure. Go full manual, but knowing the settings can be tricky. When the moon is full and high overhead, the settings should be aperture f11, shutter speed of one-over-ISO – in other words, 1/100 second if you’re shooting at ISO 100, 1/400 second if you’re shooting at ISO 400, you get the idea. Near the horizon and showing colors like this, that exposure guide doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work for different phases of the moon either. For phases, you can refer to Keith’s Moon Photography page, but for the colors, you kind of have to wing it; start with the recommended exposure for a bright moon (in whatever phases,) but then start increasing exposure times or aperture opening because the moon is darker than when overhead and white – do a lot of variations. In this particular case, the exposure was f10 at 1/200 second, ISO 800 – meaning the moon was about two and a third stops darker than it would be when overhead. I had boosted to ISO 800, despite the noise that this introduced, because I was handholding the camera (actually braced against a pole,) and trying to keep the shutter speed high enough to prevent camera shake and thus blur the image a little bit.

Did it work? I’ll let you judge.

full resolution crop of moon handheld with Canon 100-300 L
This is a full-resolution crop from that second pic up there, and I really can’t complain about the results. The Canon 100-300mm f5.6 L is a long-discontinued, push-pull zoom with an ancient autofocus system, a bit slow and noisy, but for an easy-to-carry and affordable mid-tele, damn it’s sharp! There are plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t fit into any individual’s shooting style, among them the slow nature (in both autofocus and aperture,) but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a lens on the used market that’s a better bang for the buck.

Anyway, the Draconids meteor shower is peaking in a day or on, on October 8th and 9th, with the Orionids following about two weeks later on the 21st and 22nnd, so be sure not to miss them! And get ready, because fall colors are coming, and it promises to be a good show this year!

Sunday slide 47

lone American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua leaf floating on smooth water of Falls Lake
We go back to 1999, or maybe even slightly farther, for this one, an old staple of my abstract images. This is mostly because all of the slides I just scanned for potential use this week didn’t really pass muster, and I’m too tired to scare up some other choices.

Falls Lake, as I mentioned earlier, used to be a regular haunt of mine, and one fall I was out in the morning when the air was preternaturally still. A single American sweetgum leaf (Liquidambar styraciflua) offered a splash of colors against the extremely muted reflection of the sky, and so I framed the way it felt right and fired off a shot.

Actually, if memory serves I found the leaf floating closer to shore, and tossed it further out to use the gradient tones of the water reflections better, rather than shooting more downwards where the light would penetrate to the clay bottom. Yeah, that’s us unethical nature photographers: always tampering.

Woooo, I’m a ghost!

What that title means is that I’m here, but you’d never be able to tell, at least not from my posting or indeed from the number of photos that I’ve shot recently. There’s been too much going on, yet not anything worth mentioning here (and you know that’s not exactly a high bar.)

I got out, very briefly, in the past couple of days to do a few pics, even though the fall colors aren’t really too impressive now, partially due to the weather conditions, partially due to my delay in pursuing them. I can always find the occasional tableau that makes it look like I know what I’m doing, but nothing that’s going to win awards or acclaim or my own sitcom.

fall foliage against sky at West Point on the Eno
The weather has gotten a bit brisk, with a couple of overnight frosts, and the frogs within the front planters have long ago vanished, I’m almost certain burying themselves in the soil of the pots. Curiously, however, while The Girlfriend and I were doing a little autumn yardwork yesterday, I spotted a small Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis,) again no bigger than an actual thumbnail, barely nestled in the fold of a vinyl cover in the backyard.

juvenile Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis semi-protected in vinyl cover
Where it sat, it had a good view of the two of us marching back and forth, and was clearly aware of our presence though not too concerned with it, and it was in the same spot when I went past it much later that night, though a slightly different position. There’s a front pushing through and the rain due any minute, so perhaps it was enjoying the warmth and anticipating the moisture? I certainly expected it to be holed up for the winter, and I haven’t seen it anywhere in the vicinity for at least weeks.

