Friday, December 30, 2005

Flickr and Blogger

As Pete has pointed out (and thank you for the plug!) the sub-weblog on railroads is "contextualizing" the Flickr set on railroads. I am finding this quite easy to do and most sasitfying. The combination works like this, should you be interested in emulating it:

First the photos are uploaded to Flickr, complete with title, tags and description. If necessary I change the date the photo was taken as well (Flickr assumes that all scanned images without EXIF data are taken on the day the file is uploaded). Next, when I feel like writing up a particular segment, I access Blogger and write away. The images on the weblog are linked. That is, Blogger merely has a link to a particular image size on Flickr. These links are automatically generated by Flickr so they can be copied and pasted into blogger.

The final piece is to place a link in the Flickr description that points the surfer to the weblog. This introduces the casual surfer to the additional details on the weblog and thereby also opens up the rest of the weblog. Here is an example.

Finally, because Blogger is owned by Google, it has a really good search engine that can be used to search just one weblog. So there is another way to easily find an entry. Which will be necessary after a while!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Railroad Weblog

A new weblog started today as a back up to my Flickr photo project. Check it out here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Railroad Photos

As part of my scanning project I have created a set of railroad photos and have also added them to the Railroad group at Flickr. There are lots more to come (current tally is 60) and they range from a period of over 15 years as well as from all over the world (though mostly UK and US). I am doing this partly because I simply want to share them but also because I know there are a lot of modellers out there who need photos of their prototypes. The two streams can be accessed as focalplane's railroad set and the flickr railroad group.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Major Scanning Project

I've started to scan prints of photos taken during the last 20 years or so. See them as they get uploaded to Focalplane's Flickr. I'm using the HP 4670 scanner and the throughput is quite fast.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Which stands for Automaic Number Plate Reader. I received notice of this from a friend in Texas (where such things are considered an invasion of privacy). This article in the Independent tells the story that soon every automobile journey will be recorded by CCTV and stored for 2 years. 1984 may have come and gone but the "Big Brother is Watching You" syndrome is alive and well in the UK.

The police, of course, stress the positive aspects of CCTV work. Why shouldn't they? Sitting in a warm, cosy, dark room watching CCTVs do their "beat" work for them is much better than actually getting out into society and being seen by the people who they serve. Which was true when "Dixon of Dock Green" ruled the TV ratings (that would be during the late 1950s) but it seems that today we fight crime from behind a computer console. It may work but do we really feel the safer for it?

The alternative argument, offered by civil libertarians, is that this entire operation is an invasion of privacy even if we admit that we are doing nothing wrong. Personally I don't see why the government needs to know what I am doing 24/7 even if I am 100% honest. But if they were to be able to reclaim a stolen automobile for me I might be prepared to change my mind. If. . .

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Playing the Stock Market

This is not something I do. I invest in stocks for my retirement, a totally different and quite conservative activity. Just recently, though, I've been following a stock market bulletin board (BB) and have become intrigued by the thoughts that run through the minds and spill out onto the bulletin board pages of investors who are playing the market.

The first thought I had was, of course, that for every gainer there is a loser. All these guys (and I would guess they are mostly masculine) seem to be convinced that they can only win, never lose. Their strategies are "water tight". Hmm.

The second is that they are generally buying into small companies that have all the appearances of being not much more than a shell for the insiders to make money. This might be a little unkind but what is interesting is that a typical BB conversation may well include comments about insider trading and how the outsider can second guess the insiders. Much credence is given to press releases and how the wording can be interpreted. Here I am often surprised by the poster's complete lack of knowledge of the industry that he is commenting on. This implies that many of these investors could be potential mullets, ending up on the wrong wide of the balance sheet at the expenses of the insiders they hope to emulate.

I would guess that the size of a stock's bulletin board thread is inversely proportional to the quality of the company. Which could mean that the best stocks to invest in are those that engender very little interest on the bulletin boards.

However, reading tea leaves might be more rewarding.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A day trip to Paris

A quick business trip found me flying to Paris this morning from Birmingham, taking a cab to the 2nd Arrondissement, and looking up an office address that turned out to be next to some sordid sex shops, fabric wholesalers and interesting looking cafes. The meeting went well and at 6 p.m. I asked about getting a taxi back to the airport. "Better not take a cab outside, they are for the taxi girls!". So I walked up to the main street nearby and soon hailed a legitimate cab to the airport.

The Paris I was in was certainly interesting, a bit like London's Soho. Even more so were the streets the taxi took to get onto the autoroute to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris is a truly multicultural city. In fact, it was hard to see a "Parisian" on the sidewalks as we drove through kilometers of African-dominated neighborhoods. My Parisian cab driver seemed none too impressed, switching on his radio and tuning in to the local news at high volume.

A long day but an interesting one!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Max out the RAM!

After owning a 15" Apple PowerBook for over a year I decided that the installed 512 MB RAM was holding back the machine's capabilities when using memory instensive applications, like Illustrator. In particular, HP plotter drivers seemed to be capable of closing down all other apps while creating temporary plot files.

So I began researching the cost of RAM over a month ago. This week I was finally able to secure 2 GB of RAM, the maximum that can be inserted into the PowerBook's two dedicated slots. The price for this RAM varied enormously from brand to brand, from country to country. But Canada and Crucial won the day (at half the price of UK Apple!) and the memory is installed and the computer runs a lot faster and a lot cooler!

On this experience I would have to say that before considering a computer upgrade, first consider adding more RAM.

Also, for Mac users, consider downloading the free Menumeters application. It will help you to understand what is going on with the CPU, hard drive, network etc. in real time. Invaluable.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Back in Calgary

After a hectic few days in London I flew back to Calgary on Sunday for a week. As the plane took off from the Heathrow the pilot pointed out the huge black smoke pall rising from the fuel storage depot that exploded earlier in the morning. We were strapped in at the time but I don't have a camera on this trip anyway, so no photos.

The weather in London was about 10 degrees cooler than in Calgary. Of course that could change in a hurry!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Brindley Place before Dawn

Pick of the crop of photos taken on Tuesday morning.

Brindley Place before Dawn

To see other photos in the Birmingham Group, go here. Of note is the one that even Pablo Picasso might have enjoyed (the reference is an afterthought prompted by amortize).

The Fact of Evolution

I am often stumped at trying to convince lay persons of the simplicity of evolution. This has become all the more important now that Intelligent Design (ID) has become so popular. So I was delighted to find this article by Richard Dawkins.

Not only does Dawkins provide simple explanations for Darwin's "Origin of Species" he also explains why it is difficult for people to accept something that is inherently so simple. He opines that it is time we stopped referring to the "theory" of evolution as a theory. As far as Dawkins is concerned, the theory became fact a long time ago. One of the most difficult challenges facing scientists today is the retort "yes, but it's only a theory, you can't prove it!" Almost anything that takes eons of time to work (evolution, plate tectonics to name two) is all too easy to dismiss by those who have no concept of geologic time.

If you or anyone you know is facing the problem of having ID thrust into "young skulls full of mush", give them this link. Our species' survival depends on it!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Photography before Dawn

As it happens, I arrived in central Birmingham yesterday morning at around 6 a.m. (I had just dropped April off at the airport otherwise I would probably have still been asleep!)

Th city is essentially dead at this hour of the day. The most active professions appear to be window cleaning and goods deliveries. It was also cold, having snowed overnight, though not much actually stuck in the warmth of the city, except on the canal bridges.

I had had this strange idea that the excellent Birmingham Markets would be open and that I would buy sea food and vegetables prior to meeting up with Pete. Well, the wholesale markets open at some ungodly hour but the retail markets wait until 9 a.m. to open their doors! So I began to explore the city center, using memories from 50 years ago to guide me. Of course, a lot has changed in 50 years but the underlying street plan is still there.

So, I parked in the Arcadian Center in Chinatown and walked over to the Bullring, in its second re-incarnation in 50 years. I'm old enough to remember all three versions and I still fondly remember the original. The latest version is not bad at 6 a.m. Come Noon and you can keep it! The new Bullring is famous for the blob, a.k.a. Selfridges. The aluminum disc covered exterior has become a city icon and that's fine with me though I don't particularly like the way it abruptly ends in a more conventional shopping mall structure. The shape of the blob is fascinating and its contrast with St. Martins Church, Moor Street Station, etc. are interesting. I wonder, though, what it will look like in 25 years time. It is already showing signs of decay.

I then walked up New Street to Victoria Square. The annual German Christmas Street Market was closed, of course, but there was a guy in a hi-viz jacket wading around the Victoria Square fountain (locally known as the "Floozie in the Jacuzzi" but actually a fine piece of public space sculpture/design). I tried to photograph him without flash but it would not work. He was fascinated that I should want him in the picture so I told him that without him the photo would have little meaning. I am not sure he was that impressed.

Next I walked through the Central Library space to Centenary Square. More signs of Christmas here with special attractions adding to the smaller-than-London's ferris wheel. Many of the lights that might have made a pre-dawn photo were switched off, so I passed through Symphony Hall/ICC to Brindley Place and here I was able to slip and slide along the icy canal towpath to a vantage point for my "shot of the day".

