Friday, November 29, 2013

Big Changes

Sometimes we need to make a big change - a complete paradigm shift - to really move forward. Break out out of our routines and processes to explore a completely new direction, gain new skills and insights and challenge ourselves to grow. For me, this is that time.

About ten years ago, I started working on the PIX team at Microsoft. We were responsible for the end-to-end photos experience across the company, creating web services, retail products and building our photos experience into Windows. The team was also filled with passionate photographers and I got bitten by the photography bug.  Over the last decade, my own passion for photography has grown. I have travelled all over the world trying to capture the essence of places and the power and beauty of nature and some of my happiest moments have been in the field, living these remarkable moments and sharing them with people.

I have also learned that the only way to get the truly remarkable shots is to be in the right place at the right time and for me to be able to focus on continuing to improve, I need the flexibility to go where the light is best and stay there as long as needed to get the shot. In order to enable that, I need to make a significant change to my lifestyle.

Starting in January, Leslie and I will be taking off in our Airstream trailer and traveling the country. Visiting the places we've always wanted to go, discovering places we never knew existed, and spending the time necessary to really get to know the people and places that we find. When the light is good, I'll be out shooting and when it's bad, I'll be writing apps which remains another great passion of mine. We are both very excited about this next chapter in our lives and we are both very grateful to Microsoft for making it possible for us to make this change.

We will be writing about our adventures on the road at Tin Can Tardis, our travel blog created specifically for stories about full-time RV’ing, the places and people we see and anything else that seems worth sharing. My photos will, of course, continue to be available at and I’ll be adding a whole new section to cover the shots from across the country and organized geographically.

The toughest part of this change, even more difficult than figuring out how to live in about 200 square feet, will be seeing much less of the people who we have gotten to know and depend on over the past many years. We take some comfort in the knowledge that we will have all sorts of internet connectivity for much of the time so Skype and Facebook will allow us to stay connected. Also, our plan is to be back on Whidbey Island for the summers so we will have opportunities to grab coffee and catch up with everyone -- to share our adventures and learn about yours. And for everyone who doesn't live in Puget Sound, your town is probably on our destination list :-)

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dangling Tasks

I was one of those guys back in school who would do an assignment right when it was assigned. If there was still time in class, all the better. I really didn't like having work pile up when I didn't know exactly how I was going to get it done and I really hate having a deadline looming overhead. Once a task is started, it is easier to finish (apparently Newton's first law of motion applies) so I would start as early as possible and in many cases that would be sufficient and the project would get done soon after. That hasn't changed. When I get a new project, I like to get started quickly and let inertia keep it going. Doing the next thing is always easier than doing the first thing and it is pretty easy to build up a big head of steam when I'm doing things like writing an app or out on a photo shoot.
Conversely, I really don't like those little tasks that need to be done, and will take some preparation, but are not part of a larger effort. I call these dangling tasks. A mail-in rebates is a great example of a dangling task. There is usually a deadline for it and I need to do some work (chopping off UPC codes, finding and envelope and the right postage, actually mailing it) and it never really fits in to a project large enough to feel any satisfaction about getting it done. Similarly, returning products bought online, renewing prescriptions and getting an oil change are examples of dangling tasks.
While I love task lists for big projects (“Ooh! Look at all the fun things I get to do!”), the most annoying thing, for me, is needing to create a to-do list full of dangling tasks. Each item has its own friction that needs to be overcome to get it going and starting any dangling item has no impact on any other one. Emptying that list rarely happens because invariably a few of the items never overcome the inertia of me not giving a shit.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Trust the Internet

I'm flying to Newark today. Just as I was arriving at the airport, I received a text from Alaska Airlines saying that my flight was on time and departing from gate D11.  When I check in at the terminal, my boarding pass says gate C9 so I figured I'd confirm it with the guy at the baggage drop.  "C9" he says, "Go to the security check to the left, it's faster". Excellent!

So I go to gate C9, which is at the end of the concourse and I wait for a while, enjoying an awesome Beechers Grilled Cheese sandwich. When the gate display doesn't change to my flight, I start to wonder and I check the departures board.  It says D11.  Now it's even - 2 things say C9 and 2 say D11. Let's ask the Customer Service Desk person.