One of our tasks for the day was repotting a couple of bushes, which provided another small surprise. As The Girlfriend shook out some potting soil from an open bag we’d had sitting under the porch, a bright green misshapen object distinguished itself from the nearly-black soil, and I realized what it was almost instantly, before it roused from its winter stupor and began trying to right itself. One of the resident green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) had wintered itself within the bag, which would have been a pretty good choice if it hadn’t been for our rude intrusion. If you’ve ever wondered what an amphibian look of reproach was, it’s this:

adult green treefrog Hyla cinerea unearthed from bag of potting soil
adult green treefrog Hyla cinera having enough of our shenanigansI quickly moved it to a safe location so we could continue our chores, but knew I’d be back to do a couple of photos. When I eventually returned, it had taken up a sleeping position against a rainbarrel, but I attempted to convince it to settle into the pot of the newly-transplanted bush, even very gently burying it to give it the idea – it was having none of this, and was making the effort to leave us well behind. After the images, we let it be and so have no real idea where it got itself off to, but I expect that we’ll see it again come spring, when perhaps it will have forgiven us. Or perhaps not. You know frogs and grudges.

One more autumn pic, which brings us to just about the total number of images that I’ve shot is the past two weeks or so worth sharing – it’s been pretty bad. Maybe I need to plan a trip out to Hanging Rock State Park. Somewhere, anywhere, as long as it has something more to shoot than here – but of course this also requires the time to expend on it. Any avid readers out there want to spot me airfare to Belize or Costa Rica? I’ll make the rest of it work if you do, and I promise to present at least an extra post or two in appreciation – I’m that kind of guy.

autumn colors shot up the trunk

Sunday slide 46

juvenile yellow-crowned night heron Nyctanassa violacea hunting in Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Yeah, I kind of slipped in a twofer again. Sue me.

Same location and date as the previous post, only minutes apart. At a small clearing along the boardwalk in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) was among the dozens of birds enthusiastically fishing among the water plants. Yes, there’s water down there under all those leaves, and a whole lot of fish too. At least seven different species of waders were busy there that day, almost completely oblivious to the cluster of people on the handrails nearby gawping at them.

If you compare this one to the previous post, you’ll see the radical difference in juvenile and adult coloration for this species, which is about the size of a crow but with longer legs and a more extendable neck. I liked this shot for the mimicked position from the little blue heron in the background, and how it illustrates the thickness of the water plants. A wood stork close by demonstrated that the water itself was not even a half-meter in depth, and I’d already seen for myself that it was surprisingly clear – as flat as Florida is, you’d expect such a swamp to be murky and perhaps even stagnant, but there’s a significant flow from Lake Okeechobee so it’s fresher than imagined. The Sanctuary is definitely worth a visit, even if it seems a little remote from other areas of interest – you might see anything there.

A small aside: When doing the previous post, I double-checked the scientific names of the species, having been burned before. Yep, it’s been changed since I last mentioned it, having previously been Nyctcorax violacea, and now I have to change it on at least one webpage in the main gallery. This kind of stuff happens a lot.

Somewhere out there…

yellow-crowned night heron Nyctanassa violacea dozing in thicket
… someone has almost the exact same image.

I found this one while picking this week’s Sunday Slide, and decided to mention it just to flesh out another post, so here’s the story. While shooting in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida, I espied this yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) dozing in a thicket of branches. It was a little distant and hard to see, but that’s why I had the Sigma 170-500mm lens along.

The boardwalk trail that I was on was relatively busy that day, and when you have a long lens set up on a heavy tripod, people start trying to see what it is you’re shooting. Now, far too many photographers that I’ve encountered are aloof and kind of asocial, often treating anyone near them as irritating and, at the very least, trying to ignore them. In a very small way I somewhat understand this, because on average, people don’t demonstrate the kind of low-key, silent, unobtrusive observation that is important to wildlife photography, and are easily capable of chasing off a subject or at least altering their behavior. But you know what? Go shoot in the deep wilds completely away from everyone, hotshot. If you’re in a public access area with a nice solid surface to plant the tripod and no muck seeping into your shoes or the seat of your pants, other people are just what you deal with.

I’ve had my share of shots ruined by noisy people, too, and have probably ruined a few in my day as well. But I’ve never felt that I had to stake a claim to a shooting location or any shit like that, and having people around is just what you have to expect and accept in some locations. And if someone expresses curiosity, I’m usually happy to point out what I’m shooting, and have even lowered the tripod to allow kids to get a peek through the viewfinder. Boy, in this age of hypersensitivity that sounds like a horrible double-entendre, doesn’t it?

On this particular day, when a young couple had managed to spot the bird that I was shooting (while I waited patiently to see if it would display some interesting behavior,) and they commented on the lens, I asked what kind of camera the woman was using. When she confirmed that it was a Canon, I disconnected my Canon body from the lens, leaving the lens affixed to the tripod and still pointing at the bird, and simply invited her to attach her own camera. Once she got it locked in after a moment of fumbling (most people are used to rotating the lens itself during changes, and having to rotate the body instead is confusing,) she stood on tiptoe to see through the viewfinder, and gasped – 500mm offers some nice magnification. She fired off a couple of frames and thanked me profusely, and I just smiled and shrugged – I don’t consider it a big deal, and even if I felt super-competitive, this wasn’t the kind of person that was likely to take sales away from me.