I returned to the Bullring as the first coffee shops were opening for business (Costa Coffee being the first by a long margin) and waited for the sun to rise, the markets to open and the rest of the world to catch up with me!

Fuji S3 Pro joins the wish list

While in Birmingham yesterday I visited Jessops on Cherry Street. A knowledgeable dealer in the store showed me the Fuji S3 Pro and we discussed its potential advantages over the just announced Nikon D200 ("potential" because neither of us had held a D200 yet!)

However, the S3 Pro has a number of advantages that simply suit my ways of doing things. For example:

1. The S3 uses standard AA rechargeable batteries. These cost a lot less to buy than custom Lithiums as in the D200, and ordinary alkaline AAs can be substituted in a push (as in, say, the middle of Africa).

2. The S3 has firewire capability. This wonderful standard is suffering from the "USB 2.0 is everywhere" malaise of mediocrity. That may sound a tad strong as USB 2.0 is fast. But Firewire allows you to control the camera from your PC! That might be useful down the road.

3. The D200 is likely to cost around £200 more, basically the cost of a fast 4 Gbyte flash card.

4. The S3 has a built in flash. While Nikon will have excluded such an extra to maintain "professional purity" (a.k.a. elitish snobbery among the not-so-professional) I believe that the built in flash can be very useful for daytime fill flash (I use it a lot with the Fuji S7000).

5. There have been some reports of Nikon's AF system malfunctioning in various new bodies and if this system is employed in the D200, then it would be a potential deterrent. I understand that this is dangerous hearsay at the moment but if Nikon is reluctant to confess about issues with its cameras, and dealers cannot refute the claims, then the competition should win.

So, the S3 Pro goes onto my wish list and Jessops Birmingham will get the sale when I get round to it!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Observations on how Politicians (don't) think

My parallel blog, Global Warming is Good has been getting a few entries during the past month, mainly because the climate change scene is progressing from green to any other color but green. Yellow looks like the flavor of the month (nuclear) but one thing seems certain, wind farms are being shown up for the scam they really are.

My point here, though, is not to repeat what has already been written but rather to make the observation that politicians don't seem to be capable of thinking any more. This is what they do instead. They

1. Gage public opinion and pander to what seems to be popular;

2. Send up trial balloons with ideas that "might" work. When the media and public opinion shoot holes in the balloons and they collapse, the politicians send up more;

3. Refuse to recognize the obvious and keep prodding along dead horses regardless of the cost;

4. Live in a different world, at least judging by some their statements to pensioners and the like.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

TV contrasts

There's a useful discussion here about the pros and cons of the UK TV License. It actually starts off as an experience of the hounding that many people get who either do not want TV or find themselves an error in the licensing database. But it also includes some commentary on whether or not a license fee is the right way to go.

While in Canada I had an interesting experience watching US PBS one evening. This channel is available in Calgary and the local station in Spokane Washington (across the border) actually gets a lot of its funding from Canadians during pledge drives. Two hours of excellent TV started with a documentary (Nova) on the science behind Hurricane Katrina. This was followed by a fine piece of investigative journalism (Nightline) on what went wrong with the emergency response to Katrina. I felt very comfortable knowing that, because much of PBS funding is from "viewers like you", there is a strong disconnect between government and public media. As a result, the hard hitting piece was extremely scathing when it came to FEMA and "White House jobs for the boys".

While there is no doubt that the BBC could do a similar piece in the UK (about a disaster in the UK and its government's response) I feel that the public's reaction tends to be split on anything the BBC does. One of the favorite reactions always seems to be "this is not what I pay my license for!" The difference is, of course, that in the States you don't have to support public TV whereas in the UK it seems you do because the TV license is mandatory.

Would British viewers pay for PBS style programming if there was no license fee? Personally I doubt it. Not even enough to pay for the excellent radio services.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


The journey is long, the time zones number seven. Good to be back home. No snow in our part of the world.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Leaving Calgary

We're leaving Calgary this afternoon after nearly four weeks. The work has been good, the recreation excellent! In different ways Calgary has welcomed us with open arms, demonstrated that its values are intact, and provided us with many good memories. Not the least to be remembered are the hotel staff, particularly the waitstaff every morning (6:30 a.m.) as the orange juice flows and the day begins!

Ironically the past two weeks have been unusually warm with afternoon temperatures soaring to the mid-teens (Celsius). Lots of sunshine here makes winter a different proposition from England where grey is the color of winter. And it looks as though we'll be flying home to some snow!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Microsoft to Standardize!

Well, not really. For a moment I thought that Microsoft is planning to truly standardize its products across platforms. But the article is referring to making older Microsoft formats available in the public domain as a sort of "open source" feature. Since Adobe has already created the Portable Document Format (.pdf) and anyone with a modern operating system can simply "Print to PDF" for cross-platform and archival compatibility, it seems that Microsoft is missing the point.

What we really need from MSFT (market cap $297 billion) is cross-platform standardization now! For example, it would be wonderful if an Excel spreadsheet list-wizard-created-database in OSX would offer exactly the same options when opened in Windows. It doesn't. Or that a Mac user could open a Project file without recourse to Virtual PC. Microsoft doesn't even offer Project for OSX.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Magic Mix (Movie Review)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an excellent movie, a truly magical mix of a good story (thanks J. K. Rowling), an excellent script adaptation, superb casting yielding superlative acting, all coupled to just the right amount of special effects as would befit a movie about magic.

No need to say much more, really. We both enjoyed the movie which is definitely a more mature version than its predecessors. Mike Newell directed and directed well. The new characters (especially Michael Gambon replacing the Late Richard Harris) fit in with those returning, while Ralph Fiennes provides an almost “English Patient” rendering of the bad guy Lord Voldemort.

The special effects are just special enough to demand recognition without inundating the movie. For it is the characters that leave the theater with you, not the wizzes and bangs, and that is as it should be. The final words are important indicators to what will come next. I’ll not repeat them here, it might spoil the plot (though if you’ve read the book there will be few surprises).

Is this a good movie? Oh, yes! And it’s one for the DVD collection as well!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Drumheller & the Tyrrell Museum

Yesterday, Saturday, we spent the day east of Calgary, visiting Drumheller, the badlands of the Red Deer River and the Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. For this is dinosaur country and the museum is quite simply incredible! Lots of photos being uploaded to Flickr as I write this.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Derailed (Movie Revue)

Taking the opportunity to catch a few movies while in Calgary, we saw Derailed last evening. A good if at times very violent piece of cinemaphotography, Derailed is surprisingly more a showcase for Clive Owen than Jennifer Aniston. The plot has some good twists and turns but you are left wondering about some of the bits and pieces that make up the plot - though a second viewing would clear them all up, of that I am sure. I won't spoil it for the reader by giving anything away so you will have to be the judge about any unfinished threads at the end. This is unlikely to be a movie for the DVD collection.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

FWIW Energy Stock Picks

So, the price of oil has dropped a few dollars. Is this significant? True the hurricane season is just about over for a year and the oil industry in North America is fast getting back on its feet. True world demand appears to have dropped a bit. But for how long?

My guess is that the first really cold morning in New York will start a trend in higher natural gas prices in North America. One analyst has already predicted $20/MMBTU natural gas prices if a bad winter hits. And apparently bad winters often follow busy hurricane seasons.

So I give you my stock picks for the winter: XTO and GSX. Let's see if I have chosen wisely 3 months from now!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


This morning it's cold in Calgary but there's no wind blowing to make it feel even colder than the thermometer's -11ºC. The weather forecast says that by Friday it will be +14ºC! I guess that means there is a Chinook coming over the mountains.

Monday, November 14, 2005


The past long weekend we have been enjoying a break at the Banff Springs Hotel, located near Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

The weather has been cold but with a good amount of sunshine. As a result we have been out and about and managed three hikes, one of which was over 11 kilometers long. We also swam in an outdoor (heated) pool, ate great Canadian food and enjoyed the usual high standard of hospitality we have become accustomed to here in Alberta.

The Banff Springs Hotel has 770 rooms. It looks like an over-developed Scottish castle (it’s supposed to!) and commands a location above the town of Banff, surrounded by wonderful mountains, such as Cascade Mountain and Rundle Mountain. Although we had a disappointing welcome when we arrived (not the best of starts to what became a great weekend) things simply got better and better.

A lot of this was due to our local guides and hosts, Josslyn and Gordon. Josslyn showed us around on Friday, taking us first to Johnston Canyon, where we slipped and slid up and down an ice covered pathway (we have since purchased Yaktrax, slip on crampons that really work). The canyon is magical and the two waterfalls have an abundance of ice at this time of year. As we were leaving the upper waterfall a huge icefall occurred but too rapidly for us to turn round and capture on film.

We next ventured up the gondola to Sunshine, hoping to liaise with Gordon and the boys but the ski slopes were crowded on what was the first day of the new season and, despite cell phones, we managed to miss each other completely. Not being skiers it is hard for either of us to get too excited about ski resorts and with the crowds of skiers and boarders up there we were quite happy to return to the hotel and take a dip in the pool.