Me: Hi, I'm trying to figure out where my flight is ACTUALLY leaving from
She: Let me show you a secret.  Do you have a smart phone?
Me: Yes, but I want to know from YOU where my plane is leaving from.
She: Just check Google.  Enter AS 8 in Google and it is always right.
Me: It is more right than your own system and people who are checking your own computer systems?!?
She: Yep. I just tell everyone to check Google. It knows more than we do.
Me: Um... ok.  I guess I have a long walk ahead of me.

Sure enough, Google knows the truth.

For what it's worth, Bing knew it too.

Trust the internet, it knows more than the people.  At least at Alaska Airlines.

On the plus side, awesome grilled cheese sandwich!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Recognizing the Precipice

J.D. Roth wrote a great post yesterday about his recent conversations with Tess Vigeland after her courageous presentation at the World Domination Summit a few weeks ago.

The section on self-respect, about meeting your expectations but not those of others, really resonated with me. Doing what you know is the right thing and being met with barriers to progress and negative reactions slowly chip away at your self-worth. In my case, this shows up as trying to improve a system that refuses to recognize that it needs to be fixed. At some point, it is better to move on and find the next challenge.

But what about making a big life-changing jump without the safety net that we are all taught to prepare? Tess left her dream job at NPR's Marketplace knowing that she didn't know what was next but it was time to go. “It’s time to leave when you have too much self-respect to stay,” Tess said. When your job, or your life situation, no longer provides either the personal growth or satisfaction, it is time to make a change. When just getting up in the morning to go to work becomes a chore or you've just stopped learning new things, it is time to make a change. The amazing thing about Tess' story is that when she recognized this, she made the jump before she had her next big thing lined up. That takes guts, but it is also sometimes exactly what is needed for that next big thing to show itself. When she gave her talk at WDS, she didn't know what that next thing was but when you put that question out to the universe, it will respond and it is great to see Tess on her way with the her next chapter.

Like J.D. and Tess, I find myself at that point. What is next? I too am exploring possible courses of action and I'm both excited and terrified about making a big change. Ready to embrace the uncertainty and take the next steps towards living an unconventional life. The lack of safety net is potentially the most interesting thing about making a change at this point and watching Tess struggle with the ups and downs of her own transition is reassuring. There is life after big change and while it isn't all a "bathtub full of kittens", only by taking that leap do you get to see what's on the other side.

Monday, July 15, 2013

World Domination Summit 2013

It's been just over a week since we got back from the World Domination Summit (aka WDS2013) in Portland. I'll have to admit that I had no idea what we were in for when Leslie signed us up for this last winter but I've learned to trust her when she thinks something like this is going to be helpful and this time was no exception. WDS is tough to describe. Yukari Peerless really nailed it when she described it to an inquisitive TSA agent as "Creative people getting together to inspire each other to have an unconventional life." She captures the essence of what I so loved about the event in three parts. Creative people... One of the things that I continually search for is a creative community. I've had times where my job provided this though that has not been the case in the past few years. My photography and music are an outlet for me personally though I've struggled to find a consistent community around those things. WDS was one giant mass of creative people yearning to share their creativity and connect with other creatives. The energy was astounding (and at times overwhelming). Speakers like Darren Rowse who spoke about dreaming big and taking responsibility for our own future. I loved his thoughts on settings aside time to create.
...Getting together to inspire each other... Donald Miller gave a brilliant talk and asked "What if we spent less time impressing others and more time connecting?" Connection was what this crowd was all about. Time and again we were encouraged to connect with each other and create connections that we could use to hold each other accountable for achieving our dreams.
One of the members of a breakout group I was involved in asked me, "Who is on your personal board of directors?" #mindblown. Of course that is exactly what we want, a set of people who bring specific insights in an area of our lives that we are developing. A good board of directors has a vital blend of members with diverse backgrounds, each passionate about their area and readily available to coach each other and guide the organization in the right direction. Why the hell don't we have these for our own lives - to help us achieve our dreams. Over the next few months, I will be creating my personal board of directors. How awesome will that be? have an unconventional life. This is WDS's founder and fearless leader Chris Guillebeau's real mission. His website The Art of Non Conformity focuses on unconventional strategies for life, work and travel. Perhaps he is just an evil genius, but his vision is what set WDS in motion and from there, dozens of volunteers joined in to make it happen and nearly 3000 attendees made it sing. I was energized by meeting so many people who have abandoned the traditional 9-5 career and are doing their own thing -- nomads, artists, writers -- all creative and all searching for ways to either start or accelerate their own unconventional lives. With our plans taking shape for our own transition to the unconventional I found WDS 2013 to be a timely inspiration. A real kick in the butt to work on the important things and to find the answer to Darren's question, "What kind of future will you create?"
Oh, and with all of the talk from bloggers and about sharing our lives, I recognized that it is time to sweep the dust off of my blog and restart the conversation.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Spindrift Photo