I am far from being an outgoing and social person, and generally dislike crowds and noise and all that, but I see no reason to be distant or impersonal – a little goodwill can go a long way. And even if it doesn’t benefit me directly in any manner, it’s still not a bad trait to foster overall.

A visit with the warbirds, part 2

rain and condensation on canopy of Collings Foundation's TF-51D "Toulouse Nuts"
I told you I’d be back – I just didn’t say how freaking long it would take. Someday I will do a post about projects that took up way too much time, but that would be taking time away from the thing I’ve been trying to get to, which is this, so it’ll wait and take time away from something else.

Part 1 can be found here – for a brief recap, the Collings Foundation, a non-profit organization that restores and maintains vintage aircraft, had a Wings of Freedom Tour to bring three WWII era bombers and a fighter/trainer around the country, and I caught two of their stops, which was well worth the minimal admission fee, even when paid twice. As the image above implies, the second day that I visited came on the heels of a rainy afternoon and night, starting right about the time that they were supposed to be ferrying the planes from Raleigh-Durham to Burlington. In their day, the planes would fly in just about any kind of weather, but they’re older now and lack modern avionics, and so only fly in optimal conditions. This meant that the North American B-25 Mitchell “Tondelayo,” the medium bomber that I hadn’t gotten the chance to see at RDU, didn’t manage to leave there before the weather turned sour, and I was told that it was waiting for the clearing conditions of this day. The canopy seen here was of the North American TF-51D Mustang “Toulouse Nuts,” a trainer version of the P-51D that appeared late in WWII and did further duty in Korea.

tail fin of Collings Foundation's B-24J Liberator "Witchcraft" against skyThe day did indeed clear, so I have a nice mix of conditions from the Burlington session, but you’ll see shots from both – more fartsy stuff this time around, because I was experimenting a bit. This is the tail fin of the B-24J Liberator “Witchcraft,” which you’ve seen once or twice before (the plane itself, not necessarily the fin.) The interior layout is quite similar to the B-17G, and just as spacious.

I admit to being guilty of bad planning for the second visit. While the day dawned cool and quite damp (keeping the crowds down,) I wanted to tour the B-25 that was promised to arrive, and was there for hours, many of them well after the sky cleared and the sun started beating down – and I hadn’t brought a hat or sunscreen. I ended up with a nice little sunburn, but small price, as far as I’m concerned. I got to chat with a lot of other fellow enthusiasts, including several veterans, and even offered a few shooting tips here and there. Fairly early on, the TF-51D was fired up to take some lucky people out for short airtours, and I literally had a front row seat – more on that anon.

As an enthusiast that has done quite a bit of reading about WWII aircraft, I ended up sharing a lot of that knowledge with more than a few people at both locations; I was a little surprised to be doing it for veterans of that very war, but those that I talked to hadn’t actually served in these aircraft (or indeed any, in most cases,) so I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose – there’s no particular reason that they should be conversant with the aircraft, any more than pilots would know about the interior of Sherman tanks.

By the way, if your knowledge of bomber operations comes from the movie Memphis Belle, well, it could be better. It was overdramatized in places, and sanitized in others, at least according to most sources that I’ve found, and the real “Memphis Belle” had a relatively uneventful final mission. Just so you know.

Collings Foundation's B-24J Liberator "Witchcraft" taxiing in at RDU International Airport
Here’s a look at the B-24J “Witchcraft” taxiing into RDU following an airtour; I can only guess at the purpose of the crewmember riding atop the cabin, and that guess is regarding visibility. But I also can’t see that the view from the cockpit would be any worse than for a commercial airliner, so it might also have to do with listening to the engines. Yes, they’re seventy-some years old and irreplaceable – in some cases, a failure would mean machining an entirely new part from scratch. I wish I could locate the article online, but many years back in Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, they talked about the difficulties in maintaining such aircraft in flying conditions – the search for parts or plans to machine them, the custom-made tires, and so on. It was not helped at all by the isolationist and competitive nature among some of the various organizations that were maintaining the aircraft, circumvented by a new cooperative approach, adopted by some, that allowed for pooled resources, trading, and a larger client-base when customized parts were required to be ordered.