Actually the hotel has two pools. The indoor pool is heated to around 85ºF and has tremendous length – perhaps 35 meters. Great for a serious workout. The outdoor pool is h-h-h-hot. No matter how cold the air temperature is, you simply walk out the doors from the indoor pool and step down into hot water with steam wafting in the cold evening air. With the moon out over the top of Mount Rundle it was all quite stunning.

Dinner that night was a semi-formal affair in the Grill. Our company was expanded to six with Andrew and Mavis joining us from neighboring Canmore. We celebrated wedding anniversaries and birthdays and enjoyed a delicious repast.

Saturday dawned with clear skies and the opportunity for April and I to do our own thing. We stumbled on an 11 km trail up and down the Spray River. This was a real wilderness trail with fresh snow to mark our and a few others’ footsteps. At one point we were only the 3rd and 4th people along the trail. Meanwhile the rest of the world went about their shopping expeditions to downtown Banff!

We ended up in Banff for a late lunch/early supper, and then returned to the hotel and another session in the two pools.

Sunday turned out to have less good weather with some clouds obscuring the peaks. We had planned to ride the Banff Gondola but this seemed pointless so we checked out of the hotel and drove over to Lake Minnewanka. Here we took in the trail to Stewart Canyon while the sun tried very hard to break through the clouds. Soon several of the peaks were visible and we added Two Jacks and Johnson Lakes to our itinerary.

Finally we made the relatively easy drive back to Calgary in the late afternoon sunshine. A great weekend, lots of memories, many captured for posterity and soon to be uploaded to Flickr.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Oil Company Profits

As an oil industry professional with over 35 years experience, I baulk at the US Senate calling in the chiefs of the oil industry to have them explain their "huge" profits. The irony of this trial by committee is that the US Government has benefited enormously from corporate income tax revenue derived from these profits, not to mention the chunk of change they collect from every gallon of gas sold. Yet it is these politicians who seek to publicly deflect any criticism from themselves toward the industry.

It is not as though the oil industry always makes a profit. Not so long ago low oil prices funded several spurts of economic growth. The longest of these was during the Reagan years when low oil prices from 1983 to 1990 created the impetus for unbridled growth and greed. During that time real estate in places like San Francisco went on a rampage. In Houston there was a major slump in real estate (it could be argued there still is).

So it is reasonable to assert that the oil industry not only provides a major slice of tax revenue when it is profitable, but when it is not it is still supporting the economy at large. Sounds like a goose with the golden egg. Needless to say, the US Senate like killing geese just to demonstrate their power to the people they represent.

None of this is unique to the US. In the UK the North Sea has funded social programs for years, helping Margaret Thatcher to dig the economy out of its 1970s hole (not that she ever paid homage to that). In Canada it seems that Alberta's oil, gas and bitumen reserves are and will be the underpinnings of a huge socialist agenda. And in all cases the politicians just love to criticize the oil industry while reaping the benefits of their tax policies.

Postscript: The government worries about huge oil company profits in the order of billions of dollars; I worry about government spending in the order of trillions of dollars. In case those senators don't know it, one trillion is a thousand times larger than one billion!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Birthday Treats

Last night April took me out for a birthday treat dinner at a fine Calgary restaurant, The Tribune, on 8th Avenue. Excellent French cuisine and wines. A most enjoyable evening! They don't appear to have their own website but plenty of reviews come up on Google.

And while on the subject of birthdays, April also presented me with the opportunity to learn to fire and drive a real live steam engine! It will probably happen next March. I can hardly wait that long!

Going Deaf for a Fortnight

Check out this ongoing series of reviews of gigs in small Birmingham clubs/pubs.

Monday, November 07, 2005

You've received a greeting from a family member!

No, you haven't, even if it happens to be your birthday! There seems to be a new virus for Windows users going around and I'm surprised I hadn't heard about it. It's very clever in that who doesn't want to open a greetings card sent from a family member?

The key to understanding the deviousness of this e-mail comes with the rollover ability built into Apple's Mail program. When you mouse over a link in an e-mail, a window opens showing the actual link address:

So what appears to be an inocuous ".org" web address turns out to be from Romania and the links contains a downloadable ".exe" file. Fortunately for Apple users, ".exe" files don't work. I bet "pictures.exe" doesn't contain a greeting you would want to receive!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Technology Stocks

I've just spent a little time looking up the 12 month history of four technology stocks, Dell, Microsoft, Apple and Google. Of these only Google is "new" technology but Apple has been re-inventing itself lately with the iPod and iTunes concepts.

Investors in Apple and Google have seen 130% growth in value over the past year. It's interesting to note, however, that the two stocks have not moved hand in hand until August 2005. Both Dell and Microsoft have lost value. Looks like there is a sea change in technology stocks.

Sunday Morning

Saturday was a cold bright sunny day in Calgary. We walked out along the Bow River before returning to the downtown shopping mall to buy some essentials and then window shop the outdoor stores (great cold weather clothing as you might expect).

In the evening we were invited out to dinner at an incredibly good restaurant, the Bear's Den. The steaks are specially selected Alberta AAAA grade and they are unbelievably good. A big thank you to our hosts!

This morning we woke to a thin covering of snow on the car parks opposite the hotel. We had planned to have brunch in the Calgary Tower but with low clouds there doesn't seem to be much point! After six days of bright sunshine, such a pity that Sunday is clouded over.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Calgary Photo Set on Flickr

A few photos are up in a special set on Flickr. Expect more as we go into the weekend.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Calgary - bisons and routines

April took this yesterday while exploring Calgary.

This morning we woke up to a dusting of snow and slippery sidewalks. Now the sun is shining and there's not a cloud in the sky. Our routine looks like this: Up at 6, swim for half an hour, then breakfast (hearty Canadian style) before Paul goes off to work and April settles down to another day of exploration. At 5:30 or so we set off for an early supper. Hopefully we will take in a movie and do some other things in the evenings, but for now that is enough!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Second time this year, this time with April. Cold bright sunshine welcomed us as we stepped out for a short walk this afternoon. Photos will follow.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

More on Respect

The other afternoon we were out walking - a stiff work out really - when we came upon a rare sight in north Gloucestershire. A policeman in uniform!

He was intent on doing something - maybe attending to a call from a concerned citizen about the nearby school (which is enjoying half term andf therefore empty) - as he walked toward us.

He passed us by without any acknowledgment. Afterward we both expressed the same disappointment - he made absolutely no eye contact with us. Now in a busy city this might not be surprising but we were the only people anywhere near him. And he was not a new recruit (I would guess he was in his late 30s).

Why is this worth an entry? Well, our experience in Houston, Texas is that the police understand their role as public servants and make every effort to make contact with the public. If you are an honest citizen you get a freindly welcome or wave, certainly with plenty of eye contact. Here in the UK we feel that the police would rather not recognize us as their responsibility. This is most unfortunate as we really are on their side. Yes, we are!


The UK Government is hell bent on encouraging "respect" within society. It seems to me that there are currently two main interpretations of the word and they are at loggerheads with each other.

The traditional meaning of "respect" is a form of deference - in respect for others in society I will not engage in crime - that has the purpose of reminding each and every one of us that, for society to work, we must defer to the wishes of others when it makes sense to do so.

A more modern meaning of "respect" might find its roots in the song by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Here "respect" is a form of assertiveness - I am looking for your respect - that has the purpose of raising the status of the individual higher up the social ranking.

Is it possible that the Birmingham Riots of last weekend came about because of the misunderstanding of the word "respect" by the powers of authority (Birmingham City Council, the Police, the Government) on the one hand and the gangs rioting in the streets on the other hand?

To confuse the picture even more, the Government has set up a "Respect Unit" that reports directly to the Prime Minister. This committee has as its role the challenge of understanding and then combatting the anti-social elements of society that are making honest citizens' lives more and more miserable. But I wonder which of the above two definitions the Government is trying to implement.

The latest leaked statements from this "Respect Unit" suggest they are proposing a total ban on alcohol drinking on public transport. Having suffered the tribulation of the "last train home" ride on a few occasions I do understand where a total ban might be useful but it seems to me that this would be more than draconian.

For example, I remember traveling up to London a few months ago by train. In the same car were four ladies, smartly dressed, no doubt ready for a weekend in London, enjoying a glass of wine or two as they whiled away the miles and looked forward to what ever lay ahead. They were doing nothing wrong. In fact they brightened up my day, seeing four people so obviously enjoying themselves. But they will not be able to share that glass of wine if the "Respect Unit" has its way.

So, you might think that this is a small price to pay to gain security from lager louts? I think it's a very high price. I have never seen any form of the Law on a late night train (I don't think there is such a thing as Railway Police any more). Can we honestly expect that the Law will suddenly appear after the Government introduces a total ban on alcohol? I seriously doubt it. Perhaps we simply need the Law to be out there when they could do something about the problem, and they (the Law) could start to earn our deferential respect in the process.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

iPod with Video

No I haven't bought one. Not yet.

But I have been exploring ways in which an iPod with Video (its official name, not Video iPod) might work for me. One is to see how easy it would be to put an existing DVD video into iPod format. I've made some progress here but there are still several avenues to explore. The first thing was to test how good an iTunes episode of Lost is. It is surprisingly good, even when played back at 2x screen size using Quicktime 7. I did notice that the sound is sometimes out of sync after heavy use of the PowerBook during playback, but a simple pause-play double click brought everything back together. That is not a problem with the iPod since it doesn't multi-task.

