The View Up Here

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Archive for June, 2011

It’s a Need

Posted by Tom Benedict on 28/06/2011

Bill Blake was right. I couldn’t keep from flying kites and doing KAP once the pressure of project work was gone.

We’ve got family visiting on-island. A couple of days ago we went to Hapuna Beach in the afternoon. This is a regular KAP spot for me. It’s a good beach for the kids, and there’s plenty of room to do KAP, sport kites, or whatever. When we arrived the wind was good for sport kites, so my wife and I flew our Widow until she got tired and went out for a swim. I switched to KAP and made a couple of panoramas, as well as some aimed photographs of the kids. When the wind began to fall off I landed the rig and packed it away.

Hapuna Prince Resort

On a whim I put my 6′ rokkaku back up, clipped it off, and put up my Dopero as well. They fly at different enough angles I can clip them to a single carabiner and let them fly from the same point. When the wind picked back up I toyed with the idea of putting the rig back up, but my heart wasn’t in it. The kites were just too much fun. So I downed the Dopero and put up my Nighthawk, then downed the rokkaku and put up my Flow Form 16. In each case the flight angles were such that no two kites wanted to run into each other. It made for a really fun session, albeit without pictures.

Toward the end the wind began to pick up in earnest and a silly thought struck me: I’ve had bad luck flying two kites from a single line. I didn’t have my 100′ tag line I normally use for this, but I did have two kites flying successfully from a single carabiner. One was on my #200 Dacron on the beast winder, but the other was on #150 Dacron on a relatively light hoop winder. The kites were providing plenty of pull, so…

I tied up the hoop winder to the carabiner using my flying strap and reeled the whole mess out into the sky. Yaaay! Two kites off a single line! Well, sort of.

Two Kites One Line

Bill, you’re right. Kites are just too much fun. A kite wasn’t meant to live in its bag. It was meant to live in the sky.

– Tom

Posted in Hawaii, Kite, Kite Aerial Photography | Leave a Comment »

Project Work – The Real Cost

Posted by Tom Benedict on 22/06/2011

I’ve been taking on a number of projects at work, as well as several at home. For work this is normal. It’s what we do. Having multiple projects is stressful because at some point more than one becomes my top priority and I wind up having people yanking me in different directions. But again, this is normal. It’s what we do. And people get it. Even when the going gets tough, even when the deadlines get close, there’s a good bit of compassion, for want of a better word. Projects are completed, new ones start, and we each give the other a hand up so we can begin again.

It’s not the same at home. In this case it’s a lot more like homework in college. Each professor works from the presumption that theirs is the only class you’re taking, therefore they can and should load you with a full night’s work every night. The stark reality of it is you’re typically taking four to six classes simultaneously, and the workload outstrips the time available.

The Push N8 project is one of several I’ve taken on in the last year, but by far it’s one of the most obnoxious. I don’t know how else to put it. I’d go into the nitty gritty details, but that’s really not fair to the people involved. I can’t point fingers and say, “That’s what screwed up.” It just did. And now that I’m getting closer to the end, I’m coming to grips with what that really cost me.

I got email from one of the coordinators today answering some questions and giving me a thumbs up for getting the last of my footage. After reading it I went to Flickr to catch up a little and see if my contacts had posted anything new. I realized I’d lost touch with many of them. One had crashed a rig, and I didn’t know. Another was building a new rig for a new camera. I’ve had my T2i longer, and I haven’t even begun to cut metal. But worst of all, since starting the Push N8 project I’ve done almost no KAP of my own. I haven’t been able to get new licenses through Getty Images. I haven’t been able to pursue the portfolio project I wanted to undertake to try to get into the Getty Creative collection. Daily hits on my Flickr photostream has gone down by a factor of ten since beginning the Push N8 project. The real cost of the Push N8 project was to kill my photography.

I cried. I really did. It felt like the floor fell out from beneath me. Sure, I’d seen the signs. I knew my output had dropped. I knew I had fewer people even asking to license my images. But it wasn’t until the end of the project was in sight that it hit like that. Photographically I’m dead.

