Gila Monster

My first Final Cut Express video project.

After spending three days going through a tutorial to learn Final Cut Express HD, I was ready to create my first video project. I’m sharing it with blog readers so you can see how much effort a person can expend on 25 seconds of video.

About the Project

This particular project features a Gila Monster (pronounced “heela monster”), which is a rather large lizard that can be found in the Arizona desert. If I’m lucky, I see one or two of these in a year, so they’re not exactly common. They are, like so many things in the desert, poisonous, so you don’t want to get too close. But since they’re not exactly fast and they’re definitely not aggressive, you can get photos of them in action if you have equipment with you.

On a backroad trip with Mike and some friends, we happened to come upon one croassing the road. I had my video camera with me and whipped it out to capture some pretty decent footage. This Final Cut Express project cuts out the boring shaky bits, replaces our silly comments with music, and adds opening and closing titles. This is the first in a series of short videos I hope to add to wickenburg-az.com, so make the site more interesting to visitors.

But this is also an experiment to check out video formats and Final Cut Express’s export feature. I had great success when exporting to QuickTime movie format, for iPod, and for Apple TV. But the Windows Media Player export didn’t work right at all and the AVI format was extremely poor quality, despite the file size, so I’m not going to distribute them. I just spent another few minutes using the iPod version of the file to create an e-mail version using QuickTime’s Share command. That worked best of all for the Web view of the file. Only 3.3 MB (which is smaller than the iPod version, and it looks pretty good.

Getting it Online

XHTML purists will tell you that the EMBED tag is a no-no in Web development. I think it has something to do with Internet Explorer which, for some reason, can’t interpret XHTML and CSS like the rest of the Web browsers on this planet.

So this project is also an experiment to see if the QuickTime Embed plugin for WordPress will work. If you’re reading this article shortly after I put it online and there’s no QuickTime movie below (or if the whole site is messed up), it’s because I’m trying this out and debugging. (Check in again in about 30 minutes.)

That said, here’s the movie with a Poster movie. I think I’l leave the iPod file for wickenburg-az.com distribution.

Four Tips for Great Antelope Canyon Photos

You don’t need to be a professional photographer to get great shots of this incredible place.

This past week, I made my fourth visit to Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ.

Antelope CanyonAntelope Canyon is an incredible slot canyon cut through Navajo sandstone. At certain times of the day at certain times of the year, the sunlight enters the top of the canyon, illuminating it with a golden light. The canyon has been featured in many magazines, sometimes with shafts of light capturing particles of dust set in motion by the cool breeze. Everyone who sees these photos dreams of taking photos just like them.

The sad reality of Antelope Canyon is that it’s a major tourist attraction that has hundreds of visitors a day. The prime midday time slots are especially crowded, with dozens of photographers vying for position to capture the perfect image. Add to that the normal tourist crowd with their flash cameras and you have a less-than-perfect photo opportunity.

That said, I’m proud to say that the photo you see here was taken at about noon last Tuesday. I had never before seen so many people in the canyon. The “serious” photographers were especially obnoxious, blocking the narrow canyon with their tripods, making it next to impossible for anyone to move forward. Yet there was only one person within sight when I took this photo, and I did it with a point-and-shoot digital camera.

Here are my secrets.

  • Don’t be in a hurry. The tour groups visiting Antelope Canyon come in truckloads of 6 to 18 people each. In most cases, group members are in a hurry to get through the canyon. The truth is, the first two or three chambers are the most beautiful and usually have the best light. By hanging back in the group, you can have these chambers all to yourself — before the next group comes through. (That’s how I found myself alone with just one other photographer for a full five minutes with this beautiful scene in front of me.)
  • Turn off your flash. Flash illumination will wash out the colors and cast deep shadows where shadows simply don’t belong. If your camera has an “automatic” or “program” mode, it should be “smart” enough to get the exposure right. This photo was taken with natural light. And no, I didn’t use Photoshop to enhance it.
  • Use a tripod. This is must. Don’t trust image stabilization features. I mount my camera vertically on the tripod and extend its legs while I’m still on the truck, so I’m ready to go right away. Then all I do is spread the tripod’s legs, embed its feet in the sandy floor of the canyon, and fine-tune to frame my subject. And, in case you’re wondering, my tripod for this duty is a $10 model that was thrown in as a giveaway with my video camera — in other words, a piece of junk.
  • Use a cable release…or your camera’s self-timer. Pushing the button on your camera will shake it — possibly enough to blur the image. That’s why you should use a cable release to snap the photo. Your camera doesn’t support that? No problem. Set the camera’s self timer to one or two seconds and press the button. Your button-pressing finger will be safely out of the way when the photo snaps.

