Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reynolds/Washburne 2012

The one true ticket: Reynolds/Washburne 2012.
I made this poster over a year ago. Its time has finally come.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Taken from the Charles River Esplanade at 3:16pm and the 9th floor of Shelton Hall at 3:37pm, respectively.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Establishing shots in the Rizzoli and Isles opening

Establishing shots are neither subtle nor unique, but they're still the easiest way to show an audience where your movie or TV show is set. When you've got 20 seconds for credits - less than most TV shows, but increasingly common to make way for an extra ad or two - every shot counts.

One of my favorite shows currently on the air is ''Rizzoli and Isles'', which is awesome for reasons I've written about previously. Now that I know Boston pretty well, I decided to attempt to locate the establishing shots in the theme.

In the 21-second intro, there are only three establishing shots. Each shot is on screen for about half a second - enough for our minds to say "Boston" without getting a true grip on where it is. I've managed to track down the locations of all three, complete with a Google Maps street view. (The images were all taken with fairly long lenses; you'll want to zoom in a notch or two on each view.)

The first of these is a cityscape, centered on a small brick building in a concrete canyon:

This is the Old State House, the oldest public building in Boston, dating back to 1713. (It is also, to my knowledge, the oldest building that serves as an entrance to a subway station).

It's fairly easy to identify the location as well. It's a straight shot up State Street, looking west. The Chatham Row sign at right gives us a pretty good location, as do the distinctive green awnings. The tip of the tower is 106 feet tall; from the camera location it is equal in angle to three and a half of the umbrella-carrying figures in the left foreground, or 21 feet. That means the distance from Old State House to the figures (at the corner of State and Broad) is equal to 80% of the distance from the Old State House to the camera. The former is 720 feet; the latter is 900 feet, putting us about in front of 156 State Street:

View Larger Map

The second is an angled upwards view of a similarly famous building:

This is the 1798 Massachusetts State House, located on the edge of Beacon Hill next to the Boston Common. The photograph taken from the sidewalk on the south side of Beacon Street. By tracing a few lines between background buildings and foreground objects, we converge on 32 Beacon Street.

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The final location seems to be a bit more ambiguous, with Boston's characteristic brownstones on a steep hill:

There are a number of steep hills in Boston, with Mission Hill and Telegraph Hill among the most famous. But only one hill has the distinctive close-packed brownstones and numerous trees - Beacon Hill, home of a tony neighborhood sandwiched between downtown and the Charles.

After some trial and error, I found the location on Joy Street. This photograph was taken with a very long lens, which exaggerates the steepness of the hill. The reddish brownstone on the right is located at 37 Joy Street, but the photograph was taken from futher away. The white and green sign is for the Black Heritage Trail and is located at Pickney Street, thus, the photographer was located another half-block up the hill, around 10 Joy Street.

Street View from the camera location:

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Street View from near the subjects:

View Larger Map

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why I edit station articles

I do a lot of editing on Wikipedia. A whole lot of editing - to the tune of 3500+ edits, plus 5300 more on Commons. Although I do a variety of work on there, most of my edits - particularly large, content-adding ones - are on articles about train stations. Most are about Boston's subway and commuter rail systems, though I do others when interested.

You probably don't understand why. I mean, of all the things to focus on, why train stations? With the exception of the big downtown ones, no one cares much about them. They're often just bare concrete platforms.

A few minutes ago, I showed my girlfriend what the Lawrence station article looked like before and after I edited it. Her response regarding the old version: "It's so boring."

My reply was this:


And I hate that.

I mean, the mass-produced articles aren't horrible. They're better than nothing, most have pictures (often thanks to me...) and they've got the basic info.

But every station has a history.

Often, there was - or is - a beautiful old depot.

Sometimes, there are remains hidden in the bushes, or down the line.

Every station has a story, and I am the electronic bard.

That's why I do it - it's always the history. Even new stations have a history - a former station on the same site, or the struggle to get a station at all. I aim to collect those stories, to tell them for the world to hear.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We Live in the Future.

The other day, I was editing Wikipedia when I had a thought. Shocking, I suppose.

At that moment, I was uploading photos of South Attleboro, a commuter rail station on Boston's MBTA system. I'd taken these photos from a passing Amtrak train.

That's not much of a future, is it?

Consider from the perspective of 1835, when the line was built.

Consider, first, that I was taking a photograph. Photography was not unknown in 1835 - a few primitive processes had been created. But the first practical technique, the daugerreotype, was still two years away. Photographic film - the first imaging medium capable of short exposures like the 1/1000 and 1/1600 second shots I took - would wait until the 1880s, and single-exposure color photography until Autochrome in 1907.