The really crappy thing is I don’t have the energy to pick back up and start going again. It’s not like at work where someone can drag you out of the funk and say, “Hey, I could use your help on this.” It’s just an empty inbox and a dead photostream.

I know I’m wallowing in self-pity. Screw it. I earned some time in the pit. I’ll climb back out in a week or a month or something. I know it. But meanwhile it really does hurt. To say otherwise would be to lie through my teeth.

Once Push N8 is done, I’m taking a month off. I’ll write, maybe get some other short stories ready to go out the door. But no kites, no photography, no KAP.

And no new projects!

– Tom

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Video Production

Posted by Tom Benedict on 22/06/2011

Back in the 80’s there was a great series in Dragon Magazine called Snarf Quest. I liked it so much I wound up getting the compilation. It’s still one of my faves. There’s this great scene where Snarf, who is spending a year trying to accumulate enough wealth and fame to claim the title of king of his village, finally realizes he’s in way over his head. In the last frame his friend is explaining that all they have to do is… and Snarf is thinking, “Ya gettin’ in deep, man!”

That one frame explains my descent into the world of video production. “Descent” is probably the wrong term since it’s actually pretty darned cool. But it’s the only word I could come up with that jives with the whole drowning feeling that keeps coming over me.

Here’s a f’rinstance: I know video (and audio, since they go hand-in-hand) is more involved than still photography. Even so, I marvel at how few still photo formats there are compared to the almost limitless supply of audio and video codecs, container formats, compression algorithms, yadda yadda yadda. The only real format debate in the still photography world is RAW vs. JPG, and that has to do with how the files are initially created. Outputs are typically JPG (web world and print world) or TIFF (hard core print world). Video? Cripes, take your pick. Depending on the situation there are dozens of choices to make.

For software, my choices came down to this: I need to do the work on a Windows PC. I need to work with a number of HD file formats. I need to be able to export HD video files for use on a web server. I need to be able to export DVD quality or better videos. Ideally I need enough tools available to deal with kite aerial videos, which tend to be jittery from camera motion.

After some hemming and hawing, asking of friends, and poking around at the software that was already installed on my computer, I gave PowerDirector 9 a try. I liked it, it fit the need, so I got it. I’m sure there are those who will say I missed package X, Y, or Z, which is clearly superior. Sure! And when you enter my esoteric world of CNC cutting strategies I’ll chortle at your XZ pocketing and tell you how in your case contour-parallel was clearly superior. Whatever… Both make holes in parts, and PowerDirector 9 fits the bill.

I’ve got almost all the footage I need to finish the Push N8 video, and now I have the software as well. Over the next couple of days I hope to make my first rough cut. If the learning curve isn’t too steep on PD9, I plan to be finished and off on my next adventure in the following weeks.

– Tom

Posted in Kite Aerial Photography, N8 Push, Software | 1 Comment »

Kiholo Bay Hike

Posted by Tom Benedict on 18/06/2011

Back in June of 2008, I hiked along the Kona Coast of the Island of Hawaii, from Anaehoomalu Bay to Kiholo Bay. For a serious hiker it’s probably not that impressive a trip. For someone like me, though, it was huge. Just past Anaehoomalu Bay I launched my first kite of the day and flew a camera almost the entire way. This was early on in my kite aerial photography career, so even though the photographs I made that day aren’t as impressive to me now as works of art, they still stand out as photographs of one of my best trips of discovery on this island. I found more beautiful spots to do KAP in that one day than in any other day I’ve spent with a kite winder in hand. I’ve chosen to go back, this time with the Nokia N8 gear as well.

I know the route, and have a good idea what to expect. I haven’t been back to many of these spots since the tsunami, though, so there will be new things I have not yet seen. In 2008 when I first made this hike, it was my first significant KAP outing with my then-new Canon A650IS camera. In many ways it ushered in my change from an avid but casual KAPer to a serious kite aerial photographer. It’s my hope that this will be one of the last full-day sessions with the A650IS as my primary KAP camera. After this I plan to finish building the rig for my T2i and move in yet another new direction.

