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Going to show that you never know what is going to produce the winning shots…

August 29, 2021, 6:30 PM

On Wednesday, August 25, Elyse and I got together with two friends of ours, Kyle and Pete, and we went up to the Ellicott City area, where we went on a hiking adventure.  We hiked up through the remains of what was once part of St. Mary’s College, and which has since become part of Patapsco Valley State Park.  The goal was to visit “Hell House”, which is the remains of a structure on the former campus.  Elyse was most familiar with this area, so she led the way.  The former campus contains the remains of a number of buildings, and we had a pretty fun time there overall.  Getting to Hell House was a bit of a challenge, considering that the path is not necessarily obvious and required climbing some steep slopes, but in the end, we made it there.

The hike itself wasn’t too photogenic, but we did see a few things:

This tree was growing through what I presume was once some kind of manhole.  It's also grown around the edge of the hole on one side.

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My first true railfan trip…

August 22, 2021, 10:14 AM

I recently came to the realization that it has been a little more than twenty years since my first true railfan trip on the DC Metro system, on July 28, 2001.  Mind you, I had ridden the system plenty of times before that, and I had photographed the system a few times prior to this, but this was my first time going in with the rail system itself as the destination, rather than as the means to an end.  I explored around in DC and Virginia, photographing stations, making recordings of the door chimes, and exploring new areas of the system that I had never been to before.  Back then, there was no Silver Line, the trains were still orange and ran in four and six-car consists, and they stopped in the center of the platforms rather than at the end like they do today.  I was using my original Mavica for the photos, which saved photos at 640×480 resolution onto 3½” floppy disks.  To record the door chimes, I used a boombox-style tape recorder and recorded it to a cassette.

As I recall, I started at Vienna, stopped off at Virginia Square, went down to L’Enfant Plaza, took the Yellow Line over the bridge to Virginia, got out at Pentagon, checked out the bus bays at Pentagon, briefly took an escalator up into the Pentagon from the station (and then turned around because I didn’t want to visit the Pentagon), went to Pentagon City, visited Pentagon City Mall, then headed to National Airport and Franconia-Springfield.  I stopped at Arlington Cemetery station, and then headed towards Vienna, stopping at East Falls Church and West Falls Church along the way.  Then I got back in the car and headed down to Woodbridge to visit Potomac Mills, where I was trying to get a new optical drive for my computer.  I didn’t find anything at Potomac Mills, but I did remember an optical drive that I had passed up earlier at the Babbage’s store at Pentagon City.  So after leaving Potomac Mills, I drove over to Franconia-Springfield and got back on the Metro, riding back up to Pentagon City and buying that optical drive.  I then stopped at Crystal City and King Street stations on the way back to Franconia-Springfield.

I had a number of firsts on that trip.  I rode between Pentagon City and Franconia-Springfield for the first time, and logged my first visits to Franconia-Springfield, King Street, Crystal City, Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, Virginia Square, East Falls Church, and West Falls Church.  I consider that a pretty good amount of new territory covered.

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Flights over Pennsylvania…

August 8, 2021, 9:00 PM

Back on July 20, Elyse and I made a trip up to Pennsylvania for a little photography.  This was one of those adventures where we had a specific mission that brought us out that way, but that mission was too small to justify the time and distance on its own, so we built a trip around it in order to justify the mission.  In this case, the main objective was to purchase some newly released cans of G Fuel (an energy drink) at a Sheetz that had them, and send them to Shock in order for him to do a review video.  Elyse called around ahead of time, and located the flavor in question at a Sheetz location in Gettysburg.  Then in order to justify the trip, I planned a route, adding some stops.  In this case, Sheetz in Gettysburg was a must, but then I added some stops in Waynesboro and Fairfield to the mix to round it out, creating a little arc across south-central Pennsylvania.  We were originally going to run it all the way out to Hanover, but decided to cut it off at Gettysburg in order to get home at a more reasonable hour.

Our first stop in Waynesboro was the Wayne Heights Mall.  This was by no means unfamiliar territory for us, as this was where the Gordmans that we photographed was located.  Gordmans has since closed, but it was a good flight target nonetheless.  Elyse liked it because she could visit Tractor Supply while I was flying.  So here we go:

Wayne Heights Mall in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania

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Categories: Pennsylvania, Photography

A fence appears around Staunton Mall…

July 17, 2021, 8:44 AM

While Elyse and I were on that trip to Staunton that I discussed earlier, we stopped by Staunton Mall to check in on the progress there.  It would appear that the redevelopment plans for Staunton Mall are for real, because asbestos abatement appears to be happening in a few places, and a perimeter has been established around the building in preparation for demolition.  Recall that I declared Staunton Mall to be a dead mall back in 2009, but it took until 2020 for the mall to finally close.  That fence around the entire mall building, save for Belk, is a major step towards demolition and redevelopment.

