Kids’ Day Out: 2011(ish) Edition

Each Summer, while the kids are out of school, I arrange a full day out with each of them. Sometimes that means taking a day off of work; on other occasions we squeeze it in on a Saturday. Regardless of when it is, it’s one of the things I look forward to a ton each year (and seems to be a highlight for the young people too).

This year, the first adventure was with Liam. Thanks to Kevin Huffaker, a friend of mine from the university who is not only an amazing polymath but also a tremendously generous guy, we were able to start our day with a SCUBA primer. Neither Liam nor I had ever been before. We both love being in the water, and found the experience utterly delightful. While the river was running low and water conditions turned cloudy pretty quickly as people upstream swam around, we had a great time learning how to control our buoyancy and seeing a bit of the river from a new vantage point.

From there, we treated Kevin to lunch at Valentino’s, Liam’s favorite pizza place in San Marcos, and then caught the then-current Harry Potter movie. A trip to the Blazer Tag center up in Austin was next, where he and I emerged 1st and 2nd in our game with 30 other people. (All those video games do pay off!) The center in Austin is one of the best arenas I’ve been to, and was a ton of fun. We finished off the day with a visit to the Nazi Pirate at Peter Pan mini golf, where I was able to salvage a bit of my honor after the thumping Liam gave me at laser tag.

Next up was my day out with Maggie. She loves nothing more than to be in the water, so Schlitterbahn has been the natural destination for us for many years. Repeatedly voted best waterpark in the country, it’s only 20 minutes away from our house, and is a much more agreeable experience than many amusement parks these days. (Free parking, bring your own picnic, and new stuff every year.) We were a bit disappointed to see that Family Blaster, a ride that uses high-powered jets of water to shoot a raft containing up to 6 people up a hill, had been retired, but we did spend a delightful day climbing on floating crocodiles, navigating our tubes down 20-minute long tube chutes, and slipping down slides. We even invented a word game while we were waiting in line that’s become a standard in-car activity for our family.

I took Abigail out next. Our first stop was Tacodeli, a vegetarian-friendly taco joint that’s both delicious and a quintessentially Austin experience. After that, we wandered Barton Creek mall for a bit, and then went to see Cowboys & Aliens, which I’d been looking forward to since seeing the first preview. Our next stop was Mozart’s, a wonderful coffee shop on the banks of Town Lake. We got tasty beverages, I introduced Abby to cannoli (one of my favorite treats), and we both pulled out guitars and played and sang together down by the water while the turtles looked on appreciatively. When our fingers tired, we moved on to Pinballz (the best arcade I’ve ever visited) and played Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and other pinball classics. Our last stop for the day was at the Alamo Drafthouse for Abby’s first Master Pancake Theater show: Twilight! She was a fan of the books, and had been disappointed by the first movie, so I figured a lampooning would be the ideal way to enjoy the second. She agreed.

In addition to the goal of simply having a grand time, I also set Abby and I the task of both taking lots of photos along the way, and picking out our favorites along the way to edit and post on Facebook as a record of our day together. Here are the 8 shots we deemed best.

Unfortunately, I had a dreadful time coordinating Emily’s and my calendars, but in March of the next year, we finally managed to find a day we both had open. After hearing of Liam’s mini-adventure, Emily was keen to try SCUBA as well, so we rounded up Kevin again and my friend Jason and set off for a larger-scale run: near the headwaters of the San Marcos River down to the whitewater course at the other end of town. Since we’d finally had some rain after a tremendous drought, the water was running clear and fast, and we had beautiful visibility as we swam under waterfalls, through valleys of endangered Texas Wild Rice, and past a variety of water creatures. Emily filled a bag with treasures she found in the water, and I reveled in the opportunity to see the river as we never had before.

After our swim, we regrouped at the house while eating big Subway sandwiches, and then Emily and I went north for her first Master Pancake Theater show: Back to the Future. The lads did a terrific job with it, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and laughing our heads off. We even got the surprise treat of getting to overhear some of a Young the Giant show as we walked past — a favorite of Emily’s that she hadn’t even known was playing that night.