While the posts here have been few and far between, it is generally due to the proliferation of brands, sites and products I've been working on fore a while now. SyncTunes and were mentioned recently (and I use the term recently loosely) but the latest is I've been spending a lot of time over the past year or so working on my photography and the result of that work is now on display at In addition, my photography related blog posts are now going to the Spindrift tumblr site - that is where I'll be posting about specific photo sessions, trips, travel photography, digital workflow and other photo related topics. In the meantime, check out the post at Cliff Mass' weather blog about the funnel clouds we saw up in the Skagit Valley last weekend or perhaps just the pictures of the flowers themselves.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Storm Chasing 2011

Last Christmas, my wife gave me a storm chasing trip. How awesome is that? The trip was with Silver Lining Tours and I just got back from a fantastic week. Here’s the lowdown on what we did. It’s kinda long, but a lot can happen during a week of storm chasing!

Silver Lining Tours - Tour 4 - May 29-June 3

Sunday May 29 – Denver Colorado (356.4 miles)

The first day of the tour showed little promise for storWems. There was a possibility of some storms rising off of the upslope to the Rocky Mountains and that was the possibility that we chased. left Denver and had lunch at Fort Morgan, CO, then drove to the tiny town of Grover, Colorado to watch the radar and see how the storms develop.

While we were waiting in Grover, the Weather Channel’s “Great Tornado Hunt” crew showed up and spent the next few days following us. Mike Bettes is a meteorologist for TWC and was spending a month chasing tornadoes in a three car caravan – a Chevy Suburban from which Mike would occasionally broadcast while on the road, a minivan which toted most of their gear and a mobile satellite uplink truck that was purpose-built by NBC for Operation Desert Storm to allow satellite uplink while on the move. The uplink truck looked like a giant golf ball on the back of a flatbed truck (though much more impressive) while the other two vehicles were wrapped with the Weather Channel’s Great Tornado Hunt, as well as sponsorship by Radio Shack.

Mike and the Weather Channel crew provided a very useful distraction for the afternoon while we all took pictures of, and got our pictures taken in, their vehicles and with Mike himself. Mike is a really nice guy and was more than willing to hang out and chat with the chasers in our group.

The storms on the upslope of the Rocky Mountains, though, were not to be so we left Grover with just a sunburn and headed on to North Platte, Nebraska for the night. Once we arrived in North Platte, we had dinner at Applebees an oversharing waitress (she doesn’t like working Sundays but her boyfriend has an infection) and a busboy named Maximilian who was polishing his standup routine – it still needs a lot of polishing. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this would be our last sit down dinner until Friday.

Monday May 30 – North Platte, Nebraska (473.1 miles)
Even before we had left Denver, we knew that Monday May 30th (Memorial Day) was showing a lot of promise for storm chasing. I woke up early and was craving Starbucks, which I had seen about ½ mile away across I-80 so I walked to Starbucks and had a chai for the last time on the trip. Being only ½ mile away was quite lucky given that the next closest Starbucks was almost 200 miles away. Starbucks density is much lower in the plains states.

This morning was our weather 101 class where Roger Hill explained the basics of how storms form and the required ingredients for a storm to turn into a supercell thunderstorm capable of spawning tornadoes. The four key ingredients could be remembered with the SLIM acronym –
Shear: You need winds coming from different directions to start the necessary rotation
Lift: Lift is required to make the warm, moist air ride to create the towers of cumulonimbus clouds that lead to tornadoes. If there isn’t lift, then that moist air stays close to the ground and won’t create the necessary convection.
Instability: This is measured in CAPE (convective available potential energy) which is how much energy there is in the air. Generally speaking, if the air is more unstable, it will make it easier for the air to rise. Higher cape values indicate a better opportunity for a severe storm
Moisture: Moisture is the key element in clouds – no moisture -> no clouds -> no storms.

As Roger says – if you don’t have SLIM, your chances of seeing a storm are slim. Today’s weather looked like a perfect opportunity for storms as warm, wet air was coming up from the south and cold, dry air was coming down from the northwest.

