Sunday, February 5, 2017

Photographing the Volcano

Earlier this week the New York Times and other media outlets ran a story about something remarkable happening on the island of Hawaii.  For the past month, lava has been flowing from the volcanic vent at Puʻu ʻŌʻō.  The flow was coming to the surface at the Kamokuna coast where it was building new land as it entered the sea.

61G lava flow entering ocean at Kamokuna (c) John Elder Robison
That spectacular but ordinary process became extraordinary when a big chunk of newly created cliff face collapsed into the ocean. On New years Eve the cliff fall exposed a lava tube that led seven miles from Puʻu ʻŌʻō, and it began streaming red-hot liquid rock as if from a fire hose.  Video in the Times showed lava arcing downward sixty-some feet into the ocean below, where it exploded in spectacular fashion.

The Times story made such an impression on me that I resolved to go there and see it for myself.  I packed a Nikon D5 camera with an 80-400 lens, and set off on the journey.  There are three ways to see Hawaiian lava as it flows into the ocean.  You can take a helicopter, which gives an aerial perspective and allows access to remote sites. You can hike to the lava, but this flow was emerging from a newly formed and unstable cliff, and could not be approached closely on foot.  The final option is to take a boat.

There are several groups offering lava boat tours in Hawaii. Vessels range in size from skiffs that carry six passengers to 50-seaters with rows of seating like a tour bus.  If you are a serious photographer the only choice is a small boat for the unrestricted views.  The charter I took was operated by Kalapana Cultural Tours, a group I recommend based on their attitude, knowledge, and seamanship skills. 

Tours run from pre-dawn to after dusk, weather permitting.  The launch site is about 14 miles from the lava flow and the trip out and back can be rough.  Luckily this trip wasn’t – it was as smooth as an ocean passage can be.  Our boat had a captain and crewman, and seats for six passengers.  It was 22 feet long and powered by two outboards.  Everyone climbed aboard while the boat was on its trailer and we launched fully loaded as there are no docks to tie up to at Isaac Hale Beach.

My own boating experience led me to choose the 5AM departure as the seas are usually smoothest before dawn, and the contrast of the lava and dark would be striking.  After being dropped in the water we headed southwest along the dark coast.  Traveling a few hundred yards offshore the water was already 300-350 feet deep.  Thanks to that the swells were minimal, even as they reared up and broke on the rocks of the shore with considerable ferocity. 

The glow and steam plume from the lava entry was visible several miles away, and everyone got ready as we approached.  We arrived in darkness and the view was simply stunning.  Lava streamed from the cliff face just as the news stories had shown.  It was impressive in the news and the actuality of it was even more incredible.

The whole scene was lit by the flickering fiery strand of lava.  Sometimes it glowed like the filament of a clear lightbulb. At other moments it was shrouded in a glowing mist of steam.  There was a constant roar punctuated by the pops of steam and lava explosions.  The lava was some 2,000 degrees when it hit the water, which was over 100 feet deep even right next to shore.

To the right of the lava flow a huge crack was visible in the cliff face, reaching from the top all the way down to the water.  Being mindful of that our captain kept his engines running and faced the boat out to sea in case we needed to make a quick escape.  This also afforded us a near-perfect viewing platform. 

To shoot the pictures below I used manual mode after spot metering for the glowing lava.  Shutter speed was set at 1/500 to give sharp images from a moving boat, and I used image stabilization in active mode.  By exposing for the lava most of the scene looked black on the raw images but with a high-performance camera you can push the background 4 stops in developing.  That’s usually your best bet. If you go brighter and expose for the overall scene the lava will be burned out and there is nothing to be done for that overexposure.

Shortly after we arrived the bigger boats appeared on the scene.  They ventured in closer to the lava, but our own captain was wary of that because of the obvious danger of cliff collapse.  Images of those boats between the lava and us gave a nice sense of perspective and drama.  Luckily nothing fell on them.

There were explosions every few seconds as chunks of the lava reacted violently with the seawater.  I successfully captured several blasts on camera.  You can do that in single shot mode if you are fast (I have a lot of practice catching those moments in performance photography) or you can use a continuous shutter at the expense of a great many wasted shots. 

From what I saw most photographers were using 70-200 lenses but the greater reach of my 400 gave these shots a unique perspective.  I’ve found the same thing photographing music performers where the 70-200 is the typical professional’s go-to lens.  The first version of the longer Nikon lens was terrible because it lacked a focus motor and was too slow to focus at all in low light.  The current version performed flawlessly, and it has replaced my own 70-200 in most places.

