Monday, October 31, 2011

Waterproof Point and Shoot Camera Trials

Some time ago Molly wrote a blog post about the various digital cameras we have owned and the two that we currently use.  Occasionally we post a photo that was taken with a phone or an old camera but for the most part we use our Canon Digital SLR XSI or our water proof Olympus Stylus Tough.  Unfortunately it seems that our Olympus may have gone swimming one too many times. It no longer takes those clean crisp shots that so impressed us when it was we first bought it (used).  All of the features of the camera still work, but I suspect that a small amount of moisture got inside the housing and has somehow compromised the optics or sensor.

We probably need to replace our Olympus now and will definitely need another waterproof/shockproff/dustproof camera. At work we have started purchasing waterproof cameras to document our field work. Using these cameras at work and on weekends has given me the chance to try out the competitors to the Olympus.

First was the Fujifilm XP2; I took this camera to Thailand.  At first I was very impressed that it was 50% cheaper than the Olympus and seems very comparable.  It is slim, fast, and stitches together panoramic photos quite well.  But then I began to notice the unforgivable flaw of this camera: it does not have very good optics.  Distortion is a major problem and can be noticed in just about any photo that has a flat horizon. You can see some examples of this problem in my blog post about oil platforms in the Gulf of Thailand.  The other possible flaw with this camera is the waterproof doors.  They just don't seem to be as well designed as some of the other cameras, and considering that our last camera had a leak, this is high on my list of concerns.

While I would still recommended the Fujifilm for some people, I don't think I would buy it myself.  Those warped horizons and distorted corners are just too distracting in the scenery shots we love to take.

The next camera I tested was a Panisonic Lumix DMC-TS3.  This might be the best point and shoot waterproof camera available right now.  This 14MP camera is waterproof to 40ft, shock proof to 6.5 ft, has a built in GPS with an barometer and heading sensor, 4.6X optical zoom, image stabilization, and takes full HD video.  Perhaps the most impressive feature of this camera is the fact the the optics are made by Leica.  While this might not mean much to all of you, just take my word that Leica does not make cheap optics. When it comes to optics, you get what you pay for.  You commonly see Leica's stamp on products that are all about optics such as spotting scopes and laboratory microscopes.

So how does the Panasonic Lumix perform?  Very Very well. Just as I would hope for a camera that costs $350.  This camera continues to impress me after using it for a few weeks.  Check out Molly's last post to see some photos I captured using the sport mode.  While taking these dynamic shots of Molly and our friends back lit by the sunset I was impressed by the camera's speed. It is probably twice as fast as our DSLR.  So now I have a dilemma.  Do we save up and buy one of these amazing Lumix cameras for ourselves?  Or do we buy the newest Olympus Stylus Tough?  The new Olympus has many of the same impressive features and after all I already own extra batteries and a charger for the Olympus.

Readers, let me know if there are any other waterproof cameras you recommend. Or don't recommend.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Camping" in Cape Disappointment State Park

Ryan, me, and Jennie on the beach

Jen, Jay, Jennie, and Ryan embarking on our 0.6 mile hike
This weekend our friend Jennie had the awesome idea to rent a yurt in Cape Disappointment State Park at the mouth of the Columbia River. Even though the weather was fantastic yesterday and we hung out outside around the campfire until we went to bed, the yurt was a good call. Not only did it have electric heat and beds for five people, it also rained overnight and we didn't have to pack up a wet tent in the morning!

We went on some short walks around the park yesterday before sunset - the first one we went on was 0.6 miles. After that, we joked that we would only do hikes that were no longer than that. Since all five of us are former Alaskans, we brought our Xtra Tuffs and had a long discussion about the universal functionality of Xtra Tuffs before setting out. I have to admit though, I wore my sneakers even though all the trail head signs warned of mud. It turned out all the trails were either gravel or pavement. No mud.

We caught an awesome sunset on the beach where we had fun taking silhouetted photos. Perfect end to a beautiful day.

Jennie and I

Jen, me, and Jennie

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Pumpkin-Flavored Pumpkin Cake

I've had tons of fun with cake decorating over the last couple of years. It's been a rewarding, if not messy, creative outlet from school. Whenever I have an event to make a cake for, I do some googling and look at my cake books to get ideas and then add my own spin on whatever looks cool/do-able. This one was a pumpkin-flavored bundt cake for Jay and Jennie's pumpkin carving party last weekend. I used this pumpkin cake recipe, which I had never tried before. It turned out yummy in a healthy cake sort of way. It uses both whole wheat and white flour. I also replaced some of the oil with apple sauce because two of the reviews said the cake turned out very oily.