The standard pattern for storm chasing is to get close to where you think the storms will be, then wait for the cumulonimbus towers to form, climbing up to between 50,000 and 60,000 feet. Then, put yourself near the path of the storm and watch the magic happen. The tough part is both knowing where the storms will be, and getting there at the right time.

The National Weather Service and NOAA publish computer models of what they think the atmosphere is going to do over the next few hours and days. Those models are updated constantly as new data from what is actually happening is added. We left North Platte for Broken Bow, Neb where we started our waiting. When we arrived, there were no clouds at all in the direction where we were expecting storms but after an hour or so, we started to see the towers of puffy clouds forming. It is really quite impressive to go somewhere with clear skies, knowing that a storm will form there in a few hours and then watching the clouds form from nowhere just as anticipated. What follows, though, is tougher to know.

We left Broken Bow for the chase, entering “Code Red” which really just means that there won’t be any bathroom or food stops until there’s nothing interesting left to chase. We got up to Brewster, Neb for the first storm to break. We stood under the storm as the anvil passed over and it got very dark even though it was still the middle of the afternoon. Soon, a shelf cloud came towards us showing amazing structure and we could see rotation in the cloud – this is something that you just can’t really capture in photos or on video. Incredibly dark clouds, swirling overhead and moving at remarkable speeds just needs to be seen and this is really the source of the popularity of storm chasing.

I was standing near the vans next to a bluff, photographing the clouds when Roger yelled “Get back in the vans, we’re about to get cored!” Sure enough, just seconds after we got back in the vans, we were inundated with rain and high winds. The temperatures outside had dropped from 82 to 62 over a period of about 15 minutes.

We drove north to get out of the rain to see some more and drove into a line of quarter-sized hail. Let me say this about hail – it is LOUD when it is pounding on the top of the van. When the hail passed, we stopped to take a look at the hailstones left on the ground. Hail is really just ice that is passed up and down in the cloud on the convection currents until it gets too big for the updrafts and it falls to the ground. The bigger the storm, the stronger the updrafts and the more time the hail has to form, thus larger hail. Smaller hailstones gain size either by picking up more moisture, or by colliding and merging with other hailstones. The hail that we were picking up was slightly larger than a quarter and it was delicious. Yes- we ate it. I only wished that we had some bourbon because it was the perfect size and shape for cocktails.

After our hail snack, we drove down past Taylor and started chasing the tail end of the line of storms that was developing. From the place where that first cloud went up, new storm cells were developing along a line as the older storms moved to the northeast, newer storms developed along a line to the southwest. Eventually, this line of storms would form a squall line stretching from the Kansas border to North Dakota.

Over the next few hours, we would speed from place to place, trying to avoid hitting the hail core of the bigger storms (which risk breaking windshields and windows) while trying to find the storm that was most likely to drop a tornado. Working our way south along US-183 and eventually other smaller roads towards Kearney, Neb. Along this route, the storms were intensifying and we started getting very strong straight-line winds. The airport at Lexington reported winds of 90 MPH. The storm’s outflow was kicking up big clouds of dust which would rotate into the air, looking like small tornadoes though without the requisite rotation in the clouds above these are not tornadoes. Instead, these are referred to as “dustnadoes”. There were several reports of tornadoes on the ground as we drove through a tornado warned area but they were really just dustnadoes.

Arriving at I-80 just south of Kearney, we pulled into the parking lot of a hotel to let the storm go over us. As a wall cloud approached, the tornado sirens started sounding and the wind kicked up. The temperature around us dropped again from 85 to 62 in less than a minute as the front passed over us. The winds kept pushing me back and the sky was an amazing yellowy-orange color as the setting sun tried to shine through the clouds and rain but could only provide some color. The NWS was reporting straight line winds of over 100 MPH with this storm and softball sized hail so, once again, just before it hit us, we jumped in the van and started racing east on I-80.

We were driving around 70 MPH on the highway and the storm was keeping up with us. Just overhead, as we were driving down the highway, we saw very strong rotation which twisted from horizontal to vertical rotation right in front of us. A cloud of dust kicked up right in front of us and lasted for a few seconds. This was a very small tornado that formed just above and in front of us and died soon afterwards, before developing the traditional shape of a tornado, but it was one nonetheless. I was trying to video tape it with my camera, but the resulting video is tough to see anything. Technically, though, we saw a tornado. It would be the only one we saw all week.

