For months now, I have been bouncing around collecting experiences and trying not to think about a snowball that I left at the summit of a steep, snowy hill last Spring. That half snowball is part II of my travel blog that was supposed to describe the continuing adventures of Jocelyn and I in Valencia. Unfortunately, like lots of bloggers and rappers before me, I got caught up in the hustle & flow and didn’t make time to reflect. My memory of the trip isn’t nearly as sharp anymore, and so much has happened over the last few months that it would take five more posts to get caught up. If I let it, that little snowball could roll its way into a full on blog-monster with tentacles reaching from Valencia to Winnipeg. Still, as long as I don’t feed it after midnight, I think I can keep this thing to a manageable size.
Jocelyn loves Aquariums. Before we left, I put a few travel books in front of her and it took her thirty seconds to discover that Valencia has one of the best aquariums in the world. When we finally left Calatrava in La Mancha, we both really needed a break from castles and provincial towns, and Valencia was very close to my second site, the 14th century fortress-monastery of Montesa. I knew from my previous visit to this site the year before that the festival of Fallas was going to be just beginning when we got there, so I thought it would be cool to rent an apartment in the center of the city… not my best idea. As I drove Dink deeper into the tiny little streets, we saw that after a certain point, no one was crazy enough to try driving because the streets were thronged with people. Poor Dink learned a lot of English curse words as I rounded the the inner city four times at 3 miles per hour looking for the right 5 foot wide one way street full of people on ladders hanging up Valencian flags. By the time we put the car in a garage and got back, we were too exhausted to do much besides lay down and flinch every time a firecracker went off. – This happened roughly every 30 seconds to six minutes until 11pm or so during our three days in Valencia, and lasted even later when we moved to a town called Xativa near Montesa. Fallas in Valencia is an awesome experience, but the crowds and firecrackers are insane, and I think we both agreed that the Aquarium near the City of Arts and Sciences was a panacea for frayed nerves.
In reality, we experienced Fallas (Link to Wikipedia) a lot more closely when we left Valencia for Xativa. I had been there the year before to see the long Arab castle that tops a high, ridge-like hill overlooking the valley, and I immediately knew this is where I wanted to stay when I came back to work on Montesa. Xativa didn’t disappoint, and although Fallas is not nearly as huge as it was in Valencia, we saw some really cool sculptures in the main squares of the town before they were set on fire. Sadly, we had to leave the day they set them all on fire. (look up the Fallas festival if you have not already).
Calatrava La Nueva
Here is where I confess that while we were at Calatrava la Nueva, I did something very stupid. One of the things that I was deeply invested in for this trip was Kite Aerial Photography. (For a summary of what this is all about, read my previous blog post.) In Virginia, I thought “It’s always windy and there are no trees up on the hill at Calatrava, a kite is perfect to get low altitude shots of the fortress.” That was not the stupid part. The stupid part was impatiently deciding that I could control a kite in between rain-storms on top of a sheer cliff in 20-30MPH gusting winds. Five days in, the wind had been so strong that when it finally died down to 13MPH I got out that 8ft wide kite in the parking lot on top of the mountain, and I let it go. Everything was going great until the kite got high enough that it got out of the lee of the castle and the gusting wind started pulling me off the mountain. Here is the scene:
Jocelyn: “Just let it go!”
Jocelyn: “It isn’t worth it!”
Me: “….” (I have absolutely no idea what I might have said in response to Jocelyn’s virtuoso exhibition of good logic and good sense but I am damn sure I can’t write those words.)
Thinks: “This kite thing is going to kill me… I wonder if I will ever get more predictable wind to try this again.”
Says: “I know. I’m done. I’m not trying the kite again.”
So… yeah… it took about a week of almost no wind (a problem that pissed me off every day) in Montesa before the wind got up to 10-11MPH. This was the last day, and while Jocelyn and I had been able to take almost ten thousand pictures and I was already beginning to see some results in the form of a sparse point-cloud on my laptop, I was in a terrible mood about the lack of success with the kite. I was so discouraged, that on this last day, I forgot to bring a bag containing one essential piece of the KAP kit in it: the rubber-band that held down the trigger for the camera. The previous kite-related stupidity at Calatrava had resulted in a melted reel and completely destroyed kite-line, so over the next few days, we rigged together a new reel with a rolling pin from a dollar store, and two lengths of hardware-store surveyors line. With the wind dying and no way to hold down the trigger on the camera, I looked to my wife and thought “HAIR TIE!.” So, with the wind dying down, on our last day, I shoved a pebble under the shutter release, strapped that down with Jocelyn’s only elastic hair-tie, launched the kite with the camera attached to the line on the picavet, and guided it with a rolling pin. The photos above were all shot with this rig.
