Nov 202015

Caroline and John Wise departing for vacation on 11 November 2015

Per my wife Caroline Wise’s request, besides taking her on vacation, she has asked me to blog. So here I am fulfilling that special wish of hers. During the previous 20 years we often went on road trips between a minimum of 5 times up to 24 times a year (that was back in 2004 – our record year!). In the dark ages before that we were novices and only took road trips between 1 and 5 times per year, though that included journeys around Germany, Holland, France, Belgium and places like that; remember that we lived in Frankfurt.

This afternoon we left Phoenix for Kanab, Utah where we won’t be going to Moqui Cave, 1. it won’t be open when we get there or leave, 2. we’ve been there and highly recommend you go too.

Not much preparation was done for this excursion until the last minute as we weren’t certain I’d find the time, but obviously I did make the time. Originally we were going to head to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho but the weather looked foreboding. Instead we will turn left in Crane, Oregon and head out to the coast. We tried to avoid the Oregon coast, seriously we did because we know we’ve been there way too many times, but we love it and so that’s that.


Nov 182013

Ruins at Two Guns, Arizona

This strange beast called nostalgia, it’s a difficult enemy to avoid. Out in the middle of the country I’m bombarded with its presence. It starts with the memories of having traveled these places before. If anything has changed, it might be the asphalt I drove over, everything else looks the same. After hours of hauling over the arid landscape and finally finding my mind empty, I turn on the radio. Big mistake, but for whatever reason, not easily rectified. I leave it on. Hit after hit from my youth drills into old memories giving life to sleeping giants that should remain dormant.

Highway 77 heading north through the Navajo Reservation in Arizona

While I was aware of these 70’s classics as a boy and  a teen, I was running away from them as a kid. Now a man of 50 I listen in to hear what I never wanted to. They conjure images of men and women in their 60’s and 70’s portrayed by their roadside  billboard portraits where I see the announcements of their imminent return on the casino circuit scattered across America. In those places are the nostalgic, those who are whittling away their time, spending their few remaining days in memories of an age perceived to have been perfect – and these songs are their faithful soundtrack. For me they are bitter reminders that some peoples lives get stuck in a time.

Alpaca's wandering the Navajo Reservation like sheep

For the foreigner and out of state traveler this is a journey into novelty. They are building new memories from new experiences. They are not sheep. I only hope the soundtrack is new too, else this adventure might blur into a continuation of the familiar, albeit with shades of the hitherto unseen.

Sunset on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona

The place across from me is empty. It is made emptier by the fact that I’m the only person here who is alone. A couple of conversations are happening in my tongue, German, Chinese, and Navajo are all within earshot. Caroline is missing, this road trip is solo, at least the first half anyway. Without ceremony my dinner is wolfed and only a gratuity and signature stand between me and my departure from the Twin Rocks Cafe here in Bluff, Utah; a place of great nostalgia, not because of the music though, this time it is the memory of my missing wife.

Jul 112013

The USGS National Map

First up on today’s work is to visit the National Map courtesy of the United States Geological Service. There are dozens of different ways to view the terrain of our country, I need an elevation map. I click on the area of interest to draw a bounding box and end up with a massive area far beyond my selection; I’ll figure out those details later. I place my order and within seconds I have an email notification where I can collect my map. Wow, 353MB for the file, and it’s only a small corner of the Grand Canyon. Decompressed I now have almost 500MB of various files including a massive GridFloat file, numerous shape and .xml files along with a dozen other files for good measure.

A TerreSculpt screen capture after importing height map data

I load the GridFloat into TerreSculpt’s utility for converting the file into a Height Map. Not being a cartographer or GIS (Geographic Information Systems) specialist I am lost with the options I have to deal with the data. But I’m not done with it, next up it has to be converted to a .bt file (binary terrain). From there it can be imported into TerreSculpt proper and then exported again, this time as a Raw 16bit Binary Heighmap. Now it’s ready to be imported into another program.