But my images were digital. I was able to crop them, improve their contrast, and straighten them long after I took them. Digital photography was primarily developed for astronomy - in order to take pictures of objects too faint for the human eye.

My camera is a mid-range camera, which cost about $150 a year ago. It has a 12x optical zoom, image stabilization, and the ability to shoot HD (1280p) video. All of these things would have cost a pretty penny - or been downright unavailable - even just a few years ago.

Now, consider the subject of my photography. South Attleboro is one part of the MBTA commuter rail system. The system has some 70,000 outbound boardings per day. Every single day, a mass of people equal to the city's entire population in 1835 board those purple trains and leave the city. In 1835, the city was just discovering railroads. Only a few major lines - to Providence, Lowell, and Worcester - were even complete, and they only offered limited, low-speed service.

And now, back up a second. Recall those extremely short exposures - 1/1000 second and shorter - that I used. Those were necessary because of where I was taking the pictures from: the window seat of a passing Amtrak train.

My copy of an Amtrak employee timetable indicates that the speed limit on Northeast Corridor past South Attleboro is 125 mph, which also the top speed of a Northeast Regional train like the one I was on. In 1835, no person had traveled at 125 miles per hour. The first humans to travel at that speed and survive were likely the crew of experimental German railway trains in October 1903. It's now commonplace - for as little as 11 dollars, one can step aboard a train that travels that speed with near-perfect reliability.

Finally, consider what I was doing with the pictures: uploading them to Wikimedia Commons for use on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an incredible thing: one of the world's greatest and broadest collections of information, free for anyone with web access to use, and assembled entirely by volunteers. Some 2.3 billion people worldwide have internet access; although some countries like China censor Wikipedia, none completely block the site. Thus, there are 2.3 billion people who could conceivably see these images - that is, twice the number of people who were alive in 1835.

Welcome to the future. It's pretty fascinating.

Pictured: 177 years later, and some of us still can't take very good pictures.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Weird Error with Picasa (Solved)

Recently, I've been having a weird problem with Picasa. Sometimes, after modifying an image, Picasa would refuse to save it. It claimed a "disk error" that might mean the disk was full or read-only. Well, that's not likely. I have 349 GB of open, writable space on my hard drive.

So I did some Google searching, and it appears that there are at least 6 different things that can cause the problem. A lingering 'export to' address pointing to a now-disconnected external disk can be the issue, as can extremely large (greater than 10,000 x 10,000 pixels) images. But none were causing mine.

Then I found this discussion on the GIMP forums, where "acmespaceship" found the answer. The new Export function in GIMP 2.6 is normally set to add XMP metadata. For some reason, Picasa doesn't play nicely with this XMP data.

So, the solution: when exporting, click the (+) button to see advanced options, and uncheck "Save XMP data". Picasa will stop complaining.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I'm a Whovian now.

My girlfriend and some other friends convinced me to watch Doctor Who. And, well... oddly enough, a picture of a train station explains it pretty well.

(Not my picture; I do not own copyright to it.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Using HDR techniques to correct poor exposure

Wikimedia Commons is a really awesome thing. Almost 13 million images and other files, every one of them free to use for whatever purpose you want. But it falls victim to Sturgeon's Law - 90% of everything is crap.

The good news is, that's okay. With that many files, there's a good change of finding a high-quality one, and even mediocre images are okay for a lot of purposes. Most images used on Wikipedia, for example, are resized to thumbnails between 150 and 300 pixels wide. So an image that's poor at 2048x1536 or 4000x3000 might still be usable at 220x165.

One of the advantages of Commons, though, is that it is a wiki. Almost everything is editable, including images themselves. If you have a technically superior version - an updated map, a larger version of a historic image - then you can upload it to replace the current image.

An aside: I'm not a great photographer. Sometimes, I'm not even a good photographer. But I have a pretty good digital camera, and I'm learning. I've learned to play with shutter speed and f-stop to get better pictures than the automatic setting. I've figured out the right combination (1/1600 second, f/3.4, ISO 400) to get surprisingly decent shots out the window of trains at speed. Through a lot of practice, and by taking multiple shots of a scene to choose the best, I've gotten to a point where I'm reasonably happy with my photography. I even get lucky sometimes and grab a neat shot of a train or click the shutter button at exactly the right time from a moving car.