Next, I took a DVD that had already been ripped to the hard drive using Mac the Ripper and then converted it to iPod format (320 x 240) using Handbrake. Both apps worked as advertized. The big question I now have is whether I should crop a widescreen format down to the iPod screen aspect ratio. Not owning an iPod I don't know whether the iPod can do this during playback, though one article I have read suggests it can.

The quality of the resulting mp4 video is good. It doesn't have the H264 compression advantage because I have heard that Handbrake's codec doesn't work with the iPod. A 2 hour movie weighs in around the size of a CD (Handbrake will actually optimize a conversion to fit a CD if you ask it to).

More experiments are in order.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Train Saga

Recently I have had some really good, positive experiences traveling by train in the UK. I was beginning to believe that the past is indeed history and that the new train operating companies have passed a watershed. Then came today's experience to prove that all is not as well as I had thought.

April decided to join me on a business trip in and out of London. We decided on the 9:20 a.m. from Moreton-in-Marsh. Just before we left the house I checked on the internet and the train was "on schedule". But by the time we reached the station, it had been cancelled, to be replaced by a bus to Oxford. This wasn't going to work, so we drove to Oxford. The queue at the ticket office was a mile long and a fast train to London came and went as we inched up the line to buy tickets. Finally we got our tickets and joined a slow stopping train with the recommendation to get off at Didcot and join a fast train from there on to London. Which we did. Except the fast train was running 30 minutes late. A minute before the train arrived we were told that the train was running backwards - first class to the rear instead of the front. So, with our cheap day returns we were in the wrong place.

It was at this point that I decided we were going to sit in first class. Which we did. The conductor (or whatever he's called in the UK) told us we would have to move. April suggested that we would be happy to move if he found us seats and carried our luggage. He said he couldn't do that. I explained again that we shouldn't even be on this train and finally asked what the extra cost would be for upgrading to first class. I also indicated that we would need full explanation of the charges and would quite possibly be sending in a letter of complaint.

This seemed to do the trick because all of a sudden he said "Did you say your train was cancelled? In that case stay right where you are, there will be no charge." All this heated conversation, by the way, took place in the first class "quiet zone"!

The journey home was less eventful but of course we had to get off at Oxford and drive a much longer journey home even though the train ticket was no less expensive.

I am going to wait a while longer before I get too excited about British trains!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Comic Life

This is an interesting and not entirely worthless Mac App. Basically you can load graphics (either hand drawn or as photos) and annotate them with all the usual comic style balloons and stylized "Wow"s. The interface is easy and export to pdf format makes the output easily accessible by others. The interesting aspect of preparing for Comic Life is that, if you are using photos (which I have to as I can't draw) then you have to think ahead and take specific photos - not only to strike the right pose but also space to accept the balloon. Empty space is important, just as in advertising!

Scanning "Tiles"

The HP 4670 scanner is a useful tool. Elsewhere I have written a detailed review of the device and I stand by some of the criticisms there (heavy, stiff cable; slow warm up; slight parallax, single voltage power supply, etc.). But for scanning large "bedsheet" maps this scanner beats all others. I have been scanning maps that are up to 63 inches by 78 inches (taking 56 separate scans) and then stitching the tiles together within Adobe Illustrator. The results are not bad at all.

Apple's October 2005 Keynote

Steve Jobs continues to rate as one of business' best leaders and self-promoters - promoting Apple, of course! Armed with an excellent visual and aural backup, his latest keynote address is superb. Stream it here (scroll down to the bottom of the page. The new iMac, the Video iPod and iTunes 6 are all introduced and demonstrated.

I am much impressed with the new Video iPod, so I downloaded an episode from Lost and I have to say that, for $1.99, the video clarity is excellent. One observation, however, is that the lip-sync can get out of sync if other memory hungry apps are used at the same time (on my PowerBook). Simply pausing the video brings everything back together.

You can buy a 7 DVD set of Lost's first season for around £25 in the UK. iTunes charges $35 for the complete season download. That's about a wash. The difference with iTunes is that you can download each new episode the day after it airs in the US. I am not sure if UK iTunes offers the same deal.

Who are the winners here? The consumer gets more choice. Apple, the deliverer of new technolocy, gets to sell more stuff (and give away more free software which helps to sell more stuff) while Disney has a new pipeline for its creative products. Expect other creative sources to follow Disney's example.

And the losers? Advertisers, their agencies, traditional networks, etc. Expect the BBC to demand an increase in license fee because no-one watches regular TV any more!

So the 60 Gig Video iPod looks like it's going to figure on my wish list!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Our new office!

Hot off the press - the new office in Pointe Noire.

Friday, October 21, 2005

No Aviation Fuel!

I am leaving Congo tonight. The Air France flight is departing early but will arrive in Paris late. Hmm. Why? Well, even though Pointe Noire is the oil center of the country and has a refinery, there is no aviation fuel available at the airport. So the flight will take off and then land at the capital, Brazzaville, to top up the tanks before heading for Europe.

Air Conditioning

The window unit in my hotel room here in Pointe Noire is suffering from being so close to the ocean. The case is rusting away and last evening the fan started to come loose, wobbling and clicking against the condenser coils. So I switched it off and slept the better for it. Not just the lack of noise but also the fact that the room was comfortably warm rather than shivering cold.

It seems that a lot of air conditioner thermostats simply don't work. As a result the unit is either on all the time or else it's off because you switch it off before frostbite develops and eliminates your extremities. The best example of this was in Venezuela where the office unit developed a temperature that could freeze sides of beef. We used to take fleeces to work to keep warm! And this near sea level a few degrees north of the equator. The alternative was to step outside every hour to warm up in the hot humid atmosphere.

Is air conditioning good for you? Probably not, in that the air is recirculated and germs get to visit every space on a regular basis. The continual noise of window units is an aggravation while the blast of cold air can cause sudden chill downs that might lead to common colds being even more common. On the other hand, when it's really hot and humid and your car is parked out in the sun, air conditioning becomes a godsend. It also allows driving to be a lot more peaceful than when having the windows open, particularly on a busy highway.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Pointe Noire

That's where I am at the moment, on the Atlantic Coast of the Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Congo-Kinshasa, which used to be Zaire and before that the Belgian Congo. Confused?

Pointe Noire has a strong French colonial heritage and there are many excellent French restaurants here. The seafood is, as you might expect, excellent!

I'm also entering this just to make sure that I can, so let's press the publish button. . . .

Sunday, October 16, 2005


That's it, we've moved all of the "In The News" items from This new interactive weblog format is also linked from the main page, as is our focalplane flickr.

Friday, October 07, 2005

"Focalplane" has opened a Flickr account

Son Pete has had one for quite a while and today I decided to join the fraternity of Flickrs. The system is interesting if a bit quirky at times but the basics are well explained and there are some nifty uploading tools. I have decided to limit all uploads to a maximum dimension of 800 pixels. This gives a good image but not one worth stealing for a 10" x 8" print!

The future for looks to change now that Flickr and Blogger have indicated their potential roles for the future. This site might become more of a static showcase (portfolios and travelogues) while Flickr can handle images and Blogger can handle weblog opinions. So far I have only got one blog going and that is busy demonstrating how bad science has dominated the debate on climate change.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The "Family Heirloom"

Yesterday I drove up to Bourneville (the chocolate box suburb of Birmingham where Cadbury has their factory and model village) to deliver my 29 year old Nikon F2 AS to Pete. His account of the event is worth reading here.

Pete explains better than I why I'm lending him the F2. The F2 is probably one of the best loved profesional camera designs ever made and has certainly been used in the hands of many great professional photographers.

This F2 has had an interesting career. I bought it in Singapore in 1976 as an upgrade to my Nikkormat that I had bought around 1972 (probably at the time Pete was born). I had worked offshore on a drill ship and earned enough extra "danger money" to pay for the F2 and a new standard lens. I also convinced myself that it would be useful for doing geological fieldwork in Indonesia - a fact that became very true when I dropped it momentarily in a river and it came up working just fine!

I used to shoot with Kodachrome and have all the slides stored in archival containers. An interesting collection! I also used Sakura color negative film and these negatives have not fared so well.

During the 1980s I rarely used the camera but it started to come into its own again in the 1990s when I used it as a work tool when consulting in places like India, Colombia, etc. I also used it exclusively to document a six week field work project in Tunisia in 1993, taking around 50 rolls of color negative film.

By the end of the 1990s I suddenly woke up to the fact that the F2 was an old camera! But I really did not like many of the new polycarbonate bodied offerings. Eventually I saved up enough to buy a new F5 (the natural successor to the F2 via the F3 and F4) and this has been my main tool since (although these days I probably take more digital photos than film, using the Fuijifilm S7000.

The F5 is a superb camera but when it came to spending time in Venezuela, and hearing about the crime level I might expect, out came the F2 again.