One benefit of using professional gear is that it’s more rugged and weather resistant. Both those attributes are important when getting banged around on a small boat.  The smoothest of boat rides still involve considerable bouncing. Waves hit the boat and produce spray, and you may also get soaked traveling to and from the flow.  It’s a good idea to protect your gear and wipe it down afterward.

Waterproof cameras are obviously available but the common ones are simple point-and-shoot devices that will not be much use in a challenging photographic environment like this.

Hawaii is warm all the time at sea level, but it’s cool out on the water and we were glad for good windbreakers.  We were also blessed with a clear night and calm seas, without which none of these photos would have been possible.

When the lava hits the sea, it produces steam with a high concentration of hydrochloric acid. This acidic brew is toxic to breathe and will etch and damage your camera gear in very short order.  The steam is also scalding hot, as is the seawater near the ocean entry.  Those are good reasons to stay back from the flow and be very vigilant to changes in winds or sea state.  Also, be sure your lenses have clear filters screws down tightly.  If they get acid etched they can be easily replaced, where the underlying lenses cannot.

There is nowhere else in the world that lava is flowing in a stream like this.  To reach the ocean the lava flows in tubes down from the crater. In this case the crater is seven miles northwest on the Kilauea mountainside.  That crater is only visible from a helicopter at this time but you can also look in on it via the webcams of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.  This shot shows the main crater on Kilauea, which you can drive up and see in the National Park.

Halema‘uma‘u crater as seen from visitor center (c) John Elder Robison

Lava boils in Halema‘uma‘u crater, Feb 3, 2016 (c) John Elder Robison
Seeing the lava stream was truly a once in a lifetime experience and well worth the trip.  It’s also a welcome break for those of us who live with New England winters. 

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mexico or Bust - Neurodiverse High Schoolers Build Vintage Bentley Race Car

Here’s how it all began

In the fall of 2013, New York ad executive Tom Webster came to our shop with a dream on four wheels . . . a run-down but running Bentley Continental R.  I just bought it, he told me.  Can we make it run right, and make it special, he asked?

Tom's Bentley as it looked when we started - #MexicoOrBust  (c) John E Robison

Tom found the idea of an autistic Bentley restorer cool for some reason, and when I told him about our new high school program, he thought that was even cooler.  To my surprise, he told me of his own ADHD, and how he dropped out of school, and his own circuitous path to success.  From the moment we met, we became friends and he became one of the strongest supporters of our TCS Auto Program.

As we set about restoring his car Toms got to know more about our school, and he thought more and more about how he could help spread our message.  He told his friends at Bentley USA what we were doing, and they gave him a new car to bring up and show our kids

We talks for hours about our hopes for the school, and where we'd like to go.  Dream bigger, was always his advice.

Meanwhile, here are a few of the things we did to his car . . .

We restored Tom’s Bentley over the next year, and all that time he pondered what he could do to draw attention to our school.  He really liked the idea of teaching young people real life skills in a real workplace, and he particularly liked the idea of autistics making schools for autistics and others who are neurodivergent.

Tom Webster's Bentley when we were done  #MexicoOrBust  (c) John E Robison

Tom came up with a crazy idea – to build a vintage Bentley with our students, and to race it somewhere special.  After a bit of searching we settled on the Carrera Panamericana, a grueling rally that runs 3,000 kilometers along the spine of Mexico.

The idea that a ragtag pack of autistic and otherwise different high school students from Springfield, Massachusetts could pull this off must sound pretty crazy.  But we have help.  I’m a long time repairer and restorer of Bentley motorcars, and the company I founded – J E Robison Service – is sort of known for making these old cars go.  Our school's parent nonprofit - Northeast Center for Youth and Families - has been helping people in Western Massachusetts for 40 years.  Joining us to create the TCS Auto Program is just the latest in a line of innovations for them.

Bentley Motors has come on board as a supporter, and they will help with all manner of things as only a carmaker can.  I'll be telling you more about other sponsors in days to come . . .

And then there’s all of you . . .

We will be hosting our first fundraiser on January 19 in at the Classic Car Club of Manhattan on Pier 76, behind the Javits Center.  We’re also setting up a link for people to donate online.  All the donations go to our school’s parent nonprofit, and are tax deductible contributions to a 501c3 nonprofit.  We’re gonna do stuff you never saw a school do before . . .

