The Crabby Chemist

Posted in Dangerous, Humor, Mixed Nuts on September 30th, 2008 by MadDog
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Good buddy Greg O’Keefe from Chemcare knows I’m always on the lookout for the odd bit of esoterica. He came marching into the office the other day with a box in his hands.

When he opened it, I jumped back as if I’d seen some great nasty crabs yearning to sever my fingers one by one. In fact, I was exactly right. These are two of the biggest mud crabs that I’ve seen. Of course, I haven’t seen them all:

Greg and his big mud crabs

Greg said that a lady from the highlands had been catching them up by St. Fidelis using a string, a hook and a bit of meat. That struck us both as amusing.

First off, highlanders are not generally known for their fishing skills. They excel at many tasks, but pulling crabs is not one of them.

Then there’s the method. Honestly, I don’t know what the preferred way of catching mud crabs is – I’ve never tried. I can’t eat them, since I’m deathly allergic to shellfish. However, the thought of a highlands lady poking around in the mangroves with a string, a hook, and some bits of meat seems whimsical to me. Frankly, I’d like to see it.

Finally there’s the whole thing of getting the grumpy things subdued. These critters can do you serious damage in a heartbeat.

A similar beast we’re all familiar with is the coconut crab. Once when we had visitors at our house, I spied a big coconut crab in the front yard and decided to demonstrate my prowess with creatures disposed to cause great pain to humans.

Stupidly, I thought, “I’ll grab him from behind the carapace. He can’t possibly reach back that far to nip me.”


Don’t ever try that!

The coconut crab has spines on its pincers. One of the spines penetrated completely through my thumbnail and blood gushed. Furthermore, it seemed impossible to force the stinking thing to let go. I performed a demented little dance around in the yard while the others stood back to avoid the crimson fountain.

I finally managed to bend over, flop the tenacious little crud-eater on the ground, and stomp on him as hard as I could with my bare foot. I wasn’t sure which was going to break first – my foot, my thumb, or his shell. He finally succumbed to my relentless tramping and I was able to extract my throbbing digit.

On reading the article mentioned in the link above, I discovered this amusing but useless suggestion:

It may be interesting to know that in such a dilemma a gentle titillation of the under soft parts of the body with any light material will cause the crab to loose his hold.

Yeah. I’m sure that that’s going to work. 

A couple of things have happened to me in my sixty-four years that were just possibly a little more painful. One of them had something to do with shooting myself in my own leg.

But, I don’t want to talk about that.

One Laptop Per Child in PNG

Posted in Divine Word U., Mixed Nuts on September 29th, 2008 by MadDog
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I recently went over to Divine Word University to visit my friend Chandana Silva, “The Guru of Gurus” when it comes to computer stuff in these parts. As usual, I went to beg for help. As usual, Chandana was most helpful.

And, as usual, he had something interesting to show me.

Probably everybody on the planet has already seen the “One Laptop Per Child” computer – except me. I had, of course, heard about it. I don’t think you could be conscious on Planet Earth without hearing about it. But, this was the first time that I’d seen one:

Chandana Silva with an OLPC

Chandana is in the thick of the battle to overcome the problems of creating a sustainable technological strategy for getting these amazingly capable little notebooks into the hands of kiddies who need them.

He told me that there are about 135,000 school children in the third and fourth grades in PNG. This is the target group.

Divine Word University is working with the Department of Education and some other NGOs and missions to get the ball rolling.

Not surprising to us old-timers in PNG is that power to charge the batteries of the OLPCs (how does one pronounce that?) is the primary stumbling block. The planners are considering solar cells, wind turbines, and windup gadgets.

There are about a million ways a motivated teacher could stimulate learning with these gizmos. Chandana told me about sending the kids to go out to take pictures of flowers with the built-in webcams. Then, when they get back to class, the teacher can set the controlling computer to show each student’s photo on all of the other students’ OLPCs. They can discuss the photos while all looking at the same thing on the screens.

Another advantage that I had not considered is that, since the software is all ‘open source’ (available at the code level at no charge), then the language in use on the screen can be changed by simply editing the files and reassembling all the programs. That’s a slight simplification, but you get the idea.

What a gas, man! It’s a whole new world out there.

Anybody Named Sweetlips Can’t Be Bad

Posted in Photography Tricks, Under the Sea on September 28th, 2008 by MadDog
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Yesterday – Dive Saturday – did not look promising in the morning. Our dive a little later, after the rain stopped, exceeded my modest hopes.

