Monthly Archives: July 2008

I Used to Be a Television Star

In 1987, I decided to make a television show.

There were a few problems. For one, I was in middle school, and barely a teenager. My voice hadn’t even changed yet.

I had no video equipment. No set. No actors. No crew. No budget. No experience.

But I was industrious, and determined.

Clarksville Middle School had just started a program called TRIAD. It provided the framework for students to explore unconventional methods of learning. Or something like that. I remember going to Mr. Paulis, the TRIAD advisor, and explaining that I would like to make a weekly television show.

“I see,” he said. “What would it be about?” he asked, perhaps humoring me.

“Hmm,” I demurred, scatching my chin. And then I said confidently and authoritatively: “Science.”

“Uh-huh,” said Mr. Paulis.

“And it will be called: Scientific Spotlight,” I added.

I had always been a fan of 3-2-1 Contact, a science educational show that ran on PBS from 1980 to 1988. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Besides covering science, which I loved, it also had a catchy theme song, which I knew was an important ingredient for any successful television show. So I decided I would make a show in the same mold.

“Weekly, huh?” asked Mr. Paulis. “Well, OK. You’ll need to pick a topic, do lots of research, and write a script. Then we’ll see about getting a video camera.”

This was perhaps meant to dissuade me, but I took it as a greenlight and charged forward.

I sold several friends on the idea, including Brette Goldstein, Kalen Yang, and Jeff Lavis. Brette and Kalen agreed to be interviewers, and Jeff volunteered to be a cameraman.

Cast and crew was in place.

The topic was easy to choose: I had always been fascinated by lasers, and wanted to learn more about them. In the late 1980’s, lasers were beginning to show up in all kinds of places. Supermarkets had started using them to scan groceries, and the expensive and newfangled compact disk player was gaining in popularity. The Stars Wars defense program, which was talked about breathlessly on the news, depended on powerful lasers that could blow up things. This was all certainly cool stuff. But how did they work, exactly?

Opening shot from the television show. Notice the fancy titling. Lower case letters were invented subsequent to the taping of this segment.


Hey, that’s me! (And that’s me hiding behind the laser, too.)

So I began doing research. And with Mr. Paulis’s help, I started chatting with laser experts throughout Maryland.

First up, Brette, Kalen, Jeff and myself visited Dr. Russ Poch, a physics professor at a local community college.

Dr. Poch knew all about lasers, and even owned a few. With cameras rolling (*), Dr. Poch explained to Brette and Kalen all about lasers; how gases are excited, how the type of gas determines the color of the laser, and how lasers can travel through air or fiber optics.

(*): OK, there was one camera. But doesn’t it read better plural?

Here I demonstrate my excellent hand modeling skills by reflecting a bright laser beam off my palm. There was no CGI involved here, folks — that is an *actual* laser hitting my *actual* hand! The things I do for science.

Jeff did a great job videotaping the segment, but we discovered the the camera’s zoom motor was significantly louder than, say, Dr. Russ Poch. We also discovered that the camera didn’t really pick up laser light all that well. The resulting footage was, thus, “challenging.”

Dr. Russ Poch, left, explains how excited argon gas glows purple to Brette Goldstein and Kalen Yang.

Clearly, we would have to refine our techniques for capturing lasers on video. But first, there was an important field trip to make.

I decided I must visit a grocery store to find out, firsthand, how lasers are used to scan groceries.

Even better, I was authorized to take a day off from school to make this field trip. The TRIAD program rocked!

This engaging footage from Scientific Spotlight shows the excitement of a grocery store during school hours.

Ah, but there was a problem. The morning I was scheduled to visit Giant, a local supermarket, I woke up with a bad fever. I was too sick to go to school, and even too sick to go to the supermarket. I have never been so dissapointed about not being able to go to the supermarket.

But a second problem cancelled out this problem. The visit to the supermarket had been arranged by Mr. Stout. He was a history teacher at my middle school, but also worked part-time at the local Giant.