USGS elevation data converted with TerreSculpt and imported into Unreal Developers Kit - UDK3

That program is UDK also known as Unreal Developers Kit. This is essentially a gaming engine, though who says one has to play games? Building this stuff is anything but a game. The landscape you are looking at is deep within the Grand Canyon near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado; of course this would be the first place I would go due to the influence the place had on me and my desire to one day share it virtually. I have to wonder out loud, how long will it be until I can put a boat down on the river and row down those 225.9 miles of churning waters in virtual reality? Seems to me that day is getting closer and closer.

Caroline Wise wearing the Oculus Rift checking out the Grand Canyon in virtual reality

So close as a matter of fact that here is my wife, Caroline Wise wearing the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset checking out the Grand Canyon National Park – virtually!

Jul 102013


Yeah it’s about time I post again, but like the title says, “Old Dog, Meet New Tricks.” I’m slowly learning how to model using Blender. It has been 19 years since I did anything with 3D Studio so the skills are so rusted over that they really don’t exist anymore. At freaking 50 years old I’m diving back into the deep end: the tools ain’t what they used to be. Things have gotten far more sophisticated, meaning difficult. What you are looking at started as a simple cube that I have applied an “inset” to, a subdivide surfaces action, dissolved vertices, converted selected vertices to a curve, turned ngons into quads using the knife tool, created a loop cut, extruded an edge loop, and scaled selected geometry. Getting familiar with the tools and the myriad shortcuts so I can move about and do what I want is no easy feat, but I will persist because I have big ideas that require big work and lot’s of skills; mad skills. Cue the laughter of evil scientist.

May 132013

The Arizona desert

This transition back to the place I live is anything but easy. If only it were as barren as one might perceive this desert-scape I might be able to have seen the beauty right away. Instead I came back to Phoenix and it’s not just this city I live in, it is the entire country. We have become a land of Dollar stores, pay day and title loan stores, and shops that buy gold. We are discounted, two-for-one, 10 for a dollar, and triple coupons so we can appease our poor. And these poor are everywhere. They are changing the landscape of cities across America with the blight of services that appeal to people who will likely never escape the vortex in which their lives spiral. We have built the über-underclass and are empowering them to live it up in poverty. Meanwhile our bridges fall down, our roads fall apart, our schools’ non-exceptional performance is excused due to lack of money, bad teachers, little parent involvement, dysfunctional administrators, or any other myriad of reasons. America is in a malaise and we are too close to the problem to see it clearly.

Take a trip to Europe for a contrast of just how dire things are here. I did and I’m having a hard time readjusting. Don’t get me wrong, I am able to play the part most of us assume, things are relatively good and if I don’t venture out of my comfort zone I can see how great it all is. Look out on this desert vista, there is nothing to complain about; it is perfect and serene. Peer out of your window from a gated community and all will be in place – including the poor whose world is looking more and more like one from a ghetto. “But the poor have always lived on the margin,” you say. Yes, though the poor weren’t so prolific as they are today. Look around you, the signs of the encroachment of wide spread poverty are creeping into every corner. Just why are there Dollar stores sprouting up nearly everywhere? Do so many people really have such dire needs to pawn away grannie’s gold, or did they steal some other grannie’s gold?

But the financial health of the morass is not my problem, unless it’s a symptom of a decay that like cancer is heading for stage 4, inoperative impending death. Surely I make a mountain out of a molehill. Then why did Europe look so appealing? Are they spending money they don’t have on an illusion to demonstrate that all is well? If so, it’s working. I hardly went to the wealthiest European capitals, we ventured into Strasbourg, Dresden, Kaiserslautern, Magdeburg, Lübeck, and Görlitz. And each and every time we encountered a vibrant living downtown area without empty retail space. On the contrary we found tourism alive and flourishing with gift shops, side walk cafes, and street musicians. No Dollar stores or panhandlers, okay, that was an exaggeration, there were panhandlers and a couple of discount stores, but not on the level we find in our city of Phoenix or Eureka, California or Oklahoma City. In Frankfurt I found one shop that buys gold, not a shop every eighth block.

