Elgin Tower Coal FurnaceWhirl and I had our 15th wedding anniversary this week on Thursday. As we were talking about what we might want to do to celebrate, the logistics of a mid-week anniversary complicated things. So we put off making a decision until the day was upon us. Whereupon we put it off again. “Let’s do something this weekend.”

And now it’s Saturday and we still don’t have anything planned. We’d tossed a few ideas around. Go out to dinner somewhere, go to a show, or a concert or a movie. (I remember at one point earlier in the year we’d talked about going to Lollapalooza for our anniversary, but tickets sold out before we could get our acts together.)

“What about Elgin?” Whirl suggested.

Elgin.

Now hold on a minute. Don’t give up on me just yet. You see, Elgin isn’t quite as bad an idea as it might appear on first look. When we took stock of ways we’ve commemorated our anniversary in the past, we realized we have had similar celebrations before. In 2005, the year I got hurt, we spent our anniversary in Springfield, Illinois. Another year we rented a car and headed generally north. We ended up spending the weekend in Cedarburg, Wisconsin and attended the Oazukee County Fair. A couple years before that we took a similar trip to Michigan– although that trip was in a Mustang convertible. And there’s always the year I was laid off on our anniversary and no new job lined up, so we spent the entire day away from the job search at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Several years we’ve just spent the day together the two of us exploring some part of the city– often somewhere along the lakefront.

Okay, maybe Elgin is still a bad idea. But it’s not an uncharacteristic idea. Not for us, anyway. And why I argue that it’s not a bad choice is because all of those other simple days together were really very fun. We have a lot of fun together when we do these simple things. We just hang out and see where the day takes us.

So today we took the Metra Milwaukee District West out to the end of the line in Elgin. Whirl wanted me to see the Elgin Tower where she had visited a possible nest site two years ago. But beyond that we didn’t have much in the way of plans. We didn’t need them.

Historic Downtown ElginWe took the 12:30 from Union Station and arrived in Elgin at 1:45. On the way out we’d picked out a couple of other things that would be worth exploring. There’s a downtown historic district and also a historic residential district with a number of Sears kit homes still extant. A walking tour along the Fox River– and if all else failed there’s the Grand Victoria Casino that I was pretty sure would be happy to take our money.

We never made it to the casino. We didn’t want to. Our first stop was the 15-story art deco Elgin Tower Building, originally the Home Banks Building, built in 1929 shortly before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Other than the assistant building manager we were the only ones there. He gave us a tour of several of the floors. On the twelfth floor we saw one of the peregrine falcons from the 2011 visit streak away off to the north. He excitedly showed us the Internet cafe now converted into the ETC Speakeasy in the newly renovated technology center inside the building. Our guide pointed out the new chairs, books and tables in the library before offering up my favorite moment: the active coal furnace in the basement.

Nothing quite says happy anniversary like riding a manual control elevator into the darkened basement of a 85-year old building to see a coal furnace.

We emerged unscathed, thanked our makeshift guide and headed out. Where we ran across the second surprise of the day an arts festival in historic downtown Elgin, Art & Soul on the Fox. Over 80 artists, and live music ran for several blocks in the downtown area. So we took our time and explored the various booths and stalls until we got hungry.

Elgin Historic HomeOur third pleasant surprise was Al’s Cafe. Right in the middle of the arts festival with lots of outdoor seating, delicious burgers, delicious beer and delicious homemade ice cream malts. I know this because I tried all three. In fact I was filled with nostalgia, given the time of year and the availability of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. This was a favorite summertime beer of mine when I lived in Tübingen. Historically, I have not had much luck finding it Stateside. Al’s Cafe had it. So I had it. And it was good.

Whirl picked up a fused Falcon Ridge lodi zinfindel wine bottle from Patricia Donnelly as a memento before we continued on our walking tour of the town. In another bit of serendipity, it turned out that Donnelly was an interested reader of Whirl’s Peregrine Falcon Journal. This came out when they discussed Whirl’s choice of bottles and talked about seeing one of the pair on the tower earlier that afternoon.

Afterwards, we took in some of the historic homes, learned about the floods and a bit of the history of Elgin. You may be aware of the Elgin Watch Company, a a major US watch maker from 1864 until its closure in 1968. But something you probably weren’t aware of– and certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve ever heard– is the freshwater pearl rush in Elgin in the early 1900s. At a time when the average daily wage was $2, a typical pearl taken from the clams in the Fox river were going for $25. And exceptional specimens might demand $100 to $150.