I also hope it is my last full day session with the N8 hardware. I am eager to complete the film I set out to make in 2010, even if it is not of whales the way I had intended. It’s time to move on.

Photographs to come, I’m sure.

– Tom

Posted in Kite, Kite Aerial Photography, N8 Push, Photography | Leave a Comment »

Potting Vacuum Feed-Throughs

Posted by Tom Benedict on 16/06/2011

Since we’ve used this procedure on non-ITAR detectors, I feel fine sharing it:

A vacuum feed-through consists of three parts:

First is the thing you’re feeding through the vessel wall. In most cases this is an electrical signal. In others it’s optical. I’ve built feed-throughs for both. I’ve only built one optical feed-through, which contained multiple fiber optics. We decided not to connectorize them at the feed-through. With electrical feed-throughs, it’s typical to have a connector on one or both sides of the feed-through, though this isn’t always the case. If a connector is used, the easiest way to do this is by using a hermetic vacuum-rated connector. Most of the time these contain the provision for o-rings, so this may be the extent of the feed through since it supplies the other two components I’m about to go into.

The second part of a feed-through is some sort of mechanical shell that will actually connect to the vacuum vessel. In the case of the fiber optic feed-through, this was a custom machined aluminum part. In the case of a hermetic connector, this can be the connector itself. In the case of a non-hermetic connector, or a connector that doesn’t readily mount to the outside of the vacuum vessel, it’s typical to make a custom machined part as well.

The third part of a feed-through is to have some means of making a gas-tight seal between all the bits. In the case of a hermetic connector, that’s the o-ring. In the case of a custom feed-through, typically it’ll involve an o-ring in a groove that will bear on a flat surface on the cryovessel, or vice-versa. It will also involve some means of sealing the wires or fiber optics that pass through it.

The easiest way to accomplish that last part is to use some sort of resin. This won’t work with extremely high vacuum situations, but it’s good for most instrumentation purposes. The resin we use is Stycast 2850FT, which is black, optically opaque, and a good electrical insulator. We use a Stycast 24LV catalyst, mixed at 7% to the 2850FT. 24LV has good curing characteristics, and is a low-volatile catalyst, meaning it won’t continue to ooze organic vapors into your vacuum system once the potting is complete.

Stycast is neat stuff to work with, but in order for it to make a good potting resin there are some procedural details that need to be followed pretty closely:

  • Surface prep is king. Let me repeat that: Surface prep is KING! We degrease everything, and give every part a final alcohol clean just prior to assembly. Dirty parts make crappy feed-throughs.
  • We store our Stycast in a dorm fridge. This gives it a longer shelf life, but it also makes it hard as tar. Stycast needs to be heated to 60C in order for it to mix with the catalyst.
  • Once the Stycast is heated and mixed with 7% 24LV catalyst, it must be mixed for five full minutes in order to ensure a homogeneous solution. The pot life on this stuff is close to an hour, so you have the time. Take it.
  • After mixing the solution must be degassed. This is a vacuum application, after all, and virtual leaks are the bane of a vacuum system. We use a small dessicator hooked up to a two-stage roughing pump. The Stycast will foam like nuts when you pump on it, so you need to keep a steady hand on both the vacuum and the bleed valves. The trick is to foam it up and slump it a couple of times to get the bubbles on the top, then foam it up and hold it there until the bulk of the bubbles pop and it slumps on its own while under vacuum. At this point you’re clean. This takes roughly another five minutes.
  • There are tricks you can do with pouring Stycast to minimize trapped gas as well, but I won’t go into those. Look for a good manual on casting plastic parts using resin.
  • If the geometry of the feed-through cavity is complex, it’s best to fill the small voids first using a syringe loaded with the warm Stycast. This avoids trapped volumes of air.
  • Finally, fill the cavity until you’re satisfied with the level inside.
  • Pop it back in the oven, and heat to 60C for at least an hour.