This cake design is two bundt cakes, one turned upside-down, stacked on top of each other. After I baked the two bundt cakes, I took the bundt pan and turned it upside down on a cookie sheet. I filled the hole in the bottom of the pan with batter and baked it to make a plug to put in the to of the "pumpkin." I realize now that I should have taken photos of the cake going together, but unless Ryan is in the kitchen willing to document, I'm always way too frenzied to take pics. I also filled a 1/2 pint glass jar with batter to make the stem. So, when I was done baking all those cakes (which took the better part of a day since I only have one bundt pan - Ryan offered to buy me another one but I adamantly refused because my cake and canning cabinets are already out of control), I stacked the two whole bundt cakes, put the plug in the middle, and cut out a piece from the 1/2 pint jar cake to be the stem. The stem was Ryan's idea; I wanted to frost it brown but he convinced me it would look good with no frosting. That was definitely a good call. I got the idea to bake the extra cake in a glass jar from a recipe recipe Ann Marie sent me just the other day.

I frosted the whole thing with store-bought cream cheese frosting. I knew after baking three cakes I wouldn't feel like whipping up a giant batch of home-made frosting. I attempted to put a face on the pumpkin with black frosting, but it looked like a three-year-old had drawn it, so I scraped it off and re-frosted. Simple and classy.

The real pumpkins - you can guess which one is mine and which one is Ryan's

Saturday, October 22, 2011

St. Louis, MO

Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO
After working in the area for three weeks I finally had a chance to see downtown St. Louis yesterday.  The weather was perfect and people were out sporting their Cardinals paraphernalia.  We didn't didn't have a plan for checking out the city other than to see the Gateway Arch and walk around the city.  I was extremely impressed by the arch.  Not only was it far larger than I had imagined it was very elegant and an engineering marvel.  Wikipedia has a fairly extensive article about the arch and its symbolism if you are interested.

We also visited the historic court house of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  This court house now serves as a Museum of westward expansion containing exhibits about the history of St. Louis and the American expansion to into the "Wild West".

Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Historic St. Louis Court House

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Humans vs. Zombies

It's all the rage these days. At least on college campuses. Humans vs. Zombies is a game played on college campuses around the country. It's basically a complicated version of tag in which "humans" (people wearing orange bandanas) go about the normal daily business trying not to get "shot" (with nurf guns or balled-up socks) by people who have been designated or turned into "zombies." If you haven't read about it or seen it in action, check out the link. You can even watch a documentary about the game.

I think it's quite a clever invention, even if I have on occasional been annoyed/inconvenienced by swarms of orange-bandana-clad, and nurf-gun-toting college kids sprinting across my path to the bus stop. The humans vs. zombies game makes me feel old though. When I first saw "kids" playing this game last year, it really hit me that I am of a different generation than they are. Up until recently, I've felt like I can relate to the students I teach. They're just me, but slightly younger. My brother was in college so I could think of them as being like him. But now my brother is almost out of college, he's 22. He's told me he tried playing Humans vs. Zombies at one point, but thought it was boring. These kids are younger than him. They're kids that were born with iPhones and facebook profiles. Humans vs. Zombies are to them as facebook was to college kids seven years ago: brand new, experimental, and only on college campuses. Now everyone is on facebook. Will everyone be playing Humans vs. Zombies soon?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Seattle Food Swap

Ryan's no-knead artisan bread

Making labels at the food swap

Sampling and food-swaping in action
Ryan's fresh bread and swapped butternut squash soup
Yesterday Ryan and I attended our first food swap in West Seattle. I read about food swaps first on Food in Jars. The idea is that a group of people get together with their homemade goodies and trade! It was a bit like being at a farmer's market, but instead of paying $8 for a jar of canned goodness, you could trade for something you'd brought. I found the Seattle Swappers by following a link on The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking which lists food swaps all over the country.

I brought a variety of canned stuff, mostly apple sauces, a couple of jams, Mrs. Wages Pasta Sauce, rhubarb BBQ sauce, and yellow squash relish and roasted red pepper ketchup from Put 'em Up. As I suspected, the roasted red pepper ketchup was a big hit and several swappers were disappointed they didn't end up with a jar. I was surprised though that the pasta sauce was so popular. After I made it, I wasn't particularly impressed, but maybe I'll make it again for the next swap! It was such a hot item that someone even went home with my open sample jar.