Maybe not the most exciting adventure, but it was a day full of a number of unexpected and pleasant little surprises. I got to spend it with my best friend, and we came home lightly sunburned and happy. And really, that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

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I Had My Eye On You From The Start

After a few years’ hiatus, Whirl and I returned to Chinatown today to get some photographs of the annual dragon boat competition. Whirl was also interested in checking in on the possible peregrine falcon nest site we spotted earlier this spring. It was a gorgeous day and we both had quite a bit of fun. The races have expanded significantly since the last time we were down to see them.

I’ve posted the full set of race photographs. Also of interest is the faraway shot of Huff, the male peregrine falcon first sighted near the park in April and two photos of terns cruising the river.

Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny

With the debut of the Paul and Storm song, “Write Like the Wind” and the predictable response from George R. R. Martin upon hearing it at w00tstock 5.0 at San Diego Comic-Con, my friends and I started thinking about various other fantasy epics that span multiple books. We discussed each of the inclusions at least somewhat. But it was not until the next day that I realized we’d left one off entirely that really ought to have been there. One that I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it twenty years ago. And that’s the ten-book epic, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.

If you consider the other suggestions we did take up, the significance of our oversight on this is pretty astounding. We talked about all of these series, but not Amber.

  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein
  • The Dark Tower, Stephen King
  • The Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling
  • Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
  • The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
  • The Cthulhu Mythos, H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Mars series, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Belgariad, David Eddings

I have no defense. I don’t understand it myself. It’s not like the conversation was a contest whose favorite was the One True Epic. This was more a free exchange of suggestions. Zelazny wrote with a particular noir, hard-boiled aspect in Amber that isn’t present in the others. It’s immortality and power without falling into the anguish and anxiety of the contemporary vampire series. It mythology without dogma. They get to the action more quickly than Martin can. It’s good stuff. I remember that. Now.

So I pulled down the paperbacks from the shelf and started in tonight with the first of the Corwin series, Nine Princes in Amber. This should hold me while I wait for winter to come.

Cisco Live! 2013 Orlando

I spent this past week in Orlando at Cisco Live! 2013. The first time I went to this convention, it went by the name Networkers and was held in Denver. That was 1998. I attended Networkers the next year in Vancouver and Whirl came along with me. We tacked a few extra days on at the end to play tourist. A lot of things change in 15 years. The attendance back in the late 90s, at the height of the dot-com boom was still only about 3000 people. Every CCIE proudly wore a leather jacket with their number embroidered on it. I was still wet behind the ears, wide-eyed and naïve.

Now I suppose I’m older. More grizzled. Less impressed by flashy things and more interested in practical knowledge that will improve my work. My boss suggested I go this year. He attended two years ago, and knew that there is real value to be obtained– and that there is some fun to be had as well. So I booked up my class schedule, found a hotel, booked a flight and set off.

I also packed my swimsuit and my Blackhawks sweater. The suit was so I could practice with Team Orlando Masters at the YMCA Aquatic Center on International Drive. The sweater was because game six (and game seven, if necessary) of the Stanley Cup Finals would be played while I was there. And I was glad for both of them. I got two practices in with the Orlando Masters, and on Monday night a made a bunch of new friends at Miller’s Ale house. We turned the beer garden into our own Stanley Cup Finals party. At the end of the night we must have played “Chelsea Dagger” on the jukebox at least nine times in a row.

I attended sessions every day starting around 7:30 and going until about 5:30 or 6:00. Everything from radio frequency specifications and antennae design to the latest features in Cisco’s newest datacenter switches– a monster of a thing that will push 83 terabits/second through the switching fabric. I went to the big customer appreciation event on Wednesday night at Universal Studios– where we closed out the park and had a private, catered party for the 20000 people in attendance. I toured the World of Solutions expo where hundreds of various tech companies had booths set up. It was quite enlightening, nearly ten times the size of my previous visits.

Anyway. that’s enough preamble. Here are a few of the koans of wisdom I gathered from my four days at Cisco Live! 2013.

  • Connecting disconnected things allows those things to communicate (who knew?)
  • Journey without Steve Perry should be called Journey on My Wayward Son
  • Compute is a noun
  • Bathroom inequality is real; I just hadn’t truly experienced it before
  • Resonate (n): superficial consideration of allegedly meaningful propositions
  • EIGRP-OTV is super-cool
  • NX-OS accounting logs can save your bacon
  • 58 seconds can last a lifetime
  • Filling your keynote speech with an over-abundance of buzzwords is a surefire way to clear a room of network engineers; simultaneously offering free food and beer elsewhere multiplies the effect dramatically
  • The Kool-Aid sometimes tastes funny
  • Cafe Tu Tu Tango is wonderful; you should have dinner there

Tubes, Andrew Blum So after four full days of discussing enterprise networking at Cisco Live, the last thing you’re likely to suspect I want to do is read still more about networks. You’d be wrong. Well, no. You’d be partly right. My brain was pretty full of technical information from the various sessions I attended, but networking is still a major part of my life and my interest in it happens on a number of levels.

