December 29, 2014: Rarely is procrastination a good thing. Example A is this month's newsletter, which should have been written and posted a couple of weeks ago. It first got sidetracked by volunteer work, then it got delayed because of Christmas, so now we're up against the clock as old man 2014 makes his way to the exit door in just a couple more days. But it's our goal not to pop the cork on the new year before this missive goes live, so strap yourselves in for a whirlwind recap of December. Occasionally, however, procrastinating does work to one's favor. Example B is the tale of a promise that was fulfilled after nearly 25 years, on Christmas Day.
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Several decades ago the Associated Press used to run an annual Christmas story that was syndicated to its member newspapers, which serialized the stories through the holiday season. The series began in 1942 and continued through the mid-1980s. For 27 years, the stories were written by a woman named Lucrece Hudgins Beale. One of her stories, originally published in 1958 and reprinted in 1979, was "Santa and the Elf Boy." It ran in 17 installments that were illustrated with artwork drawn by Dick Hodgins Jr., a single black and white cartoon that accompanied each chapter.
The story and its artwork found its way into our family during its second printing in 1979, when it was clipped from a New Jersey newspaper by Glenn's Grandmother Henry and sent to him and his siblings each day in the mail. The assembled clippings were stored in a handmade paper folder and pulled out each Christmas after that so Glenn, Jenny and Sean could read once again the tale of a fairy elf named Esteban who has his wings confiscated for incompetence and then earns them back by uncovering a plan to destroy all the fairies in Fairyland and saving the day. Yes, the plot sounds convoluted even as we try to explain it, but apparently the story resonated with everyone because those well-worn clips became a family tradition.
It was around 1989, once Glenn and Roni were married and we had purchased our first computer, a Macintosh Plus with a crude black and white scanning device called Thunderscan, that Glenn thought it would make a neat Christmas gift to digitize the aging newspaper clippings and organize the "Santa and the Elf Boy" tale into an interactive Hypercard stack for Jenny and Sean. But the scanner worked its magic by attaching to the head of a dot-matrix printer, and aside from being very slow it was not practical to scan the newspaper clippings that were in some cases oversized and in all cases too creased or brittle to not be destroyed in the process. As happens too frequently with such projects, time and interest got away from us and the clippings became lost in some box or some closet and weren't to be seen again for many years.
Fast forward to this spring, when we spent nine days on a top-to-bottom cleaning of our garage because we could no longer walk into it without tripping over stuff. We unearthed boxes we hadn't looked at in more than 20 years, and one of those contained the "Santa and the Elf Boy" series still in its original handmade envelope. Glenn pulled it aside, determined to complete the project he had started in the late '80s.
Remember what we were saying about how procrastination sometimes pays off? In the nearly quarter century since Glenn's first attempt to digitize the Elf Boy story, technology has advanced considerably. Now we have a 27-inch iMac with a speedy processor, lots of RAM, and a flatbed scanner. No more waiting for several minutes at a time to scan a document. Plus the equipment has high resolution, meaning he could scan images large enough to reproduce clearly when printed. Couple that with Photoshop and a color printer and we were ready to bring this 56-year-old Christmas story into the modern era.
Still, digitizing a 17-part series and cleaning it up for print is a time-consuming chore, and it took the better part of two months from when Glenn started the project in earnest to when he had it done on Christmas Eve. First he carefully unfolded each yellowed newspaper clipping and scanned them into Photoshop with an HP all-in-one scanner. He used the software to join together the clips that were too large to scan in one pass, then cropped them and converted them to black and white so they would be neat and easy to work with. A lot of time was spent on each scan removing blotches left from crease marks and tears in the original news clippings.
Once the scanned images of each chapter were in reasonably clean shape, Glenn cut out the cartoon panel accompanying each one and colorized it. That was the single most involved step in the project, requiring on average about two hours per each of the 17 panels, depending on the complexity of Hodgins' original artwork. Each color was placed on a separate layer in Photoshop, with the black and white art serving as a template. It was sort of like a digital coloring book.
Glenn used QuarkXPress to lay out the chapters in order with their newly colorized drawings, but he quickly realized that his original plan of placing the scanned newspaper text on the pages wouldn't work well. He needed a way to convert pictures of the story into editable text that could be reflowed in his layout, and the only way to do that appeared to be either finding it already online somewhere or having to type it in by hand. Yuck!
