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

Home!

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

Brrrr!!!

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

Banff

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

Calgary

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.