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!