composite of Collings Foundation's B-17G Flying Fortress "909" and B-24J Liberator "Witchcraft" nose to nose
By the way, while much of the folklore emphasizes the B-17 (on the left) as the more capable and rugged heavy American bomber of the war, this article suggests that the B-24 (right) was actually a better aircraft overall; it certainly had a more modern look, and incorporated more advanced features. As is always the case within the military, those that operate the aircraft maintain that they fly the best planes available, yet only a handful of pilots have the opportunity to compare multiple models in similar conditions. Regardless, both models have extensive history behind them, with their own share of accomplishments.

view of flight deck, engineer's and radio operator's stations in Collings Foundation's B-24J "Witchcraft"
exterior view of nose turret on Collings Foundation's B-24J "Witchcraft"Above is a view of the interior of the B-24J, from the bomb bay looking forward; the bright area is the flight deck, while the immediate surroundings are the realm of the engineer (and top gunner) and radio operator. Further forward is the compartment that housed the navigator, bombardier, and nose-turret gunner – that hatch in the lower foreground allowed a tight access under the deck to the area, which sat below and in front of the flight deck. Using this access would have required one to crawl past the nose wheel, and I believe that the crew normally entered that section through the nose gear doors instead – still a tight squeeze. This area was closed off to visitors, so I simply poked the camera through the netting.

And of course an exterior view of the nose, with the nose-turret visible at top and the bombardier’s window at bottom. Unlike the B-17G, the nose gunner of the B-24J sat entirely within an enclosed booth, able to rotate with the turret itself. This arrangement was a development late in the history of the aircraft, since the original design was much simpler; radical difference between these two (and both shot at the same airport, though close to two decades apart.)

Another bit of trivia: unlike the B-17, the B-24 seen here did not have a forward hatch for crew access – the pilots, engineer, and radio operator all just used the bomb bay, which is how the people touring this aircraft exited, having gained entry through a crew hatch in the rear. Getting under the bomb bay doors required bending over double, since they cleared the ground by only a meter or so. I had thought the bay doors looked a little flimsy, and later found out that they were: they were designed so that not only could the bomb load drop through them without opening, in the event of a hydraulic failure for instance, so could the crewmembers! Which meant that anyone missing their footing while walking that tiny catwalk (shown in part 1) was taking a much bigger risk than initially imagined.

self-portrait of author and protege in spinner of engine on Collings Foundation's B-24J "Witchcraft"
This seems as good a place as any for this one. Looking up at the gleaming spinner, the ‘nose cone’ of one of the propellers on the B-24J, I shot a couple of quick portraits of myself and the impertinent Mr Bugg, who quickly raised his own camera to semi-duplicate the shot (I had the better perspective.) You can see that one of us knows you only have to tilt the camera for a vertical composition, and not your entire head…

vertical and horizontal stabilizer of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"A couple of very similar fartsy shots, as the weather at Burlington cleared up and became pleasant. The one to the left is the horizontal and vertical stabilizers (tail plane and rudder) of the B-17G “909” – it’s easy to see that the plane’s name came from the serial number, the other markings identify the bomber group and squadron, in this case the 91st Bomber Group (‘A’ in triangle) and 323rd Squadron (‘R’) within that group. High visibility markings permitted quick identification of aircraft for rendezvous, such as with fighter escorts or multiple squadrons meeting for the same mission. I incorrectly surmised in part 1 that the markings were fictional – I should have checked my pics of the placard that accompanied the plane, because it clearly says they’re based on a real aircraft that completed 140 missions without a loss of crewmember! This is, alas, not the same plane, which was eventually scrapped, but a stateside model later restored as a replica of a combat aircraft.

Below is the TF-51D “Toulouse Nuts” getting prepped to go out on an airtour. While I would have been delighted to take one myself, the necessary two grand for a half-hour flight is income that hasn’t ever been so disposable, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon either, despite the obvious aesthetic and artistic skills so plainly evident here, just waiting to be discovered. However, if the Foundation is interested in having such a thing documented in detail and will provide the ride gratis, I am easy to reach…

Collings Foundation's TF-51D "Toulouse Nuts" getting prepared to embark on an airtour at Burlington Regional Airport, NC
I’ve said this before, and will likely keep disclaiming it until I feel less ashamed of my skills, but I’m not an accomplished videographer. This wasn’t enough to prevent me from shooting some video while I was there, and I combined two clips into a short illustration while the TF-51D started up, taxied out, and took off. The production of this, as simple as it seems, was the thing that prompted the remarks about projects that opened this post; this took a whole lot longer than it should’ve, mostly with software that wasn’t performing as advertised. This isn’t exactly what I was aiming for, but it’s close enough to pass muster – for me, anyway.