Fencing in front of the former Wills/Books-A-Million store.
Fencing in front of the former Wills/Books-A-Million store.

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My first time eating at a real restaurant in a very long time…

July 9, 2021, 3:50 PM

Recently, on a trip to Staunton, I had my first meal in a full-service restaurant since my weight loss surgery in December 2019.  We were visiting family, as my sister and her husband were in from Chicago.  So our party consisted of Elyse and me, my sister and her husband Chris, our parents, and Chris’s parents.  Nice group all around.  We ate at Zynodoa, which is a higher tier restaurant than I typically go to, but it was a good experience overall.

I would say that the timing of things tended to work against restaurants in general.  I had my surgery on December 6, 2019, and so things were still healing for most of December.  I was figuring out through trial and error about what foods would be tolerated by my body, and also determining portion sizes.  When Elyse and I would go out, we typically would stop in at a grocery store with a food bar if we needed to eat, like Harris Teeter, Wegmans, or Whole Foods.  I was typically able to get out of there for about five bucks (I would jokingly refer to myself as a cheap date).  Doing that allowed me to try out a variety of different foods, and only get the amounts that I needed (remember, my tummy is tiny now).

Then the pandemic restrictions came along, which took eating in restaurants out of the picture entirely.  I’ve never been one to do take-out from restaurants.  If I’m eating food from a sit-down restaurant, I’m more than likely going to be eating it at the restaurant.  If I’m getting it to go, I’m going somewhere else, like a grocery store or something else cheaper than a full restaurant.  Thus if I couldn’t eat on the premises because of various rules in place, a full restaurant was of no use to me.  And if I’m getting food to take home, I might as well just eat the food that I already have at home.  All of that said, the pandemic rules came about while I was still forming new habits after having my surgery, and that meant that full-service restaurants were more or less out of the picture, i.e. they didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.

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When your drone starts to act up…

June 7, 2021, 11:20 AM

On Tuesday, June 1, Elyse and I went on a little adventure in Prince William County, Virginia, where the goal for me was to photograph some old AT&T Long Lines infrastructure up close with the drone.  First of all, for those not familiar, AT&T Long Lines is a now-defunct system from the mid-20th century used for telecommunications via microwave transmission.  It has long since been replaced by more modern systems, but many of the towers still remain.  Some have been converted to cell phone towers, with varying amounts of the old Long Lines infrastructure abandoned in place.  I’ve photographed about six of these things in varying degrees of detail, mostly in Virginia, both ground-based and with a drone.

On this particular day, I had two towers in my sights: one near Dumfries, and one near Manassas.  The Dumfries one was directly off of Route 234, and the Manassas one was a little bit further off of the beaten path.  The Dumfries tower was in full form, with its horn antennas still attached, while the Manassas tower had lost the old horn antennas.

Here are some of my photos of the Dumfries tower:

AT&T Long Lines tower near Dumfries

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Categories: Cameras, Northern Virginia

A flight over JMU…

May 15, 2021, 2:12 PM

On May 10, while Elyse and I were on a weekend trip down to the Shenandoah Valley to see the parents and such, we stopped at JMU, and I took the drone for a flight over the far side of campus across Interstate 81.  That is a part of campus that has definitely changed since I was a student, as it’s a lot more built up than it used to be.  There are lots of buildings over there that weren’t there when I attended.  There’s also a new indoor arena over there called the Atlantic Union Bank Center, or, as the folks on Reddit have taken to calling it, the “Algerdome”, after JMU’s current president, Jonathan Alger.  I flew from a facility that was new since I was there, on the roof of a massive parking garage next to the Algerdome, built on the former site of Blue Ridge Hall.  That higher vantage point was helpful because it gave me a better line of sight to my aircraft and a better signal for my remote, as there were fewer buildings getting in my way up there.

And here are the photos:

Potomac Hall

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Categories: Harrisonburg, JMU, Photography

Gordmans, we hardly knew ye…

May 7, 2021, 10:03 AM

Recently, while working through my very large backlog of photos, I processed the various photos that I took of the Gordmans store in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.  For those not familiar, Gordmans, in the form that I experienced it, was an off-price retailer owned by Stage Stores.  Stage was in the process of implementing a major strategic move, repositioning itself away from department stores and going all-in on the off-price model (like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, or Ross).  With that, the company had begun to convert all of its department store nameplates, i.e. Stage, Bealls, Goody’s, Palais Royal, and Peebles, to Gordmans.  The goal was to have all of its 738 stores in 42 states converted to the off-price format under the Gordmans name by the end of 2020.  The Waynesboro store was originally a Peebles, and was an early conversion to Gordmans.

