Monthly Archives: June 2010

Panoramic Alberta

Back in April I took a too-brief trip to Alberta, Canada because of you-know-why. We drove west out of Calgary, up the Icefields Parkway through Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, then east along the Yellowhead Highway to Hinton. I posted a set of pictures from the trip on Flickr. Here I've posted a few panoramas to whet your appetite.

One of my hobbies is stitching strings of photos into panoramas. I got hooked on this when I lived in the Mojave for a season. The long, flat horizons are difficult to express in a single shot. A long, flat panorama captures the scene better -- gives the viewer a more immersive experience in the environment, just as it was for me when I was there.

Also, why get an image of just one mountain when you can get an image of four?

The Miette Range looming over Talbot Lake (really big version)
Talbot Lake and the Miette Range

The Athabasca River in front of Mount Greenock (really big version)
Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

The Athabasca River running under Mount Fryatt (really big version)
Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

This is one of my best, I think, just for the scene.

Athabasca Falls (really big version)
Athabasca Falls

The funny things about Athabasca Falls is that when we visited it last year, it was absolutely swarming with people -- tons and tons of people. Thanks to an unexpected snowstorm on the way up, we had the place to ourselves. Hooray for quietude. Also, that blue, just-melted-from-a-glacier water is amazing.

All of these panoramas were created in Hugin. It is a fine piece of software that you should use if you get the itch to create panoramas yourself.

("Hey, we found a dead mouse in our beer, eh. That means you owe us a free case.")

A man becomes his attentions

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I'd never have found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It's a contention of Heat Moon's -- believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he's going to get -- that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.

—William Least Heat Moon. "East." Blue Highways.

Pilgrimage; or, the creek and the peak

I finally bought the tickets. In July I am going on a semi-irregular pilgrimage -- two pilgrimages strung together into one, actually.

First I'm going to Illinois, to Ingersoll Scout Reservation -- home. Sometime in the midst of whatever camp staff reunion activities they have planned, I'm going to steal away to Beaver Bend, that 90-degree crook in the Cedar Creek. I'll sit on the rocks. I'll scuff at the ground, imagining a fire ring constructed with rocks we dragged up from the bank. I'll climb the goat path to the Artesian Well. And so on.

Then I will go out to Las Vegas. I told Joe that I'd arrive on a Friday morning. That's sort of true. My flight arrives just before midnight on Thursday, then I'm renting a car and driving to Death Valley. In the twilight I'm going to climb to Corkscrew Peak.  I don't know what I'll do there, maybe just sit on the rocks again. Maybe I'll read some Desolation Angels there -- "And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time." -- which seems fitting because I'll be starting from Jack's hometown. Or maybe I'll read a bit of Desert Solitaire -- "The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation."

These are places that, fundamentally, seem to remain constant, though my memory of them stretches and distorts. These are places where I go to measure time and my passage through it. Forgive me my anxiety. These trips are too few and far between. Besides, who knows if this will be the last? Perhaps I should be ashamed of my nostalgia for rocks and rivers, peaks and creeks, things and places. I'm not.

(And in both places I have something to leave behind.)

Two worlds at work

I live in two worlds at work. One is good, one is bad. I created them both. They move in different orbits. Despite my education in orbital mechanics, I don't know how to predict their paths nor do I know how move them.

The first, my native world, is the bad one. It is a land of belching fumaroles and badlands -- a discontented place. This is me at work.

The second is peaceful, positive. Here is where I feel at home but do not reside. This is me at work, but not at work -- meaning, the things I do that are not defined as part of my job.

I recognized this today after our weekly Toastmasters meeting. It was a special meeting because HR interjected a group of summer interns into our meeting. Today I was the table topics master. For those not part of the Toastmasters cult: table topics are two-minute extemporaneous speeches on topics defined by the table topics master. My topics? I read a few of my favorite lines from books, and the volunteer speakers had to describe what they were thinking when they wrote the lines as if they were the authors.