It isn't true that everything in the world can be found on the Internet. Yes, there are archived copies of other newspapers that ran the "Santa and the Elf Boy" series, but nowhere could he find a text-only version of the story. With time running out – it was less than three days before Christmas – Glenn was preparing for a marathon typing session when he discovered the OCR function bundled within Adobe Acrobat, the program that makes PDF documents. With the news clippings already scanned, all he had to do was run a command in Acrobat that extracted all the text and saved it as an editable file. It saved countless hours of work, and by the next day Glenn had all the text edited and was on the way to completing the project.
On Christmas Eve, as Roni labored over her baking projects and we put the finishing touches on preparations for Christmas, Glenn spent the morning and afternoon designing a new cover and printing four copies of the series to package for his family. He called the colorized 39-page booklet "Santa and the Elf Boy – Reloaded." It included an introduction that Glenn wrote along with biographies about the author and the illustrator, and a list of other stories that had appeared as part of the Associated Press Christmas series. Best of all, it was finished before Christmas Day.
* * * * *
THE PAST THREE years we have alternated which holiday we spent with Glenn's folks in Hayward. Last year it was Thanksgiving, and the year before that it was Christmas. We decided to do Christmas there again this year because it fell amid Glenn's 5-day vacation and we had slowed down on work following Thanksgiving. It was a good thing we planned it that way, because November and December were busy months.
The biggest project we had to get off our plate was the Delta Science Center calendar, which we design every year for distribution to 6,000 school children. The project got started late as usual, and with Roni not feeling well in early November because of an ear infection, it got pushed back another couple of weeks. It took us until mid-December to finally get the calendar designed and off to the printer, and then another couple of days to correct the minor issues that cropped up with the print job. But the struggle was worth it in the end, as the calendar, which we picked up from the print shop Dec. 27, looks very sharp.
Next came the challenge of figuring out what gifts to get folks. You know we're behind when Roni still hasn't finished her shopping two days before Christmas but Glenn has. It was probably because we couldn't figure out what we really wanted, so gift lists were less helpful than usual. Knowing that we would be spending Christmas in Hayward, Roni came up with a great idea after looking at some baking projects online that she would make a cupcake tree to take with us. Having never made one before, she wanted to run some tests first.
For two weeks our house became a cupcake test kitchen, and Glenn and Ben were the Guinea pigs. Roni tried baking chocolate and rainbow flavored cupcakes, worked on finding the proper mix of icing, and honed her skills at poking toothpicks into Styrofoam cylinders. By Christmas we were mostly sick of cupcakes, but Roni had perfected her technique and was ready to take her tree on the road. She spent Christmas Eve baking up two dozen cupcakes and decorating them with an artist's love and precision. From the fondant stars at the top of the tree to the base rimmed in peppermint candies, it was a beautiful sugary treat that we were all proud of.
Meanwhile, Glenn prepared his traditional cardamom Christmas bread that went anything but smoothly. He put the yeast in too early, had to reheat some ingredients to be sure the shortening melted all the way, and added a touch too much salt to the icing. The twin loaves of bread failed to rise and were much smaller and denser than usual. They may have looked pretty on a plate, but there was no fooling Glenn's palate; the bread was ruled a failure.
But the baking fiasco aside, nothing could spoil our Christmas celebration. We awoke a little later than usual on Thursday morning and were happy to be greeted by a day that was neither too cold or dampened by torrential rain like we had experienced a week earlier. It was typical California winter weather. Santa had done a good job getting gifts under the tree, including a stocking for Ben. Some of those childhood traditions are tough to let go.
We opened gifts around 11 a.m. after our customary gathering around the tree for a family portrait. Ben made out pretty good, scoring lots of anime-related gifts that he'd wanted, as well as some RPG software (that's Roll Playing Game, not Rocket Propelled Grenade!) so he can create adventure games on his computer. Roni got some books she wanted, among them one on how to photograph birds, and a new iPad 2 mini. Glenn got a couple of calendars, some accessories for our GoPro camera, and an IOU for a "Dirty Jobs" T-shirt that arrived in the mail two days after Christmas. The unwrapping was wrapped up by noon, and that left about an hour or two to rest up for our trek to Hayward.
Roni was very concerned with how her cupcake tree would transport in the car. While she had spent hours figuring out how to make it look nice, she had come up with few solutions for how to keep it from accidentally toppling over. We packed it in a cardboard box that she buckled in to one of the back seats next to Ben. His task was to watch it and make sure it didn't tip over around curves or in the event of a sudden stop.