Ryan made FIFTEEN loaves of Artisan bread, all baked on the morning of the food swap! He made the regular white bread as well as thyme and rosemary and light whole wheat bread. The thyme and rosemary went the fastest (it's my first choice too). Ryan was the only one with bread at the swap, so he had some good bargaining power. And, it was still warm when we arrived.

We came home with two types of granola, salty oatmeal cookies, black bean brownies, macaroons, italian plum jam, concord grape jam, canned italian plums, butternut squash soup, pear ginger chutney, blackberry jam, several types of chocolates, and homegrown potatoes. We already ate one jar of the butternut squash soup for dinner last night with some of Ryan's leftover wheat bread (this is the first time he's made the wheat version and it was delicious) and some of the granola for breakfast.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Working on the Mississippi

Tug boat pushing fifteen barges up the Mississippi River
Two weeks ago I got call on a Saturday evening from my supervisor that we were needed on an emergency survey on the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.  Within a few hours one of our boat captains and myself were on the road towing one of our small survey boats.  We drove straight through taking turns driving and sleeping and arrived Monday afternoon.  By Monday night we had data for the client.  The client was willing to spend a lot of money to get us there in a hury and I think there were very impressed with our response.  This was the first time working for Tetra Tech that I have billed 24 hours a day.  By the end of the week I had worked over 100 hours.

Working on the Mississippi has been a treat.  There is a lot of American history associated with the Mississippi and I was happy to see that it is still very much alive with shipping and commerce.  Some of the other rivers I have worked on in the Midwest, such as the Saginaw River in Michigan and the Fox River in Wisconsin, used to serve as important modes of travel and transportation. Now their swing bridges go unused and the locks and dams sit in a state of decay.

The Mississippi on the other had, is still traveled by massive tugs and barges moving goods into the heart of the country.  The locks that make the river navigable for these tugs are massive and unlike anything I have seen before.  We traversed one of the locks to get from the boat launch to our survey area.  The locks made us feel tiny.  It was not even necessary for us to tie up as we could easily motor around while they raised or lowered the water.

Surveying on the Saginaw River in 2009.  In the background is a railroad drawbridge and behind that are newer fixed position car bridges.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Canning Fall Fruit

Nectarine Italian plum skillet jam from Food in Jars

Apple sauce with rhubarb preserves

Ryan's fresh bread
I've been going great guns on the fruit canning - jams, preserves, apple sauces. Even after five years of living in the Lower 48, I'm still overwhelmed by the variety and condition of delicious fruit that can be cheaply purchased here. I miss out on so much of it when I'm in the field in Alaska that I'm buying it now like there is no tomorrow.

I've been experimenting with different apple sauces (with apples from our tree) this year. I made apple/pear sauce and then apple/pear/raspberry sauce. This weekend, three of my friends came over to help me chop the remaining 10 lbs of apples (thank you Amy, Hana, and Will!) which made the whole process go SO much faster! We used most of the apples to make regular apple sauce with a little cinnamon and the rest were flavored with rhubarb.

In addition to the apple tree, we have an Italian plum tree. It produced tons of fruit the first year we lived in the house and then none last year. I was thrilled that it had plums this summer. I read a recipe for Italian plum jam with star anise and (having no idea what star anise was) was excited to try it. Of course I found star anise for next to nothing in Malaysia, so I bought two packages of it. When I got back from Malaysia the tree was loaded, but they weren't falling off yet so I figured I had a couple of days to get my life (and sleep cycle) together before I had to deal with them.

Ryan and I finally went out to pick the plums and apples and all of the plums were GONE except for one, which was totally out of reach. I was devastated. I think they were destroyed by the crows. There weren't even any laying on the ground around the tree. There were only tiny little shreds of skin. Ryan tried to comfort me by saying we could buy some at the farmer's market. Which we did, but it's not the same. I'm mostly mad at myself for not picking them as soon as I got home, but how could I have known the crows would devour them? That did not happen the first year we lived here; they fell onto the ground and even though a few were picked at by birds, most were still good. In any case, we did buy plums at the market and I did make the star anise jam and it was delicious. But I'm still sad we lost a tree full of our very own (free) plums.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fall Colors in the Mountains - Lake Ingalls

Our first view of Mt. Stuart

Frank, Jennie, and I at Lake Ingalls

Jennie and Frank and Mt. Stuart

Jennie and Mt. Stuart
Larch in fall colors
We had a big snow year last winter (La Nina) and now that the snow has finally melted enough to hike high up in the mountains, it's almost winter again! I made it out for one last (and first?) hike this season to Lake Ingalls on the East side of the Cascades near Cle Elum. Unbeknownst to us, this hike was recently featured in Sunset Magazine as one of the best fall hikes near Seattle. Needless to say, the trail was full of hikers trying to enjoy the last days of summer. And now I know why; this is an amazing hike. If you have the chance to head up to Lake Ingalls, DO IT. It's a long hike, and there is quite a bit of elevation gain, but it's never terribly steep. There are a few rocky sections that require a bit of scrambling though.