Mostly, though, I don't take perfect images. So I've learned some tricks of digital manipulation. (Even the two linked above got some tweaking for color and contrast.) I don't add anything that's not there, but I work to turn an imperfect snapshot into a more accurate representation of what was in front of me. Cropping, straightening, recoloring, contrast-enhancing, et cetera.

It's actually a lot of fun, and I've even started performing such edits on images that other people have uploaded. I won't make minor tweaks, but I do make major changes that significantly improve the appearance of an image in an article.

The most frustrating images to improve are badly overexposed and underexposed images. They're just so washed out with white or grey than no automated contrast adjustment can save them. But I've been playing with a technique that sometimes can.

The key is a process that's already out there - HDR tonemapping, where individual low-contrast images can be turned into a higher-contrast composite. The results, when properly done, can be spectacular. Even my middling efforts can generate eye-popping color.

The only problem is, HDR composites require multiple starting images. But what if you use an image editor to create multiple versions of your original? Turns out, it works.

I started with this image by another editor at Commons:

It's not an awful image, but it's not great either. The light rail car and the platforms are washed out, while the trees are shrouded in darkness. First, I used GIMP to create two alternate versions. One is shifted by 100 lighter on the brightness menu, and the other 100 darker:

Then, I fed those two versions plus the original into Luminance HDR, another freeware program which I use for my regular HDR images. With a little tweaking, I got these two output images:

I then went into GIMP and faded the first of those HDR results with the original, obtaining this next image. It's better than either the original or the HDR result, but still imperfect:

Finally, I faded that image with the second HDR result and, with more tweaking, I obtained an image I'm happy with. The contrast is markedly improved, and the colors are realistic again.

It makes an excellent display image for Wikipedia, and it looks a lot better than the original at 300 pixels wide. The HDR process does lose some detail; at full resolution, there's a lot of graininess that wasn't in the original. Fortunately, though, Commons saves all versions on an image that were uploaded. So my version displays on Wikipedia articles, but the original image is still available for download and use as well.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Latest project

This is what rail transport in Baltimore could look like, as dictated by the 2002 Rail Plan. The Metro Subway extended eastward to I-95 and Martin State Airport. The Light Rail system with a second northern branch and service to the malls in Columbia. The new east-west light rail Red Line. And multiple-unit service operating with 15-minute headways on the Penn Line and Camden Line.

(Click for a larger version.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

It's the little things

I've been home from college for almost two weeks now. During that time, I've had no trouble readjusting to the house I'd lived in for eighteen years. I haven't fallen off my (railing-less) bed. I've gotten remarkably few stubbed toes. And I can still navigate the twisty route through the dining room in pitch black.

It's not the big changes that confuse me, either. New carpet? Okay, looks nice. New vehicle? I drive it most days; I'm used to it by now.

It's the little things.

The former basement lights were old clunky recessed fixtures that probably violated multiple fires codes. Even with new 100W-equivalent compact fluorescents, they were never quite bright enough either. So my parents replaced them with tube-style fluorescents, which are brighter and safer. But, unlike CFLs, they take about half a second to light.

During that half-second, I get about 3 steps down the basement stairs. The unexpected half-second in which [i]I can't see the stairs[/i] is enough for me to trip almost every time.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

I'm not dead.... yet

College is taking all of my time and then some right now. Summer will hopefully bring adventures, rocketry, and longer posts. But for now, you get a photoblog. Brookline Hills station on the D Branch, from above...
...and in HDR:
An Amtrak train passes Hyde Park at track speed:
 A commuter rail train blows past Forest Hills:

Monday, April 23, 2012

It's a good week for public transit

This morning, Wickford Junction station opened in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, extending commuter rail 10 miles further south into Rhode Island. It will take traffic of Rhode Island Route 4, one of the nastiest and most crowded highways in New England.

On Saturday, the first phase of the Expo Line will open, bringing light rail to Los Angeles's Westside for the first time since 1953.

Next Monday, the Oakton-Skokie station on the Chicago 'L's Skokie Swift (Yellow Line) service opens.

And that's not all. Morgan, another new 'L' station, will open in May. In July, Dallas's Orange Line light rail will open its first segment, with the second segment pegged for December.

2013 will see more openings, including new infill stations on the MBTA's Fairmount Line, an expansion of Ottawa's C-train, and the first phase of the DC Metro's Silver Line.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

More HDR photos

This is turning into a photoblog for a while until I get the chance to write more. Here's a couple HDR photos I've taken and processed recently.