With the cupcake tree buckled in and a trunkload of presents for Glenn's family, we drove south through Brentwood and took Vasco Road over the hills to Livermore. The cupcake tree swayed a bit, but otherwise all was well until Roni slowed for a stop somewhere near Byron. The top of the tree tipped forward on its base before we could catch it and the icing on a couple of the bottom cupcakes got roughed up. It wasn't a fatal disaster, but it was enough to convince us that someone needed to hold on to the tree's top while we navigated the curvy road.
Nearly an hour later we had made it to Castro Valley and were driving the backroads to the Hayward Highlands without any further calamities. Roni was disappointed with the damage, but Glenn and Ben had reassured her that it could be repaired – or at least she could hide the damaged portion and not affect the presentation much. While we had driven this route to Glenn's folks' house a few times before, we still weren't familiar with it enough to have memorized every turn along the way, so Glenn was trying to follow a map on his iPhone while Ben played a video game in the backseat. Glenn found it difficult to use the phone while keeping one hand on the cake tree at the same time, so he had to shift his attention between the two.
Suddenly Glenn looked up and saw a stop sign fast approaching. "Stop!" he said, more as an alert to himself and Ben to get a grip on the tree. But Roni took it as an emergency command to slam on the brakes, which she did. With no one holding it, the cupcake tree lurched forward off its base and crashed into the side of the cardboard box. It had missed putting icing all over the back of Glenn's seat, but the damage to the tree was severe.
Roni, needless to say, was devastated. Her hours of hard work had been destroyed barely a mile from our destination. Even without seeing the damage she knew she didn't want anyone else to see it. She had already decided she would just leave it in the car and not suffer the embarrassment of letting everyone see her damaged present. Glenn and Ben told her not to lose faith, that regardless of the damage it was the thought that counted and that she shoudn't be ashamed to bring it in. We pulled up to the curb outside the Gehlke house and set about trying to repair the tree, but the situation was pretty hopeless. Some of the cupcakes had fallen off their skewers and their green icing had smeared on the peppermint candies. The fondant stars had been smooshed from our several attempts to hold the top of the tree in place.
It was with watery eyes but a lot of pride that we carried the damaged decoration into the house along with cameras and our box of presents. But the great thing about family is that they will accept you at your worst moments as well as your best, and so it was that nobody cared too much that Roni's cupcake tree wasn't perfect or that it had lost a few pieces on the trip. They were grateful for the edible centerpiece and dove in on the fallen cupcakes first. Once those were eaten, no one could tell the display had been anything less than the stunning creation it was when Roni finished decorating it Christmas Eve. Fortunately she had taken lots of pictures to share.
* * * * *
WE DECIDED TO open gifts before eating dinner, so shortly after we'd said our hellos we found ourselves gathered around the tree in the living room with Glenn's grandmother Henry, his parents, brother Sean, and sister Jenny with her husband Tom and our niece and nephew. The four copies of "Santa and the Elf Boy — Reloaded" were passed around and warmly received, fooling just about everyone who expected to receive a copy of our latest Delta Science Center calendar. Even though Jenny had long ago found her own copy of the story on the Internet that she had been reading to her kids each Christmas, she said it meant a lot to have the one Glenn had digitized, especially since she'd never seen it in color.
There were so many gifts being passed around that it was hard to take part in opening them while also trying to photograph the action. If you have never been to one of our family gatherings, it is a lot like a three-ring media circus accompanied by cameras, cell phones and video recorders. Occasionally one must pull away from the viewfinder to avoid missing the moment. It was at one such moment that Glenn looked down to find a large wrapped box at his feet. Inside was a DJI Phantom quadcopter.
More than merely a radio controlled flying toy, the Phantom is designed for aerial photography and is part of a growing field of drones built for use by hobbyists. We had seen how others were using them and had talked a few times about buying one, but never in our wildest dreams did we expect one as a Christmas present. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
Back home that night after an enjoyable Christmas gathering and dinner with our family, we unboxed the Phantom and went about setting it up so it would be ready to fly the next day. There was some assembly required, but that proved easy next to having to decipher the poorly written instruction manual that was written in translated Chinese and downloading the special calibration software that didn't work on our Apple computers. It was fortunate that Glenn was able to download the software on his Windows-based netbook or we might still be figuring out how to get our quadcopter airborne.
Friday morning we were ready to go flying, or so we thought. We'd fired up the motors indoors to prove they worked, but thought better of launching the drone in the living room for fear of crashing into the ceiling, walls or worse. Glenn took the Phantom into the backyard and set it up on the sand next to our soon-to-be-completed pond. He revved up the rotors, pushed up on the throttle... and the drone promptly tipped over on its front, gouging out a pair of furrows with its propellers. Uh, yeah. He set the quadcopter up on the sand again, fired it up, and again the machine tipped over. More divots. Two flights and two fails. Not the start we'd envisioned.