As you probably guessed based on my wording, world events caused a change in Stage’s plans.  With the COVID-19 pandemic, the various “lockdown” orders issued meant that all of Stage’s stores, considered “non-essential” businesses, were shuttered for several months.  With the stores closed and the resulting lack of sales for an extended period, this pushed Stage off of a cliff, financially speaking, which lead to their filing for bankruptcy.  It was ultimately determined that the best course of action was to wind-up operations, and as such, when the stores reopened, they immediately began going-out-of-business sales.

My first experience with Gordmans was on June 1, 2020.  Elyse and I were out doing some photography in the Hagerstown and Waynesboro areas, and happened upon the Gordmans store in the Wayne Heights Mall shopping center, at an hour when it should have been in operation, if not for government orders requiring that it be closed.

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A lesson on how not to behave when doing advocacy work…

April 27, 2021, 12:55 AM

Lately, there has been a small grassroots movement in Montgomery Village called “Citizens for Airpark Safety” complaining about noise from the Montgomery County Airpark (GAI/KGAI), which is a small public-use general aviation airport located in the Gaithersburg area.  I had heard rumblings about this from a few folks on a local Montgomery Village group that Elyse and I are in, but then it recently made its way to the physical space on Sunday when I found this on my front door as I was leaving for work:

Citizens for Airpark Safety flyer

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Peep show…

April 15, 2021, 11:41 AM

No, not like that.  Get your mind out of the gutter.

On Monday, April 5, Elyse and I went up to Westminster, where we saw the annual Peep show, held in the former Sears store at TownMall of Westminster.  There, we saw a number of displays made out of Peeps, those marshmallow rabbit and duck-shaped candies that some people like to eat around Easter.  All in all, it was pretty fun, though I admit that the ones that incorporated the pandemic into their theming made me cringe a little bit, because I am so over that (admittedly, though, I was over it from the moment that it started).

In any case, here are some of the highlights from the visit.

Bunny peep made out of bunny peeps.
Bunny peep made out of bunny peeps.

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Categories: Events, Holidays, Westminster

Return to the Days Inn…

March 6, 2021, 9:36 AM

About a year ago, Elyse and I visited an abandoned former Days Inn in the Warfordsburg, Pennsylvania area, about twenty minutes south of Breezewood.  Since then, we had received reports of a fire at the site in September, which destroyed the motel building.  Six months after that fire, we didn’t quite know what the site would look like, i.e. whether the remains would still be there or if it would all be demolished by now, so we went by to check it out.

First thing I did was fly over the site with the drone:

Former Days Inn in Warfordsburg/Town Hill

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Paying my last respects to Staunton Mall…

December 14, 2020, 9:00 AM

On a recent trip to Augusta County, Elyse and I stopped over at Staunton Mall to pay our last respects to the place.  For those not familiar, Staunton Mall recently changed owners, and in late November, the new owners gave all of the remaining tenants a 30-day notice to vacate, except for Belk.  The last day of operation for Staunton Mall will be December 24.  So we stopped in and documented the place fairly extensively.  Before I get started, please note that this Journal entry will be a very high-level look at the mall.  I took over 1,200 photos of the interior and exterior of the mall, including at least one photo of every single storefront, and I’m going to give the place a more complete treatment as a photo set for Life and Times.  But this ought to hold everyone for now, because the more complete treatment is going to take a while to put together.

The thing about photographing retail settings is that stores typically don’t like it when you photograph in their facilities.  The usual reason cited is to protect trade secrets, which is usually bunk, because, as I understand it, a company has to put actual effort into keeping trade secrets a secret.  If it is in plain view of the public, then it is not a trade secret.  But that doesn’t stop stores from chasing off photographers.  After all, it is private property, and they can choose to exclude whatever activities that they want.  For my purposes, it just means that I have to be a bit more stealthy when I photograph, and shoot with my phone rather than with the big camera.  The way that I typically operate when I do this is to go from lower risk to higher risk as far as getting caught goes.  After all, once a place gets wise to me, the photo shoot is over, because they’ll never leave me alone again as long as I remain there.  In this case, since I had the drone, I considered the aerial photography to be the least risky as far as getting caught goes, since I could accomplish that mostly from off of the property.  Then after I finished flying around the mall, I photographed the exterior from the car with my real camera.  Then I went inside the mall and did my documentation of the interior with my phone.  I suspected that I wouldn’t have any issues with security personnel based on reports from others that there were no security people to begin with, and I was pleased that this ended up remaining the case.  I’ve seen so many cases where stores and/or entire shopping centers are closing, and employees still get on people about photography.  I can’t help in those cases but to think, why do you still care?  After all, the people in question are losing their jobs soon, and so they’re continuing to defend their employer because… why?  No matter what you do, at the end of the day, you’re still losing your job.  So why are you still loyal to and defending a company that clearly has no loyalty to you?  It doesn’t make sense to me.