That wasn’t too painful, was it? Things will improve eventually.

Somewhere around the second tour of the TF-51D, we spotted the arrival of the B-25 Mitchell “Tondelayo,” finally making it over from RDU now that the weather was amenable. And full credit to the pilot, who could easily have approached and landed without anyone noticing at all, but he instead made a pass right along the flight line, even doing a nice bank to present the plane in direct profile as it passed almost overhead. Thankfully I was already prepared with the 100-300 L affixed, and could do a few nice shots during the pass.

Collings Foundation's B-25 Mitchell "Tondelayo" on upwind pass over Burlington Regional Airport, NC
Since this was my second visit, I was determined to see all of the aircraft inside and out, and had been waiting for this plane to arrive. However, when it taxied up it parked well out on an apron outside of our access, most likely because it was now getting later in the day and they had already booked people to take an airtour on it, so there wasn’t time to put it on static display. I realized that, on the odd chance that it did open up for viewing, it wouldn’t be for at least another hour and I was already noticing how much sun I’d gotten, so I decided to wrap my visit up then – I’d been there for close to four and a half hours, so that was probably enough.

One small note, as I close with an image of “909” heading out at sunset from RDU: as I was driving away and passing directly under the approach path for the airport, “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” by Don Felder began playing on the car stereo. Not the most remarkable of occurrences, seeing as how the stereo was playing my own MP3s, but it was set on random. If you can figure out the significance of this, more power to you.

Collings Foundation's B-17G "909" heading out at sunset from RDU, NC, on the Wings of Freedom Tour

Sunday slide 45: you big silly

trees in fog on Falls Lake
So, I made a list of posts that began with the word, “So,” and it’s way too long. So I’m trying to stop doing that.

Just to let you know, this is the first time I attempted using the slide scanner after the failure, oh, this many weeks ago – I’ve just been using archive scans from my harddrive since then. The scanner worked fine this time around, so maybe it was a simple system glitch. We’ll see.

This Sunday’s slide dates from the days when I lived in Raleigh and had searched out a couple of natural areas to visit regularly because I was dwelling within a big city (it was convenient to work and inexpensive without being ‘cheap’ – you do what you have to do.) One such location was a spur of Falls Lake that had some hiking trails more-or-less following the lake edge, more less than more, really. This section of the lake fell into some steeper valleys, so as you moved away from the water’s edge you tended to rise sharply, and most times the trail simply followed the more level and stable terrain, which was often removed from the water by a notable distance. At one point, there was a section of almost-entirely-enclosed mini-lake, a bay with an isthmus that was most likely manmade, and along that isthmus sat a few trees. One foggy morning when I got out early, the view down that mini-lake was quite interesting to me, and I did a couple of abstract compositions.

As I was touching out the little specks and tiny scratches that are pretty typical of slides, something wasn’t seeming right to me. How was I seeing sharp reflections in the water of trees that weren’t sharp when seen directly?

Oh. Yeah.

trees in fog on Falls Lake not inverted
It helps if I have the slide the right way around in the first place – it’s the mist rising off of the water that obscured the reflections more than the direct images. But I think you can understand how easy it was to get it the wrong way.

In an ideal world

Wouldn’t it be grand if, when countless software companies are urging you to perform constant updates to your system, that these updates actually improved things rather than fucking them up? I know, I’m being unrealistic here, but a man can dream, can’t he? And if he can, I can…

I’m perfectly serious. I usually shut off automatic updates, especially with Windows and Firefox, because they’re not just frequent, they’re time-consuming and rarely do anything useful. However, somehow, without my making any changes to the settings at all, Windows has started telling me that I need to perform updates, and according to all of my searches, they have disabled any and all methods of eradicating these constant reminders from my system. And yes, it’s daily, often twice a day, and they even, out of the remarkable goodness of their hearts, keep reinstalling an update icon on my desktop. Silly me, I though that was for my personal settings and the programs that I actually have a use for, but it appears I was wrong – Microsoft knows better than I do (except for the perpetual “security holes” that they want to keep repairing, but that’s not either gross incompetence or attempts to phish information from my computer, I’m sure.)

Just now, noticing some faintly squirrelly behavior on a couple of websites, I thought perhaps updating Firefox might be a good idea. I have been completely cured of such radical and irrational thinking, however, as the latest release (56.0) was seriously buggy, with the bookmarks icon being worthless and an truly astounding amount of utterly fucking useless shit being added to the right-click menu. While I find it hard to believe that anyone in their right mind couple possibly have a use for right-click menu items that stretch off of the fucking screen, I’m pretty goddamn sure that having access to your bookmarks in the exact same manner as you were accustomed is the primary fucking purpose of a web browser. But we’ve already established that I’m weird.