We raced the storm all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska – wind buffeting us the entire way. We pulled in to the hotel about 20 minutes before it hit at around 11:30 pm. A couple of us made a quick trip to Wendy’s to get a burger to take back for the show. Around 11:50, the high winds and horizontal rain pounded our hotel and lightning flashes were all around us but the winds had slowed down from back in Lexington and Kearney to about 40-50 MPH. Nonetheless, it was quite a storm to watch while going to bed.

Tuesday May 31 – Lincoln, Nebraska (82.5 miles)
The storm from Monday ended up removing most of the moisture from the air and the resulting high-pressure zone was pretty stable. Missing at least 2 of the key ingredients for storms, there was nothing to chase on Tuesday so it was a down day. We hung around the hotel for most of the day. The crew from the Weather Channel was also at our hotel, having chased with us the previous day and they interviewed a few of us for a segment they were doing on Silver Lining Tours. This was actually the second time they interviewed me and I did my best to explain what we had seen and experienced the night before. My segment aired on Wednesday morning though it happened just as we were loading the van so I missed it. Apparently, I said something about how complex tornado formation actually is, pulling from the information we learned the day before. I’m sure I looked great with my sunburned face.

That evening, we headed to Omaha to see the Omaha Storm Chasers play the New Orleans Zephyrs in a Class AAA minor league baseball game. Mike Bettes from the Weather Channel was throwing out the first pitch though Dora the Explorer, who threw out another first pitch just after him, may have upstaged him.

The best part of the game was the opportunity to buy Omaha Storm Chasers clothes and caps. The Storm Chasers won the game 15-10 and we headed back to our hotel in Lincoln. It was great to stay in the same room for two nights in a row!

Wednesday June 1 – Lincoln Nebraska (741.5 miles)
The chase area today was north-central Kansas so we left early from Lincoln and drove for several hours to around Colby, Kansas. The Weather Channel guys were chasing around us again today though they started to take their own route, which in the end would be a bit less than ideal for them.

In the middle of the afternoon, the towers started climbing and we went to code red. We drove up towards Norton and watched a supercell form just ahead of us. This first storm looked beautiful and it developed a wall cloud that tried really hard to drop a tornado. We raced east to stay ahead of the core and to keep an eye on the wall cloud that produced a funnel cloud that came about halfway down to the ground but then dissipated before it turned into a tornado. As the front storm started to weaken, we followed the storms that formed behind it.

The storms were increasing in strength and the radar was showing baseball sized hail up in the cloud. Continuing to stay ahead of the storm, we searched for roads that would take us in closer to the core so we could watch for more funnel clouds. We went down one gravel road which was surprisingly robust and got some great shots of the storm coming towards us but we turned around before the rain hit and turned that road into a muddy mess. Mike Bettes went down the same road just after us near Alton, Kansas but didn’t get out before the rains came and all three of their vehicles got stuck in the mud and they had to wait a couple of hours for some locals to help get them out of the mud. We had since moved on south so we didn’t hear about them getting stuck until much later on their twitter feed.

Since this was the best storm front to be watching, there were a lot of other storm chasers in the area. One group from Sweden had a device they called a “Tornado Killer” which, they claimed, would fire 10,000 volts of electricity into the air to change the electrical field that the tornadoes used when they are formed. The main problem with this device is that tornadoes don’t use an electrical field to form. The second one is that taking a device into a storm that is hooked up to 10,000 volts of electricity is quite dangerous. We first saw these folks and their device while we were waiting for the storms to form and Roger’s wife Caryn started asking them how it worked. When it was clear they had no idea what they were talking about, she started quizzing them on how storms form and when they had no answers, they just walked away. We saw them on the side of the road a few times that evening during the chase and, while no tornadoes formed while we were out, I’m reasonably confident that their device played no part in that.

We pulled up to a large radio antenna and parked underneath to get some more shots of the storm approaching. At this point, the lowering looked like a snow plow coming towards us with the sunset starting to shine through on the west side and the east side being very dark. Our next stop was near Paradise, Kansas where we watched the cloud approach and heard warnings of softball sized hail falling in its core. Roger, once again, got us out of there just in time and we passed a pickup truck being driven by a storm spotter for the local fire department heading past us towards Paradise. Just a couple of minutes later, we heard him on the radio reporting that he was getting pounded with softball-sized hail and that he had lost is windshield.
At this point, it was getting quite late and we had a very long drive ahead of us to get in position for the next day’s chase up in the Dakotas so we started north. The problem was that there was about a half dozen supercells between us and Nebraska so we drove carefully, avoiding the hail-laden storm cores.

