Sunday, January 26, 2014

Another Dam ship

Early last week the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam stopped by our station, the second successful visit of one of the mega-ships this season.  This ship carries over 2,000 people and it would be completely impossible to rotate that many people through station for tours, so instead we pile into some zodiacs and go out for an "Off-Shore Lecture".

It was a similar experience to last season; us wandering around the ship for half a day looking hilariously out-of-place.  Someone joked with one of the crew members that this ship was so large one of us could stow away on it to head north, but got a chuckle in response.  "Nah", they said, "There's no way you guys could blend into this crowd".  Can't say I disagree.

We gave a presentation in the ship's theater about the USAP, followed by some Q&A from the audience members, and then we were turned loose to attack the ship's salad bar.

And the desert bar
Myself, I headed to the same place I went the last time I was on one of these ships; the spa.

I went with their "Mini spa day" package deal, which came with a body massage, followed by a facial and hair service.  And because I opted for a deep-tissue massage as opposed to the standard Swedish massage, the lady was a stout Romanian woman named, I am not kidding, Helga. This wasn't a relaxing massage, this was a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it type of massage.

Weirdly and slightly awkwardly, as she was digging her elbows into my back she commented like a thousand times (okay, three or four times) about how nice she thought my body was. "You have very nice shape, most of my clients here are very old and fat!", "You have no fat on your legs at all!", "You are so nice and lean!" and "It's so easy to find each of your muscles, I don't have to try and feel them under much fat!".  Uh . . . thank you?

Anyway, after she was done making everything hurt, she smeared a bunch of mud on my face and stuck cucumbers on my eyes for a while, and then after a shower it was off to the hair salon.

I had to patiently explain the concept of a mohawk to the nice lady who was looking at me funny, but eventually the idea was conveyed.  After cutting my hair into the required shape, it was bleached as near to white as they could get it. 

They were even nice enough to bring me tea while I waited for the chemicals to burn their way through my scalp and into my brain.

Eventually it was time to leave, so we climbed back into the zodiacs and made our way back to station, blond mohawk and all.  But now I'm left with the question . . . with this freshly stripped hair, what color do I want to make it now?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Building a panning time-lapse rig out of scrap

Anyone who's seen a Ken Burns documentary, or most any other nature or history documentary in the last ten years, has seen the phenomenon of a panning time-lapse.  A normal time-lapse movie is typically made from a stationary camera taking a photo of the same scene at regular intervals, anywhere between once every couple seconds or couple minutes depending on the time scale of action you're trying to capture.  When you take all these photos (usually a few thousand by the time you're done) and string them together very quickly in a movie, they give an excellent and fascinating perspective of how things change over periods of time that humans don't usually think in.  We usually think of ice as bobbing around in the ocean aimlessly, but when you take a time-lapse of it over the course of a day you see that it has a flow and pattern all of it's own.

 A panning time-lapse ads another element of motion to the equation; by moving the camera very slowly and smoothly over the course of the sequence, you can generate visually stunning videos where the camera appears to be moving at normal human speed while other objects are whizzing by.  Ken Burns uses these to great effect in his documentaries, and while he certainly wasn't the first, he helped bring the technique into mainstream media production.

The outcome seems easy, but to actually pull it off requires more work than you'd think.  The camera movement has to be INCREDIBLY slow; for many panning shots you'll only want the camera to move a couple feet over the course of many hours.  And for the shot to work well, this movement has to exceptionally smooth and consistent.  Any minor hesitation, even the tiniest wiggle of the camera will be visually jarring and ruin the illusion of a smooth pan.

There are plenty of commercial products to accomplish this; slider and tilting mechanisms, dollies with high-precision bearings and wheels and ultra-low-speed motors designed to creep a camera along at a .000001mph.  But they're not cheap; something to move a very small and light point-and-shoot camera starts over $1000, and to move a bigger camera like an SLR can easily surpass $5,000.

I don't have that sort of money.  But I do have a full carpentry shop, access to a very diverse range of scrap materials, and (if I may toot my own horn) a fair helping of creativity.

I dug around in our scrap bins until I found about five feet of fiberglass handrail, clear acrylic sheet, some nylon all-thread, a hobby servo and a few random gears.  The comms shop was able to give me some electronic bits that they'd scavenged off old equipment and a dead radio that had been dunked too many times in the ocean, then from the labs I scored an empty pippet tip box.

None of this was planned ahead; I designed and built on the fly making adjustments and figuring it out as I went along.  I experimented with a couple different methods of moving the camera, including some pully systems and motorized dollies.  They all had their strengths, but eventually I settled on a long jackscrew mechanism with the camera mounted on a carrier that slid along through a channel cut into the fiberglass handrail.

Getting everything lined up so that it could turn freely without binding turned out to be much more difficult than I thought.  I messed around with a bunch of different methods, but eventually I found that a 3/8" copper plumbing tee with a nut smashed into the bottom was exactly the right height.

The nylon all-thread fit snugly into the middle leg of the T, turning easily without having too much play.  To make the shaft rotate I used a cheap hobby servo, reduced through some plastic gears to give more torque and even finer control over the shaft's rotation speed.

For any R/C nerds reading this, the servo came from the factory set up for 360 degree continuous rotation.

Servos are more complicated than they might seem; unlike a plain DC motor where you vary the voltage to control it's speed and direction, hobby servos have a built-in motor controller and gearbox.  This makes them perfect for this application which requires very precise and very slow speeds, but it means that to make it work you need a micro-controller to communicate with the servo's circuitry.