Yesterday Pete and I reviewed the relatively simple workings of the camera and we could not help to laugh about the extreme simplicity of the user's manual, a tiny book that has everything in it to set you up. The camera is a joy to use and has a number of features (such as mirror lock, depth of field preview) that are no longer offered on many expensive modern cameras. The light meter still works and is the only part of the camera dependent upon batteries. The lens that goes with it is a second hand 28mm F2.8 wide angle AIS lens (i.e. one that doesn't have a CPU chip in it) and while this is theoretically one of Nikon's best lenses, there is a blemish on the rear lens element surface that tends to soften the images. Even so, this combination of camera and lens took the following picture in Eastern Venezuela, using Fuji Astia color slide film on a dull day in the mountains:

The next image is a blow up of a flower hanging above the three ladies:

Here's an image from the 1970s, a scan from a Kodachrome slide taken in 1976 in Bryce Canyon, Utah:

I am not sure of the lens used but is was either the 50mm f2 standard or the 35mm f3.5 wide angle. Either way the lens complements the extreme low grain capability of Kodachrome.
Next an example using the most color saturated film on the market, Fuji Velvia. This was taken in 1999 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after a blizzard had blown through the night before. The sky really is that color in Santa Fe!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hurricane Rita Approaches has been down since the evacuation of Houston started - no doubt a security measure to safeguard the servers from flooding (they are located on the ground floor of a building in southwest Houston).

So this is being written and saved before I can upload it, (connection restored 3:00 a.m. GMT September 25).

Rita follows hot on the heels of Katrina and, no doubt because memories of haunting images have been retained, both the authorities and the public have more than heeded the dangers. This led to a mass evacuation that has shown that it is impossible to move two million people out of a city in an orderly fashion even when some of the best surface infrastructure is in place (i.e. the inter-state freeway system). Houston is a dynamic city that thrives on hard work and "making something happen" in marked contrast to the "Big Easy" party city 350 miles to the east. So it is not surprising that, with immediate memories of Katrina and a more organized infrastructure, the exodus went well enough (at least until that bus exploded). As Ted Koppel on ABC Nightline (see iTunes for the Podcast) has pointed out, this exodus was given the luxury of time. A potential direct hit biological weapon could not allow for so orderly a procession.

Hindsight is always 20/20 vision and it was good for Galveston and Houston that the storm drifted to the northeast. Not good for the Sabine Pass area, of course. The key with this is, however, that Houston's infrastructure remains intact to help the region as a whole recover and that would include New Orleans. But there was clearly something wrong with the mass evacuation of people who do not live in flood prone areas and were not instructed to leave town. Katrina shares the blame in this, but stories about inaccurate media coverage have surfaced that suggest the media exaggerated the congestion on the freeways up to 24 hours after the freeways were clear.

We followed Eric Berger's weblog on the Houston Chronicle website. Excellent factual reporting, sharing of information and personal color. I don't often praise the "Chronical" but in this case they did an excellent job.

The double headache now hanging over the area is rain and flooding of the Trinity River and other valleys in East Texas/West Louisiana and how exactly all and when all the evacuees are going to get home again. In many cases they will return to homes without electricity and some damage (our house was without electricity for 12 days after the 1983 Category 3 Alicia).

Liberal newspapers in the UK have suggested some totally irresponsible headlines about the recent hurricanes. To whit, the Independent. You have to pay to read the entire article but it's not worth the money. Much better (believe it or not) to read this article on the BBC website. It's free, scientifically sound and as accurate as you can be about such matters.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

The devastation that has hit Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is mind-numbing. Having experienced a Category 4 Hurricane (Alicia in 1982) and the damage it caused in Houston, even more personal damage by Hurricane Jerry in Galveston in 1989 and most recently the flooding that resulted from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, my heart goes out to those who have suffered personal loss as a result of Katrina.

As always, questions need to be asked but the answers are hard to come by. Just like San Francisco and the San Andreas Fault, New Orleans has been a disaster waiting to happen. Because humans have this strange collective belief that we are bigger than Mother Nature, we continue to flout common sense and put down roots in places that we shouldn't. The experience of Galveston in 1900 should have been taken on board by federal, state and city planners all around the Gulf of Mexico (as well as the Atlantic seaboard). 105 years later, along comes Katrina to remind us just how fallible we humans are.

This is bad enough until you realize that the areas most prone to disaster always seem to be the areas where the poorest citizens live. This was certainly the case with the flooding by Allison and I would guess that the same applies with New Orleans today. It is a sad fact that so many people could not leave New Orleans as they either had no transport or there was none available. Conditions at the Superdome sounded absolutely horrendous - and remember many of those inside were elderly and infirm.

Will New Orleans survive? Perhaps it shouldn't, but try telling that to the people who live there. Will the federal aid go to making the city a safer place? Probably not. Will the planners and developers remember the terrible truth when they next sit down to carve up a new development out of swamp land? I doubt it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Why introduce identity cards for a nation with no identity?

I read the Daily Telegraph (paper or on-line, whichever comes to hand easier) and in particular seek out the opinions of Mark Steyn, a journalist based in New York but with a keen insight to Britain and the British. His column today carries a stinging commentary on the way in which multiculturalism has managed to wipe out peoples' identities. Worth reading, IMO, but you may have to register first.

I have always found multiculturalism a paradox. Its aim is to make us all feel the same, yet to do so it provides the means to stress that we're all different. Equal Opportunity Employment policy is a good example - rather than hire the best person for the job, we must satisfy quotas. Hence the sort of comment "Well, they hired Ms X because she's black, not because she's any good at what she does" which in itself is a terrible thing to say but if its true then no-one wins, least of all Ms X.

My solution is for us all to be color, faith and gender blind. Take people for what they are, not for what you want them to be. Never easy, never fooproof, but a whole lot better than enforced multiculturalism.

[steps down from soap box]

Friday, July 08, 2005

Report from London - The journey home

I decided to leave early to avoid the inevitable rush hour crush. So, at 4 p.m. I set off across Green Park and then Hyde Park to Paddington. Nearly all the journey was in open green space, something I had not really understood before. Fortunately the wet weather of the morning gave way to warm sunshine, helping along the many others who were doing without public transport in the Zone 1 area of Central London.

At Paddington the indicator boards told a familiar story - many services cancelled, the rest delayed. The next train on the North Cotswold Line was delayed, but then up came the platform number, a few passengers boarded and we were off. A nearly empty train didn't seem right at all, given the numbers that would be traveling later.

This train was a "slow" train so it made more stops than usual. By the time we arrived in Oxford the train was taken out of service because a fast train was right behind (an ironic twist to the saying that you wait for a London bus for half an hour and then three show up). So, after waiting five minutes, in came the fast train, loaded to the vestibules. We climbed aboard and made it home.

A stiff Scotch seemed appropriate as I called family to say I was home.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Report from London

I have been in London this week. Last evening my hotel was full so I went home for the night, returning on the 7:11 train that arrived in Paddington Station just before 9 a.m. As is usual I aimed for the underground (Bakerloo Line) and joined the streams of commuters going to work in Central London. The second stop was Edgware Road and (though I may have imagined this) I seem to remember a strong smell resembling burning brakes. Only when I arrived in the West End did I find out there had been a series of bombs, including one at Edgware Road but on the shallower Metropolitan Line.

Now I'm stuck here as all public transport is shut down and taxis are like hens teeth. I did flag one down for a colleague going to Calgary via Heathrow and he was happy to take someone out of the city (but not apparently within the city). So I am not sure how I will get to Paddington later this afternoon. And even then I am not sure that there will be any trains.

The scary part of all this has been that the communications we take for granted have all just about collapsed: not only the trains and buses but also the cell phone networks, many key web sites, and of course the emergency services are entirely focused on what they have to do. The not so scary part is just how well the general public has reacted to all this. A stoical sftiff upper lip. Churchill would be proud.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

If Live 8 isn't your thing. . . .

Personally, I doubt if Live 8 will do more than create temporary awareness - for just about as long as the G8 leaders are meeting together. Once they've parted company, we'll be back to the same old same old.

So what to do this weekend? Here are a few of recommendations: First, play any CD in the Putumayo World Music catalog. This is a company that actually encourages Third World musicians (unlike the Live 8 organizers who felt that they needed "big names" rather than less well known African musicians). Second, play one of the three albums by the Afro Celts Sound System - again, music that supports African musicians, in this case from Guinea/Senegal. David Byrne and Peter Gabriel also well known supporters of African music on a day to day basis so their music is also OK with me for this occasion!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

iTunes podcasting takes off

Yesterday, Apple released iTunes 4.9 and with it the ability to download podcasts from a large directory of choices. This is going to be revolutionary. All of the podcast downloads so far are free and, naturally, none contain distributed copyright material. Podcasts can be submitted to Apple for inclusion in their directory but Apple will have the right not to publish a podcast if it so chooses.

This has the BBC (of all people) up in arms. Rather than embrace what Apple is doing, the Beeb stressed the negative to a point that is ludicrous - the Beeb is also very careful not to distribute copyrighted material! Possible envy?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Olivia enjoying Beer

Grandaughter Olivia had her first taste of Beer last week while we were in Devon. The historical fishing port of Beer is a most attractive small town nestled between chalk cliffs with a pebble beach and clear water. Here she is:

Friday, June 24, 2005

East Devon redux - a wonderful break in the sunshine

How did we manage it? Six nights under canvas in East Devon and it never rained but the sun shone just about all day every day. And on the 22nd we never saw a cloud at all! Who needs to drive all the way to the Mediterranean when its weather patterns occasionally move north?