I like to make two witness samples, one that goes inside the oven and one that stays outside. These are just dabs of Stycast on something flat like a chunk of metal or a razor blade. I also toss the remaining pot of epoxy into the oven along with the feed-through. Here’s my rationale: Stycast takes 24 hours to cure at room temp. It takes an hour at 60C. If the inside witness sample is rock hard, things are starting to kick in the larger volumes of the pot and the feed-through. You’re getting close! If the outside witness sample is rock hard, the stuff in the oven is rock hard as well. Don’t rush the process, if you can help it. A feed-through should last essentially forever. Rushing it and flexing semi-hardened resin so that you create a trapped volume or worse yet create an air path through the thing ruins a lot of hard work. Be patient!

That’s it. I’ve used this procedure to make a whole slew of feed-throughs, both on science instruments we use on a daily basis as well as lab instruments we use for our own testing. If you’re careful, you’re clean, and you don’t rush things, you’ll have a good solid feed-through that’ll pass signals in and out of vacuum for years to come.

– Tom

P.S. Sorry, no pictures. As soon as I pot one that isn’t for an ITAR controlled device, I’ll take pictures and post them.

Posted in Engineering | 5 Comments »

Rules and Missed Opportunities

Posted by Tom Benedict on 15/06/2011

Very recently, the place where I work has had to comply with a set of rules known as ITAR. It restricts international arms trade. And it turns out that infrared array detectors are considered to be arms-grade devices. All infrared array detectors are arms-grade devices. So all of our infrared cameras fall under ITAR rules. No pictures, no sharing, no talking, no nothing. It’s a bummer.

Where it really gets to be a bummer is that I like to photograph the machining work I do. The parts are small, they’re fun to make, they’re even more fun to photograph, and I get a kick out of sharing the geek, so to speak. But anything having to do with infrared array detectors is strictly off-limits. Rats!

I’m in the middle of a number of projects at work, all of which take top priority, of course. One of them is building out a test cryostat for (you guessed it) an infrared detector. This poor cryostat has been around the block way too many times. It started life as a NICMOS IR camera back in the day. Later, when we needed to test another device, the optics and  mechanics were stripped out and it was retrofitted as a generic cold bench. I fabricated and installed a miniature optics bench with a pattern of 1/4″-20 holes on 1″ spacings, just like an optics table you’d find anywhere in the world. I added a heat shield, heat shield sleeves for the mechanical feed-throughs, all sorts of goodies. As each detector went through this thing, I made a number of electrical feed-throughs. Different numbers of conductors, different connectors, different numbers of connectors, the whole nine yards.

This most recent round required yet another electrical feedthrough, though otherwise we’re not making any changes to the mechanics. It was one of the more challenging designs I’ve had to stick on the thing, and it was the first of these feed-throughs I’ve designed in a 3D CAD package. I was excited! I wanted to share! But no. ITAR rules.

So I can’t show you a picture or even describe the design. I can’t describe the quirky machining challenges involved, or how I got around them. All I can say is that I did it and leave it at that. Which is a bummer, because a joke with no punchline isn’t a joke at all.

– Tom


Posted in Engineering, Machining | Leave a Comment »

Location, Location, Location

Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/06/2011

One of the real pitfalls with having a home shop is that it needs to go somewhere. Typically it doesn’t wind up in a place that is ideal for the shop. Most times it’s a compromise, though at times the compromise is such that the shop is nigh unusable.

I’ve had a home shop since 1999.  My first machine tool was a Taig lathe, followed closely by an inexpensive Delta drill press and a bench grinder. Other tools followed, and by 2002 I had a CNC mill, a Foredom flex shaft, a Lewis shaper, and all the associated tooling to make them do their stuff. My shop started life on a bench on one side of an outdoor shed. Eventually it took over the entire shed. This was one of the most productive locations my shop has ever had. I could close the door on it at the end of a day, open it the next morning, and it was exactly the way I’d left it. Everything in the shed was shop, so there was no reason for anyone but me to be inthere.