I had a terrific time getting to enjoy each of our kiddos individually, and treat them to some unique experiences they all enjoyed. Thanks, squirrels, for the great time. Now, let’s get cracking and plan this year’s adventures!

Virtual Photography

Back in 2001, CBS introduced EyeVision for their Superbowl telecast. EyeVision allowed the broadcasters to combine images from several dozen cameras, positioned and 7° intervals around the stadium, into a seamless playback that could be rotated on the fly, creating an effect much like the famous “Bullet Time” sequence in The Matrix. The technology, while not perfect, was really neat, and offered unparalleled insight into the on-field action. Unfortunately, it hasn’t made a reappearance at a Superbowl since then, and the technology doesn’t appear to have been pushed forward much.

Fast forward to 2011. The Kinect has been released for the XBox 360 and has been enthusiastically embraced by hackers. Microsoft, while initially reluctant to let people fool around with the sensor, quickly realized that they were fighting a losing battle, reversed their position, and now even provides some official support for people doing new and interesting things with it.

The Kinect works much like a WebCam: you point it at something, and it gives you a video feed of what you’re pointing at. The interesting thing, however, is that in addition to the image, it also tells you how far away each element in the image is. Using a couple of Kinects in tandem allows one to actually reconstruct a texture-mapped scene in three dimensions. Once you’ve done this, it’s a simple matter to move around and through the space, much like you would in a video game. Here’s the first proof-of-concept I saw:

And here’s another demonstration that uses a single Kinect panning around a scene to capture the data:

As you can see, once the data is assembled, one can move a virtual camera through the scene, viewing it from angles where there was no camera to begin with. Though these first efforts are still a bit rough, think what one could do with this sort of technology if it were refined and made more sensitive: the Superbowl’s EyeVision technology could be expanded: instead of 33 possible vantage points, you could see a playback from an infinite number of angles, even swooping in among the players. Movies could be filmed with full 3D data sets, allowing one to move through a scene and see it from whatever angles one wished. Professional photographers could not only adjust exposure, contrast, saturation and that sort of thing, but also the apparent angle from which a photo was taken.

I expect this sort of thing to blossom over the next few years, and am anxious to see what happens with it once it gets from the hands of hobbyist technologists to those of artists and producers. It should be a fun ride.

Weekend Photography Project: Build a Light Box

I have family and friends who are terrific at making some really cool stuff. And while much of it looks great in situ, sometimes I want to take a photo that shows something off all by itself, with no background to distract the viewer from the subject of the photo. You know, like this:


To do this sort of photography, you need something called a light box. The key ingredients of a light box are a seamless background and bright, diffuse lighting. You can, of course, buy a commercial one for $100. But with a quick trip to the hardware store, you can build one yourself very cheaply.

Here’s what you’ll need to build this project:

  • 1 10′ 3/4″ length of PVC pipe
  • 4 90° 3/4″ PVC elbow socket fittings
  • 4 Tee 3/4″ Tee elbow socket fittings
  • 1 white posterboard
  • 1 white sheet
  • 1 lamp with daylight bulb
  • tape

Once you’ve got these pieces, start by cutting the 10′ PVC pipe into the following lengths:

  • 6 11″ lengths
  • 4 2″ lengths
  • 2 21″ lengths

Once you’ve cut the pipe to the above lengths, piece together one of the long sides by fitting together the following pieces in order: an 11″ segment, a 90° elbow socket, a 2″ segment, a tee socket, a 21″ segment, a tee socket, a 2″ segment, a 90° elbow socket, and an 11″ segment. Rotate all the bits to look something like this (click for more detail):

Side 1

Friction should be enough to hold the parts together — you shouldn’t need to use any PVC cement. Once you’ve done one of these, do another exactly like it.