Old streetcars on display at Boylston. The near streetcar is PCC #3295:

Massachusetts Avenue station on the Orange Line:

As always, click to go to the filepage for larger versions.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Brookline in HDR

Click for the full 4200x3000 pixel version.

I took this from the 9th floor of the Photonics Center here at BU.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Red Line at 100

The Red Line is 100 today! The Cambridge Tunnel opened from Harvard to Park Street Under on March 23, 2012.

I'm going to celebrate by going out and taking pictures and people-watching on the Red Line. There will be pictures and history later!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Photography: what I've been up to lately

Agricultural Branch (part of the now-dissolved Old Colony Railroad) bridge over Foss Reservoir in Framingham. I took this picture from the back seat at 65 mph.

True construction is to begin soon at Yawkey:

BU East stop on the Green Line in the snow:

Click on the photos to go to their page on Wikimedia Commons with the original sizes and more information.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Green Line Extension video

For my film class last semester, my final project was a short video about the Green Line Extension into Somerville and Medford. The GLX is a legal commitment by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as part of environmental mitigation for the Big Dig. I'll have more commentary eventually, but for now here it is. Many thanks to Katherine Fichter (GLX Project Manager, MassDOT), Ken Krause (Medford Green Line Neighborhood Alliance), Dennis Sullivan (Board of Aldermen, Somerville) and Sophia Hartdegen (Somerville resident) for their time and patience!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Return (and HDR images!)

I'm going to be slow getting back into blogging; that monthlong break was not just about SOPA but also because my schedule is crazy this semester.

I'm be writing again soon, but for now here's some HDR (high dynamic range) images I've taken recently. I'll write more about them soon. Most link back to their Wikimedia Commons page.

This first one is in fact the first HDR image I took: The island platform for tracks 1 and 3 at Back Bay, which serves 4 southside commuter rail lines plus Amtrak's Northeast Corridor services. Like most of these images, this went through an absurd amount of processing. I started by taking multiple exposure of the same scene with the camera held absolutely still; here, I rested it in front of me on a bench and took 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 1-second exposures.

Even with the camera steady, the images aren't perfectly aligned. I went into GIMP and carefully rotated and slid each image by hand to line them up perfectly, then cropped them so I had four images that were pixel-to-pixel aligned. At that point, I could actually feed them into Luminance HDR, a freeware program which offers a dozen different HDR algorithms. If, like this one, none of the results were exactly what I wanted, then I saved several of the best, then stacked them in GIMP. For this, I combined one image that gave the best blacks with two that combined for good colors.

This one, of the facade of the Westerly train station, built in 1912 by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (and now used by Amtrak), is not actually a true HDR image. I actually took a single image and made darker and lighter versions, then put those into Luminance. The result is an HDR-style image from a single starting image.

The Castle (Smithsonian Institution Building) on the Mall in Washington, D.C. This image contains ghost images of tourists who moved between exposures.

I just finished this one of Marsh Chapel here at BU last night. Despite some noisy images (Boston is quite dark at 2:00 am) it turned out well.

This is a modernist chandelier on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


On January 18, 2012, the web went black.

The old guard's final attempt to control the internet will fail, just as all their previous attempts have failed. The internet is global, and it is beyond the control of one government.

Free speech is beyond the control of any one government. We control the web. All of us. We produce the content. We control free speech. And today, we use that free speech to protect the free web.

(This site stayed black for one month; content was made available again on February 21st).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Be careful with superglue

Amazingly enough, this isn't a "watch out, or you'll glue yourself to yourself" post. Nor is it a "don't get it in your eye" post. It's not even a "be careful around the fumes."

No, this is a more plebian warning. It is simply "don't let your tubes of superglue get holes in them."

Why? Because superglue cures upon exposure to air. Which means that one tiny hole, left for months, results in this:

That's a mass of solidified glue. It looks and feels like plastic. I actually cut away the metal tube, leaving just the superglue attached to the cap.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Preston Dam

I took this panorama (3 shots stitched together with hugin) on Thursday while out hunting for remains of the Norwich and Westerly Railway, a former trolley line near where I live. (More on that later.)

Although I first thought it to be the remains of a trolley bridge, I was wrong; a picture I found last night revealed that the trolley followed Poquetanuck Road (2A) in that section, not this feature which is located about 50 yards north of the road.

However, it's still impressive. It's classic New England stone wall architecture, but on a larger scale. I'm very curious about what it was. Was it a dam, used to create a pond or falls for a mill? Is it the remains of an old road bridge? Was it something else entirely?