Picture This

I’ve been looking for a “supertelephoto” lens for a while because I want to be able to sneak up on shots like this without having to squint. I decided on a 400 mm “prime” lens — a photographic lens with a single, fixed focal length, as opposed to the often more popular zoom lens. You have to work harder with a prime lens but they are generally sharper and lighter than zooms. Here’s Canon’s description of the one that chose me:

Photographers can use the Canon EF 400 mm telephoto UD ultra-clear lens for total sharpness in each photo. Both a manual focus and an auto-focus help photographers get the focus they want, from artistic blurs to vivid clarity. The focus is easily adjusted with a smooth turning diaphragm in manual mode. The Canon EF 400 mm is made in a lightweight design weighing only 44 oz for easy travel and long hours of use. This telephoto camera lens is compatible with Canon EF design cameras. This Canon camera lens also features a 400 mm length for super close-up telephoto photography. A f/5.6 aperture is ideal for general photography in many different light settings. As a fixed focal length lens with a built-in hood to reduce flare, the Canon EF 400 mm lens helps photographers shoot outside at long ranges in both bright or dimly lit environments. With a two-element design, this Canon camera lens can produce sharp clear images. The telephoto camera lens is multi-coated to reduce glare, aberration, and discoloration.

It is, bar none, the best lens of its size in the world. (44 ounces, by the way, is less than three pounds which is seriously light in a world where a similar zoom lens weighs twice that.) Now I just had to wait for one to come along that I could afford.

Canon 400mm f/5.6 Prime Telephoto Lens“This lens will NEVER win a beauty contest,” the seller wrote. “It has several exterior scratches and scrapes. The glass is in excellent condition. Package includes case (also has seen better days), both end caps and original box.” She even offered Free UPS Shipping, insured.

I wondered if the lens has ever been dropped? Any graunch or grind in the focus? Dust or mold?

“I have never dropped the lens. I bought the lens used, and can’t speak to its history. I’ve used it for 2 years now and have moved up to a 100-400. The focus is smooth and fast and there is no visible dust or mold on the glass.”

These are sample photos taken with a Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L prime lens and two different camera bodies. As Ken Rockwell is fond of reminding us, L simply means “expensive as L.” I mixed it up taking the test shots, using a Canon 5DMkII and a Canon 6D. I tried both handheld and on two different tripods.

Tattered Canadian National and Quebec Provincial FlagsThe lens is better than I am. I was up in Canada and took this shot of the Canadian and Quebec flags on a quay in Baie Missisquoi. I was on a low tripod, shooting with a 6D and just far enough away that the tattered flags filled the frame. No cropping.

That’s a salable image. I’ll contribute the profits from the first sale toward new flags for that pole.

Fishing Is Hard, Hard WorkI panned around to a fisherman working very, very hard at his craft. I was on the low tripod, shooting with a 6D and just far enough away that the fisherman filled the frame. No cropping. I counted the hairs on his arm. I then backed away to capture the inset. (The original inset is just as sharp as the closeup, but it loses some since I resampled it for this file.)

Abandoned Bus and House TrailerSame thing here. Do you suppose this is an abandoned one room schoolhouse and transportation system? I was close enough to the bus and house trailer that I could have used less lens. I used the same low tripod, shooting with the 6D. I cropped the height.

I try always to ask permission to shoot onto private land, even if I’m shooting from a public road. That’s a salable image although the owner was pretty confused that I wanted it.

The float and slide are off a small point 4,400 feet out and the shoreline with trees in their far background are 11-12,000 feet out from my own dock. Same part of the lake as the Canadian photos but a mile south of the border. I used the same low tripod, shooting with a 6D. I’m not sure yet if the softness is shutter tremor or heat shimmer.

I took this shot handheld with a 5DMkII at 7:57 p.m. EDT, 19 minutes before sunset, with ISO 1250, 1/1600 @ f/8, manual focus. The colors are real. I wanted the paddlers who were out about 10-11,000 feet from me. What I got, if you look at the ridge line and maybe biggify it a lot, are 35 of the wind turbines of Marble River Wind Farm in Altona, NY. That’s almost due west of North Puffin about 40.5 miles as the Canada Goose flies. I have never ever seen those windmills from here before.

I probably can’t sell this but it’s still a helluva pitcher!

