Sunday, July 24, 2011

Something about work

It turns out that I'm actually up here specifically to do good work for the National Parks Service, not just run around in the hills (though that is a neat side-benefit).

If you'd spoken to me about this appointment before I took off, you probably have a very loose and vague understanding (if at all) of what I would actually be doing at my desk. This is mainly because I had next to no idea of what I would be doing. Now, as you'd imagine, I have a much clearer picture to present.

The basic idea is that over the year, my boss puts together task assignments and plops them into a folder on the office server, where I can access them*. At the start of the summer, there were about 12, and no expectation that I would finish all of them before the end of the summer, and that's pretty-much true.

Here's an example of a task sheet for the Government Hill photo work (the last set in this post):Pretty neat huh? If the text is too small to read, the point here is that everything in the government as boring associated paperwork.

These task assignments range in size, scope, and fun-factor. One task is making digital records in the office spreadsheet of old construction drawing numbers (when you make a construction drawing, it has an ID #, and there is now a digital record of all of them). Another is formulating a statistical record of how parks count visitors; that is, some use vehicle counts, some count people at the visitor center. My task here is to then go through all the park records (for all 394 park units in the NPS system) and see what they're doing. Beyond that there are also grading plans that I'm doing (figuring out specific topography for building sites) and traffic circulation studies at some park entrances.

Beyond these task assignments, I also field some work that simply comes up in the summer business of the Environmental Planning and Design team, of which I'm a part. Since I'm the new, young intern armed with knowledge of all the latest Adobe products (Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to be precise), I often get requests for the digital work that the old-timers don't have the patients or computer knowledge to execute.

The examples below are of some visual impact studies where there is an existing condition, and an idea of what the same view would be like after some sort of intervention.

This first one was from a guy working with an Alaskan pipeline company that is proposing a natural gas pipe alignment along the Parks Highway, which passes right by Denali NP. So this guy, we'll call him Steve, saunters over to my desk one fine day and hands me this image:

This is near the Denali park entrance, and Steve tells me that the pipeline might be going in 20' off the right side of the road edge, and he wants me to produce an image of what clearing of the trees and brush would look like ~5 years after re-vegetation. No other imagery, no examples of plant materials to be used, no other photos from around the site. Just this image, that explanation, and no understanding of what it takes to make a good rendering from Photoshop.

After 8-12 hours of clicking in the Photoshops, this is what I bounced back to him:

Apparently to people at whatever meeting this was for were excited by the rendering, because I was tasked with another, similar project.

In the following instance, my boss got ahold of some historic imagery of views from the Denali park entrance road. This is within the first few miles of the road, looking at the river and an old trestle bridge from 1938:The fun part about this assignment, was that we actually went out to the park to collect images from the same spot to see how re-vegetation has changed the view. The idea is that my boss sees this spot as a good place for a scenic view pull-out (considering that tourists are stopping all over the road near here to snap photos, the park has identified a safety concern, and would like the people to have a place to get out of traffic).

This is what that same view looks like now:

As you can see, the view is pretty well obscured by early-succession forest growth (the veg type around here is Birch-Aspen-Spruce forest). The following is the product that my boss eventually used in conversations with the Denali park staff. Again, scored some points with my boss.
Note that these are not to be taken as literal interpretations of what these sites will look like, but rather as representations of what the site may end up looking like.

Finally, as I stumble through the servers at work, I sometimes come across data or documents that are extremely interesting. For example, in almost every nook and cranny of my office building there are old documents, maps and/or images, historic and modern, tracking the last ~100+ years of Alaskan history. From people and culture to geology and vegetation, the material that can be found in the cabinets and files in my office building represent a huge body of interesting old crap.

The following example is flight data that I found on our GIS database server. warning: this is about to get art-nerdy: The lines represent the flight paths for both high and low altitude local flights from cities, towns, and rural airstrips across the state. What this does is render an image that is an abstract representation of the state's extent. This is neat because small-aircraft flight is a huge part of Alaska's culture, and when you put all the lines together, it looks like a modernist abstraction of the state. Pretty cool.

That's all I have the patience to type-out on this dreary Anchorage afternoon, but I hope that paints a clearer picture of what, exactly, I'm up here to do.


*NERD NOTE: I have access to 5 servers with my security clearance, including all GIS data for all the parks in the AK region, all the programs and license codes for all the software in the AK region, and all the administrative and logistical files for each individual park unit in AK. Hundreds of terabytes of info!

Also, for the GIS users out there: AK covers 9 UTM zones, so the state has formulated it's own projection, called Alaskan Albers, which ALL the GIS data is projected in. So, for any data gotten off the servers for any reason is all projected with the same system, with the same coordinate system. No re-projections, ever!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Observations on Alaska

Since showing up here in The Last Frontier, I've compiled a list of quirks and oddities that I've noticed while being out-and-about, and it's time to share them with the world.

If it isn't local (and not much of it is), it's marginal and pretty expensive. As you can imagine, shipping veggies up to 61 degrees North takes away a bit of freshness.

However, if it is local, it's huge. Really, look it up. The veggies grown up here go nuts because of the immense amount of daylight.