I’ve been online routinely since 1998. In that time, the amount of security breaches or issues that I’ve had with unupdated software has been trivial – less than five times in my memory. This is mostly because a) I maintain decent anti-virus and anti-malware software, and b) I don’t fuck around with sketchy sites. However, the amount of times that performing updates has changed something that I use routinely, or outright disabled the software itself, is staggering – beyond my ability to count, which is what prompted my update-aversion in the first place. I wish I could fathom why such a state of affairs exists.

So, again, AVOID FIREFOX VERSION 56.0 AT ALL COSTS. If you need to roll back, 55.0.3 is readily available for download at several sites. And if you want to prevent such Firefox crashes from occurring without your input, here’s your quick guide:

1. Click on the menu bar at the top right of your screen – it will be three horizontal bars.

2. Click on Options (little cog wheel)

3. Click on Advanced

4. Click on Update

5. Click on Never Check For Updates (it will say Not Recommended, but that’s an outright lie – I am heartily recommending it.)

All set – you can close the Options tab.

By the way, there’s a little plugin for Firefox (and by extension, IceDragon) called uMatrix, which blocks scripts and bullshit from running on webpages per your own choices and settings – on some sites, this will significantly enhance your use of the site without countless bits of utter bullshit cluttering up the screen or, much worse, trying to fuck around with your system. Since far too many web developers like masturbating with the latest fads in scripts and effects, and advertisers seem to believe they should be snagging info from your computer, this can be a damn handy plugin to have running. But I’ll warn you, configuring it might be frustrating to some, especially if your favorite sites rely on constant content from YouTube, social media, or the more pervasive kinds of advertisers. YouTube alone is notorious for ‘bootstrapping’ scripts – permit the first, which has to load another (which you will also have to permit in uMatrix,) which loads another, and eventually the fucking video will play. Is this necessary? Of course not – Vimeo doesn’t have a problem with simply playing a video, which is why I switched to hosting my videos over there, since who knows what kind of bullshit all of those scripts are performing? I try to keep this site clean and safe; you will never see an ad here, and if anything on here sends up some flags, even just outside links, tell me.

Anyway, rant over – now I can return to what I’d planned to spend my time on today. Good luck trying to use your software without ongoing issues and needless stupidity.

A visit with the warbirds, part 1

Colings Foundation B-17G "909" departing RDU International Airport
Okay, I’m finally getting to this!

Several days back, the Wings of Freedom tour from the Collings Foundation made its visit to nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU,) and the Immaculate Mr Bugg and I paid a visit. The Collings Foundation is a non-profit organization that restores and maintains vintage military aircraft, and there were four classic WWII planes that they were flying between stops of the tour: a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (seen above,) a Consolidated B-24J Liberator, a North American B-25 Mitchell, and a North American TF-51D Mustang. The latter is a pursuit/fighter (technically a trainer,) while the other three are bombers. As I mentioned earlier, the modest admission cost of $15 allowed visitors to not only walk around all of the aircraft, but to take a walk-through of the bomber interiors as well, which is actually a pretty good deal – it’s not often that you get the opportunity to see the workings of a warbird in person. Many years ago in my active modelmaking days, I had built a kit of the B-17G, a 1/48th scale model available from Monogram, that included fairly elaborate interior detail, so I was already somewhat familiar with the layout, but jumped at the opportunity to see the real thing. And the most prominent takeaway from the experience is that these aircraft were, shall we say, snug.

view down at author's foot on catwalk within bomb bay of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"This is a view down at the catwalk through the middle of the (open) bomb bay of the “909,” the call sign of this particular B-17G, and yes, it’s only wide enough for one foot at a time. My main camera bag, a holster-style with two attached lens cases, was too wide to fit between the supporting frames of that catwalk, and it had to be turned sideways. To get here, one has to clamber awkwardly into the forward hatch, using something between a tight crouch and a crawl, then pass through the top-turret gunner’s mount that was stationed immediately before the forward bomb bay access door – those quarters were too cramped to actually allow any decent photos of this. The top-turret had a superstructure for the guns and turning motors, plus a platform that the gunner stood upon, and getting between these required crawling – I actually had to pull my knees through by hand to get them onto the catwalk, since they no longer will bend that tightly and readily on their own power. The only saving grace that I can offer about such tight access is that the crew almost never had to pass through the bomb bay during normal operations.