Most days were spent on Weston Mouth beach. At first the water was quite cool but as the days continued to be warm and the pebbles heated up during low tides the ocean gradually warmed until we were swimming without any "immersion shock" at all. The rock pools at both ends of the bay were most interesting at low tide, while the clarity of the water was just as good as on any white sand beach in the tropics.

It is interesting to observe how such "heatwaves" are celebrated by the media. Pretty girls in bikinis are always good front page material, even in the "quality dailies". I thought Radio 2 had an interesting if slightly bizarre line on the weather during the afternoon of the first hot day of the year - how are you struggling to keep cool? - in my case I had to admit that the pleasant warmth of the sun on my aching lower back felt far too good to complain about! (FWIW the back pain has completely gone). For the first time since October 2004 I feel warm.

So how will this past week impact the politics of global warming? It will possibly stoke a few flames under Tony Blair's manic desire to control global warming while President of the G8. However, I would hazard a guess that the actual weather in Gleneagles will have a far more influential impact on the politicians' rhetoric. Scotland has not been enjoying a lot of good weather lately (according to the weather forecasts, at least) so if this pattern continues, expect African aid to jump to the forefront.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

OS X Tiger - First Impressions

I had heard that Tiger (10.4) is faster than Panther (10.3). I believe it is. It also seems to run hotter on my PowerBook 15" as the fan runs a lot more than it did with Panther. That shouldn't be a problem as I use a Podium Pad to raise the base of the machine off my desk.

Spotlight works as advertized but it doesn't seem to be able to access Quicken files, which is a pity. It is incredibly fast and can sort the results in a variety of ways.

Widgets are interesting but. . . so what! I will probably use a few of them. One, Rabbit Radio, looks interesting but it doesn't keep connected. Others (like Rabbit Radio) are USA oriented. Weather for London, as an example, turns out to be London West Virginia (which seems to have a better summer!). The flight tracker has its positioning option disabled (no doubt for security reasons).

Others have commented on Mail's new interface and I agree - it sucks. But there are some other new features that are useful.
RSS feeds are now available on Safari but I shall keep using NetNewsWire as it has a better interface.

Sync works very differently - a total rethink is needed by the user who is familiar with the old Sync application. I have not tried to sync my phone yet but again I have a third party tool that works fine.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Apple Update

Good news and bad news. Both hard drives in the G4 Tower have gone bad - at once. I had not used the G4 Tower for a couple of weeks as the mouse's cord was fraying. So, when I went to boot up, I got the folder with a question mark on it. I guessed that the boot drive might have go corrupted so I went out and bought a new mouse and OS X 1.4 Tiger.

Tiger is loaded on my PowerBook and it seems to be a good upgrade (I am even now upgrading to 10.4.1). The widgets will take some getting used to (many seem to be rather gimmicky) while Spotlight is incredibly fast.

My work around for the G4 was to load OS X Tiger on a firewire hard drive coupled to the PowerBook. This then allowed me to boot up the G4. A quick look at disk utility confiormed that one drive was failing the other has failed. Luckily no data is lost as the G4 is basically our backup computer.

So I guess I need to buy another hard drive. . . .

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Apple WWDC Keynote Address features the Bullring!

That's Steve Jobs at lower left, showing a representative of one of the 109 Apple Stores. Guess what! It's in Birmingham! To view this most interesting one hour presentation (lovefest) click here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The "Apple switches to Intel" thang

Well, yesterday surprised half the Apple audience and confirmed the rumors circulating among the other half. Steve Jobs announced that Apple will switch from IBM Power PC chips to Intel Pentium chips over the next two years. On the face of it, I would suggest that there will be short term problems of sales but in the long run Apple will win more market share and provide a better computing experience for it's users.

But there is a dark side. The new Intels chips will have the ability to control the copying of files. If computers are going to be digital hubs, then Hollywood is insisting that users will not be able to copy downloaded videos. The new chips will actually make computers a lot less personal, transfering controls away from the user. We can expect a lot more licensing, a lot less outright purchasing of data (which would include movies, music, programs, etc.)

Does this matter? Yes and no. Yes because the concept of the Personal Computer is to be eroded, giving control to people who have not traditionally been at the forefront of technological understanding (Hollywood). No because the rights of creative people need to be protected (yet creative people actually gain very little from copyrighted sales as the middle men actually steal much of the revenue stream).

Using music as an example, a recent interview on KCRW's Sounds Eclectic had Elvis Costello explaining that he no longer needs a record label ("They're history but they don't know it"). Of course, he has over 300 "songs" that will keep him in royalties for the rest of his life, so what does he care? Actually, he does care because he sees advantages for the Indies as well. And he may be right.

So we may have to put up with DRM (Digital Rights Management) and we may be pleased to see that the digital revolution could provide us with cheaper entertainment with the bulk of the revenue actually passing through to the creative artists. That would be good. Perhaps I'm being too optimistic but time will tell.
As for our household, we are not planning to replace our Macs for two years anyway. So we will probably be in the market for a new Intel processor Mac as they debut.

One other thought: If Apple has written an OS that works with Intel processors, could it be loaded on other PC brands, such as Dell or HP? And if so, would it start to erode Microsoft's huge Windows advantage? Some analysts are suggesting that Linux will be the big loser here. Personally I think Linux will always be marginal - in the hands of the geeks - so there is a good chance that users who want a stable platform might consider loading OS X (if it's practicable).

Monday, June 06, 2005

Vintage Trains

Vintage steam trains will once again be a weekend sight between Birmingham and Stratford-uon-Avon. This is due to the presence of the Birmingham Railway Museum Trust, based at the old Tyseley engine sheds. Unlike most preservation lines, the Shakespeare and Bullring Expresses run on the national railway network and therefore serve more than a large dose of nostalgia.

While visiting the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway (GWR) preservation line a few weeks ago, we were told that there is the possibility that one day steam trains could run from the center of Birmingham, through Stratford and onto the original GWR, all the way to Cheltenham Racecourse. This will take a lot of effort because half of the track between Stratford and Cheltenham has been lifted and some of the permanent way has been made over to a relief road bypass as well as a cycle track (the Greenway).

The GWR has rights to all the trackbed where rails have been lifted and is busily extending its single line track north from Toddington to Broadway. This will take a few years. Next it will have to extend to Long Marston, crossing the Cotswold Line at Honeybourne (once a junction station). There are tracks at Long Marston (a disused military warehouse). Then the trackbed becomes the Greenway and I am sure there will be those who will fight long and hard to give back their rural cycleway (understandably).

The Greenway ends on the outskirts of Stratford where the old trackbed has been incorporated into the southern relief road. Seven Meadows Road appears to have completely taken up the right of way between two roundabouts (it's the north-south piece of this road). Then the old track bed serves as a public footpath before entering Stratford Station and the present day "end of the line".

Stratford Council (local government) is supporting the expansion of the vintage train service. They have made land available for a turntable at Stratford Station (at the moment the steam locomotives have to travel backwards on the outward leg of the journey) as well as full steam engine facilities. For the longer term, if the GWR can continue to expand, Stratford may be prepared to open up the Greenway and allow a single track to run down the center of Seven Meadows Road! Now that would be interesting. In theory we would then be able to take a train from nearby Broadway all the way to Birmingham Moor Street Station, just like the old days!

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Quicktime 7 and the H.264 codec

Quicktime 7 has been out for some time (for the Mac, Windows users must wait a while longer) and with it the new H.264 compression codec. The few demonstration videos available on Apple's site are quite simply amazing. This is the future of downloadable video. With a basic broadband connection it should be possible to buy or rent movies and download them (not in real time, perhaps, though this is possible) for viewing. Perhaps the iMovie Store is coming soon to a web site near you? Steve Jobs did say, earlier this year, that 2005 is the year of HD (High Definition Video).

Well, I can't wait for this to happen but I will probably need to splash out on one of those nice LCD digital monitors to take full advantage of the technology.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Dutch double it: Non and Nee

So nearly two thirds of the Dutch electorate who voted (and nearly two thirds did vote) have joined the majority of French voters in turning their backs on the European Constitution. As a result, the UK is now unlikely to hold a referendum, confirming that the constitution in its present form is dead in the water. This despite the fact that several country's parliaments have already ratified the constitution.

This adds support to the theory that there is a massive disconnect between electorate and politicians. I am sure that the governments of both France and the Netherlands believed that their referenda would be simple rubber stamps. That the electorate saw otherwise demonstrates the disparity. Politicians no longer serve the electorate in many (most, all) European countries.

If the powerful Euro-elites really believed in democracy, they would have proposed a Europe wide referendum on the same day when all would vote without reference to what might happen before or after in other countries. This would have brought about a feeling of uniformity without the option to blame other countries for their actions. Clearly the elites are either stupid in not thinking of this or they are so arrogant that they didn't expect the outcome they now have.