What I learned: I have a really good reading voice. Take this with a grain of salt, of course, but I can make that thing boom. I don't know where that came from, but in a room full of engineers, that's a remarkable trait.

Later, in the hall of a different building, I intersected with the intern coordinator who was at the meeting. She complimented the meeting and asked why I go to the meetings since I'm so good at speaking. I told her I go because I don't do any speaking at work, and I don't want the skill to atrophy. She told me I was being wasted. I told her that I agreed.

At that moment the difference between the two worlds became immediately resolved, as if I were seeing the two through a needed pair of glasses for the first time. Bad vibes and required tasks on one world, good vibes and the freedom to choose on the other -- an artificial assignment of value. I fell in the trap of needless martyrdom when she offered the bait. Woe is me, etc., as if my communication skills were intentionally diminished by my evil taskmasters.

One world at a time, eh, Henry?

I'm trying to get better. I'm not making much headway. I started this project at work at the beginning of the year with enthusiasm to learn, but I let it go to waste. It all went downhill after my task lead told me, after I suggested a different way to approach the work we were doing: "When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but it was beaten out of me and I'll beat it out of you, too."

Yes, that's one of the most repugnant things I've ever been told. No, I shouldn't have allowed that to sour the next three months of work. That's like going for a hike in the mountains, getting bit by a mosquito, then throwing myself off a cliff in retaliation.

I'm trying patience. I have a great deal of patience in some contexts. I could walk or drive or sit all day, focused on anything I like. (Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions: "Can you see anything in the dark, with your sunglasses on?" she asked me. "The big show is inside my head," I said.) Add to that just a drop of someone telling me what to do -- and, god forbid, telling me a certain way to do it -- and I will lay waste to anything within reach.

I'm trying. You'd need a scanning electron microscope to measure the results, but I'm trying. I borrowed a copy of Pema Chödrön's audiobook Don't Bite the Hook from the library. Every day I listen to it for 20 minutes on the way to work, 20 minutes on the way back. I'm on my fourth run through it. It is, in short, about recognizing the onset of the urge to do something rash, acknowledging it, and practicing the art of not indulging it. I'm not there yet but I'm trying.

(Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird: I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.)


My least favorite word is "potential." I despise this word.

In mechanical systems, potential is clearly defined. Potential energy is the amount of energy stored in a system. A ball suspended in the air has a measurable amount of potential energy; the higher you raise it, the more potential energy it has that can be converted to kinetic energy as it falls. A compressed spring has a measurable amount of potential energy that is converted to kinetic energy when the spring is released.

And so on. In a mechanical system, potential makes sense.

When it comes to people, potential makes no sense (unless you suspend someone in the air and drop them). This word comes up frequently in the corporate propaganda we get from HR at work, e.g., "Reach Your Peak Potential Through Learning and Development."

I would be OK with personal potential if it wasn't misused, i.e., if it didn't assume that there is a measurable amount of potential that a person possesses. Imagine, for example, a bowl. The capacity of the bowl is a person's potential. The level to which the bowl is filled is the person's current fulfillment of that potential.

How do you measure the capacity of the bowl? What attribute would you measure to determine the capacity of the bowl? Do you have a different bowl for each attribute?

If someone has advanced leadership skills but does not become a CEO, is that unfulfilled potential?

If someone scores well on math and science exams but does not become an engineer, is that unfulfilled potential?

And so on.

And what happens when you achieve your "potential?" What happens when you fill the bowl? Why, you could make the bowl larger, call that potential, but wouldn't that new potential be just as arbitrary, just as likely to be incorrectly measured as the previous limit?

I believe in improving -- Citius, Altius, Fortius. I do not believe in potential. I certainly do not believe that someone else -- especially a large organization -- could tell me what my potential is. But I absolutely believe that I could be told by someone else that I can improve.