While wandering around Orlando International Airport killing time while the thunderstorms blew over, I ran across the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum. Blum writes as a correspondent at Wired magazine. And in this book, he engages on a tour behind the scenes to identify the address of the Internet. Okay, that sounds a bit overly dramatic, given that the Internet is both everywhere and nowhere. It’s a concept, and an interconnected set of disparate systems. Blum’s goal is to try to gain access to some of the physical characteristics of this global phenomenon as possible.

“An engaging reminder that, cyber-Utopianism aside, the internet is as much a thing of flesh and steel as any industrial-age lumber mill or factory. It is also an excellent introduction to the nuts and bolts of how exactly it all works.” The Economist

This is a book about real places on the map: what those places sound like, what they smell like. Who lives there. Blum describes the history of the locations he visits– from converted telegraph exchanges in Manhattan to freshly-constructed datacenters in the American west to the cool rationality of Frankfurt’s Internet exchange. It’s a travelogue, certainly. But it’s a travelogue to a find the location of a place that for most of us, most of the time, is ephemera. Quixotic, enigmatic, and often essential ephemera.

Stephanie at the Mississippi

Whirl has never seen the Mississippi River. This seems like a horrible oversight when you consider the following facts: the Mississippi River forms the western boundary of Illinois for 550 miles; Whirl has lived in Illinois for nearly 18 years. I mean, it’s right there. It’s a huge river. It’s worth going to take a look at for just that reason alone. But, for whatever reason, she’s never travelled anywhere along its length. So when the assignment desk handed out the banding task for the two chicks nesting on top of a grain elevator in Savanna, she jumped at the chance. And then immediately turned around and asked if I wanted to come along and shoot.

So I took a day off from work and we got up early in the morning to catch the train up to Wilmette where we met up with Matt. After a quick stop to get coffee, we were off on a three-hour road trip across the state to Savanna. We travelled for a while through construction season along I-90 before heading off on US highways and quiet, rolling state roads. It reminded me that you don’t need to go particularly far to get completely out of the big city of Chicago. I tend to forget that from time to time, and it’s nice to be reminded every once in a while.

We gathered two more members of the day’s team from the local US Fish and Wildlife office. Eric and his intern, Jamela, joined us and we headed over to the Consolidated Grain and Barge elevator that sits directly on the Mississippi riverbank in Savanna.

As we waited for Jeff from CGB to arrive and provide access, Whirl took in the expanse of the river. The Mississippi is running five feet above normal and has flooded all of the river islands. In April it was running even higher and flooded into the town. Although we learned that the extent of the damage was mostly limited to a few business basements and that the business owners had sworn off FEMA assistance and resolved the damage themselves.

Matt Heads to the Office Jeff arrived and the team got to work. I was on the camera. CGB and US Fish and Wildlife installed a nest box on the elevator in February, 2010. A camera was added in February, 2012. Both of the peregrine adults are unbanded– a fact that has been proved many times by the nest cam– so my photo assignment was just to take some fun pictures and document the area.

Meanwhile:

  • Hard hats? Check!
  • Heavy jackets? Check!
  • Climbing ropes and harnesses? Check!
  • High-tech cardboard box for chick transport? Check!

So while Eric, Jamela and Matt headed up to the roof of the grain elevator, I stood on the riverbank with Whirl and tracked the two adults as they harried the well-intentioned chick-nappers.

Savanna Adult StallsPeregrines are noisy. When they are defending a nest, they are very vocal. They attract attention. Shortly after the trio went up to the roof and stirred them up, we were greeted by about a half dozen neighbors living nearby curious to see what was going on. Everyone we met was very friendly and happy to share their experiences with the birds. The town has really embraced them living there. I like to see that.

It was a cool and cloudy spring day. Matt and Whirl set up the banding table outside under a big shade tree. The banding went quite well. One male, one female. Although I do need to mention that when Matt brought out the needles to draw blood, the small crowd that had gathered around to watch quickly dispersed. I took a few pictures of the process and got a portrait of each chick before returning to try and get a picture of a killdeer in flight– a task that proved too difficult. I settled for a Great Blue Heron in flight. Bigger, slower target. Easier to get. Still a magnificent bird.

