Monthly Archives: May 2008

Night Shots: Part Two

A second and final (for now) collection of night shots I’ve taken over the years.

My four-season tent on a cold, crisp mountain night.

Campfire crackling in the wind.

An interesting water formation in a stream. It was dark; this was actually lit by a flash. Trust me.

Disney Hollywood Studios.

Entrance to one of my favorite roller coaster attractions: the Aerosmith Rock n’ Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios. That’s a fun ride.

Entrance to Ballys in Las Vegas.

Senseless violence against an innocent pumpkin. Don’t worry, I caught the perp on film. Actually, this is what happens when you get a group of engineers together for a pumpkin carving party. It ain’t pretty.

Somewhere along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah.

OK, maybe not my best work. So bad it’s almost good. The night streets of a western ski town.

How I Made My Professor Cry

Enough photographs for awhile. Time for some prehistoric prose.

When I was in college, students were required to take a composition class each quarter during freshmen year. I had a fascinating, if unconventional, professor for R103. Part of what fascinated me was that she was a dead ringer for one of the nuns in the movie Sister Act. Somewhat disturbing to me now is that this means I must have seen the movie Sister Act to make the connection. Regardless, to this day, I believe she must have led a dual life of being both a movie star and a college writing professor. Kind of like Superman and Clark Kent. Only without the superpowers. And she was a woman. So the analogy seems to be falling apart. My bad.

But she was unconventional in other ways. She would often hold class outside on nice days. Sometimes she would bring a CD player outside, play popular songs, and then ask us to explain what the lyrics meant. This was an interesting experiment, and helped me realize that my brain focuses so much on the underlying music of songs that I rarely “hear” the lyrics. They are just words. I hear the different instruments and notes, and can recreate them perfectly, but can rarely repeat the lyrics to a song.

One day we listened to R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion. The professor asked us: what do these lyrics mean? We had no earthly idea. We listened to it over and over, and almost felt like our world was falling apart as we realized that we had no idea what this bloody song was about. It was plastered all over the radio, but what did it mean? We quickly realized that we had no idea what most songs on the radio were about. Were they written by aliens? Did they have some kind of secret meaning? Subliminal messages? Surely they couldn’t just be words that rhyme?

It’s not clear what all this had to do with composition. My friends taking different sections of R103 reported that they were not sitting outside listening to music, but were busy writing book reports. Book reports. So, yes, my professor was clearly unconventional, and that made her very memorable.

Although I can’t remember her name.

Towards the end of the semester, we were asked to write a story.

That’s right: The assignment was to “write a story. Due Friday.”

So I sat down in front of my Mac late one night (Thursday night, if I recall), brought up MacWrite, and began typing.

I didn’t know what I would write, or where it would go. I just typed. The next day, I handed in the paper and forgot about it.

So I was a little surprised the following week when the professor started class by saying a student had written one of the most beautiful essays she had ever seen. She said it had brought a tear to her eye. And then she read my essay aloud, as I sunk self-consciously into my chair.

Truly embarrassing, I must tell you.

For the next couple years, she asked me to visit her R103 class and read the essay to her students.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure exactly what she saw in it. I did not feel that I had written anything special when I hit File->Save for the last time. I was trying to be creative, but that was about it.

I just discovered the original story stashed away in old files. Thanks to MacLinkPlus Deluxe, I was able to convert the file from MacWrite into something that can actually be opened in the 21st century.

Here it is:

By M. Scott Smith
20 May 1992; R103-031

I think I see the outline of a figure behind the dark glass, but I’m not sure. The figure seems content to be trapped within a seemingly airtight, unsurpassable mass of metal. The metal and glass cage separate and protect the figure from the world I stand in.

I feel around in my pockets and pull out a handful of change. I separate the dimes from the quarters and finally find a silver coin with a strip of bronze going down the middle. I place this token in the turnstile and hear a responsive “click.” I walk through the turnstile and it beeps appreciatively at me.

I walk towards the steps and then descend them. The air is pungent and warm. There is a man standing at the bottom of the steps. He does not make eye contact with me, or give any acknowledgement of my presence.