But Giant corporate had learned about this visit, and made it clear that video crews weren’t permitted to visit a store without corporate blessing and “handling.” And we did not have corporate blessing.

Mr. Paulis leapt into action, smoothing things over with corporate (who can turn down a kid trying to learn about science?), and before long we were visiting Giant and learning all about their scanning lasers and how all products across all of their stores are stored in a centralized database with real-time inventory information (right down to the number of toilet paper rolls!). That was impressive stuff for the 80’s, let me tell you.

In this award-winning shot, I can be seen holding Tic Tacs at the supermarket. Notice my clever angling of the Tic Tacs such that the bar code is aimed strategically right at the camera. It took several takes and much practice to get this effect, which looks so effortless.

So we grabbed some exciting footage of groceries being scanned.

Beep. Blip. Beep.

Really riveting footage.

Well, not so much. It was definitely time to raise the bar.

To do that, Mr. Paulis made some contacts at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, or APL.

APL was definitely a place of science. It had all kinds of labs with expensive laboratory equipment and people walking around in lab coats — perfect! And they had tons of lasers, which they were using for all sorts of interesting purposes.

Even better, they had a fancy video camera that was designed to capture laser light. And they offered to let us use it.

So off to APL we went.

I interview Dr. Jane Maclachlan of the Applied Physics Laboratory. For this important interview, I am wearing a Coca-Cola shirt. They were all the rage that year in middle school, sandwiched between Garbage Pail Kids and Swatch watches. Even then I had an uncanny sense of style. I, um, also had braces.

I started by interviewing Dr. Jane Maclachlan. She explained how they were developing technology to use lasers to scan surfaces such as airplane wings, looking for hairline fractures that could not otherwise be detected.

During the interview, I was careful to say “um” every few words in my questions, to keep things informal and comfortable.

Check out the fancy camera angles. Scientific Spotlight cut no corners!

Next up, I interviewed Mr. Ron Zariello, also of APL. He had some really powerful lasers. They could burn through things. I insisted on a demonstration. The laser was so bright we had to leave the room.

After dispensing with formalities, I insisted that Mr. Zariello use his lasers to destroy something. For science.

By now, I had a lot of great footage, and had certainly learned a lot about lasers and the corporate diplomacy required to bring video cameras into places of business. I wrote a final script that weaved together everything, and spent time in a professional studio editing everything together. To begin, I had to narrate the script into a microphone. This was a time consuming process, because I kept messing up.

Once the audio track was laid down, it was simply a matter of painting video on top of it. During some sections, I discovered there was no good video. For example, I had no video of Star Wars satellites using lasers to blast away missiles. So, I used my unparalleled artistic talents to produce a five-frame animation showing Star Wars in all its glory.

A frame of my animation showing Star Wars in action. The sophisticated animation technologies I invented for this scene went on to power popular Pixar movies such as Toy Story. Note, also, that the United States appears to be surrounded by water. Mexico and Canada apparently were not invented until high school.

Finally, the first episode of Scientific Spotlight was in the can.

It only took 9 months of effort to produce. A weekly series, clearly, was a bit too ambitious, especially when I had other responsibilities, such as Writing class, Physical Education, Algebra, and Home Economics. (Those responsibilities had reclaimed Brette, Kalen, and Jeff shortly after the initial taping. I am not sure where Kalen and Jeff are today, but Brette is now a big-time casting director in New York City.)

But, even though it embarrasses me greatly to watch Scientific Spotlight today, the final result was very professional and engaging.

So much so, that schools in my county insisted on showing it to incoming students at the beginning of each school year.

For many, many years to come.

All the way through high school and even into college, I would often be stopped in my home town by people who would say “hey! Aren’t you the laser guy?”

Denise Koch, a long-time anchor at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, even visited my middle school to interview me about Scientific Spotlight. She was so impressed that she invited us to visit WJZ studios. That was really eye-opening; I learned about blue screen technology for the first time, and I’ve always looked at weathermen suspiciously ever since. Who do they think they’re trying to fool, pretending to look at weather maps that aren’t there?