I thought I was ready for this big lens but my results show I was only half right. It is tack sharp and hellaciously good at a couple hundred feet. I’m having real trouble at a couple miles.

So far, I’m using the common sense tools I already knew to do. I used fast shutter speeds, a shutter release, and my new-to-me tripod. I tried it as a monopod but got a lot of motion. I locked up the mirror. This Lens doesn’t have Image Stabilization. I tightly frame as much as is possible with a prime lens. And I did use the very shallow depth of field to advantage on the closer shots.

Stuff I’ve learned so far:

It turns out that these long, heavy lenses are much steadier if you use heavy stuff as vibration dampening. One photographer suggests laying your arms, hands, and even face right on the tripod mounted lens. Others hang their gadget bags on the tripod hook to anchor them. Maybe both.

improvephotography.com notes that “Increasing the ISO also dramatically reduces the visible detail in the photo.” We all know that high ISO speeds add noise to photos although most digital cameras filter that out. I suspect those very filters also are what smoosh the details.

Ken Rockwell writes, “Unless you absolutely need depth of field, avoid apertures smaller than f/8. The resolving power of a modern digital SLR is so great that you will soften your images by stopping down unnecessarily. This is why many point-and-shoot cameras don’t stop down past f/8.” I’ll be darned. I didn’t notice a lot of softening between f/8 and f/14 but it was there.

This lens has scratches and scrapes and scruffy, scruffy paint, but the glass, the glass is in excellent shape. Looks like a winner to me. Once I get in some more practice time.


Human Interface Design: A Tale of Two Phones

Professionally, officially, I’ve never had much reason to consider how humans interact with the machinery I’ve designed. In fact, since my specialty is material handling equipment, I’ve had lots of reason to consider how to keep humans from interacting with the machinery I’ve designed. Belts and gears and pushers and pullers and blades and fingers should be kept mutually exclusive.

All that changed when I designed a boat.

A Tale of Two Panasonic PhonesI like how stuff feels in my hand, whether a boat hull or a nice shirt or a cordless phone.

Apple’s former “Human Interface Evangelist,” Tog Tognazzini, told Science Friday that Apple doesn’t deserve its reputation for good design anymore. (Be warned that SciFri’s SoundCloud will make you sign in just to listen to the file.)

Apple has a well earned reputation for perfect, intuitive gadgets.

Back in the old days of the 80s, manufacturers printed a long book (translated through Sanskrit from the original Chinese) of instructions and illustrations for most anything you bought. Tech writers ruled. You’d either “RTM” or spend the rest of the machine’s potentially very short life fiddling with it to learn how to use it. We techies bemoaned the day manufacturers stopped supplying that long, printed manual.

Apple fixed that.

Steve Jobs changed your life and mine.

“iOS raises the bar for excellence in user interface design and offers great opportunities for you to deliver engaging and unique user experiences. Consider these common design concepts before you start coding to enhance the usability and appeal of your apps.”

Apple made it not just possible but necessary that anything you hold in your hand be hand friendly. Or not.

Wikipedia tells us, “The goal of this interaction is to allow effective operation and control of the machine from the human end, whilst the machine simultaneously feeds back information that aids the operators’ decision making process. Examples of this broad concept of user interfaces include the interactive aspects of computer operating systems, hand tools, heavy machinery operator controls, and process controls. The design considerations applicable when creating user interfaces are related to or involve such disciplines as ergonomics and psychology.”

The industrial design field of human-machine interaction also has concepts that work across interpersonal relationships as well.

My friend gekko held forth on the latest modern management style: “The latest flavor of The End All Solution To Managing Employees and Co-Workers fades quickly and no others rise to replace it,” she wrote over here.

Exactly. Most of these management fads are pretty much designed by aliens who have never actually probed a human. The closer in me would like it if the “Human Resources” folks inventing this stuff had at least rotated through an actual Human Interface design department. And taken the flack that should come when they get it wrong.

Hey H.R.? There are more people doing the work than in your “sample.”

H.R. gets it wrong more often than not because they forget to test their latest fad on real employees.

Mr. Tognazzini makes the point that Apple did that, too, with their new, gray, “flat” iconography and text interface. If you’re over 50, you can’t see their new, gray, “flat” iconography and text interface.