New and Vintage Bentley motorcars at our TCS Auto Program   #MexicoOrBust  (c)John E Robison

A new Bentley Flying Spur Speed, courtesy Bentley USA #MexicoOrBust   (c) John E Robison

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Bentley restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Deep pressure vests - a soothing idea

Are you comforted by squeeze or steady pressure?

Me, wearing a Snug Vest at home  Photo by Maripat Robison 

Readers of my book Look Me in the Eye will recall my chapter about sleeping in piles, where I talk about how it’s comforting to have the weight of another person or a pile of pillows on me when I rest.  My friend Temple Grandin has her squeeze machine, which accomplishes something similar in perhaps a more deliberate way.  I'm almost 60, and I still feel that way.  So does Temple, as far as I know.

With that in mind, autism therapists sometimes use weighted blankets to soothe children, in yet another version of the same idea.

Lately I’ve seen a few products come on the market that take this idea to the next level, and I thought one was worth mentioning – the SnugVest.  I first made its acquaintance at the 2016 National Pediatric Developmental Differences Forum in Chicago.

The Snug Vest people had one of their vests on display and I tried it on.  What a cool thing!  The vest looks and fits like an inflatable life vest, or water ski jacket.  Anyone who has worn one of those will recognize the Snug Vest feeling.  Putting it on made me realize why I like the feel of the vests in my little boat.

The Snug Vest is sized tighter than, say, a hiking vest, and it has expandable sides.  It’s meant to squeeze you a little bit as soon as you zip it up  It’s got fill valves just like a life vest and it comes with a little pump to blow it up.  When you do, it bulges a little and the pressure increases nicely.  You get use the pump to get whatever level of squeeze you want, and there is another valve to quickly let the air out (or you can just unzip it.)

Even fully inflated, you don't look weird. Or at least no weirder than you looked before putting it on.  The inflated vest just makes you look a little bit more solid, or chunkier.  It's like, autistic style.  One thing I particularly like is that the vest squeezes me around the chest where it feels soothing and not around my stomach, which just feels like someone sat on me.  It’s a simple product idea that is implemented nicely, and works like you would hope for.

It is absolutely soothing.

A few years back I heard about another company that was developing a similar inflatable vest, and they were aiming for FDA approval so its cost could be covered by insurance.  I thought that was a fine idea, but the cost of getting FDA approval was huge – potentially millions of dollars – and that promised to make any approved vest a very expensive items indeed.

The Snug Vest does not carry that burden, and it is reasonably priced - $365 as of this writing, in the USA.  They were offering 20% off when I saw them in Chicago, and I have to expect similar deals can be found in the future.   For less than $300 this is a no brainer.  Just one meltdown averted and it's worth the price.  If it averts two meltdowns remember you heard about it here, and send us $20.

At that price, a Snug Vest is about the same cost as a high performance inflatable life vest and considerably more soothing, if you are an autistic person or just someone who’s comforted by steady pressure.  And its air chambers offer some level of flotation, so if you find yourself unexpectedly deposited in a lake or river, the vest will help keep you afloat.  But it won’t look like you are walking round wearing a life jacket, which many individuals would find dorky.  Plus, the design of the vest is very similar to the design of the under-seat life preservers found on many regional jets.  Snug Vest wearers can be assured of having a leg up over other travelers in the event of a water evacuation from one of those aircraft.  Less fortunate passengers will be struggling to don their aircraft vests while you step out the window and enter the water in style.

Another thing about a Snug Vest is, it makes you conscious of being overweight.  It's the opposite of baggy clothes.  So it’s a good thing to wear, to encourage better eating habits.   When fully inflated you will find it effectively deters gluttony.

I travel to quite a few autism schools, and I’m seeing more and more interest in ideas like this to help soothe kids.  If you run a school or you are a therapist in a school program, I’d encourage you to check these vests out.   Blanket, pillows and weights are nice, but you can’t take them with you to class, or wear them on the bus.  These Snug Vests can go anywhere and no one will have a clue they are really something special.

The company representative assured me their products were made in Canada by real people and not machines.  Like many Canadian-made things, quality is good.  

I don’t really describe or review many products on this blog, but this is one item I can definitely give two thumbs up to.

Here is a link to the Snug Vest website.


John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.