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Going behind the pylons…

November 19, 2020, 11:31 AM

Back on November 6, Elyse and I took the drone out for a spin again, and I did some photography.  This time, we went out to Leesburg, and took a late afternoon golden-hour flight around a familiar landmark: the former Walmart off of Route 15.  This is a typical 1990s-era pylon-style store, and it closed in May 2019 when a new Supercenter opened elsewhere in the Leesburg area.  Because of the proximity of the location to Leesburg airport, I had to notify the airport of our activity using their online form, and then, whirlybirds away.  I flew up and around the building, and even investigated the roof a little bit.

A pre-flight capture, with the HR-V at right.
A pre-flight capture, with the HR-V at right.

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Flying over the Shenandoah Valley with a drone…

October 25, 2020, 10:45 PM

Elyse and I recently made a trip down to Augusta County to see my parents, and we both photographed a bunch of stuff with my drone while we were down there.  So all in all, we had a pretty productive time.  I have gotten pretty proficient in flying my drone around things, and I’ve gotten some nice photos.  The goal of the drone photography this time was to duplicate a lot of what I did in my earlier entry about the area in Microsoft Flight Simulator, but in real life.  All in all, I had a good time, and I liked the results, as I flew around Staunton, Waynesboro, Afton Mountain, and Stuarts Draft.

In Staunton, I first got aerials of the old DeJarnette Center, which is an abandoned children’s mental hospital that closed around 1996 in favor of a newer, more modern facility nearby.  If this place sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve photographed it before.  So here it is:

DeJarnette, viewed from the air

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Taking my photography to the skies…

October 6, 2020, 10:37 AM

I suppose that it was inevitable.  When Elyse and I were out meeting up with someone in Baltimore back in March, they had a drone device that they used for a lot of aerial photography, and they showed it off to us.  I loved that thing, a DJI Mavic Pro 2, and they gave me all of the information about it so that I could do my own research.  I wanted one of those things, but I couldn’t justify a $2,000 price tag for a drone that nice when I had zero experience flying a drone, and didn’t have a good idea about what I wanted to do with it.  So I sat on the idea for a while, occasionally going on Amazon to drool over the drone that I knew I couldn’t justify to myself.  Then I found a somewhat lower-end drone, the DJI Mavic Mini.  A $500 price tag was easier to justify, and that price also told me two things: first, it was expensive enough that it would do what I wanted it to do, but also cheap enough to be a good, accessible starter drone.  I asked the experts on Reddit, and the consensus was that it was a good entry-level drone, and it could do everything that I was looking for it to do.  So I went on Amazon and bought it.

One thing that I got a quick crash course in after I bought this was the regulatory environment for drones.  Basically, you can’t just take this thing anywhere and fly it however you want.  Like the roads, you share the airspace with other users, and as a drone pilot, in the big hierarchy of pilots, you are down where the dog lifts its leg.  And that’s how it should be.  I’m flying an unmanned vehicle, and as such, my feet are firmly on the ground at all times.  If something goes wrong with my aircraft while I’m flying, the worst thing that happens is that I lose my drone, as well as all of the material that’s stored on the card.  I might be unhappy about losing my drone and the photos stored on the card, but no one’s going to die should this thing fail mid-flight.  Compare to a real pilot, who’s actually up in the sky with their aircraft, and if something went wrong there, there is a very real possiblity that someone could be seriously injured or lose their life.  Therefore, I quickly learned that you have to do your homework before flying.  Thankfully, there is a phone app called B4UFLY that will tell you what restrictions are in place in different areas.  Right offhand, I live in the Washington, DC area, and as such, there is a lot of restricted airspace there, because Washington.  In short, don’t even think about flying in DC, and you probably don’t want to fly in the suburbs, either.  Right around my house, I also have restrictions because there’s a small airport (GAI) nearby.  Once you get out of the immediate metro area, though, it’s fairly wide open, though national parks are a blanket no-go.  But outside of that, there’s plenty of stuff to do.

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