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Hawk & Butterfly
What's so special about home electronics?

July 3, 2000.

This seemingly mundane story begins with a walk to pick up lunch on a hot Austin summers day. I was walking in front of my office building with a companion, and we were just crossing the street when I saw a dead Monarch butterfly below the curb in the gutter. I picked it up as my friend was talking and tucked it in my front shirt pocket. My friend knows me well enough to be generally unsurprised by this kind of behaviour. I think I said something about bringing it home for my children to see.

Well, it sat in my pocket for the rest of the day. When I got home, it was late and dinner was already on. I took the monarch out of my shirt pocket and gave it a quick look: the wings were somewhat battered but intact, but the body had been pretty much eaten. This monarch had fallen victim to a bird's appetite. I set it up upon a shelf, with my wallet and keys, thinking of showing it later to the kids. I couldn't show it off right away since even in my household, we don't encourage dead butterflys at the dinner table.

Unfortunately, the evening was a bit chaotic and showing off the butterfly slipped my mind. So it sat there for a couple of weeks until I finally got the combination scanner-printer-copier Hewlett Packard gizmo working with the computer. Then I came across the butterfly.

Yes! Something interesting to scan. So there you have it. I scanned the above picture at a density of 2,400 dots per inch. Thatís enough detail to create an initial 24 Megabyte file and keep my computer busy for 15 minutes. Itís also enough to get nearly microscopic detail.

Seeing that result encouraged me to do another scan at even higher density, yielding truely amazing results. Capturing only a small section allowed me to get the microscopic detail of a good dissection microscope. Otherwise, scanning the entire 4-wing set would have required more than a gigabyte of disk and probably a night of CPU-intensive processing on my meagerly appointed PC. Even so, I tripled the amount of data from the first scan.

At this level of detail, you can see the individual ridges of material in the butterfly's wings, the crinkling folds and wrinkles in the damaged wing, the veins that support the wing's structure.

Helen was marveling at the detail as well. Then I said to her, "Hey there's that hawk's feather!"

right+click & view to see full-scale image"What hawk feather?"

Hah! She hadn't noticed the feathers. We had been very lucky earlier this year to witness a pair of itinerant hawks that had established temporary residence in our neighborhood. I had heard their calling and seen them flying through the neighborhood canopy, but never quite a direct sighting. Helen was keeping an eye out, and as luck would have it, she got a close-up view while playing with our daughter in the back bedroom. One of the hawks roosted directly on the back window's ledge, only 2 or 3 feet away from Helen. That must have been quite a sight to behold. Helen must've talked about it for a week. I'm still jealous.

Well anyways, in these past 2 weeks, I've found 2 or 3 hawk feathers lying about our yard, the first one had settled at our front door. Now if ever there were an indicator of good fortune, I think it should be from such a noble bird such as a hawk, falcon or eagle. And since every front door needs some kind of adornment, and hawk feathers rank highly in my meta-theistic system for a positive influence at the threshold of a domicile, these hawk feathers now decorate one of the lower knots in a hanging rope of small brass bells. So the bells and feathers dance in the wind near our door, the feathers stuck by the base of their quills into the same knots as the the bells.

Repeating past success, we again  scanned at 9600 DPI and were not disappointed. The scan yielded tremendous detail, of surprising quality. Looking at this scan, one can almost discern the microscopic hairy hooks that form the interlocking matrix of the feather. And this is no backlit micrograph, it's all in natural color.

Not bad for a home-consumer scanner. As a scanner, it is nothing spectacular and I'd guess there are more capable scanners available for less money than I spent on the 3-in-1 scanner-printer-copier. But by my standards, I have a piece of equipment befitting a modestly appointed secondary-school science lab. Yes, sure, it's just a home-consumer electronic gizmo, but man, home-consumer electronics have come a long way in the past ten years.

This excites me most because my kids can do all these new cool things with some very simple-to-use and readily available home-based tools. They will, of course, just take it for granted that the tools are available and find all manner of uses for them.

Already my son has a stack of his drawings queued up that he wants scanned. And we have about ten of his best drawings we want to scan so we can spam the world. And then there are all those family photos and the children's story we have put on hold that I want to illustrate.

But I think we might have a hard time keeping our scanner's glass clean. Dead bugs have a way of leaving smudges on glass.


Now my son Cameron is getting into the act. He found a half-set of butterfly wings, ones with that beautiful silver dust on them. When he brought them to me, I felt happy that I could engender a child's interest in capturing the beauty of the natural world. Or that he might learn to be unafriad of find beauty in unexpected ways or that the truely beautiful things are as beautiful in death as they are in life.

Only nature can imagine things so beautiful.


right+click & view to see full-scale image