Post-Production in CharlottesvilleDense point clouds of Montesa. As you can see, the kite aerials allowed me to get an excellent capture of the ground. It also helped link the interior of the castle to the exterior walls. On the flip-side, the partly cloudy sky caused a “painterly” effect when pictures shot under different lighting conditions overlapped each other. Dense point clouds of Calatrava la Nueva. The lack of aerial images that could visually bridge through doorways at Calatrava la Nueva caused VisualSFM to create several point clouds that had to be registered later using CloudCompare. The exterior was either shot from inside my car with a telephoto lens to get out of the rain, or it was shot on a very cloudy day. As a result, can see that the exterior walls are darker, with less contrast. By comparison, I was not able to convince/bribe the man responsible for repairing the church to turn out the lights, so you can see how the church interior has a rich, yellow, tungsten glow.
As soon as we got back, I went into full-on image processing mode. After working with UVACSE on their “Escher” dual-GPU computer, I came to the conclusion that I had to build one of my own if I was ever going to finish processing the photos. The result was a computer I named “Captain Crunch.” This computer probably had two days or rest during April, May and June. I will put a lot of this in a more techy post down the line, but in summary, Captain Crunch and Escher have processed roughly 30 thousand images from Calatrava la Nueva and Montesa into six point clouds of the interiors and exterior spaces of these two fortress-monastery complexes. What is perhaps most exciting about these dense point-clouds is that they were entirely created using three pieces of “free-ware”: VisualSFM (for feature matching between photos, sparse and dense point-cloud creation) MeshLab (for filtering out clouds and sky from the point-cloud using “select by color” & combining fragments) and CloudCompare (for cleaning up the cloud by hand, partitioning the cloud into semantic units, and for presentation).
Arkansas & Life After
This summer was a whirl-wind. In June and July, I spent three weeks at the NEH Summer Institute “Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization: Theory and Practice.” At Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas. This experience represents another enormous tentacle on this blog-monster, so until I can give the summer institute its due, I will just have to summarize here. While in Arkansas, I was able to see both of my sites combined into dense point clouds for the first time, met and engaged with people who have been doing a ton of hands-on work with heritage 3D modeling, ate insanely good fried chicken and barbeque, learned the breadth and history of this branch of digital humanities, and drove home with my head buzzing with ideas for future projects. I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it has been to come back to Charlottesville and down-shift into the long slog of dissertation work again. My faulty mental transmission is aided by the fact that an enormous portion of my time has been spent in the digital/professional realm since I got back from Arkansas. Until very recently I was in the running for a digital humanities position at UVa. In between the interviews, CV compiling and self-reflection of that marathon, I have been finishing a 3D model of an 18th and 19th century plantation house called Tusculum near Amhearst, VA. This project deserves its own tentacle as well, but that will have to wait for the final launch next month.
I titled this blog-post “Structure From Motion” because this is the sub-field of heritage visualization that has me really excited for the future, and – on a more personal level – because I feel that each stage of my travels this spring and summer have been extremely constructive. I attended the weddings of two very close friends this summer, and I sadly missed a third wedding this past weekend because I simply have too much on my plate. Watching these people leap forward with their lives always leads me to self-reflection, and I can’t help feeling impatient for my own leap out of ABD-land. I am standing on a structure that I built by reaching out, saying yes, and constantly moving this summer, but in the end I only got a fleeting glimpse of the horizon. I have not always had confidence that I was doing strong, valuable work in my field, but the last six months have given me that. They have also solidified my opinion that while a necessity, the written dissertation is a time-consuming drain on my ability to stay current in a field that demands motion & energy. My only hope is that I do not lose the feeling of community and cutting-edge relevance I had in Arkansas while I am busily giving my resume “depth” through dissertation hazing. I refuse to make myself a hermit, but I expect that I will be spending a lot of quality time with Captain Crunch this year.
Hopefully, there are more blog-posts to come with additional digital work. I will continue to spare you all from mini-synopses of the dissertation though.