The views of Mt. Stuart were stunning. The larch in fall colors were beautiful. The temperature was perfect - chilly enough not to get too hot, but not cold. If I had known there would be such a great camping spot at the top, I would have brought my tent and sleeping bag. We could not have asked for a more perfect day for a hike. In the words of Jennie, "For all the people who complain about the weather in the Pacific Northwest, I would just like to point out that this is October!"

Friday, October 7, 2011

Kodiak Dawn

I took these photos early one morning this summer on my way to the airport in Kodiak to meet Ryan. There are some beautiful sunrises in Kodiak, but I rarely see them in the summer because they happen so early. As I ran out of the door that morning, I glanced at my camera, considered taking it, but then thought "I'm just driving (30 miles) to the airport and back, why would I need to take any photos?" I regretted that decision as soon as I came out into the flat stretch in Middle Bay and saw this view. As I rounded the corner near Salt Creek, I remembered I had Patrick's camera! I'd taken it home for the weekend to post some of the photos on my blog while he was out deer hunting. I backed up and snapped these photos (which made me late to pick up Ryan - for which he was very understanding!) It turned out to be awesome that I had Patrick's camera because it is a very nice SLR camera - way better than the point and shoot I had. I thought they were worthy of sharing, but had forgotten them on a CD in Kodiak until my mom sent them last week (thanks Mom!).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fifteen Pounds of Apples

Our apple tree had another great year. It's still exciting to me to have a fruit tree. We ignore it all year long, do absolutely nothing, and it produces 15 lbs of fruit! In some years anyway. We picked the apples when we got back last week. This year's crop was not only bigger than last year's, but only ONE of the apples had worms! Last year about half of them did. Pretty impressive since we don't spray the tree or anything. Check out our blog post from last year to see how much more impressive the apples were this year.

So far we've made apple/pear sauce and apple/pear/raspberry sauce with more to come this weekend. The Vitamix (on loan from Ann Marie while she's in Malaysia) has been an awesome tool for pureeing canned goods - no need to peal the apples or pears! I could get used to that...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taman Negara National Park

Boat ride to Kuala Tahan
Ann Marie on the canopy walkway

Ryan and I on the walkway
Looking down, 45 meters above the ground
Blow gun demonstration

Aiming at the teddy bear

Quivers full of darts for the toy blowguns

It's finally time to sit down and blog about the final part of our trip. Things have been a little crazy since we got home - adjusting to the time difference, going back to school and work, starting to train for the Dawg Dash 5K at the end of the month, buying all sorts of cheap/in season produce and madly canning or freezing it, and being sick from the anti-malarial medication I have to take for a month after leaving the jungle - oh joy! And then there's the fact that Ryan left for a job in St. Louis on Saturday night with a full three hours notice. Never a dull moment!

If there is one place I could pick to go back to in Malaysia, it would definitely be Taman Negara National Park. We really only had one full day there, but I am glad we went. Just getting there was an adventure. After a death-defying minibus ride from KL to Kuala Tembeling, we boarded a long dug-out riverboat (with sideboards just for the comfort of the tourists) and headed upstream for three hours to Kuala Tahan, a small town full of guest-houses and hotels that serves as the jumping-off point for Taman Negara. We got there too late in the day to head into the park (across the river) but we signed up for a "night safari" which consisted of driving around palm oil plantations in the back of a pickup truck (with a padded seat) looking for wildlife with a spotlight. We did see an amazingly beautiful little jungle cat, a snake, a flying squirrel (very cool, even if far away), and lots of birds. But it was really about the experience. =)

The main tourist attraction IN the National Park is the canopy walkway - 400 meters of hanging walkways 30-45 meters above the forest floor. We had read that it fills up with tour groups by 10am, so we headed out early and were there when it opened at 9. We had the entire thing to ourselves (well, besides the park employee who hurried past us with a hammer to nail in some boards before we got to them - don't worry, he said it was fine, lol) - lucky because only four people are allowed on each span of walkway at a time, and everyone has to stay at least 5 m apart. As you can imagine, that means very limited stopping to look around and take photos when there are hoards of tourists waiting for their turn.

