Friday, January 28, 2005

Union Pacific No. 3985 "Challenger"

And now for something completely different! I took this photo a few years ago while April and I enjoyed a day out from Houston on a special excursion train operated by Union Pacific's historic/executive train division, based in Omaha. Challenger, as she's known, is the largest remaining operating steam locomotive in the world and is an impressive sight. Pulling around 20 heavy passenger cars plus two water tenders this locomotive packs a punch! We were fortunate to have seats in one of several observation dome cars on the train and, as it was an executive car, the Harriman, there was a speedometer installed on the bulkhead. Running back into Houston the train sped down the main line that parallels the Hardy Toll Road from Spring to the Loop 610. We were doing 62 mph for much of the time which may not sound a lot but, and this is the interesting bit, we learned later that one of the four drive trains had broken and was running idle. That makes it quite remarkable. As with many excursion trains in the US, the train stops at predetermined locations and everybody gets off, lining up with their cameras while the train backs up a mile or so. Then with a massive blast on the air horns, and a good deal of black smoke, the train rumbles into sight! After all the clicking has died down the train backs up again, it's "all aboard" and off we go!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Philip Johnson died today

The architect, Philip Johnson, died today, aged 98. His buildings remain as a monument to his particular genius. Below is one of them, the Williams Tower in Uptown Houston (Galleria Area). This is the tallest building in the world outside of a downtown area. So what? Well, it really does stand there on its own unlike the clusters of skyscrapers in major city centers. It's a magnificent building and the glass acts like the faces of a complex crystal, particularly at certain times of the year when a blood red sunset might be reflected from some panels, oncoming night from others. Quite magical. The building started life as the Transco Tower but Transco was bought by Williams and the name changed. Shortly after taking this picture I was told I could not use a tripod as using it could be "dangerous" to others. What a strange world we live in.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A New Project - Walking the Cotswold Way

We have been intending to do this for quite a few years: walk the 100 mile long Cotswold Way national footpath trail that starts in Chipping Campden and ends in Bath (or vice versa). The question has always been: "How?"

Walking a hundred miles takes several days, possibly as many as ten days if the plan is to include enjoying the journey, taking the odd side trip, etc. etc. Although there are numerous places to stay along the way we seriously doubted if our lifestyle would allow us to just take off for ten days having made lots of bookings and planned the journey to the last metric mile. Along would come a call from a client, a cry for help or, most likely, a change in the weather! So we have decided to do the Cotswold Way one day at a time and today we did the first piece, from Chipping Campden to Stanway.

Public transport is just about non-existent along the Cotswold Way. I can hear people arguing differently but the truth is very few buses and hardly any trains come near the Cotswold Way, so our plan very much depends on personal transport and at the moment we have two cars so it is possible to take linear sections of the trail and plan a start and a finish where cars can be safely parked.

So this morning the weather promised to be fine and we decided to drive both cars over to Stanway, then drive one car to the start of the trail (i.e. just near our home) and then walk to Stanway, via Broadway and Stanton. This is a distance of approximately 11 miles with two major climbs up the Cotswold Escarpment. We covered the 11 miles in less than four hours which says a lot for our fitness and also the need to keep moving as it was quite cold along the exposed ridges. The last mile was covered in darkening skies with sleet beginning to fall. We drove back in heavy snow (so much for the weather forecast!)

The plan is to do a multi-part travelogue - one day at a time - with photos, text and personal observations along the way. We'll publish them soon after each stage is done so that we won't forget too many of the small details, the things that make this type of pastime interesting!

Friday, January 21, 2005

Branscombe, East Devon

Another new travelogue feature was loaded today - basically a follow on from the Shelducks story below (January 16) that shows some of the scenery as well as the wild flowers that are abundant in May and June. The photo below was taken with a 20mm ultra wide angle lens half way down the main storm ridge:

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Apple Store - Regent Street, London and Bullring, Birmingham

This morning we had an hour to spend in London and decided to visit the Apple Store on Regent Street. This landmark store, the first Apple Store in Europe, opened last November to rave reviews and we can fully understand why.