We cruised out to Magic Passage only a few minutes from Madang. There was about a metre of fresh, dirty river water floating on the surface, but underneath it was clear with no current. We had seven divers on Faded Glory.

The best shots that I got on the dive were on the bottom at about 30 metres.

As usual, there were small schools of Blackfin Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) hanging around near the sandy floor of the passage. They are among the several species of fish that frequent Magic Passage which are easy photographic subjects because they are relatively unbothered by the presence of divers.

What I’d like to illustrate to you in this post is the dramatic benefits that underwater photographers have enjoyed due to the transition from film to digital media.

Just a few years ago, a typical shot under yesterday’s conditions with a film camera – regardless of the quality of the equipment – would have yielded something like this:

The RAW image sensor data from my G9

This is the raw image sensor data from my Canon G9 with no processing inside the camera or my computer. In other words, it’s what would have been captured more or less the same on film.

By the way, in case I haven’t praised the G9 sufficiently, have a look here at the Flickr Canon G9 Image pool. This is a cheap camera that is capable of producing amazing images. All you have to do is read the manual. (Okay, okay, I know that nobody actually does that!)

You can see that there are fish in the image, but otherwise it contains little visible information and could hardly be called interesting.

What makes a digital camera more powerful is that it can capture the individual red, blue, and green colours separately and keep them separate when they are sent to your computer (the RAW shooting mode).

This allows software in your computer to reassemble the separate colour channels in special ways that allow you to create images that were impossible with film media.*

It took me about an hour to turn the image above into this:

Blackfin Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie)

If you click to enlarge the image you will see that I was not striving for an exact photographic rendition of the original image, but rather how I imagined that a painter might interpret it.

How many days might it take a painter to do this? Is it art? I can’t say, since I’m not an artist. I’m just a technician with a reasonably good eye. I’ll go back to the trite old excuse for those of us whose classical education was lacking in the fine arts, “I’m no art expert, but I know what I like.”

You decide.

I’d like to show you one more photo today. This is a small mob of Silver Sweetlips (Diagramma pictum). These are sub-adults – like teenagers. (No slight intended to my teen readers. I know that there are quite a few of you.)

This is one of my favourite fish. First off, it is quite pretty. It has a silvery body colour with a metallic sheen and is covered from head to tail with bright yellow spots. It is also extremely tame. As you can see, this gang leader isn’t troubled at all by my camera only about fifteen centimetres from his face.

I have, on many occasions, approached slowly from behind while holding my breath and tweaked a tail:

Silver Sweetlips (Diagramma pictum)

The adults are a sorry story. They lose their bright yellow spots, grow big snaggy teeth, and their lustre fades to become a dull pewter colour.

Isn’t that the way it goes?

*This is not exactly correct. There were special technical processes for capturing colours on separate film exposures and then combining them with control over the individual colours. I don’t imagine that the average amateur would have used these techniques.

Bright Day Promise

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Photography Tricks on September 27th, 2008 by MadDog
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It’s been raining on and off since I got up at about 5:30. It’s Saturday. The possibility of a dive this morning is looking slim.

However, all is not lost as long as I have a working camera. Today, it’s my new favourite, the mightiest point-and-shoot in the world, my Canon G9.

I’ll start with my least favourite shot of the morning. It was nearly a throw away. Then I started messing around with it and decided it was interesting enough to warrant a name. Let’s call it “Wet Rocks”:

Wet Rocks

I used a medium telephoto to flatten the perspective and underexposed it a bit so that the shine wouldn’t overpower the image.

It could have been better if I’d removed some of the excess foliage.

I’ve recently become mildly obsessed with water drops on banana leaves. The next two shots were taken with flash.

This one makes an interesting pattern, but otherwise doesn’t have much going for it:

Drops on a banana leaf - flat

This one has more depth. It also shows the drops at different angles. However, for my eyes, the flash masks out all of the natural ways that light interacts with the drops of water and the texture of the leaves:

Drops on a banana leaf - some depth

I like the next shot more. Without the flash I see the amazing ways that light bathes the drops and the leaf under them with wonderful liquidity.

If you click to enlarge, you’ll see, especially in the upper left corner of the shot, the reflection of the sky and even a coconut tree.

There is also a wonderful glowing effect under each drop showing how the light refracts through and comes out blurry.