Glenn figured this would be a good time to install the propeller guards that had been included with the gift. Better to protect the blades until we'd at least gotten off the ground once. The guards in place, we returned to our spot in the yard and tried yet again. With Roni taking pictures of our third flight attempt, Glenn fired up the copter once again and this time it rose off the ground without tipping over! But now what? It started to move across the yard, so Glenn gave it a little more throttle and tried to raise it above the rosemary bush. Things seemed promising until the Phantom started drifting toward the pond hole and descended. "Pull up! Pull up!" Too late. The copter bumped into a board that was sitting in the pond and promptly crashed into the shallow water, its blades crunching against the wood. Ouch.
Despite the blade guards, the plastic propellers had suffered some small dents. Combined with the scuff marks they'd received from plowing up the sand earlier, the blades had already taken a heavy beating. We had a replacement set handy, but we didn't want to break them out yet if we didn't have to, not while we were still learning how to fly the dang thing. The copter got wet when it landed in the pond, but fortunately nothing was damaged that a dry rag wouldn't fix. Would this thing ever fly?
We decided to take it to Vintage Park in Oakley where there is a large grassy field next to an elementary school. At least here there were no objects nearby to hit, and if we were lucky enough to get off the ground we'd be able to look at the Delta just to the north of the park. Being a chilly Friday the day after Christmas, no one was in the park. Good, because we didn't really want spectators as we looked like dorks with our new flying toy. This time we brought a large cardboard fruit box with us to carry the copter and to serve as a helipad on the deep grass. We turned on the remote control, plugged in the copter's lithium battery, calibrated the compass as the instructions had told us, then prepared to fly.
The copter tipped over and chopped up the grass.
At this point we were thinking it would be a long time before we ever got flying, let alone attached the GoPro to the Phantom; the last thing we wanted was to ruin the camera along with the copter. Glenn checked the propellers to make sure they were set up correctly, and we wondered if the encounter with the pond had left them too damaged to fly. We decided to give it one last try. This time we were both amazed and delighted when the copter got off the box and flew higher than we'd been to that moment. We banked and turned for what might have been less than a minute before the battery ran out of juice. The copter came to rest on the grass a few yards away from us.
Knowing now that we could get the copter to fly, Glenn said, "So do you want to try it with the GoPro?" "You brought it?" Roni said enthusiastically. "Yes!" We changed the battery, hooked up the camera, and for a few minutes we hovered about 50 feet over the park, practicing with the controls and finally experiencing what it is like to go flying. The battery pack was exhausted in about 10 minutes, but we were encouraged by our progress enough to want to try again soon.
On Saturday afternoon we went out again with the Phantom, this time to Bridgehead Park near the Antioch-Oakley Regional Shoreline. There is a large lawn there next to the Antioch Bridge. We thought it would be neat to take the copter above the bridge to get a sweeping panorama of the Delta. Unlike Friday when there had been a light breeze that made navigation difficult, today there was no wind. We got the copter to launch just fine, but it quickly began drifting toward the bridge and it didn't seem to respond well to the controller. Rather than risk bringing it down in the middle of Highway 160, we brought it back to ground level and flew around the lawn area until we decided our Vintage Park location a day ago had been better for us.
We packed up and returned to Vintage Park, this time with a bit more flight time under our belts. Roni got a chance to play with the controls for a while and then, with the GoPro attached, we did something really brave: we pushed up on the throttle to see how much higher we could fly. We let the Phantom climb until it was perhaps 200 feet above us, to where we could still see the red and green lights on its undercarriage. We used the lights to help orient the camera as we panned the earth below, not knowing what we would see because we were running the camera without the aid of wifi.
After a few minutes the copter seemed to drift to the west and we became nervous that it might get away from us, so we brought it back to the park until the second battery died and we had to head home. Even though we have two batteries, they only allow flights of about 10 minutes each, so that's not much time to practice. But we had already learned a lot.
We eagerly loaded the GoPro recordings onto our computer to check out the results and were blown away by the video. Even at the low altitude we'd reached, the views of the San Joaquin River and Mount Diablo were spectacular. It's not every day that you get to see your world from such a perspective without the aid of an airplane or a satellite map. It's opened up a whole new realm for our photo hobby, so you'll be sure to see more aerial photos from us in the coming year.
That's going to do it for this month and another adventurous year. Glad we could beat the dropping of the ball in Times Square.