The Ardunio Pro Micro with it's ATMega 328 chipset was vastly overkill for this task, but it was what I had to work with and it had built-in voltage regulation for the servo, greatly reducing the risk of burning it out.  I wired in a three-way toggle switch and linear potentiometer to allow me to control the direction and speed without having to re-program the chip every time, and wrapped the whole thing up in a pippet tip box that I got from our science labs.

For power, I took apart an old radio that had been subjected to one too many dunks in the ocean.  I ripped out all it's guts and used it's back for a battery mount; this allowed to to use rechargeable long-life Li-Ion batteries from our radio stockpile, rather than being reliant on AAs or an A/C adapter.  I dabbed on a little bit of RTV sealent on the penetrations to give a hope of rain-resistance, and the rig was ready to shoot.

I've been shooting with this thing for a few months now, and the results have been very good.  I can turn the servo's speed down so low that the shaft rotates at less than 3rpm, and with those red gears reducing the speed there is plenty of torque to move the carrier in one continuous motion without it being jerky.

It's not foolproof; there's still more play in the carrier movement than I'd like and the weight of the camera makes it a top-heavy, so it's very susceptible to wind.  Anything more than a gentle breeze will give enough shake and movement that while you might not be able to notice it from looking at the contraption, the images from the camera are all over the place.  Many days are too windy for the rig to be useful and I have to use a normal tripot and keeping the camera stationary, because those windy days are usually the ones that blow the ice around the most and result in the most interesting shots.

Last week I finally sat down and went through everything that I've shot so far this season.  I've collected over 100,000 individual images, totaling close to 280gb.  Editing this sort of thing is a nightmare; even the most powerful video editing software has a tendency to barf on your face when you dump ten thousand full resolution images into it at once.  I eventually resorted to rendering each clip as a full-resolution uncompressed video (at roughly 3gb/minute), and then editing those videos together into the compliation you see below.

It was an insane amount of work for what amounts to a three-minute clip, and I hope you like it.  Turn on your speakers and click through to youtube and watch this at the highest resolution you can.  I uploaded it in uncompressed 1080p, and if your monitor supports that maximum resolution, I think you'll find it worth the extra few minutes to buffer.

(And if you recognize where the music is from, congratulations.  You're a nerd.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Well isn't that adorable

Being in the thick of the summer season means two things at Palmer.  The first is cruise ship visits, and the second is the local megafauna hauling themselves up onto our station's equipment and going to sleep wherever they feel like.

This female elephant seal lounged around on the station's grounds for almost the entire day.  Occasionally she'd stick her head up and glance over if someone was making a particularly loud noise working on something, but for the most part she was perfectly content to snooze.

She drew a bit of a crowd at first, before we all got bored of watching a big blob of fat with a face at one end nap.

They almost look like they've melted a bit

The whole world is comfortable when you are your own cushion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A fine summers day

It might be the middle of high summer, but this is still Antarctica. A weeks worth of clear weather was broken when a storm moved in last night, dumping a few inches of excellent packing snow. Many snowballs will be thrown!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sunset, Sunrise

We're well past the solstice and the days are getting shorter, but we're still not getting anything that you might consider "night".

Friday, January 10, 2014

Rec Boating, finally

For as much inconvenience as the ice caused us, what with the LMG not being able to get in, science not being able to get out, cruise ships not being able to visit and so on, far and away the worst thing about all the ice was that it cut off our rec boating.  We maintain the fleet of Zodiacs for science and local transportation, but after work or on our days off, if no one is using the boats, we're free to sign one out and go for a cruise around the area.  It's one of the best parts of living at Palmer, and just after the holidays we FINALLY got our first real rec boating of the season.`

Leaving station behind!

We really lucked out with the weather; good sky, warm weather and barely a hint of wind.  It made for some stunning views and reflections.

After driving around for an hour or so, we stopped off at one of the local islands to go for a hike and get the blood moving again.

With the zodiac tied up, we all wandered off in our own directions around the island.

What a beautiful place this is!

Much of the island was littered with limpet shells, one of the staples of many flighted seabirds diets.  They collect these little mollusks from the tidal zones and near shore, carrying them up to great altitude and dropping them on the rocks to crack open the shells so they can eat the tasty insides.

Even down here, in this extreme of a climate, there are some unbelievably tough little patches of grass that manage to cling to life.  There's not much in the way of soil so you'll find them growing along cracks in the rock, where they're shielded slightly from the winds and can leach out the minerals they need.

Prior to setting off, we all regrounded for a small snack.  Someone had been brilliant enough to bring along ginger beer (it's actually a soft drink, like root beer), and we found comfortable positions on rocks where we could to enjoy the time off.

Carolyn had managed to find a section of chair that looked like it had been broken off years ago.  It made a good seat, and we took it back to station with us to pack out with the station waste.

Motoring back to station, we ran into one of the science groups who was out doing water sampling.  They cued us in over the radio that in their vicinity was napping one of the biggest Leopard seals they'd ever seen.

When you're the local apex predator you don't have to wake up from your nape for anything, let alone some boat full of orange creatures taking pictures of you.

We weren't the only ones keenly aware of it's presence.  Just a few hundred yards up the ice flow were some penguins camped out on an iceberg, probably not interested in getting in the water while that seal was around.

Admit it, pictures of penguins are what you really came to this blog for. :)

Unfortunetly our little boating window didn't last; the week or two of mostly clear water we had was dashed last night, when a combination of the tide and wind pushed the big ice pack right back in.

So we're seemingly back where we were a couple weeks ago, iced in.  We were supposed to have a couple of cruise ships visit this week, but due to the ice they weren't able to make it in.  There's a strong north wind focast for tonight though, and with any luck it'll blow most of this stuff out so we can get out boating once again.