However, all is not blur through the drop. Notice how each drop enlarges the pattern of the leaf under it as if it were a tiny magnifying glass:

Drops on a banana leaf - yummy!

The last is my favourite of the day.

When I was young and callow I had my own darkroom where I spent countless hours learning the tricks of the trade. In the gang of young photographers with whom I worked and played, there were two groups. There were those who could afford to process colour and those who could not. I fell into the latter group.

Us poor ones were the “Monochrome Snobs.” We said such rubbish as, “Any image is more powerful in monochrome” or “I’m following the footsteps of the masters.” What a bunch of jerks! All the posturing translated to, “Okay, okay, I can’t afford a colour lab.”

However, once in a while I find an image that screams out to me, “Give me the power of stark black and white!”

I found one this morning:

The power of monochrome

I love the way that monochrome removes ambivalence. There are no pretty colours to distract one from the intent of the photographer.

This shot captured my optimistic mood for the day. It’s not a picture of a boat backed by a pretty sunrise.

It’s an image that conveys a hint – maybe even a promise – of a shiny, happy day.

A Great Buddy Gets Bent

Posted in Dangerous, Under the Sea on September 26th, 2008 by MadDog
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If you’ve followed our adventures in the Capital of Paradise (that’s Madang, of course), you have already met Rich Jones. Here’s my good buddy Rich in repose with a glass of his prize-winning ginger beer. Very yummy stuff:

Rich and his world-famous ginger beer

I’ve dived with Rich for a long time. Sadly, we don’t see him much these days as he has had to relocate to Port Moresby for his work. But he never fails to improve the atmosphere on Faded Glory whenever he can get to Madang.

Why divers get bent (nitrogen bubbles in the blood) is sometimes a mystery. No matter how conservative the diving habits are, a certain number of divers get bent every year for no apparent reason. It’s a gamble that one chooses to take. You’re betting that if you follow the rules, you won’t get bent. Some people lose.

I know Rich to be a very conservative diver. He watches his computer and always does his safety stops. He doesn’t go deep unless there’s good reason to do so.

So, why did Rich get bent?

I’d love to include the complete email that he sent to his friends, but it’s too long. I will include a paragraph that might shed some light on the matter. It’s looking as if trusting your computer might not be the safest thing to do.

The chamber team downloaded my Sunnto and found 10 dives this year which violated the deco time or safety stop. However that contrasts with my normally conservative profiles. The last one was last Thursday – my second dive. The computer read out on the laptop says I came to the surface with 5 mins of deco time left. I didn’t. I cleared that deco and the computer alarms should have gone off and locked the computer for 48 hours. I was not aware of any problems or any user error or any early ascents. One dive in Tawali earlier in the year had 13 mins of deco time left and no computer warnings. That stunned me. Maybe it is a software glitch or a problem with the laptop software or maybe it is a problem with the dive computer itself. I had never downloaded the dives because I have Vista on my laptop. We’ll investigate further. Most cases of DCS have no cause or multiple causes. One other possibility is a heart chamber defect – a PFO. The sign for that is rapid onset bends. Or maybe it was just my bad day and we will never know.

This is particularly troubling to me, because I dive with a Suunto computer. Like Rich, I trust the computer to warn me if I’m violating the rules that are designed to minimize (notice I did not say eliminate) my chances of getting bent.

Fortunately Rich will be diving again in a few months. He seems to have suffered no permanent damage.

To cheer Rich up and possibly amuse you, I’ll show a couple of shots that we took while visiting Rich in Port Moresby when we were on our way to Australia last year.

Here’s a night shot:

Night scene in Port Moresby

And, here’s the same angle at sunrise:

Port Moresby at sunrise

Rich, mate, you’ve got a sunrise coming to you.

As soon as the medicos sign you off we’ll have a celebratory dive on Faded Glory. You pick the spot.

In the meantime, get your skinny Pommy bum back to Madang for a visit and a well-earned war story.

Sharks, Schmarks – Triggerfish Are the Demons

Posted in Dangerous, Tattoos, Under the Sea on September 25th, 2008 by MadDog
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Woe betides the diver who crosses either of the villains I’m going to show you today.

Everybody asks about sharks. (1) “Where’s the sharks?” (2) “What do I do if I see a shark?”(3) “Are there any dangerous sharks around here?”

The answers are: (1) One has to know where to look. (2) Look at it. (3) Just about never.