What is an Apple Store? Well, the first thing you notice is that there is a lot of empty space. This is a very clever marketing ploy in that the average computer store is a bewildering complex of makes, models, etc. etc. There are plenty of knowledgeable people to help (all wearing black t-shirts). There are plenty of Apple computers and iPods to test, all loaded with plenty of software, etc. Upstairs there is the Genius Bar, a place where you can have your computer checked out, questions answered and repairs undertaken. There is also a Theater where non-stop presentations and workshops are conducted all day long. We sat through an introduction to OS X and it was most useful.

London Regent Street has a schedule printed for January so the following may change by February 1. Basically each day of the week has a theme:

Monday: Digital Photos
Tuesday: Digital Music
Wednesday: Business Day
Thursday: Digital Movies
Friday, Saturday & Sunday: Digital Lifestyle

It is likely that February will include sessions on the new iLife 05 and iWork.

April asked if there would be any chance of similar training sessions in the West Midlands. The presenter said, and I quote "That's a great question because we have very good news - Apple is opening a new store in the Bullring, Birmingham very soon and there will be a theater like this (only smaller) with a full program of training sessions". Excellent news!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

East Devon Shelducks

A new travelogue feature was loaded today - only about 20 months after the photos were taken! Check out the drama of Shelduck chicks making their journey from nest to ocean:

Friday, January 14, 2005

Scribus - The Bottom Line

Scribus is an open source (free to download) application that emulates the workings of QuarkXpress working under Apple's X11 Window (i.e. it is a UNIX/Linux piece of software).

Scribus is good. It is comprehensive yet simple to use once the slightly different controls are understood. The emulation of QuarkXpress is excellent and it qualifies as a high end Desk Top Publishing application in that it offers accurate and rock solid placement of individual items on the page.

But there are significant drawbacks. Getting it loaded takes a lot more savvy than an average Apple user is accustomed to using during installation. The X11 Window is different and is limited in a number of ways. For example, I could find no way to access files on a second hard drive or indeed outside my user's folder. Color selection is archaic and color management looks like being several light years behind Apple.

I had a serious number of freezes at one stage but eventually managed to work my round past the bottleneck. Fortunately Scribus has an autosave function which I set to every five minutes to minimize data loss.

Printing is straightforward but the controls are not as comprehensive as QuarkXpress. The export to PDF is, on the other hand, very good.

In the middle of an evaluation exercise Apple introduced iWork and its Pages document processor. It's hard to tell at this stage whether or not iWork is a DTP contender. If it is, it is likely to get my vote. If not, I'm stuck with the thought of buying QuarkXpress for OS X for around $950. This is the point where I start to think again about Scribus! But the jury is out until I get my hands on iWork at the end of January.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

First of a few family photos

Forgive us for indulging in our grandchildren! Christmas was a hectic time, with Olivia spending a few days with us before Christmas and then Spike's birth on New Years Eve. Isobel has now decided she doesn't like my flash so that explains why she is not represented here (a Nikon F5 plus flash is bigger than she is and she is used to a small Canon digital!) But the babies remain oblivious to the significance of a camera!

The first is of Olivia with her Mom and Nan:



The second is of Spike (4 hours old) with his Pops:

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Steve Jobs' Keynote presentation on the web

With respect to yesterday's post, it is now possible to watch the entire 2 hour presentation. Things really warm up after 1 hour 15 minutes when iWork is introduced, followed by Mac Mini (it really is small!) and finally the iPod Shuffle. But initially there is a lot of hype about OS X Tiger (10.4) which will be released before June 30, 2005 ("Long before Longhorn") and I can see we'll be buying the family pack!

iWork will be available on January 22 and I'll be in line to get it, so expect a review soonish. If it's as good as the demos showed, then my love affair with Scribus may be short-lived.

Steve Jobs, incidentally, is a master at making presentations, partly because he really believes in his own products (some would say he believes in them too much!)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

HOT NEWS!!! Apple introduces iPod Shuffle, Mac Mini and iWork

Threats of law suits are over as Steve Jobs announces the two products everyone was hoping Apple would introduce today. I see this as a major step forward for Apple, OS X and computing as a whole. And there is a really neat software package as well, see below.