We stopped for gas and watched as huge purple-tinted storm clouds around us started getting very active with lightning. Our drive for the next couple of hours was between sets of storms that were firing off lightning at a rate of about 5-10 flashes per second. Some of it was cloud-to-cloud and some was cloud-to-ground. This was perhaps the most amazing light show I have ever seen. As we drove by radio antenna arrays, we were hoping for a direct hit but no such luck. We did have several strikes very nearby, where the lightning bolt seared a line in my retina such that I would see it for about 30 seconds afterwards no matter where I looked. The thunder came within a second and I could feel it through my whole body. After a few hours of driving through this, we made our way up through Nebraska and got to our hotel in Valentine at around 2:00 am.

Thursday June 2 – Valentine, Nebraska (575.2 miles)
The weather models were indicating that a few isolated thunderstorms would be developing north of the Black Hills of South Dakota and would head northwest into North Dakota. The storms would develop pretty late – around 6:00 pm but the sun would be out until closer to 10pm because we were so far north so there would be plenty of time for chasing. The only problem was, there were absolutely no clouds on the radar.

We drove up to Pierre (pronounced ‘peer’) South Dakota for lunch and to see how the models would evolve. Pierre is right on the Missouri River, which was seeing record high levels due to heavy rains and snow melt from the Rocky Mountains. The water in the lake just above the city was so high that the Army Corps of Engineers were going to open the spillways the next day and flood parts of downtown Pierre so there were lots of volunteers around us building levees close to the river and sandbagging their homes and businesses that were close to the water. There was an evacuation order for parts of the city that were going into effect that night and the residents were told they would likely need to be gone for two months before the river would returns to its normal levels.

We finished lunch and headed further north towards Mobridge, SD to get into better position for the storms. Two lines of storms started to appear to our southwest – one was just north of the Black Hills, as expected and the other was just to our west. We watched both to see which one would be better. There was a strong cap in place which kept the storms from being able to go as high as they needed to create the most severe supercells but as the afternoon went on, they continued to build until the storm to the west of us started to break through the cap and we got some amazing shots as it suddenly rose from 40,000 to 55,000 feet in just a few minutes.

We raced north to get ahead of the storms that was starting to form along this line and crossed over into North Dakota. The terrain in North Dakota is beautiful; wide grasslands over rolling hills with occasional small farms. We saw dozens of very old, abandoned homes sitting in the middle of nowhere on the prairie and the storm started looming over these homes. We stopped several times to take pictures of the anvil of the storm creeping over the plains and our vans. It started to get dark as the sun was blocked by the clouds that were now more than 10 miles high but outside of this storm, you could still see the blue sky ahead of it which made for some stunning photos.

As the sun started to set, it passed behind the clouds and created rays of sunlight erupting from the storm and beautifully backlit the precipitation falling from the bottom. The top of the tower was so high that it was creating mammatus clouds which look like bubbles on the bottom of the anvil that was racing overhead 30 miles ahead of the storm. We stopped to let the core of this storm pass over us and we were pounded for a few minutes with heavy rain and hail. Just to the east of us, a huge double rainbow formed and we all waited anxiously for the precipitation to stop so we could jump out and take pictures of it.

The sun was now started to sink below the remaining clouds from the dying storm and it cast a golden glow over the remaining clouds while the wet road reflected the clouds and blue sky that was coming in behind the storm. The light was absolutely fantastic and I was giddy as I could look in any direction and see stunning photo opportunities. None of the storms could break off from the developing line of storms and build enough energy to create a tornado, but the combination of the clouds, terrain and sunset were so awesome that I was more than happy with the results of this chase.

There were a few more storms developing to the south but they were much higher so there wasn’t a chance of tornadoes from them, but we did get another great light show as we headed south out of North Dakota and towards Spearfish South Dakota, near Rapids City and Mount Rushmore. It was another very long drive and we arrived at our hotel around 1 am.

Friday June 3 – Spearfish, South Dakota (458.2 miles)
With all of the storms that had passed through over the previous couple of days, there didn’t look to be much of a chance for chasing on our last full day of the trip. We were also about 450 miles from Denver so we headed south, keeping an eye on a potential target in southern Colorado. That target ended up looking very weak so we decided to not chase it and instead headed to Denver. We arrived around 7:30 pm and had our first dinner as a group since the previous Sunday night.