By the way, I was fairly spry compared to some of the WWII veterans that were on hand and touring the aircraft themselves, but they were still gamely maneuvering through the confines. I was happy to provide a little assistance to one gentleman ahead of me that had to scoot through that ridiculous space in the top-turret gunner’s position. As expected, there were more than a few vets on hand, but I think I only saw two that had actually served on these aircraft – it’s been a long time now, and not many are left.

view of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909" bomb bay from radio operator's station
Above is a view from the radio station looking forward through the bomb bay towards the cockpit. The door is only half-height, and you can make out that same catwalk that cuts through the middle of the bomb bay between the racks, with the tail fins of some display bombs visible. The bright spot ahead is the cockpit, to which access was denied, but in between the bomb bay and the cockpit is the top-turret gunner’s station and the actual forward crew hatch to the plane. Below and between the pilots’ chairs, not really visible, is the path to the stations for the bombardier and navigator in the nose, while we’re looking through the top-turret gunner’s station; there is a pair of grey ‘wings’ just above the sign keeping us from the cockpit that is the shoulder brace for the gunner, while just out of sight below the lip of the far doorway is the rotating platform that the gunner stands on.

Also of note: at the top edge of the photograph you can see the silvery lip of the stowed window/hatch that formed the ceiling of the radioman’s station, and I am aiming downwards with the camera because, standing upright, my head poked out of the open hatch. Though this particular plane wasn’t so adorned, normally the window mounted a .50 caliber machine gun aiming upwards, which meant that firing it would require a crouching or kneeling position. Duty in these planes wasn’t a luxurious experience, but when the crew was trying to fend off attacking fighters, I doubt much attention was paid to the awkwardness of the position.

interior view of ball turret of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"
Further aft, we’re looking forward from the waist-gunner’s positions towards the radio station beyond that door, above and behind the belly-mounted ball turret – this wasn’t opened for inspection or ‘tours,’ but there was no way in hell I could possibly have fit in there anyway. It’s the round thing in the bottom of the frame, and the walkway around it can be seen on the left side, another tight squeeze. The cross section of the fuselage at this point was probably 2.5 meters or so. The big grey boxes hanging above are ammunition supply; the B-17G sported thirteen .50 caliber machine guns, two of which resided within this turret (with two more in the waist positions immediately behind me – another wooden ammo box and feed chute is seen to the right.) I couldn’t make out how the ammo actually entered the turret, but I know it had to be pretty flexible to allow for the emplacement’s range of motion.

Scattered throughout the plane were larger yellow tanks, seen here, and smaller green tanks often nearby. To the best of my knowledge, the yellow tanks were compressed air, the normal mix that we breathe of about 80% nitrogen and 19% oxygen, while the smaller tanks were supplemental pure oxygen – those colors are in current use at least. Since I have found no source to confirm this supposition yet, don’t quote me.

exterior view of ball turret of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"
Here’s the exterior view of the turret – I’m sitting on the ground to get this perspective. Bear in mind that these planes weren’t heated in any way, and operated at high altitudes most of the time – flights were cold. Those fur-lined bomber jackets were an absolute necessity, and out here, exposed to the wind blast with only a thin layer of aluminum for shielding, the position was without a doubt hugely uncomfortable. I imagine that you learned quickly never to touch the bare metal with exposed skin…

view over horizontal stabilizer forward of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"This is the first of my fartsy compositions, shooting over the horizontal stabilizer (tail plane) of the B-17G towards the nose, showing the starboard waist gunner’s emplacement and the open hatch over the radio station, with the top turret in view beyond. Notice how the waist gunner station is enclosed, with the gun projecting through a gimbal-mount port; this was a new addition to the G model, and earlier models (and the B-24J Liberator seen in the background of the pic above) had open windows. Freaking frigid operations in those.