Great Blue Heron 3

Matt and Eric returned the chicks to the nest box. The adults calmed down and we headed off to get some lunch. At lunch we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Al, who also works for US Fish and Wildlife in land reclamation. Al took us to Hawg Dawgs, a biker bar with delicious burgers attached to Frank Fritz Finds of American Pickers fame. Over lunch– and for some time after lunch– Al spun story after story about his work, the town, the river, himself, college with Matt and just about anything else you could ask for. Al was great company. After lunch he took us up to Mississippi Palisades State Park north of Savanna. We climbed up onto the river bluff and took in the expanse while dodging huge swarms of flies and mosquitos.

After a quick stop at the flooded boat launch and the gas station to refuel for the trip back, we headed off for home.

It was a very good day.

Millennium Park Male
When late spring comes around, it’s not unusual for Whirl to invite me along on a peregrine falcon banding. I don’t work for the Field Museum. To be perfectly honest, I don’t work in science. But that being said, I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to tag along and experience what she does with the falcons firsthand. Today she took me to the Millennium Park site. The birds have nested several hundred feet up on the penthouse deck of a 30-story member of the historic Michigan Avenue street wall. The site has a commanding view of the city and Millennium and Grant Parks. Also of interest, the lobby of the building is trimmed in solid cast and green Italian bronze, with solid bronze doorways. This pair has an eye for luxury accommodations.

Whirl and I met up with Matt and Mary in the early morning and headed up to the penthouse apartment where Neal was waiting for us with his two children, Ethan and Olivia. Neal had brought his kids into the city the night before and had a sleep-over especially so they could be here to attend the banding. So after introductions and setting up the banding table, Matt, Mary and Whirl suited up in heavy clothing and helmets, armed themselves with brooms and headed out onto the deck to retrieve the chicks. Ethan and Olivia, still dressed in pajamas, stayed back with Neal and me to observe.

Pivot Dive I got on the camera and tried my hand at combat photography from the doorway as both adults immediately set upon the trio of scientists outside. Screaming, diving, strafing– the two birds seemed to be everywhere at once. Whirl makes this look easy. I assure you it is not. Fortunately, it just takes some time to get in the rhythm of what is happening and the patience to just keep shooting. As I like to joke in the era of digital photography, “film is cheap these days.”

So I kept shooting and pretty soon the team returned with four chicks, two males and two females. The banding went very well. In short order the chicks were fitted with their new jewelry, blood drawn, feather samples taken. Olivia produced an iPhone and shot some of her own stills and video of the chicks squawking inside the house.

Both kids were quite taken with the birds. They reacted with intense curiosity and a long list of very smart questions. They also helped Whirl find prey remains that were littered across the deck. From a certain point of view, aspects of studying predators can be a bit gruesome. The kids weren’t put off by any of it and stayed with us the whole time. Olivia wants to name one of the chicks, “Fluffy”. Ethan hasn’t quite decided on a name for the other one, yet.

Before too long, the team completed with the chicks and returned them outside to the scrape. The adults squawked a few more times and settled down with food for the chicks shortly after their return. They’ll be fledging before too much longer, and set out on their own lives. And then we’ll see what happens next.

Many Many Miniatures This morning I headed out of the house with my trusty camera early to catch the shuttle down to McCormick Place for C2E2. I didn’t go last year, but did attend the year before. The three-day Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo covers comic books, movies, television, toys, anime and video games. Artists, writers and celebrities come to discuss their projects with their fans while the show floor plays hosts to hundreds of exhibitors selling everything from collectable card games to steampunk fashion.

As in 2011, I decided on a one-day experience rather than three, and cherry-picked Saturday as the best of the choices.

I attended a pair of panels: the Patton Oswalt Q&A and the Ron Perlman Q&A. Patton Oswalt was basking in the glow of his extemporaneous fillibuster scene on “Parks and Recreation”. And despite the considerable amount of grief tossed his way by Brian Posehn on Twitter throughout the Q&A, Oswalt acquitted himself quite well. There were a number of questions about the scene from Parks and Rec, of course, and in the process he confessed that the whole thing was really a prank pulled by the other actors on the show. They just wanted to see how long Oswalt could go and never calling “cut”.

I met up with Farmboy and Princess after the Oswalt talk and we wandered around the floor looking for interesting things to look at. And I admit I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Natalie Dormer who was announced as attending. C’mon. Give me a break. She plays Margaery Tyrell on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”. Be honest, you’d want to get a look at her, too. But unfortunately she wasn’t there today; she’s scheduled to be on-site tomorrow.