So here I am, driving out and away from the bleakness I wallow in here in Phoenix, Arizona on the search for that which draws me into the bosom of America; its profound and overwhelming beauty.

London Bridge now in Arizona over the dammed Colorado River

A bridge to nowhere, not the metaphor I’m looking for. Here we are at London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. “We” is Jessica Aldridge, my daughter, and me. Lake Havasu is a small desert outpost on the California-Arizona border, where drunken college students congregate on spring break and which a lot of elderly people call home due to the ‘perfect’ weather. This place represents more of everything I find wrong with my current outlook. Some wealthy patron picks up the London Bridge from the city of London, England and ships it to America where he resurrects it to cross over the nearly dead Colorado River to a small island that bakes under a relentless sun. At another time this bridge carried throngs of people to and fro on their way to making England a grand place of empire and influence. Today it is a bridge to nowhere, carrying people hungry for the idea of venturing into exotic locales, but whose budget allows them to winter over in the middle of the desert.

I’ve never much enjoyed this drive along the river, even before my encounter with the Colorado in the Grand Canyon I have felt this strip of earth is a kind of no man’s land. The towns along this corridor eke out their existence upon travelers refilling their gas tanks and stomachs and once in a while, the strange desire of someone who wants to get away from it all by putting themselves in a place of such desolation that it begs at my curiosity how they got to that point in life. Roots here must surely be like the cactus that dot the landscape, shallow and spread out to grab all they can in the off chance a refreshing shower passes by. And then like the cactus, they will have been here and left, no one ever having noticed.

Driving into the Mojave Desert in California

Continuing on a theme we drive north west as we enter the Mojave Desert. The theme being that we are heading into oblivion. Death Valley to be precise. It is here where the first reminders of what I love about America start to be rekindled. There is space aplenty in the American southwest. Nothing and nearly no one is out here. No services for 57 miles, to a European that is more than 90 kilometers, might as well be infinity. This road is the worse for wear. Back about 15 years ago when Caroline and I first drove it we weren’t sure if we were on asphalt or compacted dirt, if it weren’t for the lack of dust we’d know it was dirt. It must be a low priority to the California transportation authorities to care for this section of highway, no wonder, we are the only two people on it today.

I test driving at 100 mph on the left lane, it’s as bad as the right. At 110 mph under a 100-degree sun the road still goes on forever into the invisible. A train track parallels part of the road. From time to time a forlorn abandoned bunch of train cars sit roadside awaiting the care of a graffiti artist to show them some love. While we are fresh out of spray paint, my daughter does have a good supply of energy and feels the need to crawl upon those trains to reenact her version of the Titanic.

Back on the road driving at a more pedestrian 70 mph we glide over the astro-earth, crispy thin asphalt that simulates driving right over the desert floor. The hum of tires is our soundtrack as is befitting the void of life we slice through out here in the Mojave. Sure there is life out here, just ask any biologist, but when one careens westward over the surface of earth, squinting to stop from blinding oneself in the afternoon sun, it is difficult to see much of anything besides the narrow strip of road nearly shut eyes can glean from their meager focus.

The sun about to set over the Mojave Desert and Death Valley in California

And then it happens, glare descends upon the day. No amount of squinty eyed head twisting avoidance can ignore that the sun has set out to blind me. We are in the clutches of those moments when driving becomes a kind of Russian roulette in which hope carries me into thinking that maybe we are on the right side of the highway. What does it matter, it wasn’t long ago that I was intentionally driving on the opposite side? Well that was for my entertainment when I was bored and because I could. After all it’s one thing to be speeding on an American road at over 100 mph, it’s yet another to do so on the wrong side of the road. If I could have hovered simultaneously I would have done that too. But now I could be driving smack dab into another car that is driving under the stealth cover of road glare. Danger makes me more aware.

Things must be getting better, I can see some humor on the horizon. Not quite the golden dawn, but a golden sunset is often enough to wash away the grime of pessimism. How can I not revel in this display of warmth and depth. Right now nothing else exists between me and the sun but an endless landscape of possibility.