I am now at the bottom of the steps. I can see several benches, most empty. There is a girl sitting at one of the benches, and she is staring straight ahead, in a daze. Nearby stands a teenage boy listening to headphones. The headphones are so loud that I can hear the pulsating beat of rap music coming from them. The boy’s head nods up and down in tune with the music.

The ground is unpleasant and dirty. I am careful to avoid stepping in spit.

I feel something tapping on my shoulder, and turn around, surprised. I face a man holding out a worn Dixie cup. The poorly dressed man shakes the cup and I hear change rattling at the bottom of it. He tries to speak something, but I do not understand his words and apologize, backing away. He starts to walk towards me but then stops, and walks over to the girl. She continues to stare straight ahead, ignoring him.

I walk to the edge of the track and look down the tunnel. In the distance I see a tiny beam of light. It grows larger for a few seconds, and then pauses. After a little bit, the light grows larger again, and continues growing large until a flood of sound comes roaring down the tunnel. I take a step back from the track as the train pulls up, and I feel a gush of air against my face.

The girl stands up, facing the train. She walks towards the train and the boy with the headphones follows. The man standing by the stairs remains there. The man with the Dixie cup continues to walk along the track, talking to himself.

I see lots of people sitting in the cars, staring at the empty seats in front of them, or advertisements on the walls of the train, but never at each other.

The doors slide open and I enter the car.

“Your ticket, please?” asks a young lady with a smile as I enter. She is professional and attractive. I return the smile and hand her my ticket. She examines it for a moment. “Your seat is on the left, in the back, sir.”

“Thank you,” I reply, and begin walking towards the back. As I walk down the aisle I see heads looking up at me with apathetic curiosity. Several people are struggling to put their luggage above their seats.

I find my seat and sit down. It is by the window.

The man with the Dixie cup comes around checking the seats. He pushes the bar back and forth to make sure it is locked in position. I feel the bar pushing against my stomach, and I wrap my hands around it, feeling nervous. After a moment I begin to feel myself accelerating slowly forward, the cool air blowing against my face.

The windows show the station slowly fading into darkness. The train bounces as it makes its run through the tunnel. Occasionally solo lights streak past the train, briefly illuminating the tunnel.

For a moment I wonder if my chute will open, but my fears are relieved as I feel the chute rising from my back, promptly asking gravity to chill out.

As I gently float down, I see a school of fish swim by. They act as if they don’t notice me, even though I’m an obstacle they have to swim around. One of them brushes against me but moves along without apologizing.

Smoke begins to float up around me, and I realize that I’m in the smoking section, but I don’t leave for fear of not finding a seat elsewhere.

The train arrives at the next station. No one seems to notice except a few people standing by the door. A few people leave the train, and a few people enter. A whistle blows and the doors close. The train continues, its brief delay not interfering with its monotonous existence.

I begin to look at the advertisements along the car. I find myself reading them over and over again without paying any attention to them, for lack of anything else to do. I examine each letter carefully, constructing the words and then sentences in my mind.

“Would you like coffee, sir?” The flight attendant looks at me expectantly.

“A soda, if possible,” I say.

She nods and begins to fill a clear plastic tumbler with ice.

“Coke Classic, please,” I say.

She nods again and opens a can of Coke and pours some in the cup. She places the cup and can in front of me. I thank her and she moves on.

A child in the seat across from mine stares at my soda, his eyes opened wide. His eyes then re-direct themselves to me, and I can tell he’s analyzing me. I wonder what he’s thinking and I feel uncomfortable. I decide to return the stare to see if he lets up. He does not.

I am interrupted by the doorbell. I exit my seat and walk to the door. The man with the Dixie cup is there. He is selling vacuum cleaners. I close the door without listening to his spiel and return to my seat.

I feel the car leveling out, and I grasp the bar tightly, bracing myself for the imminent fall. I am not disappointed, as I see the flight attendant making her way towards me with honey roasted peanuts, vacuum-sealed for freshness.

The train quickly decelerates to a stop, and several people, including the boy with the headphones, stand up and make their way to the doors. The doors slide open and the people exit.

Two people enter and glance at me momentarily. A lady presses “8” and a man presses “14.” The elevator doors close and we begin rising, slowly accelerating until the elevator reaches a constant velocity.

Somewhere around the 5th floor the elevator jerks to a stop and the lights go out. An emergency backup light comes on, but it is very dim. I can hear the lady cursing to herself.