The Apple Mac Mini is a neat package that provides a full Mac computer in a small Tupperware sized box. What is missing is a monitor, but any monitor, keyboard and mouse (i.e. from your existing Windoze set up) will connect to bring an affordable switch from the ridiculaous to the sublime! price is $499 or £339 (incl. VAT). For this you get a 40 Gig hard drive, G4 processor and DVD player/CD burner combo. The Mini can be had with more gizmos, including wireless and bluetooth, and a DVD burning superdrive. Watch out HP/Compaq, you have competition! BTW, a top of the line "Mini with Everything" (but no monitor) would be less than £700 in the UK. And that includes Bluetooth, wireless mouse, keyboard and airport, as wel as DVD burning.

The iPod Shuffle is Apple's venture into the flash memory MP3 player market and it looks like they have a winner. Key flaw (if any) is that you have only two options for play selection: songs in the order they were loaded or a random shuffle of all songs loaded. The latter would make little sense for classical music (though Classic FM does mix and match movements all the time) while the former would become predictable, assuming you never plugged into your computer's USB socket and remixed the selection. At $99 or £69 (incl VAT) the price is in line with the predictions for a 512MB model.

Perhaps as exciting is the $79 (£49 incl. VAT) iWork software package that includes a brand new word processor as well as Keynotes. These basically make Microsoft Word and Powerpoint an expensive alternative. Unfortunately for me, most of my professional colleagues and clients expect Word and Powerpoint compatibility, not just import/export capability. However, given the universality of Adobe's PDF format, this may become less important with time. Well done, Apple, for providing what look like viable alternatives in an increasingly monopolistic computing world. If iWork is as stable as I hope it will be, Microsoft Office might just be a whole lot less critical. Excel would remain their only product worth having!

No individual links yet because the site is overloaded now that the word is out. Keep trying Apple's main site, things will cool down eventually!

Monday, January 10, 2005

Scribus - First Impressions

As noted in yesterday's post, Scribus is a free alternative to the very expensive QuarkXpress and InDesign Desk Top Publishing (DTP) software packages. There is the inevitable concern that something so free could be as good as products that carry very large price tags. Having used QuarkXpress for Macintosh System 9 a few years ago (I think the latest release I used was 5.0) I was most interested to see how Scribus might compare.

I had used QuarkXpress to prepare a very large, graphics intensive document. There were numerous inherent problems with QuarkXpress at the time and it was only after I finished the project that I realized that the main problem - printing - was caused by having the linked graphics files on a separate server. QuarkXpress took forever to bring out their OS X upgrade and I am sure that Adobe made huge inroads with their InDesign competitor in the meantime. Other alternatives for DTP fall short. In particular, Microsoft Word (which many use because they have it anyway) cannot be made to produce stable documents simply because the various elements are not fixed to the page. How many times has an image "disappeared" off a Word page just when you think everything is in place?

Introduction to Scribus

Scribus is primarily for Linux but will run under Apple's X11 terminal. I am not savvy enough to explain much of this, but essentially OS X runs on UNIX so this makes cross-platform applications easier to implement. X11 is free with OS X and can be downloaded from Apple.

Typically you need to access a terminal (i.e. you have to type in meaningless but error sensitive instructions on a command line, just like the original DOS) but a small application called Aquascribus can do the nasty work for you. Aquascribus can be placed into the Dock and this will load X11 and then Scribus with one click of the mouse.

Scribus runs in an X Window so this looks a little peculiar on a Mac (tho' not as peculiar as Virtual PC running Windows XP!) There are a number of basic differences, most of which are related to the UNIX/Linux concept that often ignores ease of use in preference to "geekish" principles. Also, X Window does not recognize the Apple Command (pretzel) key so shortcuts are different, i.e. ctrl+C for Copy. That being said, the X Window interface is probably as easy to use as Windows XP.

Getting Started

Once Scribus is up and running, an X Window appears with a menu running along the top. The most logical thing to do is select "File > New" to get started. But perhaps a more logical approach should be to set preferences "Settings > Preferences". Dialog boxes are classic UNIX in style and easy to use.

Mouse rollovers help to understand the meaning of the various tools but be warned, there is no Help available and assistance on Scribus' website is minimal (though there is a seoarate documentation site). That's what you get with free software! Not that Help systems with the expensive DTP packages are much use anyway in my experience. Initial efforts are therefore mainly achieved by trial and error but this is a good way to get used to the program even if it may be a little frustrating at times. I feel sure that a prior knowledge of QuarkXpress made my initiation a lot simpler.