The primary topic of discussion for the last half of the trip and dinner was when everyone was planning on coming back next year to do it again. Storm chasing is remarkably addictive because no two days, let alone trips, are alike. Some of the people from this group had been chasing the previous week and had been in Joplin just minutes before the EF-5 tornado came through and destroyed much of the city. They were minutes away from being blown away by that storm and saw a number of people in that town walking or driving straight into what would be the path of the tornado. A woman at the gas station where they were trying to refuel probably saved the groups lives by telling them that they can’t pump gas during a tornado warning and that they should get moving. Some people in the group briefly considered taking shelter in the nearby Home Depot but they decided it was better to keep moving and to get out of town. This was a particularly good call as the Home Depot was flattened a few minutes later and there were no survivors in that building.

Seeing tornadoes is not the goal for a storm chasing trip. It can’t be because they are so unpredictable and the odds of seeing one in any given week, particularly in a place where it is not rain wrapped or too dark to see it, are very low. Roger says that the storms themselves are the cake and seeing a tornado is just the frosting on top. While I was a little dubious of that when I arrived on Saturday, I am a strong believer in this now. Watching these supercells develop and getting just a taste of the immense power in these storms is the real payoff. The storms themselves are immensely beautiful with towering anvils, swirling mesocyclones and intense precipitation. The inflow tails can stretch for dozens of miles while the winds turn the grasslands into seas of green flowing like water. The real excitement is in watching how the storms are developing and trying to get into the best position to watch it unleash massive amounts of energy – tornadic or not.

Do I want to go back? You bet I do! These types of tours may be the best way to see the beauty of the heartland of America and the awesome storms that pop up here more than any other place in the world.

The chasers
The storms themselves are a relatively small part of the time spent on a chasing tour. The rest of the time is spent in vans with a group of like-minded people who just love watching severe weather. The leader at Silver Lining Tours is Roger Hill who has been chasing for 25 years. Roger has immense knowledge of how storms develop and what will make a storm develop into a weak, high precipitation snooze fest or a towering monster. By watching the real-time Doppler radar on his laptop and examining the most up to date weather models, he can quickly determine which of the cells are going to get stronger and which ones are going to collapse and die. He has seen well over 500 tornadoes and is one of the most effective storm chasing leaders in the business. Furthermore, he is a respected authority on severe weather and, during our trip alone, he appeared on the weather channel to talk about the developing conditions at least a half dozen times.

The drivers of the vans on our tour are the real heroes. They are the ones who get us into position and through the storms safely and help explain what is going on during the chase. They put in long hours behind the wheel driving hundreds of miles each day (our longest was about 750 miles though they have driven over 1000 miles in a single day) and are excited to get up the next morning to do it again. The combination of our driver’s skill and Roger’s knowledge made me feel quite safe even as we were being chased by 100 MPH winds and having dustnado debris pummel us while we’re driving at 75 MPH. These guys just love to chase and are excited to be there day after day.

The chasers on our tour were from all over the world – New Zealand, Canada, Australia, England, Germany were represented as were at least a dozen states from New Hampshire to California and Washington to Georgia. They are always ready to trade stories about their previous encounters as well as the event that got them “hooked” on severe storms. Some have been on dozens of tours though many were on their first chase. Roger’s wife Caryn, who was driving one of the vans, talked about how she sees the moment when attendees become addicts – when they see their first huge storm from right underneath it, perhaps dropping a tornado right before their eyes, and just start giggling or shedding a tear (of joy, presumably).
Some of the attendees were total characters. The foremost among them on our trip was Raymond, originally from the Netherlands but living in New Zealand and working as an electrician. Raymond collects power meters and glass insulators that are on the electrical poles. He would whip out his video camera and film power substations as we drove by, or interesting arrangements of power lines and poles as we zipped by them. He spent the first couple of days chasing in bright green Mountain Dew pajama bottoms and a bright purple tee shirt – you couldn’t miss Raymond even in the biggest wind. When we stopped to see the hail, he harvested a huge handful of them and was popping them in his mouth and crunching them like cheese pops. His enthusiasm was infectious and I learned more about the different types of power lines than I ever thought I would. I will definitely never look at them he same way again.