Been to Antelope Canyon? I’d love to see your photos. Use the Comments to link to your best shots and share them with the rest of us.

And if you’d like to read more about my visits to this wonderful place, read “Antelope Canyon,” a post I wrote here last year.

Buy on RedBubbleThe full-frame version of this photo is available for sale as cards and prints at RedBubble.com.

Apple Collectibles

1996 Annual Report, Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, and more.

Today, while filing away some old investment papers, I stumbled upon a copy of Apple’s 1996 Annual Report and accompanying Report to Shareholders. Still in near perfect condition, I did what any self-respecting computer geek would do: I put it on eBay:

1996 was not a good year for Apple Computer. Gil Amelio was Chairman of the Board and CEO. The company reported a net loss of $816 million. And the company was trying hard to maintain its ever-dwindling market share.

The 1996 Apple Annual Report offers a “darkest hour” snapshot of the now-thriving company with a solid reputation for creating innovative, easy-to-use products. 36 pages in near perfect condition, with the original 6-color Apple logo on the back cover.

Also in the package is the oversized booklet titled “Looking Forward: A Report to Shareholders.” This promotional document was Apple’s attempt to keep existing shareholders by painting a rosy picture of the company’s future. The booklet’s cover features a child holding an eMate 300, which is also illlustrated in the booklet’s centerfold. Other products featured in the document include the MessagePad 2000, PowerBok 1400, Performa 6400, and original Power Macintosh.

Do you collect Apple memorabilia? If so, don’t miss this chance to own a piece of Apple’s financial past.

After listing this item, I decided to see what else was listed in Vintage Apple/Macintosh > Other Vintage Apple category. A lot of old stuff. Very old stuff. Like Apple IIe disk drives and Prometheus modems and more than a few Apple Newton eMates (featured in my annual report!).

Twentieth Anniversary MacintoshThis got me thinking about my own Apple antique: a Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh. Yes, I bought one of those. No, I didn’t pay $8,000 for it. (That was the original selling price.) I got it for about $2,000 using a hardware discount I used to get as an Apple consultant.

The computer has been sitting on a sofa table in my living room for the past eight years. It’s really an amazing piece of work. It has a LCD monitor — a big deal in those days — CD-ROM drive, floppy drive, FM radio receiver, television tuner (really!), and removable trackpad. Oh, yeah — and a Bose sound system.

It has a PowerPC 603e processor and came with System 7.6 (if you want to get a real idea of dates here) but I think I have Mac OS 8 running on it. (Read more specs.) I used to use it to play music when I was working around the kitchen. I have since taught it how to display photos and play music from my iPod. The screen is small, but the sound system really is good.

For at least the past year, I thought it was broken. It wouldn’t go on when I pushed the power button. I had a sneaking suspicion that someone had spilled water into the subwoofer, which also houses the power supply. I never thought to check all the connections.

Until today. And that’s when I discovered that the surge suppressor it’s attached to is dead. Remove the suppressor, plug the darn thing right into a wall outlet, and it works! Woo-hoo!

No, I’m not going to put it on eBay.

But I do have a bunch of other old Apple stuff that will make its way to eBay soon:

  • There’s a strawberry iMac (a G3) that I need to restore to its original hardware and pack up. I don’t expect to get much for it, despite the fact that it works perfectly fine.
  • There are about 20 never-worn Apple-related T-shirts carefully packed in plastic in my clothes closet. Shirts from Apple’s heydays, when Macworld Expo was one party after another. (I remember seeing Jefferson Starship playing at one party while Chris Issacs was playing at another across San Francisco.)
  • There are Apple Marketing CDs, full of documents to help retailers sell Macs.
  • And then there’s my prized collectible: Two versions of the Mac OS 8 demo CD, released about a year apart. The first version had a lot of weird/cool/funky features that never made it into Mac OS 8. It’s amazing to compare the two.
  • And in my safe: a 50-share stock certificate for Apple Computer, Inc. stock, representing my initial investment in the company. It has the original Apple logo on it, too.