There is no conclusion to be found here. I want to break free of potential. I want to run in whatever direction suits me -- not capriciously, but fundamentally -- as long as it is far away from here, as far as I can go. And when I collapse and do not rise, bury me where I lie and inscribe this on my headstone: "This was his potential."

Mapping Blue Highways

Similar to the previous post about Slowly Down the Ganges, I am mapping the places from another book: Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Reading these travel tales excites me -- I want to know where the authors went almost as much as why they went and what they did there. I want to see the places they saw. I want to follow the roads they followed. Perhaps I should see if there is a local chapter of Geographaholics Anonymous.

Blue Highways is, so far, doubly exciting because I've spent a great deal of time traveling the roads of the US. The blue highways he refers to are the smaller roads on the map, not the freeways, not the interstates; in other words, as a native of the great nowhere, my kinds of roads. I'm only 20-some pages into Blue Highways and I'm getting the itch. If Least Heat Moon could do it, imagine...

Anyway. The places and backroads in Blue Highways are remarkable. Sometimes Least Heat Moon mentions them in passing, sometimes he stops and visits. Each encounter with the locals has had a welcome ring of empathy. I am mapping Least Heat Moon's excursion as it happens -- as it happens on the page, at least.

Here is the map I have created so far with places from Blue Highways.

If you are a Google Earth user, here is the same map as a network link file that you can follow as I update it: Blue_Highways.kmz.

As seen in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Welcome to Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The wet concrete floors, the big metal tanks, the rubber hoses snaking everywhere -- it reminds me of Grandpa Kittell's old dairy farm. I offer that as a compliment.

Portsmouth Brewery

Brewing beer is science

Memorial Bridge is one of the connections between New Hampshire and Maine over the Piscataqua River. It is a big, foreboding, industrial, post-apocalyptic, rust-flecked beauty.

Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth

Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth

Friends, I have seen the weird. And the weird is surfing in New Hampshire. This actually happened. I did not Photoshop some California dudes onto a gloomy New England day. I'm pretty sure the Eighth Amendment prohibits that.

Surf City New Hampshire

Mapping down the Ganges

Last week at the Pollard Memorial Library I picked up Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby. Usually I pick up books based on recommendation from friends or from Goodreads. This one I just happened to pick up because it was in the travel section of the library where I had gone to pick up Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. The section of Indian travel books at the library is anemic however, which is a pity. Traveling in India is its own adventure.

Having been to India and having always had an interest in geography, I have been mapping the places that Newby visits in the book. This is difficult for the first half of the book because the Ganga travels through rural India. Not all of the village names he mentions are easy to find, whether due to his transliteration of the names or the lack of labeled villages in contemporary online maps.

Here is the map I have created so far with places from Slowly Down the Ganges.

Each of the labeled places represents a passage in the book. If you would like to add something to or correct something on the map, please leave a comment; I doubt it is entirely correct. So far, two-thirds of the way through, I have really enjoyed the book. I'll post my review of it on Goodreads, so look me up there if you want to see my review.

This makes me want to return to India again. I will, however, stick to the roads and rails. I am not much of a river rat.

The report of Chevy's death is an exaggeration

Found via Chris Guillebeau: Richard Chang, "Saving Chevrolet Means Sending 'Chevy' to Dump,", 9 June 2010.

I think General Motors is faking the demise of the "Chevy" name.

General Motors is emblematic of bailout angst. They're not going to be more hated by dropping a loved brand name. They're already at the bottom. However, by threatening to kill Chevy, they can make Chevy fans rally around the Chevy brand. They'll take Chevy's side to protect it from being crushed by big, bad GM.

GM loses nothing. Chevy gains support. Chevy sells more cars. Chevy is GM. GM sells more cars.

(See also: New Coke?)

That's my opinion. On the other hand, maybe they're not faking it. Maybe they're serious. Or maybe, if they know GM isn't going to turn the corner anyway, why not just step on the gas, blow through the guard rail, and crash fantastically over the edge of the cliff in a meteoric blaze?

(From a collector's item Pontiac owner.)