We had a crew from the Discovery Channel who are working on a new series on America from the same people who created the Planet Earth series. They were there to get shots of huge storms coming across the plains and were probably hoping to get wide open shots of tornadoes as well. I had a few discussions with them and it was fascinating to see how they create those shows. On average, they said, it takes about a week to get the right footage for about one minute of the actual show. This particular series is schedule to be released next year.

The rest of the crew ran the gamut from software engineers to dentists to students (I’m not sure that is actually a continuum, suffice to say that it was a broad set of day-jobs). Spending much of the time in the vans heading to the next storm, there is plenty of time to get to know the other chasers and their interests. There was also a broad range of cameras on the tour; little point and shoot cameras to high end SLRs, flip video camera to insanely high end HD video camera (ok, maybe the Discovery Channel’s crew shouldn’t count – but it was there). The one thing I missed was the opportunity to share the photos that people had taken to see how they saw it differently from me, and perhaps to pick up a few new techniques for shooting storms. Silver Lining Tours offers special photography tours where they stay a bit further back from the storm to get the wider shots and perhaps on those trips there is more discussion of how to get the best shots.

In summary
In all, we drove 2,686.9 miles over the six days of the chase, which was about average for their tours. The folks at Silver Lining Tours were fantastic from booking through the final dinner and I would absolutely recommend them for anyone looking to get up close and personal with severe storms across the middle of America. I’m not sure if it will be next year, or the following, but I definitely intend to go again and perhaps then I will get to complete my chasing photo collection with a nice, white tornado underneath the angry wall cloud. Either way, I’m sure it will be great.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

SyncTunes for Mac

SyncTunes is my latest application project and it is now available in the Mac App Store. SyncTunes is a simple application that you can run on any Mac where you have an iTunes collection and see the combined collection between two machines. SyncTunes shows you the differences between your libraries for every song in your collection and lets you quickly and easily get them in sync. You can select a single song, all songs by an artist or all songs in your collection (or just about any combination in between) and with one click, the songs and all of the metadata about them will be synced over your network safely and securely.

Since my initial success with TeeShot in the iPhone App Store, I've been trying to come up with another application that is both useful and valuable enough to be able to make it worth the time to build and market it. With the advent of the Mac App Store and my own struggles keeping my iTunes libraries in sync between my home desktop, work desktop and laptop computers, the stars aligned and SyncTunes was born :-)

It has been a ton of fun building SyncTunes and trying to get all of the sync cases correct and fast. The challenge in this case, because I haven't seen anyone else do this yet, has been figuring out how to make the user experience right -- balancing the flexibility of being able to sync any combinations of files between machines with simplicity of getting it done quickly. No one wants to spend a long time synchronizing their libraries. SyncTunes 1.0 is a good start and I'm already working on ways to make the next version much simpler and more flexible.

SyncTunes is currently available in the Mac App Store. Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Monday, September 07, 2009

My Latest Software Adventure

OK, so it has been a long time since I posted here, but I've been quite busy! In addition to ongoing work on TeeShot and TeeShotLive, I've also shipped a fun little photo sharing app on the iPhone called Pic-Z Share but the latest big thing is today's opening of TweedCase, a website for musicians to show off their instruments and gear and to be able to connect with each other.

The idea is simple. I love collecting guitars, basses and other gear. They are works of art that can create works of art. It also helps that they represent a lifestyle that is compelling and exciting. On top of that, though, I love looking at other people's instruments and hearing their stories about how they got it, where they played it, the remarkable sounds they can get with it and so much more. So why not create a website that lets people do exactly that? So I did.

The idea came to me at the Small and Special conference in Seattle last summer. Eric LeVine has a great website called which lets wine tasters share their tasting experiences and wine collections. Neat idea! The closest thing for me would be guitars. I love 'em, I love talking about them and I just love looking at them so I decided to start building this site and just see what happens.

In the first release of TweedCase, you can sign up for a free membership, post information about your instruments and your gear. Then you can upload photos of your instruments. I'm going to encourage folks to try to take great pictures of them to show off the beauty of the instruments, but to do that, I need to develop those skills myself so I'll be posting about that on the site and on the blog. Members can also write their own articles about their musical experiences as well as upload short MP3s of their playing so they can really show what is special about their gear and how they use it.

Over time, TweedCase will grow and I'll add more things that the members can do, but I'm waiting to see what folks ask for to see where to go next. If you're a musician or a collector, come on by and sign up for that free account and let's see what's in your case!