Good DesignHey Apple? There are more people over 50 than under 25 in your test market!

Apple gets it wrong more often than not because they forget to test the design on their actual users.

I’ve written before about the Panasonic cordless phones I like so much. The phones have always fit my hand and my pocket nicely. They have a headphone jack and work excellently with my headset. They have plenty of memory in the phonebook and multiple ringtones that can be assigned to various numbers. They have built in call blocking.

I had to buy a new one. You can see the old black one and the new white ones in these photos.

Bad Design Sadly, Panasonic changed the cordless phone face. Just a little bit. “We’ll make the buttons bigger so our older users have a better experience!”

Except the bigger buttons now let you butt dial or table dial or hang up the phone when every you use it. The bigger buttons ride up on the sleek, curved, front face and stick out farther than the body. I saw that the first time the phone butt dialed my neighbor. You’d think the Panasonic design department would have noticed.

Panasonic got it wrong because they forgot to test the design in the real world.

There’s a moral in there.



It was anything but an average night in South Puffin. The temp dropped almost to 50°F. I woke in the dark and didn’t want to get up because it was c-o-l-d in that room. Actually c-o-l-d in this whole house. I did get up eventually because the alarm sounded like robot bees.

That’s unexpected because I should wake to oldies music or, at worst, commercials, one after another.

I used to have a wonderful GE clock radio on my bedside table. Super-Heterodyne receiver. Direct entry keypad for time and radio tuning. “Woodgrain” finish. Gradu-wake. Two alarms, each with completely separate controls so I could set one to turn on the radio and the other the alarm buzzer. And did I mention direct entry? None of this tap-and-hold-and-hope-you-don’t-speed-past-the-time setting.

It died, darn it.

Now I have two alarm clocks by my bed, one set to turn on a gentle radio, the other to wake me with the alarm. Two separate appliances to do what one did. Two separate appliances with the same Stone Age controls my 1970s GE replaced.

Anyway, robot bees.

South Puffin is over the horizon from pretty much everywhere so we have no over-the-air broadcast TV and our few FM radio stations are the ones with antennas right here on the island chain. I generally tune to an oldies station (it’s The Mix for anyone who cares) with its antenna on Survivor Island, the island known on maps as Boot Key. There is no bridge to Boot Key any more, so when the station goes out, someone has to swim the channel.

That happens with some frequency.

Still, this morning, the station was playing; it was my antenna that screwed the pooch. I reached out to the power cord from under the blankets and the mad bees faded into the Crests singing 16 Candles.

Cold out there, so I pulled my hand back. The bees returned.

I’m thinking the mad bees are electronic noise.

I put my hand on the cord again. “Sixteen candles in my heart will glow…”

Back under the covers. Bzzzzzzzzz.

Radio Bob tells us that Most clock/table radios use the power cord as an antenna although an iPod with an FM radio uses its headphone cord as the antenna! I don’t know how the radio chip in cellphones works. FM radio waves travel line-of-sight, meaning more-or-less in straight lines. Objects that get between the transmitter and receiver weaken them.

The antenna is me.

This is not a new phenomenon; I’ve always been able to affect radios although it doesn’t always happen. I do it to the stereo in my North Puffin study. I do it to the living room A/V system here. I’ve done it at Rufus’ and Lee Bruhl’s and Fanny Guay’s. Even Liz Arden noticed it once.

Ms. Arden and I talked about it this morning. She’s an Electrical Engineer so I figured she’d know. She thinks it may be impedance matching.


“Hmm,” she said. “You need a broadcast engineer or RF guy.”

Radio Bob says there are plenty of sources of interference like ham radio operators, computers, TVs, fluorescent lights, and electric fences. The hams have been quiet. I hadn’t started the computers, TVs, or twisty fluorescents (I was still in bed, remember?). And South Puffin ordinances forbid electric fences.

Radio Bob says Get a better antenna or a better location for it. Or move me to a different room.

In our next episode, Liz Arden asks why she turns off streetlights when she drives by.

Really. I’ve seen it happen. She can drive along in her motorized roller skate and a streetlight will go out as she passes only to come back on again a minute or so later. It’s happened often enough not to be coincidence.

I think it’s her Cerulean aura, but I’m open to other theories.