When the opportunity arose, I moved my shop indoors. I thought this would be a good move, but honestly it caused me more grief than happiness. Shops make messes, and having the shop indoors meant there were times when I couldn’t run certain tools because of noise, or because of flying chips. The shop was located in a larger room that had carpet at one side, and it was made clear from the get-go I wasn’t allowed to expand my shop to take up all available space. Between the restrictive hours and the directive not to spread chips or cutting oil, I eventually had to quit using it altogether. It broke my heart.

After moving to Hawaii my shop took up residence in the garage. It’s attached to the house, which is nice, but it’s isolated enough I don’t run into the issues with noise or cleanliness I had when it was located inside my house. All in all it looked like a good compromise. Unfortunately it’s worse than both. With the shed and with the indoor location, the shop space was entirely mine. No one else even walked in there, much less had a claim on it. But this is the garage on a house. I share the space with the laundry machines, the storage shelves, the garbage, the recycling, all of it. There are times when I can’t use my shop, not because of something I did or because of noise and mess, but because of household clutter. And with the laundry machines running, the humidity in the garage goes up high enough that rust becomes a problem.

We have family coming on island in the next couple of weeks. I’ve been using this as an excuse to clean house and to take on some real reorganization projects. The shop is high on the list. I know there’s only so much I can do. The laundry machines will still be there, the trash and recycling will still be there. But if I can clean things and separate them to the point where the bleed-over is minimal, I might get my shop back. At least a little.

– Tom

Posted in Machining | Leave a Comment »

A Bounce And An Edit

Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/06/2011

My first short story was bounced back. Not rejected, mind you, but bounced. The publisher had to close their doors, so they sent all unread stories back to their authors. It makes me sad, because I really liked what I read in the issues they had published. I have another story in the works that would have been a perfect fit for them. So instead of having to find a new market for one story, I’m having to re-think the market for two.

I turned the first story around within a day, but I don’t think the new market is as good a fit as the first publisher was. Meanwhile I’ll keep looking.

I thought I had the second story in final form, so last night I gave it to my wife to read. I know I’m a relatively new writer, so I’m not in a position to dispense advice to other writers. But I think I can say this without concern that I’m leading others astray: A writer’s best friend is a reader.

When I write, she gives me space. No talking, no questions, no reminders that the trash needs taking out. When she reads, I give her the same space. So I did the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, scrubbed the stove, anything to stay out of her hair. Still, I stole glances at her from time to time. I was appalled to see how much she was writing in the margins and between the lines! When I handed it to her, I thought the story was done. After what felt like a lifetime of agony, she put it down and called me over.

She caught one grammatical error I was thankful for. One section was tagged as “Slow!” It was cut. At the end she had a list of plot questions I’d left hanging. We discussed it for about half an hour, but what it boiled down to was that I had missed the real meat of the story. I’d written for the wrong plot question.

Before anyone thinks that it’s the writer and not the reader who should call that shot, remember what stories are there for: they’re there to entertain a reader. This makes the reader the expert in the equation. If the writer can’t entertain the reader, they’ve failed.

It took a few hours to really figure out how I wanted to go about fixing the story, but once the plan clicked into place I knew it would be a better story than what I’d originally written. Out came an unfortunate amount of the humor I’d tried to put in, and the punchline at the end of the story had to be gutted entirely. Some of what I thought was back story went in at the front, and half of what was left was entirely re-written. It’s rough. You can’t make that much of a change to a story and have it be anything else. But one more editorial pass and it might actually stand on its own. By the time I went to bed I felt like I had been through the emotional wringer. That’s a good sign!

The funny thing is, before the edits I was having a hard time finding a good market for it. After? I’m pretty sure I already know where to send it when my wife declares it good.

– Tom

Posted in Writing | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Tom Benedict on 09/06/2011

During World Wide KAP Week I had a lunch meeting with a fellow photographer.  One of the topics we touched on was doing photography from a tripod.  Familiar ground, or so I thought. I’ve own two heavy sets of legs I got back when I first started doing photography. I used them for 35mm as well as large format work. I know all about photography from a tripod, right?


One of the first things he said was, “I always shoot tethered.” Tethered? What was that? And why would someone want to do it?