I was always very grateful to all the people who helped make Scientific Spotlight happen. They didn’t need to help out a little kid, but they jumped over themselves to lend a hand, just the same. I was able to repay Mr. Paulis in some way, by nominating and writing him up for the prestigious Howard County “Teacher of the Year” award. He won, and I remember the beaming smile on his face when he accepted the award.

Hiking Day and Night at Shenandoah

(Also published on DCSki.)

I had been watching the weather forecast closely in the days leading up to Sunday, July 6. “Scattered thunderstorms and rain” stubbornly remained in the forecast, with the percent chance gradually rising as Sunday approached. But, if the forecast was going to remain stubborn, I could too: I wanted to go hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and I wasn’t afraid to hike in the rain.

Thankfully, I found a friend with a similar philosophy who was also eager to hike, regardless of weather. J.R. and I hit the road at 8:15 a.m., heading to the Virginia mountains with plans to hike all day and into the night.

A deer munches on an early afternoon snack in Shenandoah National Park. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

We arrived at the Front Royal entrance of Shenandoah around 10:30 a.m., and soon saw a wild turkey scramble awkwardly across Skyline Drive. Shortly before noon, we pulled into the Big Meadows campground and parked near the firewood store, ready to start the first of two hikes.

The weather was fairly pleasant: overcast, to be sure, but not precipitating during mid-day except for an occasional sprinkle. The temperature was in the upper 70’s, but the humidity was very high and the ground was wet. The park seemed relatively uncrowded for the end of the Fourth of July weekend; scattered rain showers clearly had driven people away.

The first hike consisted of a circuit combining parts of the Appalachian Trail (AT), Rose River Trail, Dark Hollow Falls Trail, and the Story of the Forest Trail. This moderately-rated circuit has an elevation change of 1,400 feet and spans 6.4 miles. We started by walking to the Big Meadows amphitheater and then hopping on the nearby AT. We followed the AT to the Red Gate Road, and then followed that briefly to Skyline Drive. Crossing Skyline Drive, we hopped on the Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail, and then followed that left until it hit the Rose River Loop Trail.

A fist-sized frog (or is it a toad?) stands on a rock near the Rose River Falls trail. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Rose River is a fun hike. Before too long, the trail catches up with Rose River, which has a number of small and large falls, including a 25-foot fall into a deep pool. The Rose River Trail also passes the remains of an old copper mine. You can make a loop out of Rose River by taking the Rose River Fire Road back to the Rose River trailhead, but you can also make a side jaunt to the base of Dark Hollow Falls.

Water cascades over the rocks along the Rose River Trail. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Dark Hollow Falls is one of the largest falls at Shenandoah, and one of the closest to Skyline Drive. A fairly steep trail leads from Skyline Drive to the falls, and is one of the park’s most crowded trails. After resting a bit just below the base of the falls, we hiked up the Dark Hollow Falls trail back to Skyline Drive. By now, the humidity hung over the air like a wet blanket. It would have been insufferable if the temperature were in the 90’s. We worked up a sweat hiking to the top.

After hiking south down Skyline Drive, we hopped onto the Story of the Forest Trail, which leads through the woods back to the Big Meadows campground. This completed the first hike.

Flowers along Skyline Drive. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

The goal of the second hike was to climb a peak, hopefully capturing a good sunset, and then hiking back in the dark. But we had some time to kill, so we drove south along Skyline Drive, eventually arriving at the Loft Mountain Wayside, located at the 79.5 mile mark. This Wayside has a gas station (around $4.29 a gallon), a quaint gift shop, and counter food service with all the grilled staples a hungry hiker might crave.

After checking out the Wayside, we turned around, and drove north along Skyline Drive about 35 miles to the Lower Hawksbill trailhead. At 4,051 feet in elevation, Hawksbill is the highest peak in Shenandoah. An 0.8 mile hike up 750 feet will take you from the trailhead to the peak. When we arrived at the trailhead, a Park Ranger was providing medical assistance to a hiker who appeared to have banged up his knee. All of the trails were wet and slippery, so you had to be careful with your footing. Thankfully, he appeared to be OK and in good hands.