But, I’m not writing about sharks today.

In a couple of thousand or more dives (stopped counting at 1,500), mostly around Astrolabe Bay, I’ve only a very few times seen reason to be even mildly concerned about sharks.

I have, however, seen many people surprised, startled, frightened out of their wits, chased, snapped at, and otherwise harassed by our two resident and common species of large triggerfish.

Let me introduce you first to, in my opinion, the worst of the pair – the Yellowmargin Trifferfish (Pseudobalistes flavimarginatus). It’s sometimes known as the Green Triggerfish.

Here’s one we found near the wreck of The Henry Leith near Wongat Island at a place we call the Fan Garden:

Yellowmargin Triggerfish - swimming habit

That’s a typical swimming posture. They often adopt odd postures when moving through the water. I sometimes think it is so that they can keep an eye on you.

Notice the ‘trigger’, a stiff, retractable spine at the front of the dorsal fin. Triggerfish hide in holes when spooked. They can raise the spine to lock themselves into the hole so that nothing can pull them out and eat them. A bit of tail may be all that’s lost.

Here is the same individual demonstrating a common feeding habit:

Yellowmargin Triggerfish - feeding habit

Vigorous tail wagging disturbs the bottom and exposes worms and other yummy stuff for the hungry beast.

While we’re here, click the shot above to enlarge it and have a close look at the teeth. Yep, they are just like a Doberman’s choppers!

Incidentally, both of these demons are about the size of a football.

I’ll introduce our next pesky varmint by quoting myself from an article titled The Eel Garden in Issue 7 (July/August/September) of Niugini Blue:

I remember a rather stupid and nervous young diver who was on his third or fourth dive (untrained and uncertified) with Brian Lusmore at Planet Rock. Having encountered a truly colossal Titan Triggerfish at about twenty metres, he was so enamored of escape as the vicious beast snipped away at his dive fins that he popped up immediately to the surface. Fortunately, he didn’t pop a lung. I can truthfully attest to this incident. I was there. The hapless and ignorant diver was me!

And here is a nice shot of the typical feeding habit of the Titan Triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens):

Titan Triggerfish - feeding habit

As you can see, it’s the same football shape. Thus, in both taxonomic names the Latin ballisto root, meaning ball-shaped.

Here’s another shot showing the fearsome dentition:

Titan Triggerfish - I’d be moving quickly away at this point

Both of these critters will come at you without hesitation if you enter their territories.

The standard defence technique that I describe to divers is to turn toward the little creep and start kicking your fins like crazy in his face while simultaneously vacating his territory in reverse. One needs to remember to move away horizontally, staying close to the bottom so as not to pop up and risk a lung injury.

We always discuss triggerfish in pre-dive briefings if we suspect they might be around. I got so tired of describing them to new divers not familiar with them that I had pictures of the two tattooed on my back:

Triggerfish on my back

The standard briefing is now, “If you see one of these, get behind me.” What I don’t mention is that you have to be a pretty fast swimmer to do that.

It’s all fun and games on Faded Glory.

Spoiled Fruit

Posted in Humor, Photography Tricks on September 24th, 2008 by MadDog
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I hardly ever do two posts in one day, but I can’t wait to tell this story. Besides, by tomorrow, it may have been accidentally erased from my permanent storage.

Bear with me a minute. I’ll get to the punch line eventually. 

Even spoiled fruit can look interesting.

The sunrise looked very pleasant this morning. I thought that I’d do another sunrise panorama. Then I realized that I’d forgotten to bring my tripod home.

I loaded the frames up in Photoshop anyway, hoping to get something useable. This is what I got:

Next time I’ll remember to bring my tripod home

Remember, you can click any photo on this blog to see an enlarged version. It’s interesting, but not up to snuff. It makes me think of a mural on a wall that’s being repainted with white paint.

I remember a woman whose husband ran away with someone else and they got a divorce. Doesn’t sound funny, eh?

Well, it wasn’t in general, but she did have one amusing thing to say about the change in her life. Her husband was an avid amateur photographer. It was the old days when film was slow and you really needed a tripod for many shots. Her husband always found some excuse that she had to carry the tripod. Pretty lame.

Anyway, she said, “Now I don’t have to carry his damn tripod anymore!” She also mentioned that she’d seen him with his new girlfriend. Guess what. The new favoured one was carrying the jerk’s tripod.

I wonder how long that marriage will last.