Archive for May, 2010

Lighting Upgrade; The State of LEDs

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010
LED Kitchen Illumination

When remodeling our house, one goal was to move to the highest efficacy lighting while remaining cost effective. In terms of pure lumens per watt — pure efficacy — LEDs are, by far, the winner on the commercial market and have been for the last decade.

Up until two years ago (when we remodeled the kitchen), though, the cost per lumen of LED based lighting has been prohibitive outside of things like rope lights or other installations that had tons of low power, cheap, lamps. Unfortunately, rope lights and christmas lights just don’t make for good task lighting in your typical kitchen. CFLs, though, pretty much suck. After 18 months, the lamps are starting to fail, they are sometimes noisy, and their warmup time can be annoying (contrary to reports from the energy & incandescent lamp industries, CFLs are actually not terribly toxic — the amount of mercury is tiny).

I have been watching the LED market for quite a while. In particular, Best Hong Kong has an interesting selection of relatively current and relatively reasonably priced lamps. I’m using some of their products to illuminate the hand blown glass pendant lamps at the top of this picture. Thank you to EMSL for suggesting Best Hong Kong in the first place!

In monitoring the technology, the one name that came up over and over is CREE, who seems to be one of the leaders in manufacturing LEDs and LED fixtures. At least, CREE is the name that comes up most often for products targeted to residential applications (Phillips and others seem to be big names in the commercial space).

Now, if you search Amazon for CREE lamps, you’ll find a bunch of units, but the state of the art tends to be about six months behind and, frankly, comparatively expensive (of course, if anyone happens to stumble on the above link a year or two after I wrote this, I hope the prices are reasonable and the technology current).

Cree 3x 3w LED GU10 120VAC lamps

Since the technology existed, the issue was then a matter of figuring out where to find lamps with the latest CREE LED technology integrated into a package compatible with standard home lighting fixtures. After having found some CREE 3x 1 watt GU-10 (i.e. track light compatible 120v AC lamps) and found some 3 watt CREE LEDs with the same form factor as the 1 watt LEDS, a bit of searching revealed that, in fact, if you are willing to import lamps in lots of 10 (or more), you can buy the latest lighting technology

Through, I found Ledsion Lighting Technology Co. Ledsion manufacturers a ton of LED based lamps, both for home use and in various commercial applications.

Not having ordered product from Ali Baba or — frankly — ordered anything direct from the manufacturer in this fashion gave me a bit of trepidation. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Kitchen From Above
CFL based illumination; not as bright, no highlights.

I ordered 10 (minimum lot size) 3x3w (9w) CREE based GU-10 120VAC lamps. It took about 10 days for the company to make and ship the lamps (yes — make — a lot of the manufacturing is pretty much on-demand). It came to about $19.00 per lamp. While just about 2.5x the price of the 7w CFLs they were replacing, the LEDs generate 150% the light output and have a rated life of 50,000 hours vs. the CFL’s 8,000.

I.e. the performance and long-term cost– the efficacy — of the CREE based 3x3w LEDs completely dominates CFLs. Better still, the light quality is just stunning compared to the CFLs. The LEDs are “on” instantly and provide a very even light. Frankly, it looks better than 50 watt halogens original to the track in that the light is, for lack of a better term, more comfortable; less harsh.

The image at left was taken while the counter was illuminated by the old CFLs with considerably more light coming from other sources. No highlights on the counter, to speak of. With CFLs, the track lighting was nothing more than ambient overhead lighting. With the LEDs, it provides more ambient light and enough directed light to provide for highlighted spots.

Long term viability obviously remains to be seen, but I remain optimistic.

I returned to the Lesdion Lighting Technology to order more lamps and see if I could grab some 12vAC or DC MR-16 CREE based LEDs for other applications and, via AliBaba’s built in chat system, ended up chatting with the seller. Extremely professional, patient, and helpful. Answered a handful of technical questions and I was able to customize my order a bit to meet my needs. (And, really, I’m still a bit in shock that, through Alibaba, I can talk directly to a manufacturer to get a relative one off of a product with the custom color, lens, and wattage I desire. I feel like I just experienced a bit of Blade Runner from my living room.)

All in all, I’m extremely happy that LED technology has advanced to the state of being usable in “normal” home applications. While still slightly initially pricy, the long term costs may be significantly less and the reduced energy use is attractive. Because of the increased light output from the track lights, I’m finding that I no longer need to use the 30 to 40 watts of florescent tube under-lighting!

Galapagos April 19, 2010 (2 of 2): Beach Combing & Hiking Punta Cormorant (Floreana Island)

Saturday, May 15th, 2010
Slate Pencil Urchin And Roger

After the wonderful snorkeling in the AM off Champion Island, the Endeavor lifted anchor at lunch and took a short cruise to anchor just off of Cormorant Point (Punta Cormorant) for an afternoon of beach walking and hiking on Island Floreana.

Floreana is a middle-aged island in the archipelago. Thus, it actually has honest-to-goodness beaches while still having volcanic cones and a handful of fairly raw, mostly lifeless, lava flows.

Access to any part of any of the Galapagos islands outside of the handful of human enclaves is extremely restricted in what is, effectively, a gigantic natural park.

Floreana offers one of the few beaches upon which we could wander freely. And so we did prior to taking a walk across Cormorant Point to a second beach that was also the nesting grounds of green turtles.

Upon landing, Roger immediately found something interesting. In this case, a sun-bleached pencil urchin.

Roger Being Splashed
Sea Lions In Surf

On this particular Lindblad cruise, there were actually quite a number of kids.

The free beach time was also an opportunity for the kids to swim about and generally get in some quality beach play.

The waters were warm and, on this beach, quite clear.

Not surprisingly, the kids weren’t the only ones to show up on such a beautiful beach. The ever present sea lions were out and about, too. While the kids were in the water, you would often catch a glimpse of a sea lion or two swimming about near or, even, between various swimmers!

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Study: Head Profile

The beach had its share of creatures beyond sea lions, too.

This brown pelican — rather grand brown pelican — was hanging out on one end of the beach.

Combining the lack of fear of humans with the low afternoon light, it made for a very patient and stunning photography model!

I ended up taking about 100 frames of this one bird, varying parameters, angle and framing.

Between the patience of the bird and me being able to take the time to do a proper photographic study of this magnificent creature, I ended up with enough “keepers” to devote a post to this one subject!

What an absolutely incredible creature!

Read the rest of this entry »

The Brown Pelican (Galapagos April 19, 2010: Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island)

Saturday, May 15th, 2010
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Study: Portrait

While beachwalking on Island Floreana, we came across a brown pelican hanging out on one end of the beach.

It was late afternoon and the sun was fairly low in the sky, making for some wonderful warm lighting as long as I could maneuver around to the right angle.

Which, of course, proved to be easy given that the pelican really couldn’t care less what about me.

Thus, photo study time….

Pelicans are quite interesting geometrically. They can choose to maintain a relatively horizontal profile or can lift their head up, tuck in their bill, and go for a vertical appearance as in this shot.

With just a bit of a wind, the feathers on the back of the bird’s head were fluttering slightly in the wind.

The color near the end of that viciously hooked bill is exquisite, too.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Study: Profile

Like I said, wait for a moment and you can grab a vertical profile or a nice horizontal shot like this one.

Given the texture of the feathers, I’d bet this pelican had been fishing not long before and was so patient because the sun was warm.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Study: The Blink

Take enough photos and you’ll eventually get something truly out of the ordinary.

In this case, I caught the pelican mid blink. That would be the pelican’s nictitating membrane, if I’m not mistaken.

I would like to say that it was my awesome skills applied to an epic shutter finger that yielded this photo.

Not so much.

This is the product of taking about 100+ photos of this one bird. Choose an angle, choose a framing, choose some settings (I shot all of these in manual mode to get a feel for it), and fire off three to five frames (my camera is pretty much always in multi-frame mode).

The beauty of digital is that there is no more cost incurred, save for a bit of your time selecting the best shots, for shooting one frame versus 10 of any given subject!

Galapagos April 19, 2010 (1 of 2): Snorkeling Champion Islet Off Island Floreana

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010
On Zodiac To Snorkeling

The seas around the Galapagos are every bit as biologically interesting and diverse as the land, but in a different way.

Whereas there are relatively few land dwelling species on the island, all unique and generally completely lacking in fear of humans, the sea life is more in line with what you would expect in relatively tropical waters around the world.

While the fish were fairly typical, the underwater environment was otherwise atypical. Notably, there simply isn’t any significant coral growth. No coral heads of any size. No coral reefs and none of the rough, nook and cranny filled, walls of coral growth normally associated with tons of tropical fish.

Instead, and making the waters of the Galapagos fairly unique in and of themselves, the lava foundation of the islands provides all the hidy holes marine life of all sizes might need.

School of Fish

To provide the biomass to feed the incredible numbers of fish and other marine life, the islands sit at the cross roads of five ocean currents, with major currents dominating from the South, North, or West depending on season and El Nino.

Some of the currents are quite deep and bring up tons and tons of biomass in the form of plankton and other deep sea creatures as the currents hit the archipelago.

As a result, there is plenty of biomass to support a dense and diverse marine population. Yet, those very currents — the one up the west coast of South America from the Antarctic — also means that the water temperatures can be really cold for part of the year.

Hence, no significant coral growth. Coral needs a constant, relatively warm, water temperature.

Travel tip: If you are planning on visiting the Galapagos, go in April/May. The predominant water current is very warm and, thus, we spent the week snorkeling in 79 to 82 degree water. No wetsuit needed. If you were to visit the same locations in August-ish time frame, the water would be a chilly 65 degrees!

In any case, enough words. What about the creatures themselves?

Read the rest of this entry »

Galapagos April 18, 2010: Hiking on Española Island

Friday, May 7th, 2010
Red Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus) Sunning
Española Red Iguana (Amblyrhynchus) Stares Back

Today marked the first full day in the islands and our introduction to the rather intense schedule that would be typical for the rest of the week.

Wake up was at 6:45am with a full breakfast buffet (or whatever you wanted from the kitchen) from 7am to 8am.

Promptly at 8am, we departed for Punta Suarez on the westernmost tip of Española Island. For such excursions, we used zodiacs — inflatable boats with outboard motors commonly used by the military — to ferry from the Endeavor to the shore.

Española Island is composed of relatively rocky shores with the occasional beach where we landed. We then hiked around to stand atop 100 foot cliffs.

Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus) Digging a Nest

In between, we met many of the critters endemic — unique species only found in the Galapagos and, in some cases, only found on one of the islands — to this particular island. This was also the first island where we encountered the red marine iguanas, one fine specimen pictured at left.

They were everywhere on this island, obviously along the shore but also quite far inland as the females will wander way inland to dig a hole to lay eggs, sometimes losing more than 50% of their body mass on the journey.

Marine iguanas are exclusively vegetarian and are the only iguanas that forage in the water for their food, primarily the algae that grows on the rocks up to 30 feet under water.

But more about Marine iguanas later in a post dedicated to these magnificent creatures. Española had many other creatures, including some unique to the island.

Sally Lightfoot (Grapsus grapsus) Molt

Like, for example, the Sally Lightfoot (Grapsus grapsus) crab.

The Sally Lightfoot crabs are everywhere on every shore. They are the cleanup crew of the island and one of the first land critter to colonize fresh lava flows (marine iguanas and sea lions being the sea critters that climb up on the land and provide the crabs with one major food source). The crabs feed on basically anything dead or nearly dead, efficiently converting biomass into what will eventually become the soil that provides a toehold for plant life and other creatures.

Crabs have an exoskeleton and, like many such creatures, they shed that exoskeleton periodically as they grow. This is actually a shed exoskeleton. While the live crabs are quite brightly colored, their shed exoskeletons are even more intensely colored.

Read the rest of this entry »

LightTrac: Useful Photography (and Gardening) Tool

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

At left is a screenshot of the iPad application LightTrac.

LightTrac displays various information about how the sun traverses the sky in any given location, along with moonrise/moonset times.