So we settled for Ron Perlman. First of all. Perlman is a big man. I mean, you get that impression watching him on the screen, but to see him in person really drives the point home. He is a very big man. He spoke for some length about his career, spending a considerable amount of time discussing working with Guillermo del Toro, whom Perlman credits with much of his own success. Specifically getting a break with Chronos and then detailing del Toro’s ongoing campaign with studios to cast Perlman as the lead in Hellboy. And of course there were several questions about Perlman’s work in “Sons of Anarchy”– many of them pitched to elicit tidbits of information about the plot for next season. That tact didn’t prove particularly fruitful. One question did generate a surprising answer from the big man. Perlman confessed when asked about what his dream character, that he really would like to play Tevye in a stage production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Like last time I walked the floor between the panels and took in the environment looking for interesting things to shoot. I’ve published the full set of photos, but a few of my favorites from this year include:

Stanley Field Hall

Whirl has worked at the Field Museum for fifteen years. And every year for the past 62 years, the museum hosts a special event for its members. The research floors and special exhibits are opened up. Scientists and exhibitors volunteer their time to meet with the public and discuss their work. For the last five years, Whirl has been one of those scientists in attendence, supporting research in birds and insects. This year she put together a demonstration of her microphotography work in insects.

Indian Nephrite DaggerThis year, I invited my friend and colleague, Will, to bring his two daughters to the museum. I met up with them and the four of us spent the evening assisting the girls completing the biodiversity scavenger hunt. It’s a good list. You should try it the next time you’re at the museum.

  • Find an organism that has claws.
  • Find an organism that lives in trees.
  • Find an organism that uses camouflage.
  • Find an organism that is venomous.
  • Find an organism that lives in caves.
  • Find an organism that is green.
  • Find an organism that is nocturnal.
  • Find an organism that lives in a symbiotic relationship.
  • Find an organism that is being dissected!
  • Find a female scientist and ask her to name her favorite species.

What I particularly liked about the scavenger hunt is that it gave clear and meaningful openings to guests to engage with the researchers and vice versa. Larry Heaney, Curator of Mammals, used the item about animals living in trees to tell several fascinating stories about the unprecedented biodiversity of mice in the Philippines. Margaret Thayer, Curator of Insects, explained the symbiosis between the appropriately named ant plants of southeast Asia and the ant colonies who live in them. Mary Hennen, Collections Assistant, Birds, contrasted nocturnal great horned owls with diurnal peregrine falcons– her favorite species.

Molly at DinnerWill asked me to serve as tour guide for the evening. I took the girls to see the dissections being performed by Mammals. This year it was an anteater, a beaver and a porcupine. We visited Birds and Insects for some time. We were on our way to Reptiles to check out snakes, but along the way attention shifted to the Underground Adventure exhibit. When we completed the unshrinking process, the evening had come to a close.

It was fun to watch the girls take turns recoiling from the things they encountered, and then changing their minds and becoming fully engaged with what they were experiencing. We all had a lot of fun. I brought along the camera and took a few pictures, but I admit most of my attention was on the event itself and experiencing it with Will and his girls.

Blue Beauty Ratsnake
I am regularly amazed by the variety of events that occur at the UIC Physical Education Building. I swim there twice a week, typically on Sunday mornings in the 25-yard pool and Tuesday evenings in the 50-meter pool. The building itself is a little strange– really more of a conglomerate of various projects, expansions and remodeling than a cohesive design. The two pools bookend the building on the east and west. Between them stands a large, open space big enough for three full sized basketball courts. This two-story room has wooden floors and a wraparound balcony with a small running track. And it just seems there is always something new and different happening here. I’ve seen basketball tournaments, volleyball tournaments, dance competitions, and cheerleading tryouts. It’s regularly configured to support men’s and women’s gymnastics meets. And of course, there are regular swim meets and diving competitions in both pools. Add in regular practices for all of these sports, plus baseball and softball camps and you have a rather busy sports building.

But occasionally, something different rolls into the PEB. Something unexpected. Something like the Chicago Herpetological Society’s ReptileFest, the nation’s largest educational reptile and amphibian show. And when that happens– like it did this morning– I sometimes send Whirl a note about it. And sometimes she comes down to check it out. Like she did this morning. And we spend an hour or more wandering around the various exhibits talking about snakes and toads and lizards and turtles and monitors and iguanas.

Because nothing quite says, “Good job with that swim practice!” quite like the friendly grin of a crested gecko.