To answer that question I have to back up a little and talk about the good old days of film. My wife and I got into photography through 35mm gear. Our first camera was a Canon A2, and over the next few years we got other bodies and lenses. I also got into large format photography, and wound up spending more time focusing on a ground glass than I did through a viewfinder. My eyes are fine for distant viewing, but I have almost no close-focus. Even with the diopter adjustments available on 35mm and DSLR viewfinders, focusing through a viewfinder has never been possible for me. One of the reasons I enjoyed doing large format photography was that I could focus in a ground glass using a 30x loupe. So long as I took care of camera flex and wind shake, I knew my negatives would come out tack sharp.

Since switching to digital I’ve had to go back to relying on autofocus rather than focusing on a ground glass. Modern autofocus algorithms are quite good, but they’re still not as good as careful manual focus with a loupe. Most algorithms allow for the possibility of offsets, and just as no two lenses of a given make are identical, no two camera bodies will autofocus quite the same.

My T2i has live view, a feature that drove me to make this poster some years ago:

Old School Poster

I thought of it as little more than a gimmick until that lunch time conversation. That’s when I learned you could zoom in, almost to the pixel level, with live view.

I had my ground glass back! It was smaller than I like, a 3″ LCD instead of a 4″x5″ piece of glass, but I found I could actually focus with it. That’s when he told me when the camera was tethered to a laptop that was running the EOS software, you could zoom in to the pixel level and have it take up the entire screen. Well I just had to play with that!

Last weekend I went back through the scissor-and-thread photography I’d done and fixed some of the problems with my most recent set: thread too thin, lighting too uniform, no shadows, no strong reflections, etc. I set everything back up with different thread and different lighting, and my camera tethered to my computer. Boy what a difference. I set a manual exposure of eight seconds at f/11, manually focused on the pivot screw, and gave it a try.


It worked wonders.

I’m still not 100% happy with the photograph itself. There’s a stray shadow from one of my tripod legs coming up from the lower right. It’s possible to fix this in Photoshop, but why do that when it can be fixed in the setup? I have one more round of scissor photography to go before I think I’ll be satisfied with the images. From now on I plan to do all my studio work tethered.

– Tom

P.S. After looking at the image resolution and realizing I could print this 24″ high, I passed this information on to my wife. She told me she had absolutely no interest or desire to have a giant pair of scissors hanging on the wall. Ah well…

Posted in Photography | 1 Comment »

And So We Begin

Posted by Tom Benedict on 01/06/2011

Nearly five years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to write fiction.  I love reading aloud.  I love what stories can do for the people who listen to me read.  I love reading stories to myself, and love what those stories can do for me.  What better way to express this than to try to write stories of my own?

Well… it was a good thought.  It still is, but it’s not that simple.  Writing fiction is hard work.  It’s some of the hardest I’ve undertaken.  During those five years I wrote, rewrote, tore up, wrote again, and continued this cycle without one story I wanted to put my name on and call my own.  During those same five years I undertook all sorts of engineering projects at work, learned to do kite aerial photography, re-learned how to do photography from the ground, and succeeded in most of these endeavors.  But not writing.  When I say writing is hard, I mean it.

But it’s also incredibly rewarding!  A while ago I figured out that I’m simply not tooled up, skill wise, to write a novel.  I don’t know if I ever will be.  And setting my sights on a project that large without having honed my skills on something a little more immediate probably didn’t do me any favors.  So I started writing short stories.  Wow!  What a difference!  I still think most of my writing is sheer drivel, but at least I don’t realize this fifty or a hundred pages in.  I can see it by page two.

About a week ago I had a conversation with my son that sparked an idea for a story.  As soon as he was in bed I wrote the first draft.  I was in the middle of another story, so I put it away and went back to my first project for the next few days.  Then I went back and revised it.  Then I handed it to two readers who gave me some fantastic feedback.  One more revision later both readers gave it the thumbs-up.  It was time.

My first story is out the door.  I should know some time in the next eight weeks or so whether they will publish it or not.  If not, I’ve got another publisher lined up.  Meanwhile it’s time to go back to that other story I was working on.

Life’s good.

– Tom

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment »