Sunday, June 27, 2010

Powerful, free, and easy Linux Photography Tools

Lately, I have been working quite a bit with Linux photography. I'm using Linux programs because I don't want to steal (or buy) expensive Windows programs; and part of the van-dwelling life is being frugal with your hard-earned money. With these tools at your disposal, you can unleash your creative potential on your digital photo library.

Before the Windows people start feeling left out, I would like to mention a program called Wubi, which will emulate a Linux environment as a program INSIDE your Windows installation. That means you can install/uninstall it with ultimate ease. Check it out here:

Some great FREE Linux programs to take a look at are:

  1. Hugin – This is an amazing program for panoramas and multiple picture art. There are some great examples on Hugin's website that show the power of this program... Very impressive stuff.

  2. FFMPEG – This excellent tool will help you break down videos into individual images, compile individual images into time lapses, and convert image formats. Although this program doesn't have an interface (which means you will be doing command line work, similar to Window's DOS) there are plenty of easy-to-learn tutorials and techniques (I'm talking 5-10 minutes) that will get you rolling.

  3. GIMP/GIMPshop – Basically this is the free photoshop of Linux. If you need something done graphics-wise for your pictures, there is a tutorial on how to do anything you think of online.

  4. UFRaw – Basically the purpose of this program is to process RAW style images through a digital darkroom studio. RAW images are common formats for DSLRs. This format differs from the common JPEG format in that it is minimally processed and uncompressed (which means larger file size). Technology is great :) I use this whenever I am getting prepped for creating an HDR image.
I made this panorama below by taking apart a 10 second video frame by frame using FFMPEG, and then putting about 12 of the extracted frames together in Hugin (which does all the hard work automatically).

  1. Photomatix - The only paid for program I use for photography. This program is arguably unsurpassed in generated HDR images. If you search for a few of these style photos online, you will see how beautiful HDR shots are. If you're going to do the job, do it right. It costs 99 bucks, but if you have any .edu address, you can score the program for 35 :) Currently, there is only a Windows/Mac release, but if you install another program called WINE, you can run a lot of Windows programs, including Photomatix, on a Linux machine...

    ..but I know, it's not free. So a great alternative to this program is..

    6. Qtpfsgui - Although not as complete as Photomatix, it's free and easy. Here's an example of an HDR I created with this program:

Give some of these programs a look at on Google, and you can see how powerful they are. With an arsenal like this at your disposal, it will feel like you have super powers to manipulate to visual world... MUWahaha!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Temporary Shelter

Recently, a friend of mine has left America for two months to visit her Air Force husband in Korea and she asked if I would like to look over her house. I thought about it for a while,  wanting to stay true to the van lifestyle. Part of the negative side is I will have some duties to fulfill such as watering the plants, cleaning the house, mowing the yard, and helping the house generally look good so the real estate people can sell it. 

I finally decided that it would be a perfect recharging station for my batteries, a place to do my laundry for free, store food for longer (thus saving money), provide a home base nearby to my work, provide a safe/legit place to do work on my van, and be a quieter/darker parking place to sleep (I can't spoil myself with air conditioning and down comforters, I'm sleeping in the driveway!).

It's nearing the end of the first house-sitting week, and I've got to say it's going pretty well. I've saved some considerable cash on groceries, laundry, and travel fuel - which makes it all well worth it.

One of the downsides is that she has turned off her home Internet. No big deal though, I can easily head to the YMCA or local libraries to get a signal :) 

After only a week of being able to use the benefits of this house, I find myself becoming slightly complacent. I don't see this as a hugely negative thing though, I'm learning quite a bit about myself (and the human brain) from this experience. I'm tracking all of my changes, and am very aware of what is happening.

I hope this might make everyone think about reducing the amount of unnecessaries in your life. Modern conveniences have spoiled us rotten; the result of this is complacency, heavier reliance on material goods, and losing focus of the truly important things in life.

Van to temporary home changes:

 1. Spending more time in shower than necessary.
 2. Ability to shave while showering (not a good idea in a public shower)
 3. Running water provides place to always brush teeth. I leave a lot of my bathroom stuff here to make bathroom time easier.
 1. Sleeping in longer due to feeling of being relaxed which results from having a singular place to meet nearly all of my human and societal needs.
 2. I slept inside the first night, which went miserably. There is something synthetic about air conditioning and the wasted energy around me that drove me nuts. I've been sleeping in the van in the parking lot since this night.
Regular Duties:
 1. Mowing the yard. I haven't done this since I used to live in a house, but it's necessary to help my friend sell her house. Time is spent on home maintenance every week. This takes gasoline for energy. $$$!
 2. Watering the plants. I enjoy watering plants, but keeping a yard all pretty-ish for the sake of keeping up the neighborhood is a daunting task. I spend quite a bit of time watering all the plants every other day that normally wouldn't naturally survive in this environment.
 3. DustLaundry:ing/vacuuming/etc. Wow, it's ridiculous how many nooks and crannies never see any of our attention in a home. There are also so many freaking unnecessary doodads and knick-knacks that require constant attention.
 1. Instead of buying dry ice and storing food in my cooler, I have been using the fridge inside. This stores food a lot longer, and I notice I have completely replaced the cooler inside my van.
 2. I now have access to a freezer, and I have started buying frozen goods to microwave for quick and dirty food access. This is great for work, but it causes my shortcut-tuned brain to accept quick meals instead of planning ahead for fresh ones.
 3. I'm using a dishwasher!! It's so convenient to use when I'm working a steady job, but it's definitely going to be a hard habit to break.
 1. No terrible negative changes here. I'm merely saving money by doing my laundry here. I'm not rolling through my clothes at a different rate that I would if I was completely living in the van, so I won't have to break this habit.
Space Usage:
 1. Instead of always storing my stuff into neat compartments, I have piles of stuff inside the house, spread out in different rooms.

I'm sure there are some more changes I have made since this chapter opened. I will add them as I think of them.

Conclusion: Knowing that I have all of this security causes me to slack off and weakens my mind. Having to think about each move I make helps me better the problem-solving, analytical, planning, and innovative parts of my mushy brain. When it's just me and the van, I have more time to devote to creativity and hobbies.. basically time to do the stuff I want to do, not take most of my time taking care of the life maintenance to maintain a drone-like lifestyle that will merely just keep me working, working, working at an efficient rate and keep on hoping I'll derive all my happiness from the dedication I show at my job. Don't get me wrong, I love my job and the people I work with, but there is much more out there I yearn to explore, learn about, and do. I will continue to be myself, do my best, and plan for the future. A future rich in happiness and simplicity.

"Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective: it has to be shattered before being ascertained."
Vladimir Nabokov

Monday, June 14, 2010

Taking advantage of the mobile lifestyle: SCUBA

Since I'm still safely buckled in to the lifestyle of a steady job, I have recently had the resources to focus on some of my hobbies.

This past weekend I took a Friday off work and drove down to Moorehead City, North Carolina to finalize my Advanced Open Water SCUBA certification. This PADI SCUBA level allows me to make dives around 100 feet. Previously, I could only dive down to 60 feet.

I woke up at 5:30AM Friday morning to the sound of my instructor, Dave Weston, banging on the side of my van and telling me "rise and shine" :) At around 6 we all drove from the parking lot of Fisherman's Inn to Olympus Dive Center. Once there we unloaded all of our SCUBA gear onto the "Mutiny", our faithful diving boat.

Our crew then proceeded to head over 20 miles south (about a two hour boat ride), into the depths of the ocean, in search of the nearly forgotten wrecks of the abyss... ARRRRR!!!

Here are the wrecks we hit each day, and a description of the memorable sights (also with some links to extra information):

Day 1 (Friday, June 11th):
 -Hardee's - This was my first dive beyond 60 feet. I was breathing pretty fast and my heart was pounding when I hit the water... but I calmed down as I hit about 30 feet and had to focus on what I was doing. I was surprised by the high visibility and abundance of marine life at this location. For a bit I was thinking.. holy crap, holy crap, I can't believe I'm this freaking deep.

More info:

 -Box Wreck - I didn't get to explore this cargo ship wreck all that much since I was working on dive skills with my instructor. I had to effectively use a wreck reel to navigate through the cargo in order to pass the lesson. I can see how effective making a trail with this device can be if visibility is ever reduced to zero in a wreck environment- especially if sand or silt is kicked up when you are inside a wreck. Sorry, no additional info on this wreck!

Day 2 (Saturday, June 12th):
 -Proteus - Holy crap, sharks! As soon as we neared the end of the decent, a sand tiger shark is waiting to greet us right by the anchor. I looked right into it's primal eyes and watched it stare right back into mine. I wonder what it was thinking.. We saw several sand tiger sharks throughout this wreck, and large varieties of smaller fish. Sea urchins littered many nooks and crannies of the boat. I really enjoyed this wreck because of the active marine life, interesting layout of the boat, and rather smooth current.

More info:

 -Papoose - This wreck was another great experience. Two in a day! Probably the most memorable thing about this dive was the huge southern stingray. It was about 7 feet long, with a pretty large wingspan. It laid peacefully in the sand, at around 120 feet while I swam all around it studying its features. It looked right into my eyes and didn't move an inch, even though I was inches away from its body. As we were making our safety stop at 15 feet (we always do this to decompress) we saw a pretty large group of sharks about 40 feet away. As we were leaving for shore, a group of about 10-20 spotted dolphins swam about 10 feet away from the back of the boat on the surface.

More info:

Day 3 (Sunday, June 13th):
 -U-352 - This wreck has a lot of history behind it. The US Coast Guard took this German sub down during World War II and had to disarm its torpedoes. A lot of people didn't know that Germans were had subs over here during the war, but yeah, there's quite a few U boats in the area. The marine life was decent here, but not a whole lot to penetrate on this wreck. I'd definitely say all the coolness factor sits in the historical significance of the wreck, not the marine life.

More info:

 -Aeolus - WOW! By far, my favorite dive of the trip. Why? Well let's see- swam inches away from a 10 foot sand tiger shark, saw sea slugs, schools of active bait fish, a barracuda, jacks, groupers.. and that's just the marine life. The wreck itself is huge; according to my experienced dive buddies, I probably only covered about a 1/4 of it. I felt very occupied the entire dive - going through doors, holes, crevices, up and down the sides, and pretty much enjoying every moment.

More Info:

Currently, I'm editing the videos I took of the dives, so I will extract a few frames to post as pictures here ASAP. I'll also make the videos a little more fun to watch and post the videos on Vimeo or Youtube for your (and my) viewing pleasure!

Be well everyone :)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Van: Start to Finish

Even though I have already posted about the materials/devices inside my van, I think it might be interesting to show you how it everything came together.

It all began with me researching the best price for a cargo van. I wanted relatively low mileage, everything working under the hood, and a somewhat stealthy body. I looked through local trading post advertisements,, and local Craigslist ads. I found the best deal through, which took me to a car dealership in Norfolk, VA. I bought a used Dodge 2500 cargo van for 4500 dollars. It only had 41K miles, so I considered this a great deal. I sold my old car for 5500 to these guys, so I made a little bit of cash after getting hit with all the dealership fees and taxes.

After I had the van, it was time for construction. I cleaned out the inside and started with nothing but the van walls and a plywood floor board.


My first job was to add insulation. I put in a layer of R-3 styrofoam insulation and cut it into pieces in order to fit the ribs of the plain van wall.

In order to keep the insulation against the walls, I used adhesive spray and cans of Great Stuff foaming insulation. This stuff is great indeed.. You can spray it in tight spots and it will foam up overnight and provide excellent insulation for gaps and cracks.

After this piece of work, I decided to put up some horizontal 1x3 "ribs" to both provide a base for the plywood side paneling and leave space to add R-13 fiberglass insulation.

To continue solving the problem of temperature control, I went to my all around handyman friend, Rob Stone's, house. He helped me cut a hole in the top of the van (he used a jigsaw with a metal cutting blade) for me to install my newly purchased Fan-tastic fan vent. Once it was set in the 14x14 inch hole, we drilled the screws through the roof and then used silicone caulk to weatherproof. This was put over the screws in the outside of the van, over the screws in the inside of the van, along the 14x14 cut. This amazing unit keeps me extremely cool throughout the summer. I couldn't live (comfortably) in the van without it. Some helpful friends and online companions have suggested created an "ice conditioner" using this fan for simulated air conditioning. I will be doing a bit more research on the topic before I dive into it.

After listening to some excellent suggestions by Rob, me and my head full of ideas journeyed up to northern Virginia to see my parents for Mother's Day weekend. Driving this beast on the roads of Washington, DC forced me to learn how to drive the van very quickly.

When I woke up Saturday morning at 5:30AM, me and my Dad started planning how we would tackle the van build. The sequence of events to follow exhibit the most productive day I have ever lived :)

List of materials bought at Home Depot that morning:
1. Three 8x4 foot plywood sheets
2. Two 8x4 styrofoam sheets
3. Six 2x4 foot boards
4. One pack of 2 inch screws
5. One pack of 1 inch screws
6. One DIY three-shelf cabinet
7. Two cans of Great Stuff gaps and cracks
8. One pack of 12 pre-cut fiberglass R-13 insulation

When we got back home, we started working on the floor. There was already an existing piece of plywood on the floor from when I bought it, but we wanted to put two more layers of insulation for excellent temperature control. After measuring, we cut the styrofoam insulation to act as a template for the plywood. We verified the styrofoam insulation fit the floor, drew the exact pattern on a piece of plywood, then cut the plywood with a wood table saw.

Here is the styrofoam on the floor and then the plywood put on top of that:

Me and my dad then screwed down the plywood with the one inch screws and felt we were well on our way towards makeshift camper van completion. So far, this all took place before lunchtime. After getting the thumbs up from my dad, we started on the insulation.

What we did here is stuff R-13 fiberglass insulation between the 1x3 horizontal ribs and styrofoam insulation. As my dad was putting the fiberglass insulation in the walls, I was using duct tape to create a seamless transition between the pre-cut fiberglass.

Since all the insulation is up, we are ready to put up the plywood siding. We used a piece of styrofoam as a template once again- then measured, cut, and secured the plywood with the 2 inch screws.

Using some of the excess plywood and boards, we designed a box for each wheel well. Before they were closed off, we stuffed them to the brim with R-13 insulation.

Wow, we are getting it done at this point! But hey.. where am I gonna sleep? Well what does pops and mom have in the basement? My old college dorm IKEA bed and mattress. Perfect!! My dad and I engineered an elevated bed frame with the 2x4 boards, secured it to both the floor and wall with 2 inch screws, then screwed the IKEA bed on top.

At this point, the structural foundation of the van has been completed. 

After this was finished we did a few more things:

1. My mom assembled the DIY shelf (which had over 100 parts and took over two hours) and we screwed it to the wall.

2. We used Great Stuff to fill up any gap or open space we could spray into and wouldn't negatively affect my storage space.

3. A mattress, sheets, and comforter were placed on top of the bed frame.

4. My parent's excess basement carpet was cut and put on the floors.

5. I set up some black drapes and a tension rod to separate the driver's area from the living space.

6. All of my previously listed materials (from my last blog post) were either stored, configured, or hooked up in one way or another.

So here is the current look of my mobile abode:

I would really like to thank my parents, brother, friends, and peers for all their hard work, ideas, and support... I couldn't do it without you all!