Byrds Nest 2 day shelter, providing protection from rain near the top of Hawksbill mountain. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

We began the hike up to Hawksbill after everyone else had left. Halfway up, steady rain began to fall. The mountains were shrouded in fog by the time we reached the top, and a chilly breeze blew across the mountain. After a day of heat and humidity, the cool breeze felt great, but I found myself shivering before too long. Near the top of the mountain is the Byrds Nest 2 shelter, and we sat there for awhile, listening to the rain fall, with a gut feeling that the clouds and fog might break just before sunset.

A camera-shy buck evades attempts to take an in-focus shot along the Lower Hawksbill trail. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Apparently, though, we were unwelcome guests. Every 30-90 seconds, a small bird swooped down into the shelter, saw us, and then made a quick U-Turn, flying out of the shelter and back to a nearby tree. We noticed a bird’s nest in one of the rafters (which looked like an awfully nice, warm house, with a great view), and guessed this was the bird’s intended destination. We became convinced that the bird either wasn’t very bright, or had incredibly short-term memory, as it repeated its reconaissance flight dozens of times, in each case acting surprised that we were still there, even though it could clearly see us from its nearby perch in a tree.

The clouds suddenly part just as the sun dips towards the horizon. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Although the rain continued to fall steadily, the clouds began to open up in the distance, revealing a setting sun. We made the short hike up to an observation platform at the peak, which provides a 270-degree view. At that moment in time, we probably had the best view in the entire state, as interesting cloud formations interacted with the sun, producing spectacular patterns and color to the west. But the east did not want to be outdone. To the east, a huge rainbow began to grow over the valley, eventually growing into a double rainbow. The sky would occasionally flash white with distant lightning. For 15 or 20 minutes, I think we were treated to what might possibly be one of the best views ever seen at the top of Hawksbill Mountain. Fourth of July fireworks had nothing on this. I’ve learned that some of the best sunsets follow rainy weather, and everything aligned perfectly at that moment in time to produce stunning views.

Photo by M. Scott Smith.


An enormous and complete double rainbow fills the view to the east. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


The right side of the rainbow. Would have been a good time not to leave the ultra-wide-angle lens in the car at the base of the trail! Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Photo by M. Scott Smith.


Fog billowing over the side of a distant mountain range creates the illusion of a waterfall. Photo by M. Scott Smith.


View from the top of Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Eventually the rainbows faded away, the sun settled under the horizon, city lights in the valley began to twinkle in the distance, and all light drained out of the still-rainy sky. Rather than taking the Lower Hawksbill Trail directly back to the trail head, J.R. and I decided to make a circuit hike by hiking an additional 2.1 miles (for a total of 2.9), first hitting the Salamander Trail and then intersecting with the Appalachian Trail for the trip back to the trailhead.

By now it was pitch dark, and we fired up our LED headlamps to light the slippery trail. We discovered that the Salamander Trail is very appropriately named; I counted dozens of small salamanders scurrying across trail. The salamanders appeared to be at an ironic crossroad of evolution; they looked like small snakes, but had tiny feet. As a result, their movement was less than graceful — a fumbling flopping that looked like something between a slither and a crawl. Having seen how appropriately named the Salamander Trail is, I’m not sure I want to visit Rattlesnake Point Overlook, located further north in the park.

I thoroughly enjoy hiking at night. The woods take on a totally different character, and your senses heighten. You also see different types of wildlife. One type of wildlife I didn’t care to see, though, was a leech, which hopped on my leg somewhere along the descent. I was able to pluck him off quickly, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a leech at Shenandoah.

Back at the car, the only thing left to do was make the long drive home. I arrived home just after 1 a.m., exhausted and sore, but having thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful day and night at Shenandoah.