I’ll take a moment and some empty space here to add in a few details. We initially saw two of the bombers, the B-17G and the B-24J, on the first day of their visit to RDU, which is where this pic was taken, but the B-25 and the TF-51D were late in arriving, and didn’t actually get there until after we left. RDU was crowded and the line to enter this particular plane was long, but the B-24J had been out on an air tour when we arrived and landed within the hour, so I hopped in the new line to pass through that one once it had taxied in and parked. Soon afterward, they cut off the line for the B-17G because it was going on an air tour of its own, so I never got to view the interior then. I had planned on returning two days later, but an illness prevented me from attempting it (it’s not a good idea to go out on an airport apron far from ‘facilities’ when you have a stomach bug.) However, the Wings of Freedom Tour had Burlington Regional Airport as its next stop, barely a 20 minute hop from RDU and not even twice that by car from where I live, so I caught them there not quite a week after my first visit, and all of the interior shots seen here were from that portion. I was happy to pay admission twice, and Burlington wasn’t crowded at all, so I could take more time without holding up people behind me.

tail gun emplacement of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"Moving just a bit further back and to the left, we have the tail gunner’s position; the fuselage has narrowed so much at this point that it’s just wide enough for someone to fit in there, and the sighting windows for the guns are not a whole lot more than a helmet. My interior access to this point was also denied – it actually stopped at the rear crew hatch that exists just behind the USAAF insignia and under the tail plane in the pic above. Most likely, between the tight quarters that people would have to back out of and the need for clambering around the tailwheel structure, it was deemed just too much of a risk and hassle.

By the way, if you want a few more pics and a nice overall diagram of the crew positions and layout, this page does an excellent job. It’s a different aircraft but the same model, with only trivial differences in the equipment. And Air & Space Magazine online has another collection of interior photos. Overall, there were ten crewmembers in a B-17: pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, engineer/top gunner, radio operator, ball turret gunner, 2 waist gunners, and a tail gunner. Of those, only the pilots didn’t have guns at their positions – the bombers were, unsurprisingly, prime targets for defending aircraft, and for most of the war they had a much greater range than any escort fighters that the allies could field, so they often had to fly alone far into hostile airspace, and even with all of the guns they were easy prey for agile fighters. Feel free to do a search on damaged WWII bombers – there are more pics than you can imagine, and these are generally the ones that safely made it back. Thousands didn’t.

We need a look at the nose.

nose turret and bombardier's station of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"
The G model added in that big gun turret and the two guns to either side of the nose; earlier models just had one straight out the front. Visible here behind the flat sheet of plexiglass is the Norden bombsight, an ingenious mechanical targeting computer that actually flew the plane onto the chosen target when it got close – the bombardier’s job was to ensure that the settings remained correct and the crosshairs remained aligned with the target. Above that near the top of the nose cone sits the aiming rig for the chin turret, and to the left running behind that little round port window sits the swing-away controls for the same turret. You can see a round window showing sky further back; that’s the navigator’s dome for doing celestial navigation, of which a greater explanation can be found here. The bombardier had control of the chin turret, while the navigator could man the two guns flanking the nose.

forward fuselage and nose art of Collings Foundation's B-17G "909"
Here’s another shot showing the nose art and the line to see the interior at RDU, and I apologize for the quality – I inadvertently had exposure compensation turned up from a previous shot, and this was the only photo I have showing the nose art clearly, so I tweaked it in editing. The forward crew hatch, through which the interior tours began, can be seen at lower center – the ladder was a courtesy to us civilians, since the normal aircrews never used them. You had to clamber in practically underneath the copilot’s seat and dodge aft a bit just to stand up in the narrow space between the pilots’ chairs and the top-turret station, before crawling through the same station to get into the bomb bay (you can see the open doors of the bay under the engine nacelle.) The boomerang antenna just ahead of the navigator’s dome is a modern addition I think, not part of the original model’s complement, but instead in support of current avionics.

The nose art is most likely fictional – very few WWII aircraft in this country ever saw combat, since when the war ended there was no reason to bring most of them back, so what are typically seen are trainers, rebuilds, and late-production aircraft that never actually got shipped out of the states, though there are a few notable exceptions (the Foundation’s B-24J being one of them, but more about that in another post.) This side of the plane shows the kind of nose art that might have been seen on a veteran aircraft, but the opposite side is liberally covered with the names of the big donors that help support the restoration and maintenance of these warbirds.

Collings Foundation's B-17G "909" taxiing in on RDU runway 5L
I did not neglect my overall views, and like this one best, taken as the 909 taxied in near sunset following an air tour – the same one that it is departing for in the image that opens this post, if I have my timing right. Between the ‘R’ and the insignia on the rear fuselage you can just make out a small window, more visible in the very first pic – that’s where the rear crew hatch is. And if you compare the propellers in the two images you can see the difference in light and its affect on shutter speed, because they’re spinning slower for this image than while climbing out up top, but blurred more here (I probably should have dropped the shutter speed a tad for the top pic, because they look better with a bit of blur.)

There’s another post coming, featuring the other aircraft, a lot more fartsy shots, and even some video. Give me a little more time – this one turned out long enough just concentrating on the B-17G.