When doing any kind of outdoor photography, it is extremely helpful to know exactly how the sun is going to track through the sky. Obviously, while in the field, you can just look up to figure this out. Having an application that models the sun’s traversal such that you have an idea of how the light will change throughout the day is tremendously useful.

On a vacation or any kind of a planned photo shoot, this application makes it easy to know what photo opportunities might be optimal in the magic light of sunrise and sunset. When visiting a city for a day tour, it can help you decide on an optimal path through a city; if you travel primarily east to west in the AM, returning in the PM, you’ll maximize time with the sun at your back illuminating what is in front of you!

Beyond photography, LightTrac has also answered a question I’ve long had about my garden plot; exactly how does the sun traverse the plot and where should I plant tall stuff to minimally shade shorter stuff (the answer is that my garden’s rows are likely to be on a diagonal to the plot in the coming years!

While there is always room for improvement — knowing where the moon is can help to plan for long exposure ghostly night shots, for example and the app “only” gives phases, moonrise and moonset — the application is intuitive, useful, and generally pleasant to use.

Galapagos April 17, 2010 (2 of 2): Hiking on North Seymour Island

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010
Sea Lion Strikes a Pose

Our first hike was on North Seymour Island, a small island just to the north of Baltra Island. During lunch, the Endeavor left the bay on Baltra and anchored just off shore of North Seymour.

Travel aside: The logistics of the trip were pretty intense; the Endeavor generally only moved when we were asleep or during meals (as needed to get to the next location). The guests were pretty much never confronted with the monumental amount of work going on around us to get from place to place, to portage folks to/from excursions, or to otherwise keep the boat livable and comfortable. Truly, the crew did a fantastic job of making us comfortable and providing access to the animals with minimal environmental impact.

The North Seymour island hike is a good introduction to the typical excursion in Galapagos. The overarching theme of every excursion was do no harm. Hikes were always on marked trails approved by the Galapagos National Park. Excursions were always broken into groups of 12 to 14 people with at least one licensed naturalist per group.

Animals come first. Many times on a hike, we would pause while some critter would take its merry time crossing our path.

Sea Lion Stares Back

At left is the first critter on this particular hike. A Galapagos Sea Lion doing a bit of sunning. It was pretty much exactly in the middle of where we entered the trail. Around we went and it really didn’t care.

That much, anyway. As you’ll see in a number of photos, sea lions are very curious beasts and, for some odd reason, they really like to look at you upside down as the character on the right was doing!

However, the wildlife of North Seymour was certainly not limited to sea lions! Read the rest of this entry »

Galapagos April 17, 2010 (1 of 2): Arrival

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010
Christine & Roger Fresh Off The Plane

After nearly three days of travel (SF -> Miami (overnight) -> Quito -> Guayaquil (overnight) -> Baltra, Galapagos), we arrived in the Galapagos Islands Baltra Airport to a sunny, warm, late morning.

Like almost all but the oldest islands in the Galapagos archipelago, Baltra is fairly flat with a central set of volcanic hills. The vegetation tends to be relatively low growing, the ground littered with volcanic rock and the place is generally inhospitable to mammals.

Female Lava Lizard (Tropidurus) at Airport

Even at the airport, it was already readily apparent that the animal life of the Galapagos was utterly unique in its general lack of fear of people. Waiting for customs, we were greeted by a handful of lava lizards, finches, and a Galapagos locust or two. Save for the locust, the critters were far, far, more concerned about territorial rights amongst their peers than they were of us.

National Geographic Endeavor

We then took a short bus ride to the Endeavor, the National Geographic / Lindblad ship that would be our home for the next week.

Photo aside (there’ll be a lot of these):Along the way, I took a photo of the ship out the bus window. The bus was a good 1/2 mile — maybe 2/3rds — from the boat when I took this photo. It was hot and humid and there was considerable heat haze in the air. As a result, the full sized image of the boat looks more like a watercolor than a photograph! Neat!

After being greeted by the crew, a nice lunch, and safety orientation, we spent the afternoon hiking around North Seymour Island for our first real encounter with the amazing wildlife of the Galapagos.