The North Puffin Poo Chronicles

My Saturday was going really well until I realized it’s Monday.

Halloween is far enough past that it is (probably) safe to relate the tale of the “outhouse races” up here in farming country. Oh, we’ve had indoor plumbing as long as anyone (you may recall my Day of Poop two summers ago) so we all pretend that only our cows go in the barn. My friends Jim and Fred Baillargeon have a 200-head dairy farm up near the border in North Puffin. They have a two-holer about 40 steps off the back porch, not too far from the the calf sheds and on the other side of the manure digester.

Great sport as the temperature drops on Mischief Night is not cow tipping but outhouse tipping.

Two-Holer OuthouseOuthouse tipping has some rules. The most important is to tip the outhouse onto its door. See, that way the tippee has no way out other than through the small hole in what has become the sidewall of a very low room. And the pit is now a viable moat to cross.

The tippee is usually annoyed.

Extra points for a two-holer. Year-long bragging rights for a doubly occupied two-holer.

See, most folks retain an outhouse because that chance to be alone with ones thoughts and a good book is almost the best part of a day on the farm. When Jim and Fred both have to go, though, it was either a race or a building project. They chose to build.

Unfortunately, Jim and Fred both had to go around midnight on Mischief Night. They knew better but sometimes the urge is just too great. The high school football team had hosted a fundraising dinner that very evening in an effort to keep the pranksters tied up for a good cause. Nobody thought twice when the menu had Boston Baked Beans. Lots of beans. A troop of commandos went over to the farm and lay in wait in the calf shed for the inevitable. I don’t know Jim and Fred didn’t hear the giggling over the calves bawling but they both went quietly to their fate.

The boys didn’t know that Jim had loaded his bird gun with rock salt and Fred had a pair of million candlepower torches. The boys gave them a minute to get settled and ran out.

“Everybody push!”

Outhouses are strong little buildings and weighted at the bottom. This tipping op turned out to be harder than expected. Finally, it started rocking and went over. The left tackle’s foot slipped and he almost fell in the hole when Fred lit ’em up. Jim took careful aim and…

Let’s just say the latrine wasn’t the only slippery place on the farm.

Fortunately North Puffin poop don’t stink.

Speaking of cows, Green Mountain Power met with dairy farmers, selectboard members, and the actual public last week. The Quebec energy company Gaz Metro owns Vermont Gas, Green Mountain Power, and Central Vermont Public Service. Fred and Jim were there. As far as I know, the football team wasn’t.

They discussed constructing a manure digester near the St. Albans Bay. St. Albans Town has about 10,000 cows. That’s a fair dinkum lot of manure.

GMP is Vermont’s heaviest investor in alternate energy and, since they need to make a profit with it, they aren’t just flinging poo at the wall.

The front end of a digester is in essence a cow-power septic tank. A large concrete holding tank collects the manure. The tank sits at 101°F for 21 days while methane gas rises naturally to the top. A collection system syphons off the biogas fuel which feeds a natural gas engine, which in turn spins an electric generator to create electricity. The electricity goes onto the GMP grid.

Nothing goes to waste. The tank empties into a separator to divide out the liquids from the solids. The liquids get spread or, better, injected as fertilizer. The solids can be composted into soil amendments or can be used as bedding for the cows.

I think my friend Bill Rowell built the first digester in Franklin County (Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury has had an active digester since 1982, the first in Vermont).

“The digester process greatly reduces pathogens, fly and insect larvae, weed seeds, and odor,” Mr. Rowell said of his million gallon plant. Particularly odor.

GMP has at least 13 farms in the program; this would be the fifth digester on farms in Franklin County. The others are in Bakersfield, Berkshire, St. Albans Town, and Sheldon.

Farm digester projects in Vermont tap a utility-funded grant program created by the settlement when Entergy Nuclear bought the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The Renewable Development Fund started in 2004; it provides technical assistance funds for digester projects. Cow Power program customers can also opt in to pay a premium of $.04/kWh on renewably-produced power. Green Mountain Power pays farms that same premium for each kilowatt hour they deliver to the grid. By the end of 2012, energy produced by the farms exceeded demand by 35%.

Headline: Nuke Money Pays for Poo!

So our poop not only don’t smell, it glows in the dark!