The Dollar Menu.
Not a dollar; it's $1.50. Like many things up here, they're just a bit more expensive. Not enough to break the bank (if you're not buying too much), but just enough to be annoying. This is, however, offset my the fact that there are almost no taxes on consumables.

For example, it the tag says $11.99, the register also says $11.99, and that's what you pay. Kind of nice, but still...

Lots of daylight. You knew this...but did you really think about it? I don't have a bedside lamp, I have a window. When I go to bed at 11:30/12 and want to read a few pages, it's still pretty easy. Also, my roommate and I have been longboarding quite a bit and there's a great hill to ride just a block away.

At 10:30/11, when there's no traffic and dry weather, it's a great time to grab the boards and have a skate. It might be hard to get to sleep when the sun is still shining bright, but it's definitely worth the trade-off: of being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

Monster trucks.
Lots of monster trucks. Turns out AK is a great place to tear up the wilderness with some 4x4 action. The modifications that make your standard F-150 into a mud-guzzling machine can be very well justified when your state is bigger than most countries and has the backcountry infrastructure on-par with most South American nations. However, the line between necessity and vanity gets pretty blurry, especially here on the paved streets of Anchorage.

Burn it like you stole it, but the pump will eat your debit card for breakfast. Put items 2 and 4 together and you've got a good idea about how Alaskans feel about petrol. Confused? Me too. A gallon goes for $3.9-$4 in town, and can be over $7/gal in the backcountry, despite the fact that AK has the nation's largest reserve of crude up in the North Slope. The tragedy here is that there are no refineries up here (they pump and export crude and import gasoline/diesel).

This lack of facility is also the issue with glass recycling.

What's recycling? It's a thing of the future up here. There are no municipal recycling collection systems, so if you want to be green, you've got to drive all over hell to feel good about putting the right plastic in the right bin. Add to that the fact that there is no glass recycling and you've got a good idea of how behind-the-times AK is on the reuse. Kind of sad.

7: Alaska is actually a country.
It has the size, economy, and unique culture that would justify a sovereign nation in any other context, but apparently it's still part of the US on paper. In practice, from what I've seen around town and the greater state, as well as what I observe at work, this place is it's own country.

For example, while the NPS parks in other states might add up to hundreds or a few thousand acres, NPS AK manages MILLIONS. Oftentimes in a single park! (Denali, Wrangel St. Elias, Gates of the Arctic, Lake Clark, and Katmai National Parks are ALL over 4 million acres each).

Yep, we're right on the northern edge of the Ring of Fire here, and sometimes the ground moves. Just the other week there was a 5.2 shake dozens of miles away, but I felt it pretty clearly in my box on the 4th floor (no damage or injury).

The official car of AK. Even the taxis; these things are everywhere.

The solstice.
I haven't met any practicing Pagans up here, but with such seasonal extremes in the amount of daylight, people make a pretty big deal of the solstices up here (and to a lesser extent the equinoxes).

Panning for gold.
You knew it was part of AK history, but did you know it is still part of AK present?
This dialogue is not uncommon:
"Hey, what are you up to this weekend?"
"Oh, a little grilling if the weather's good, and I was thinking about driving up to the Talkeetnas and trying out the pan for a little bit."

For real, I've seen 'em out there. It's quaint and interesting on the one hand, while pretty quirky and unique to AK on the other. I don't really know how to take this one, but there it is.

Business casual.
I have yet to see a suit walking around downtown.
Even my boss wears sandals at work on nice days, and I'm not sure that ties even exist up here. As far as I can tell, someone extracted my mental conception of what a comfortable and confident society would dress like and applied it to Alaska.

Plant maturity.
This one is for the landscape architects and plant-nerds out there. The mountain habitat in which many of the local vegetation resides is pretty awesome for plant identification. Towards the beginning/middle of the growing season, when many annuals and perennials are starting to get their bloom-on at low altitude, the whole life-span of maturity can be observed as one climbs higher into the mountains and foothills.

For example, think of many prairie species that are hard to identify as they're just starting to push through the dirt. Now imagine that you're observing this in an alpine meadow, and as you walk down-slope you can observe how the plant will look as it grows through the season, and down in the warm climes of sea-level, many of that same species are in bloom (and vice-versa).

In essence, you can see the stages of most of a season's growth (and what the species look like at each stage) in a single day, if you're willing to walk a bit. If this as possible in my plant ID class, it would've been HUGE.

I expect that this list will expand as the summer goes on, but these are the basics.

Email signature

According to google, for an image to be used in an email signature, the file has to be sourced from a URL. Apparently one cannot simply upload an image file, so here's my new email sig.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Everyone likes pictures. All of the following are pictures taken on after-work strolls in the Chugach Mountains (outside Anchorage) and the Alaska Range (Denali).

In the last week and some I have had the time and opportunity to really dig-in at work with some interesting projects and work on my mountain legs, and life has been pretty good here in the Last Frontier.

In order, top-to-bottom and left-to-right: midnight sunset in the Chugach, Flattop Mtn and the Powerline Pass valley, remaining snow on the ridge beyond Flattop, Peak 3 beyond Flattop, Mount Healey ridge up from Glitter Gulch in Denali, and a pan of the ridge dropping-off to my left and right on a walk in Denali.