Comparison with QuarkXpress

As noted above, a familiarity with QuarkXpress makes using Scribus a relatively easy experience. This is because the designers of Scribus were undoubtedly looking to emulate much of what QuarkXpress has to offer.

First impression is that Scribus may have the better interface. The Story Editor is a great way to enter, modify and format text prior to sending it to the document, though the font used is a little strange to say the least. The Story Editor becomes more relevant as the document itself becomes more and more complex, because the program enters text quite slowly directly into a text box. On the other hand, selecting colors for text means scrolling through a list of color names - not so good.

Text and image boxes are anchored to the document using x and y coordinates - evidence that Scribus is a true DTP software package. Image boxes can be designed to have text wrap around with infinitely variable borders, while text boxes can be superimposed on them for the purpose of creating captions, etc.

Linking text boxes seems to be easier with Scribus than with QuarkXpress (I always had problems with this in the System 9 product). Simply select the first text box, click the linking tool and then click the second text box. Done!

Scribus doesn't have a spell checker (but you could type the text into a text editor first, then port it over but that invokes other potential problems). Export to PDF is excellent, by the way. Color management may be a problem, just as it is with Gimp, the Linux version of PhotoShop, but I need to find out more on this subject.

I have printed directly from Scribus with no problem. There may be a problem with sending the Scribus file to bureaus as they may not have heard of Scribus! Export is available in EPS, SVG and PDF formats.

An ironic advantage for QuarkXpress might be the fact that students of DTP could conveniently come to grips with their software via Scribus - an important fact for impoverished graphic artists (and there are many more graphic artists who are impoverished rather than wealthy).

Problems

The system has crashed twice on me (I had to Force Quit X11 and AquaScribus) but the autosave function worked a treat.
It seems to be virtually impossible to copy and paste text from OS X directly into X11. This is because they each use a separate clipboard. By copying text to TextEdit and saving it as a TXT file, it is possible to then import the text into Scribus. Not an elegant solution.

Another problem (for which there may be an easy solution) is the apparent lack of special characters. The character "ยบ" pasted as "1/4", for example.

Fonts that we are used to using in the Apple world are not available to X11 without some serious manipulation and even then they may not work as well. The basic fonts that come with X11 are OK but there is little variety for true DTP work. Score one to the expensive programs, minus 5 to Scribus!

Color management may also be a problem (the Linux world, including Gimp users, have little respect for CMYK). This is a key factor for professional DTP work, particularly when work is to be sent to a professional print shop.

This is but a first impression review. I am currently working on a DTP document that will publish the France 2004 Travelogue as a simple PDF file. That should be a good test of Scribus' capabilities. More on this later.

Scribus - First Impressions Revisited

I might have known. As soon as the review below was uploaded I went back to the test project and, yes, Scribus started to freeze on me. The project contains 6 pages, 17 images, 6 linked text boxes, several discrete text boxes, file size 96KB (excluding linked image files). The same action seems to kill the program every time - switching on the "text flows around frame" button on the latest image. I've tried a lot of tricks, even rebooted. This is not a particularly large project so this has me concerned for future commercial uses of the application. (I eventually got over this impasse but it still worries me everytime I select the text flow option.)

What is interesting is the effect that a potential bug has on the user. If I had paid $1000 for this software I would be hopping up and down and cussing the company that sold me a "bag of snakes". As it is, I am still frustrated but also tell myself "but you paid nothing for this software".

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Free Desk Top Publishing with Mac OS X

A challenge from Pete: "is there a low end, preferably free DTP solution for OS X". Knowing that QuarkXpress costs just under $1,000 and Adobe's InDesign is about the same, I knew we would be talking about something else! Fortunately there is a free solution: Scribus.

Unfortunately, Scribus is primarily designed for Linux and therefore runs under Apple's X11 UNIX terminal. This invokes potential nightmares relating to command line instructions, UNIX directories, three button mice and so on. Fortunately I am not the only one who detests nightmares, for there is a neat interface called AquaScribus that takes you straight from the OS X dock through X11 to Scribus. Sure, the Scribus window is an X Window, but apart from that the software appears to have most of the features contained within the expensive QuarkXpress box. Within a few minutes of starting Scribus I was able to work out the basics for a report or newsletter format, including text box linking, image placement, etc.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Scientific Data on the Indian Ocean Tsunami

As a geologist I probably understand tsunamis better than most but even so the size of the Boxing Day earthquake-born tsunami is difficult to comprehend. To make things worse, the media do little to educate more than our emotions. Natural disasters should remind us all that Nature is much more powerful than humankind and we have little control over such events which are, on a geological time scale, common occurrences.