What brings all this up? I’m just so tickled that the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh still works! I couldn’t imagine where I might get the darn thing fixed if it didn’t.

Sunrise Flight

Maria Speaks Episode 35: Sunrise Flight

I re-experience the magic of getting out to fly at dawn.

The alarm went off at 4:40 AM. Normally, I don’t set an alarm. I’m usually awake by 5 AM without one. In fact, that morning, I was awake at 3:30. But I fell back to sleep and was very surprised when the alarm brought me back to consciousness.

I had enough time to jump in the shower, dress, and make coffee in a to-go cup. Alex the bird and the horses would have to wait. My flight was at 6 AM and I still needed to do a preflight and pull the helicopter out to the ramp.

It was cold and dark as I drove away from the house. I’d taken the doors and windows off my Jeep about two months ago and still haven’t put them back on. The temperature was in the 50s, and I really felt it as I sped down West Wickenburg Way (the old California Highway) to the airport.

The moon was full, casting a blue-white light over the desert landscape. I love to fly in the light of a full moon. The ground is so dark out here in the desert that the moonlight really illuminates things. Sometimes, as I fly back to Wickenburg from moonlight dinner tour in the Phoenix area, I can see the helicopter’s shadow moving along 700 feet below us — a tiny gray dot darting across the washes and along the rolling hills.

I rolled up to my hangar, pointed the Jeep’s headlights at the door, and turned off the Jeep, leaving the headlights on. I fiddled with the combination padlock on the door to get it open, then turned off the headlights. I rolled the right side door open and flicked on the overhead lights. I seldom come to the hangar at night, so I use the lights rarely. They’re bright and fully illuminate the contents of my hangar: Mike’s airplane, my motorcycles, some furniture in storage, my airport “office,” and my helicopter, sitting on its ground handling equipment, always ready to roll out to the ramp.

I did a preflight, checking under panels for fluid levels, tele-temp colors, and unusual signs of wear or tear. I climbed my 10-foot ladder to examine the rotor hub. I checked the tail rotor and the oil level. One of the good things about flying the same aircraft all the time — and being the only person to fly that aircraft — is that you really get to know it. When there’s something wrong, it jumps out at you. Like the tiny crack I found in the plastic part of my clutch activator’s down-limit switch the year before. The crack was only about 1/4 inch long, but I saw it on a preflight. (That turned out to be another case of $1000 in labor to replace a $12 part.)

By then, it was 5:30 AM. Time to get out on the ramp. I hopped in the golf cart that was attached to the helicopter’s tow bar, and began backing out. It’s a tricky maneuver; I have to back straight out about 3/4 of the way to the hangar across from mine to make sure the tail rotor clears Mike’s airplane and the hangar door. Then a sharp turn toward the ramp, which swings the tail out. When the helicopter and cart are parallel to the row of hangars, I’m ready to roll.

But not yet. I had to get out of the cart, switch off the lights, and roll the door closed. I left my Jeep parked as is. It wasn’t blocking anything except my left hangar door and I’d be back before 7 AM.

The sky to the east was beginning to lighten. According to my computer, dawn in Wickenburg would be at 6:17 AM. The goal was to be in flight, flying east when the sun broke over the horizon. I could see now that there was a cloud out there, not far above the horizon. The sun would make its appearance, then slip behind that cloud. The cloud didn’t seem too dense, so I was pretty sure much of the light would penetrate, keeping the sky bright as the sun continued to climb. That was my prediction, anyway.

Zero Mike Lima before DawnI rolled up to the fuel island, set the parking break on the cart, and got out to disconnect the ground handling equipment. That means unfastening the four ratchet straps on the front of the skids, moving the tow bar away, and taking the ground handling wheels off the back of the skids. (You can see a photo of what the ground handling equipment looks like on my helicopter in this article.) It’s a bothersome routine — it would be so much nicer to just land on a rolling platform like Ray and Dave do — but I have it down to a science and can do it quite quickly.