Now that you’ve got the two sides built, take the remaining 11″ segments and fit them into the openings on the Tee sockets, like so:

Side and Top

Finally, take the other side and fit its Tee sockets to the 11″ segments you’ve just added to side 1. Flip the box onto its feet, and you should have the frame for your lightbox, ready to go:

Frame Assembled

Now that your superstructure is complete, use the tape to secure the short edge of your posterboard to one of the long 21″ segments along the top of the frame. Allow the posterboard to hang down and to bend naturally, providing a flat surface and a background with a smooth transition between the two:

Posterboard from Front

Posterboard from Side

Now that you have the frame and background in place, simply drape the sheet over the frame. When it is between your subject and your light source, the sheet will act as a light diffuser.

Sheet in Place

Now that you’ve got all the parts in place, put your subject on the flat part of the posterboard, grab your lamp in one hand, your camera in the other, pull the front of the sheet down, and start taking some pictures!

Taking a picture

Some things to try:

  1. Move your light source around. While the sheet helps diffuse the light, the general angle from which it’s coming can still make a fair bit of difference in how your subject looks.
  2. Experiment with light colors. I suggested a daylight (5500K color temperature) bulb to start with, as it will keep you from having to mess with your color balance too much, but it’s possible to get interesting effects with other colors as well.
  3. Try multiple lamps. Having more than one light source can make the lighting even more diffuse, or if you use lights with different colors, can bring out the angles of your subject more obviously.
  4. Take off the white posterboard and try black or another color.
  5. Use a light source with a reflector, like a work light or floodlight. This will help your lighting be both brighter and a bit more diffuse.

If you decide to dive into this project and have any questions, drop me an email and I’ll do my best to help out. Have fun!

UPDATE: A note from my friend Jonathan Ireland, who is a far more accomplished photographer than I am: “Re: #2, if you are aiming to achieve neutral, and your camera supports manual whitepoint adjustment, simply read the lit white background first to set the whitepoint. use the dull side of the posterboard for less glare.”

UPDATE 2: You can also see some more photos taken with this light box rig in my album Liam’s Shop of Horrors.

Why the iPhone is the Best Camera Ever

Back in the early days of digital cameras, I bought a Kodak DC220 camera. By today’s standards, this camera is wholly unremarkable: 1MP resolution, 2x optical zoom, and a funny shape. But it had one feature that stood out, and which modern cameras entirely lack: a scripting language. Anybody with a modicum of technical acumen could actually write programs for this camera, enabling it to do motion detection, exposure bracketing, various special effects, etc. More ambitious users even implemented games for it, allowing one to play Pac Man while waiting for that perfect shot.

When I last went camera shopping, I tried to find another camera that allowed programming, as I’m forever wanting to try different things while capturing images. But there was absolutely nothing available. I could get cameras with built-in wifi, GPS, a bevy of image processing modes, but nothing that actually allowed me to write your my programs to tell the camera how to behave.

(I would be remiss not to mention CHDK, an alternate open-source firmware for many Canon cameras that allows one to do all kinds of crazy stuff with them, including writing your own scripts. It’s awesomely capable, but lacks the refinement and ease-of-use that make it possible to pick up the camera and just use it. For everyday picture taking tasks, it actually makes the camera more difficult to use, in my experience.)

Enter the iPhone. From a feature standpoint, it’s not especially notable as a camera: 3MP, no flash, no zoom, odd form factor (for a camera). But the thing that sets it apart is its programability and connectivity. One can download apps to provide all kinds of interesting photo-related functionality: panorama stitching, photo-a-day applications, film camera simulations, various specialized effects, retouching tools, and even “Pimple FacePaint”, which lets you add blemishes to portraits. (There’s a market for that?)

Add that customizability to its communication capabilities, which allow one to share and upload images right from the device without bothering with cables, and you have an unparalleled platform for creating and distributing photos. With a traditional camera, for example, to take a panorama, I would have to shoot each of the images, hoping I got them framed correctly, then download them to the computer, then stitch them together, then upload them to a photo sharing service. On the iPhone, I can do all of those things from one app on one device. (And have the image automatically geotagged, since the iPhone has GPS built in.)

There are certainly still situations where it doesn’t make sense. If you need high-resolution imagery for printing enlargements, you’re out of luck. If you need a flash, ditto. If you are shooting from a distance, you’d be better off with something that has a zoom lens. But for day to day photo taking and experimenting with creative techniques, there’s nothing out there that can beat it today. And the recently announced iPhone 4, with its LED flash and higher resolution image sensor, only stands to make it better.