Walking through the forest canopy was very cool. And a lot scarier than I imagined it to be. I like to think I'm not scared of heights, but I have to admit, I hung on to the (rope) railings for dear life. Forty-five meters is a long ways up.

We hiked up to a (not very high) vantage point after the walkway. Hiking in 90 degree weather with 90% humidity is not my forte. I don't know if I've ever been that sweaty. It didn't help that I took the leech warnings very seriously and was wearing wool socks, shoes, pants, and a long shirt. I'm glad I did though because Ryan got a leech on his sock, luckily he caught it before it got through to his foot! Thank goodness our hotel had a pool to cool off in when we got back!

In the afternoon we went on a guided trip to an Orang Asli village (a group of hunter-gatherers). I'd read about these tours in the guidebook and had seen the advertisements at the tour offices. As an anthropologists, I was VERY intrigued by the opportunity to visit real, live hunter-gatherers. But I also didn't know what the tour would be like. Would it be good ecotourism or the kind where native people were rounded up, dressed in clothes that look authentic and thrown into posed photos with tourists? It was hard to tell. My curiosity got the better of me though. There are few people in the world today who still live as hunter-gatherers and I may not have the opportunity again to visit one such group.

I am really glad we went. While the guidebook said that a little of the money from the tours goes to the Orang Asli, most of the it goes to the tour group. I did like our guide though. He seemed well-educated, respectful, and he seemed to actually be friends with people in the village. We watched an Orang Asli man start a fire (see video) and then he taught us how to shoot a dart out of a blow gun. Blow guns are used to hunt animals that live in trees. Poison is used on the darts. However, the poison usually isn't strong enough to kill an animal. The hunters have to follow the wounded animals until they fall out of the trees and this can take hours. Everyone in our tour group got to try shooting a dart out of the blow gun at a teddy bear target. I am quite proud to say that I am the only one who hit the teddy bear (beginners luck of course). I didn't try again - I'd like to leave it at one perfect shot.

This group of Orang Asli have been living at this village location for about six months. At some point, they will decide to move on. They might come back to the same location eventually, they might not. Sometimes they live inside the national park, sometimes (like now) they live just outside. Right now they are close enough to Kuala Tahan that they can go in to the market to sell products from the jungle (primarily honey) and buy clothes and other goods. But they don't always live so close. Visiting the village was definitely a cool experience. These Orang Asli are open and welcoming to tourists, they even invite people to stay with them for days on end - something we would have done if we'd had more time.

There are between 500 and 600 Orang Asli living in and around Taman Negara all together. Some groups are more isolated than this one and live deep within the park. Others live closer to towns and have more permanent houses and their children go to school. This group seemed to be somewhere in between. Our guide told us they are interested in "learning things" from people who come visit their village, but they're not interested in moving into a permanent town and sending their kids to school. They all speak Malay (in addition to their own language) and the chief even speaks some English. This groups still subsists almost entirely as hunter-gatherers though. It appeared that rice was the only food product they bought at the markets in town.

If you're an anthropologist, you can probably guess that our guide HEAVILY emphasized their hunting techniques, weapons, the animals they hunt, the time of day, etc. without mentioning plant foods at all. So after the whole spiel, I asked what sorts of plants they eat. He listed a bunch of plants they gather, including some sort of wild yam (I think). He then added that the yams make up the majority of their diet (I KNEW IT!!). This is amusing to me, because Anthropologists now recognize that generally, gathered plant foods (collected by WOMEN) make up the majority of most hunter-gatherer diets. Not meat. However, hunting is more sexy. Would you rather shoot a blow gun or dig up a yam? Yep, that's why.

I also got a bit of nerdy amusement out of finding out that this group of Orang Asli cultivates tapioca (which involves planting a tree, pulling it up 7 months later and using the roots). This was funny to me because the national park claims that there has never been ANY cultivation in the park. You know, it's natural. Pristine. That's what people want to hear. And it's an easy way to pretend that indigenous people didn't have any noticeable impact on the landscape. But you can bet that if they cultivate tapioca on one side of the river, they do it on the other side too.

Okay, phew. That's the longest blog post I've ever written but I wanted to get that done because Taman Negara was so dang cool. Back to real life. If you can call you're sixth year of grad school real life.