One British europhile (UK Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, paid a handsome salary plus expenses to live in Brussels) stated that the French and Dutch need to rethink their position with regard to Europe. A good example of both arrogance and stupidity (for saying aloud what was best kept silent). It is time the highly paid and in most cases unelected Eurocrats rethink their positions with regard to Europe.

So, what would I recommend? As an outsider I have to say that I liked the original EEC a lot more than the current EU. All about trade, much less about politics. And I think that is what the French and the Dutch people were thinking, as well. As founder nations they have been through the entire gamut and therefore have experienced the changes better than those who joined later.

The Euro has taken a bashing and Italy is now talking about reverting to the Lira. I like the concept of a common currency but it clearly doesn't work for everyone (Britain's economy would be in the toilet had it joined the Euro, as it is it is doing quite well). In retrospect the Euro was a grand design of the Germans and French to merge their future crises with the rest of Europe - it gave their politicians a breathing space. But now Chirac and Schroeder are gasping for air and a lack of oxygen will cause more bad decisions before it is all over.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Birmingham in 1553

Yesterday we spent another interesting day in Brum, ending up with a CBSO concert at Symphony Hall where we were joined by Pete. A long but stimulating day that was centered on a visit to the Jewellery Quarter. More details of this have already been uploaded to the Travelogue section. In two parts, this photo essay traces my roots in the area and then reveals some details of the various properties where the old family business has operated since 1922.

The concert was basically excellent though none of us enjoyed Tippett's piano concerto. But in reality we had bought tickets for the other two items on the program: Vaughan Williams Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. A combination of great playing, superb conducting and the superior acoustics of Symphony Hall etched these pieces permanently in my grey matter! If you haven't experienced the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the Symphony Hall, and you live within reach of Birmingham, you really should go!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Non! 55% Oui! 45%

So, the French Referendum on the proposed Constitution for Europe has resulted in a decisive victory for its opponents. The reasons for this are many and are complex, so it is difficult, if not impossible to provide a quick, simple rational explanation as to what is going on.

However, I would suggest that the Non! vote stems from a simple distrust of the European Elite who for too long have ignored democracy (and who will attempt to ignore this negative result as well, if they allowed to). Their "turmoil" is the realization that they are actually servants of the people, not the people's masters!

Friday, May 27, 2005

I've been phished

I just received an e-mail from PayPal, informing me that my account has been accessed and that I have three days to confirm my details or the account will be blocked. I went to the link:

and it certainly looked like PayPal's web page. All the menus worked, but then I noticed something odd. The link above is not but So I did a WHOIS and it came up blank - no known address!

So I next went to and it certainly looked the same. This time WHOIS came up with a legitimate owner - PayPal.

One more check confirmed the phish. I went to the rogue link (the one above) and clicked on a menu item. Sure enough the URL changed to Then, when I clicked back to the welcome page, it took me to the official home.

This is a very clever attempt at obtaining personal information in that it would be very easy to overlook the URL.

Oh, yes, one other reason I was suspicious. I DON'T HAVE A PAYPAL ACCOUNT!!!!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

East Devon Weekend

We spent the weekend camping in East Devon - our third trip there this year. Summer still hasn't arrived, which explains why we've quoted an old saying above. More rain and wind than we would care to suffer from under canvas but in between the showers we got in a couple of walks along the "Triassic Coast"

Actually the official name for this coastline is the Jurassic Coast, but as there is no Jurassic in the area, we've renamed our favorite stretch of the heritage coast. The coastal towns of Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth are surrounded by red cliffs, ranging from coarse pebble beds to fine clays with gypsum, all deposited in an arid desert environment. The photo above is of Sidmouth from near Ladrum Bay. The combes of Salcombe and Weston are just about visible to the right of the town, separated by cliffs that are around 500 feet high.

This photo shows the mouth of the River Otter, immediately east of Budleigh Salterton. The river was in full flood following several days of rain and a band of red sediments can be seen flowing out to sea. The mouth of the river is located between a red cliff and a huge pebble bar. The next photo shows the view to the west from on top of the red cliff. The pebbles are all derived fom the cliffs in the distance, carried by currents in front of the Otter valley, forming a large area of salt marsh that is now a nature reserve. We were both surprised to see a white egret feeding in the river - a reminder of Texas!

Friday, May 20, 2005

Explained: why we no longer see the police

The news today was the acquittal of a police officer who was caught speeding on a Motorway in Shropshire. He was "only" doing 159 mph. Reason for speeding: testing out his new car. Reason for acquittal: benefit of the doubt.

Howls of protest from the public who are regularly photographed exceeding the limit by a few mph, fined and given three points toward a possible loss of license. But I liked the comment in the Letters to the Editor column whereby a citizen remarked that the reason we don't see police officers on the street any more is because they're travelling too fast to notice!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

BT Revisited

Back in early April we had a problem with our landline telephone supplier, BT. They sent out a bill, over-charging us for internet services. As reported on these pages, we called them (three times) and e-mailed them (twice, plus a customer service questionnaire). They were supposed to rectify the bill and resend it. Well, they didn't. Instead they suspended our phone service. A thirty minute call to the Indian Call Center resulted in no progress as the various departments they contacted all refused to deal with the problem. So I suggested BT call me and in the meantime remove the block on outgoing calls. Five hours later - Nothing has happened. Watch this space for continuing developments.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Google Adsense on all Travelogues

It didn't take too long to customize and install adsense onto all the pages in the Travelogue section. Initially some of the pages had generic "public service" ads but by this morning they were all keyed into the subject material. In some cases, for example, Asia in the 1970s, the ads seem to reflect Dubai only, possibly because Dubai features early on in the story line. I wonder if there is a way to tweak the Googlebots into certain directions? But if the Googlebots only see the first few lines of a page, that might be useful in that an adsense table at the top of this page would reflect the content of the most recent post. Worth a try. See what happens above!

Olivia with her Nan

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Not Enough Time!

Life seems to be getting busier these days. It doesn't help that the recent journey through Heathrow caused me to throw my back out of whack (lifting bag and carrying it up two escalators) where it remains, despite whiskey, analgesics and being careful.
But a few things have come across my path that seem to be worth commenting on:

Apple's success in recent months has the stock market in turmoil. Many analysts just can't believe that the company has had a major turnaround and prefer to believe in a doomsday scenario that states "Yahoo entering the music download scene is hurting the competition". But wait a minute, Apple stands to make very little on iTunes song sales - think of the 400 million sold so far as a loss leader for promoting iPod and the Apple multi-media in general. Then, today, Bill Gates weighs in with his opinion that iPods are a flash in the pan. I don't doubt that they are, Bill, but why are you so busy talking down Apple and not saying anything important about your own company? Let me guess: there is very little to say, what with Longhorn still 18 months away while Apple OS X Tiger is already on sale.

No we haven't installed OS X Tiger yet, but the reports suggest that we should without delay.

The early English summer is stalled for the moment - cold northerly winds today but with them some sunshine.

Post election blues seem to have me depressed. Another 4 years of spin and nanny state politics. And now Europe is trying to force us to limit working hours to 48 a week. Hard work never hurt anybody and the bills do get paid a bit quicker!

It dawned on me this week that our reviews on could be better placed on, together with Google adsense advertising as a potential revenue stream. So far we've made $40 in nearly three years on Not exactly lucrative.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Which Airport is Worse?

I use both London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle airports and after an experience at Heathrow this morning I have decided that it's the London hub that takes the prize. It took 1-1/2 hours to deplane, go through immigration and find the correct bus stop for the off-airport parking bus. And I was fast-tracked through immigration and had only carry on luggage! So what happened?

First the plane had to wait 15 minutes for a free gate ( but that doesn't count toward the time spent at Heathrow as we were, in fact 15 minutes early from Calgary). Then we deplaned to find ourselves blocked by a locked door that, interestingly, had a sign over it saying "Emergency Exit". An Airbus 330-200 carries about 200 passengers so imagine the consequences of being confined by a locked door in a narrow jetway corridor should there be a fire. Eventually a man appears, blaming "them" for not having unlocked the doors earlier.

Next, the walk to immigration. Two escalators, both broken.

Immigration. For me, this was easy, but the queues for economy passengers were horrendous. And all this after a transcontinental flight. Welcome to Britain. Baggage carousels looked hectic but I didn't have to stop to investigate. Travel light whenever you can.

And so to find the correct bus stop for the car park. No pickups at Terminal 3, go to Terminal 2. The signposted route went underground and again one of two escalators was broken. Long tunnels went this way and that, visiting the tube station, the bus station and the chapel before finally emerging at Terminal 2. Which turns out to be situated right next to Terminal 3!

And so to the offf-site airport parking by shuttle bus. Total time from plane to car, 90 minutes. Total time to drive from parking to home (80 miles), 90 minutes.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In Calgary after a gap of fifteen years

In some ways this Canadian outpost on the Prairie has not changed a bit, in others it has kept up with progress. My hotel has 1970s decor and no internet (it wasn't anyone's first choice!) while some restaurants (such as Caesar's steak house) look unchanged. But there are new buildings and plenty of new company names due to a high merger rate among Canadian oil companies. The Rockies are still there on the western horizon and the people are as friendly as ever.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

More issues with the new cell phone - but there's a solution!