Postscript: no, I don’t have one, and won’t get one until the usurious data fees get lower or I get markedly richer.

15th Anniversary Weekend

Kathy and I spent this past weekend down in San Antonio to celebrate our 15th anniversary. We had considered traveling farther afield in recognition of the significance of the milestone, but after recently replacing both our van and our home’s air conditioning system, we decided that something more modest would be in order. Since we love the Riverwalk and being able to comfortably walk around a downtown, we decided that would be a great destination for us.

Our plans to start off with tubing on the Comal River — at 3 miles long, the shortest in Texas — were foiled by the recent flooding in New Braunfels. We instead spent the day lounging about the hotel, enjoying some terrific food, and walking the Riverwalk with Adam, my stepbrother, and his wife Celeste. Since we rarely have opportunity to spend time without a juvenile escort from one side or the other, it was a rare treat to simply meander about and have conversations with actual pauses.

I had an idea that on Saturday we should do something truly grand. We started with a game of Carcassonne, got some mexican pastries and a huge glass of horchata to share (yum!), chatted with a photographer we met, did a little shopping for gifts for the kid, and then went back and took a nap. Given how much we have going on around the house most days, the luxury of being able to have a snooze at the same time was a nearly unprecedented delight.

We ate some more wonderful food that afternoon, went out to Mission Concepción for a bit, and then prowled the Riverwalk some more, reveling in the unhurried pace and the chance to soak in each other’s company at length.

Sunday saw us heading for St. Thomas Episcopal Church for a Jazz Mass service, at which our friends Barry Brake, Darren Kuper, and Greg Norris (a.k.a. The Jazz Protagonists) provided the music. We were delighted to also bump into Paul Soupiset and Jason and Erin Young, who had come down for the mass as well. The service was terrific, the music both organic to the service and thoroughly delightful. We afterwards enjoyed the afternoon with the Youngs, Barry and his wife Catherine, with a too-brief stop to visit my dad, my step-mom, and my sister Meara before finally heading back home for a happy reunion with the kiddos.

Our excellent, unhurried, relaxed weekend, full of good friends, good food, and beautiful places was just what we needed. Many thanks to all with whom we got to visit over the weekend, and especially our dear friends who were gracious to take good care of our spawn while we were gone: Faith, my Mom, Steven & Christina, and Sam & Alba. You guys are great, and we deeply appreciate the generosity and love you showed us and our young ones.

A Photo A Day Kicks Off Today

Well, a couple of my fun and camera-loving friends have decided to play along, so have created a dedicated page for the A Photo A Day adventure.

If anybody else is interested in joining in the frivolity, all you have to do is post a photo to Flickr  for each day in February, tagging each with aphotoaday08. I’ll add you to the list of participants once I see you on the RSS feed.

I’ve uploaded my first shot to kick things off — more will be coming soon! (I won’t post any more about this here until it’s over, though, so subscribe to the RSS feed if you want to watch them coming in.)

A Photo A Day Project

I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated lately that my creative output has been so meager. As a counter to that, I have decided to embark upon a project for February: A Photo A Day. Inspired in part by amboo_who‘s faithful and excellent photographic chronicling of her daughter’s growth, I thought this would be a fun way to get the juices going again.

Why February? Because February’s the shortest month and I am lazy.

While I think this would be fun as a solitary exercise, I think it’ll be more fun with friends. So if any of you photographers out there want to play along, here are the guidelines:

  • Let me know you want to participate.
  • Post one photo each day of February to your Flickr account. (Don’t have one? Get one! They’re free.)
  • Ideally, the photo should be one that you’ve taken that day. Barring that, recent is good. Failing that, you can dig into your archives for something you haven’t posted before.
  • Include a paragraph or two with any information about the photo you think might be of interest.
  • Each photo should be tagged with aphotoaday08.
  • Additional tagging and geotagging for extra credit!
  • If others choose to participate, I’ll make a page and an RSS feed to consolidate everyone’s latest entries.

I think this will be fun!