I added 15 gallons of fuel to the main tank. I was expecting three passengers — a dad and his two young sons — and could actually top off the tanks if I wanted to. But I don’t like putting on more fuel than I need (including reserves, of course). With the added fuel, we’d have enough to fly 2 hours. Our flight would take 30 minutes.

Done with all my preflight stuff, I waited. It was 5:45 AM.

The airport at Wickenburg is kind of magical at that time of the morning. The ramp, lighted by a handful of overhead lights, illuminates the few planes parked outside. Every once in a while, one of the lights goes out, leaving the space beneath it in shadows until it recovers from its temporary ills and comes back to life. The rotating beacon — now a cell tower — sweeps its white and green light over the vicinity. If you listen hard, you can hear its motor. You can also hear the sounds of life in the industrial park across the runway: distant banging and clanking one of the small manufacturing facilities, the steady beeep-beeep-beeep of a truck backing up, some voices carried on the breeze. In the past, I’ve heard the mournful mooing of a free-range cow on the ranch (soon to be a housing development) across the road or the call of a coyote.

Zero Mike Lima at DawnIt was the light that fascinated me that morning. The light from the fuel island cast on my helicopter combined with the light of the coming dawn behind it. I pulled out my digital camera — which I keep in my purse — and took a few photos with the flash turned off, using the fuel island equipment and camera self-timer as substitutes for a tripod and cable release. The resulting photos weren’t bad, as you can see for yourself.

As 6 AM approached, I waited over by the terminal building. Before long, a car pulled in and my passengers got out. The sons were somewhere between 8 and 12 years old. The younger one didn’t look very enthusiastic. I gave them the safety briefing as we walked out to the helicopter. The older son sat in front — an arrangement that seemed to make the younger son very happy as he climbed in back next to his dad. I showed them how to work the doors, then closed them in. A few moments, later, I had the engine going and we were talking over the headsets while the engine warmed up.

To the east, the sky had brightened considerably. The cloud hanging out there would make the sunrise interesting. Our normal cloudless skies are wonderful if you like sun — and you’d better, if you come to Arizona — but they make for boring sunrises and sunsets. Today they’d have a bit of a treat. The sun was already illuminating the bottom of the cloud, although there wasn’t much color to its light.

We took off and headed east. I climbed more than I normally would to give them the best view I could muster. It was already too bright for the lights of Phoenix to be very noticeable, which was kind of unfortunate for them. One of the things I like to do at night is launch from Wickenburg Airport, which is in a pretty dark area of the desert, and climb up to reveal the lights of Phoenix stretching from 30 to 60 miles away in a perfect example of urban sprawl light pollution. Terrible for people wanting to look at the stars, but quite beautiful from the air, especially when climbing from the darkness on the edge of nowhere.

My goal was to get as far as Lake Pleasant before sunrise. I made the goal. The lake was in sight with the brightening sky reflecting off its smooth surface when the sun peeked over the horizon.

Of course, that’s also when you could see the streaks on the Plexiglas of my cockpit bubble. That low-lying sun will show how badly I cleaned the bubble, even if I did a good job. At least there wasn’t any dust to make it worse.

I made a gentle turn to the left, leaving the sun behind us. Now we were facing Wickenburg again and could see it in the distance. We also saw Vulture Peak and the full moon as it was descending toward the horizon. The sun cast long shadows in the desert between the hills and mountains. Details of the terrain emerged: a gravel pit, some trailers parked on BLM land, a windmill and tank. I steered us toward Vulture Peak, which my companions planned to climb later in the day. We flew past the east side of the peak, then past the guest ranch where they were staying. A while later, we were touching down gently on one of the heli-spots at the airport. We’d been in the air about 30 minutes.

As I cooled down the engine, my passengers told me how much they’d enjoyed the flight. Even the little guy in the back, who wasn’t scared anymore. I escorted them all back to the terminal and we said goodbye.

It was still early — about 6:45 AM — but the airport’s nighttime magic was gone. Although I was the only one left on the ramp, it didn’t have the same deserted feeling it had had less than an hour before.