This incredibe all bells and whistles phone may be great, I'm just not sure yet. As an example, I decided to sync part of my address book on the PowerBook using first Bluetooth, then USB. I could not make either work. What is more, it would appear that many cell phones are not compatible with Apple's iSync software and, naturally, the one I bought isn't. (But it may be included in OS 10.4 Tiger).

Google to the rescue (how many times a month do we say that?). I discovered I am not the first and won't be the last to have such problems. Fortunately a $10 shareware program exists - called OnSync - that not only allowed me to communicate using Bluetooth but also had really good blow by blow instructions for setting up a Bluetooth device. Money well spent, because the whole lot was going back to the store!

Technology - a Necessary Evil?

The purchase of a new cell phone (called a mobile in the UK) has me reflecting on this technological age we live in. I need a cell phone. Unfortunately. I can think of few things worse than listening to someone talking loudly into a cell phone on the train, inflicting other passengers with a one-sided conversation that means nothing, sounds worse and sets all around on edge. Don't these people realize that they don't have to shout into a telephone?

For me, the experience of selecting, buying and learning how to use a cell phone is a nightmare. Too much technology in too small a space. Too many bells and whistles I have to have because I need but a few of them. No, I didn't want a phone camera (I have a much better digital camera, thank you). No, I didn't want to play mp3s while waiting for a call to come through. No, I didn't want a hands free module (well, I do because it's the law, see picture above). No, I don't think I need to send e-mails and browse the 'net (that's what I have a laptop for). Etc. Etc.

What I do need is a phone (1) that will work anywhere in the world (in theory), (2) is compact and (3) is easy to learn to use. I have managed to score a difficult near 100% on (1), 100% on (2), and about 25% on (3).

It didn't help that the service provider gave me the wrong telephone number and then texted that number with an upgrade to its SIM (now there are two phones screwed up!). The manual is clearly aimed at 20 year old cell phone geeks, or is it that I have been spoiled by Apple Computer intuitivity for the past 15 years? Does anyone else share a bad cell phone experience?

BTW, the phone takes photos, plays music and videos and a whole lot more I am reluctant to talk about for fear of rising blood pressure. Consumerism is supposed to be good for the soul if not the checkbook? Not any more.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Back in Campden

Been a Rambling Man for a while (recommend Lemon Jelly's song as an accompaniment to this entry). Good to be back in Camden tho' there was some excitement while overseas, more of which later.

A number of items to catch up on:

The Apple Store Bullring (Birmingham) opens this Friday at 6 p.m., to coincide with the release of OSX Tiger (10.4).
The iPod Shuffle is a great travel companion.

I need a cell/mobile phone and choosing the phone and the plan is proving to be near impossible - I cannot be categorized as your average mobile phone user, apparently. That is, I am older than 18, I don't want to use the phone a lot, I am not interested in cameras, music, ringtones, games or style.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Pete Radio

The catholic musical taste(s) of my son Pete are broader than the keyboard on a grand piano. His first seven podcasts are available from Pete Radio Podcast Central. Although I can't say I like everything, the mixes are well thought out and you get that "I wonder what's next?" feeling as each song comes to an end.

Podcasting and mp3j-ing have taken off since the beginning of the year. Already 6 million Americans (of all ages) have downloaded at least one podcast. In most cases, musical podcasts are no different from an earlier genre of making a mix tape or CD to share with friends. They are not so much an exercise in sharing music as sharing musical taste. The record companies (once again, there goes the anachronism as they don't make records any more!) should understand that such podcasts are not a threat to business but a great way to promote their product by "word of mouth".

For example, I really enjoyed one track on Pete's Podcast 6 so I switched to the iTunes music store and downloaded the entire album. In another case I downloaded only the track I liked, leaving the rest of the album untouched. This method of getting out the message is just about the only way I am going to hear new music because I rarely listen to broadcast radio in the UK. And the record (sic) company and the artist have benefited from my purchase.

My local record store is 16 miles from home. Thus I am unlikely to go there just to buy an album (which knowing my luck wouldn't be in stock anyway). So surfing iTunes is a much easier and more cost effective way to shop.

Monday, April 04, 2005

BT Sucks

Last week we received our first quarterly bill for the broadband service that started in January. Before we received it we actually got a call from BT (India call center) asking us why we hadn't paid the bill. We next tried to explain that the bill was in error as we are still being charged for dial up as well as broadband. Call this number, they said. So we did. 20 minutes on hold and a person answers and start to sort things out. She admits we have been over-charged and then puts us on hold again to check that a new bill can be mailed. Then we get cut off.

At this point we are in a quandary. They are the phone company, we were cut off, they have our number, surely they will call us back. If we call them we simply get put on hold and they can't call us. So we wait. And we wait. No call.
So I send an e-mail. One of those you send from their web-site and as soon as it's gone, the message disappears (well, not quite, as I copied and pasted the text first into Pages). That was Thursday, March 30th. Have they replied? You, guessed - they haven't.

Then today we find we cannot send out e-mails. We pay extra for what BT calls their premium service. This allows us to send e-mails from (Actually, BT Broadband doesn't include SMTP but they don't tell you this when they sell you the service). Well, it turns out our monthly payment was declined by our bank (we had received new bank cards) so I guess this was our fault. However, the BT (India call servcice) man assured me that an e-mail had been sent to our BT e-mail. I checked. No e-mails since the January 8 "welcome to BT Yahoo service" e-mail.

We can now send e-mails again but no doubt our telephone service will be cut off next as we haven't paid the bill they are supposed to be re-sending, hopefully corrected.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Jurassic Coast Oestra

Late last evening we returned from East Devon, where we spent the Easter (Oestra) Holiday camping at Salcombe Regis. We've been there before but this was the first time with the new big tent and, regardless of such an early season foray into camping, we decided it needed a good shake down. The site must rate as one of England's best and after getting to know the owners, we think we know why - they have done their research! A family friendly site, it caters to caravans, tourers and tents with lost of open space for children to run around, excellent facilities for showers, toilets, laundry, etc., a shop and, most important of all, close proximity to our favorite beach, Weston Mouth.

The shake down went well and we were subjected to a wide range of weather for our tent, aptly named the Coleman Weathermaster, to master. Friday night was very cold with a heavy dew under a full moon and stars. Saturday was unseasonably hot. Sunday was cloudy but dry. Monday was the same but with the threat of rain. Tuesday morning at 3 a.m. the heavens opened and the rain did not stop all day. So we had a full range of experiences, including striking camp in the rain (ugh!). Some highlights worth recording:

The Weathermaster was easy to set up; the inner bedroom "tents" were already in place. I think we had everything up and in place in about an hour from arriving. The tent itself took about 10 minutes to position and erect.

We still lack a few pieces of camping equipment, even after all these years. This is mainly a reflection of the change from small tent in a warm climate to large tent in a cool climate. For example, we never needed a space heater before Friday night!
We need a new stove for base camp type cooking. Our back pack burners are great but can be top heavy. The selection of camp stoves and grills seems to have shrunk over the years - or maybe it's because of EU regulations?

We are going to try placing our Kelty Tarp over the top and front of the Weather Master to see if we can get better wet weather protection when entering and leaving the tent during a rain storm. Note to Coleman: a second door would be useful so that the existing door could be left as an awning.

Our Coleman Extreme Ice Chest (designed to keep ice for 5 days in 90ºF conditions) works really well in England!

We drank a lot of tea.

And hot chocolate!

We walked down to the beach every day, though on some days we walked much further than that. The area is blessed with a dense pattern of footpaths so we never moved the car until Monday evening. It was a joy to be so far from roads most of the time. The camp site is about 500 feet above the beach so the hike back up is an effort - all the better for increasing our appetites!

At this time of year Weston Mouth is relatively quiet. A few brave Naturists were in evidence on Saturday but none seemed inclined to enter the water. Weston Mouth is Naturist friendly and it is a joy to be able to skinny dip when the water is warm enough (which it was last September).

Another local attraction is the Donkey Sanctuary, a well-endowed charity that owns a farm that is now used to look after retired donkeys saved from all over Europe. Access to the Sanctuary is free and they have provided numerous additional footpaths alongside the various paddocks.

On Monday evening we splashed out on dinner at a nearby pub, the Fountainhead. This establishment is undergoing a change of direction we are told, from spit and sawdust pub to up-market restaurant. Judging by the attitude of some of the nouvelle clientele the locals must be dismayed at the change! The food was good, though, if expensive.

Here are the pictures

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Hackers will attack OS X, says Symantec

Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy when an anti-virus software company starts to spread rumors that OS X will become a target with hackers once its market share increases. Is this just a scare tactic or is there some truth in the idea that if Apple gains market share then hackers will start to hack?

This is my take on the subject. Yes, there may be an increase in attempted hacking and some hackers might do some damage, at least on computers owned by gullible people. What Symantec aren't admitting is that OS X is a rock solid operating system that is more difficult to hack in the first place and even when security issues appear, Apple is very quick to bring out updates and these can be downloaded and installed automatically. Given that hackers appear to like a challenge, it would seem to me that they would have been targeting OS X all along, and not wait until the user base increased from 2% to 5% or whatever the market share is and may become.

Then again, is all this a Windows driven conspiracy? I guess the EU needs to find out!