The three of us stand in silence in the semi-darkness.

Night Shots: Part One

Fog can make for unique pictures, but I’ve always been drawn to night photography, too. The best light of the day is at dawn or dusk, when shadows grow long and colors explode before finally being snuffed out into the darkness. Being a night person (and distinctly not a morning person), I usually take advantage of the last hours of a day to take some snapshots, sometimes planning with precision to be at the right place at the right time to capture the perfect sunset.

Of course, sunsets are a fickle thing, and often turn out to be duds. No amount of planning will replace sheer dumb luck.

Even after the sun has dipped below the horizon and the light slowly fades out of the sky, there’s still a chance to take great photos. One of the first things I wanted to try when I bought a camera was taking long-term exposures. It was fascinating to me that you could open the shutter and let the camera record motion onto a still frame of film. This led to a lot of experimentation, and ultimately, a lot of wasted film. Every now and then, a shot would come out perfectly. Thankfully, with digital photography, you don’t have to wait for a trip to the developer to know whether a shot is good or bad.

I’ve taken thousands of nights shots over the years. A random sampling of a few are shown below.

The following shot was taken at Shenandoah National Park, just as the sunset was dipping below the horizon. I like the contrast in this shot.

Another sunset shot from Shenandoah. The rolling mountains and waves of clouds at Shenandoah often make it difficult to tell where the mountains end and the sky begins. They don’t call it Skyline Drive for nothing.

A campfire from a very cold night of camping at the Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah. I woke up the next morning to a light coat of snow and 28-degree temperatures. I shivered the whole night, wondering what the heck I was doing. Yet, it was a great trip.

A crescent moon over Shenandoah.

It may be hard to believe, but the following is a night shot. I used a very long exposure (30 or more seconds) to blur the water, and then slowly “painted” the scene with an incandescent flashlight.

Another long-term exposure from Shenandoah, taken past sunset and appearing much lighter than it really was.

And now we jump over to the west coast. Any idea where this was taken? OK, easy question: Arches National Park. I took a road trip out west in January, 2003. January might not seem like a wise choice for a western road trip, and that’s exactly why I picked it. It was an adventure, and I had to dodge a few blizzards. I captured the following arch shot just past sunset on a chilly late January night. I had Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park all to myself that day. Kind of makes you feel like a king.

Another shot from Arches, facing the opposite direction.

Back to the East Coast. I took this shot last summer at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, just after finishing an evening paddle in my kayak.

Here’s a video I made while kayaking one night in the Outer Banks. I was near the Currituck Lighthouse, in an inlet on the leeward side, and the wind started blowing in as the sun set. I was an hour or so from the dock, and had to go out into the open sound to get back. By that point, the wind had churned the sound into a frenzy, and it was pitch dark. That was a fun paddle.

Bouncing back to the west coast again — this time to Las Vegas. This long-term exposure was taken on the pedestrian bridge crossing the strip, between MGM Grand and the New York NY Casino.

A nighttime shot of the Bellagio.

The fountains at Bellagio doing their thing.

Another shot of the Bellagio fountains. It was a chilly January night in the desert.

There’s something about this next photo that I really like. I was taking night shots along the Las Vegas strip, and came to a 9-11 memorial that had been set up near the NYNY hotel. The hotel had put up a sign (“We will never forget”) honoring victims of 9-11, and visitors had placed fire department shirts from around the country and world near the memorial. I don’t know who this lady was, but surrounded by all the action, lights, and sounds of Las Vegas, there she was, standing with respect in this rather quiet and solemn scene. It was not the kind of shot I was expecting to get, but it ended up being one of my favorites from that trip.

Right back to the east coast: a dusk shot from Pennsylvania’s Whitetail Resort on a magical night. Perfect conditions and a perfect sunset, with snowguns echoing in the distance. I love night skiing at Whitetail.

And one final dusk shot from the base area of Whitetail.

As Bad As Your Day May Be…

… Imagine being trapped on the international space station when its lone toilet is broken, with little chance of being fixed anytime soon.


There’s a lot of redundancy built into the space station, but it seems the Russian engineers failed to spread any of that redundancy to the plumbing department.

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel helpfully points out that “like any home anywhere, the importance of having a working bathroom is obvious.”