I rolled my cart over to the helicopter to put it away. At home, Alex the Bird and the horses were waiting for breakfast.

Being a Responsible Blogger

With regular readers comes responsibility.

This morning, I noted that the feed for this blog has exceeded 100 subscribers. The 100 mark is a milestone for any blogger, and it’s no different for me — even though I’ve been at it for some time now.

I’ve been blogging for over three years and my blog doesn’t exactly follow all of the “rules” of blogging. I’m talking about the “stick to one topic” rule and “blog multiple times a day” rule. People say rules are meant to be broken, but that’s not why I break these rules. I just blog the way I want to blog and don’t really pay attention to the rules.

My Original Blog as a Separate Entity

My blog started out as a separate entity from my personal Web site, a way to share whatever I was thinking about or doing with people who might be interested. It was a personal journal, slightly filtered for the public. It was a way for me to record my life so I’d have something to look back on in the distant future. I didn’t care if anyone read it and was often surprised when someone I knew commented about something I’d written in my blog.

Back in those days, my blog wasn’t something I worked hard at; the entries just came out of me, like one-sided conversations with friends. Perhaps it has something to do with my solitary work habits — many people gather around the “water cooler” at work to trade stories about their weekends or opinions about world affairs. There’s no water cooler in my office and no co-workers to chat with. My blog may have been my outlet for all these pent-up stories.

Blog + Site = ?

A little over a year ago, I combined my blog with my personal Web site. I did it to make my life a little easier. I’d already decided to use WordPress as my Web site building tool. Why not just make my personal blog part of the site?

My Web site has been around in one form or another since 1994. I built it to experiment with Web publishing and soon expanded it to provide a sort of online résumé and support for my books. Support for my books often meant additional tips and longer articles about some of the software I’ve written about. This is fresh content of interest to people who use that software, even if they don’t buy or read my corresponding books. Since writing this content is relatively easy for me, I have no problem offering it free to anyone who wants it (as long as they don’t steal it and pass it off as their own; see my © page).

One of the great things about blogging software is that it automatically displays the newest content on the Home page and archives older content by category and date. In the old days, I’d have to manually create new pages for every article I wanted to put on my Web site and then add links to them. It was time consuming, to say the least. Sometimes too time consuming to share even the quickest little tip with visitors. So I didn’t publish very many articles. But the time-consuming, hand-coding aspect of my site is gone, and it takes just minutes to put any content online, whether it’s a link to an interesting podcast I just listened to about iPod microphones or a multi-part series of articles explaining how to use WordPress as a content management system.

What’s odd about the merging of the two sites is that my personal blog entries now commingle on the Home page with my book support entries. So these 100+ subscribers are seeing (and possibly reading) all kinds of stuff coming out of my head. (Now that’s a scary thought!)

My Responsibility

As my blog/site audience grows, my responsibility to provide good content for readers also grows.

The way I see it, when only a half-dozen people read my blog regularly, it was okay to bore them with stories about my horse eating corn cob stuff out of the bottom of my bird’s cage or rants about the quality of “news” coverage. Now, with over 100 regular readers, I need to think more about what would interest my audience and concentrate on producing the articles they want to read. (You can help me by voting on this poll.)

And that’s when blogging becomes work. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does take more effort on my part.

And it may push me far from the original purpose of my blog: a journal of my life. That’s something to think about, too.

The Other Blogs

I just want to take a moment here to comment on some of the other blogs I’ve seen out there. The vast majority of them are a complete waste of bandwidth. Some exist to echo the sentiments of others and show very little original thought. Others are complete blather, written in a style that makes me mourn for the failure of our educational system. Like chat room comments. Ugh. I don’t see why people waste their time writing this crap and really can’t see why people waste their time reading it.

But there is a small percentage of blogs that provide good, informative, or at least interesting content, written in a way that’s easy to read and understand. Those are the blogs that serious bloggers should be reading and learning from. Those are the blogs we should try to emulate, not by simply copying or linking to content, but by adding our own original material to the blogoshere.

That’s my goal and my responsibility as a blogger. If you’re a blogger, is it yours, too?