So, cut away for a moment from the political spats between UN and US, the aid bidding wars between Austraila and Germany, the harrowing scenes of orphans and devastation. NOAA, as usual, provides good factual material, including a map of the epicenter and a schematic movie showing the spread of the tsunami away from the epicenter (speeded up many times).

The first image:



is of the epicenter map. A much larger version can be found here.
The second image:



is from the time lapse movie, also available to download (3.6 MB) from here. This is just after the earthquake and shows a most interesting form. The early shape of the tsunami, probably no more than a ridge of "swollen" ocean out in deep water, is closely aligned to the subduction zone boundary between the Indian Ocean and the Sumatra/Andaman arc. Thus it would appear that the entire subduction zone moved along a length of about 1,000 kilometers.

The important observation from this movie simulation is to explain why the principal damage occurred to the east and west and not to the north and south. This explains why very little damage and loss of life occurred in Bangladesh at the head of the Bay of Bengal, an area that would be expected to funnel the tsunami's energy. See the entire movie and you will understand this better. Bangladesh may have the largest concentration of population living at sea level, so the implication of this movie is profound.

NASA's Earth Observatory website contains additional information on wave height analysis and wave travel time. The highest waves hit Sumatra and are estimated to have been 10 meters high, whereas those hitting Sri Lanka and Thailand were about 4 meters high. Do take a look at other links from this website. A lot of science.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Help Lines and Call Centers

The BT Broadband experience is turning into a saga. But I am finally learning how to talk to people rather than remain in endless loops of computerized telephone systems. But even then the people I finally get to answer invariably work in the wrong department.

The good news of the day was that I finally managed to confirm that the defective microfilter will be replaced.

There really isn't any more good news. It turns out that BT broadband does not offer a mail out (SMTP) facility even though BT dial up does so we will now have to subscribe to one at £1.50 a month. This extra cost was never mentioned by the broadband sales team. Now I am wondering if the things they did tell me are likely to be true. And the bill for the mail out facility has to be paid separately from the broadband account. Does any of this make sense? No.

In general the poor folk who finally have to deal with my pent up rantings are great - it's a difficult life working a help line. But one of the reasons that customers get so steamed up is the incredibly difficult menu systems that are offered, followed by messages that inform that the company is very busy at the moment, so "please bear with us". And remember, BT is a telephone company - they ought to be way out in front when it comes to help lines and call centers.

Another aspect of life with BT is that they have their preferred software products, like Outlook Express, for example. So when your browser or mail program has a glitch they can claim they do not support your software. What they really mean, of course, is that their web designers generally only know Windows and Microsoft products and apparently do not test their sites on other products.

Introducing Spike

April and I drove over to Banbury and I managed to finally take a photo of the new grandson in the family, Spike. Here he is, having his face cleansed by his Mom, Lucy:



The immediate family is enjoying his arrival. Older sister Isobel is taking the arrival in her stride and the doting grandparents are all lending a hand to help Lucy and Jeff cope with two under 15 months!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

ADSL up, phones don't work!

It was all so easy. The modem was delivered by the mailman at 8:15 a.m. and everything was connected and working (including Airport wireless) by 9:00 a.m. Then I tried to make a phone call and there was no dial tone even though the ADSL line was happily downloading software. We've been having problems with the phones for some time and have to put it down to the complications of installing the fiber optic cable to the local exchange. So if you're trying to call us, e-mail us! UPDATE: By trial and error I discovered that one of the ADSL filters may be the problem. So we have both phone and internet at last, but only on one phone. Sigh!

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A Very Happy New Year!

A quick note to all: Spike* Francis Chilberto arrived into the world on Friday, December 31, around noon, weighing in at seven pounds, fifteen and a half ounces. Congratulations to Mommy and Daddy and sister Isobel. We got to see him when he was only a few hours old, what a privilege and a joy! (*Spike's parents have decided to retain his in utero nickname as his first name ex utero. In their words: "He just doesn't look like an Oliver".)

No photos just yet but watch this space for more news of this exciting event! When you have a new addition to the family all else shrinks into the shadows. . .