Thursday, December 28, 2006

Regional Airports Work!

Looking back through the archives, two opinions emerge about airports in the UK: Heathrow sucks and Birmingham wucks! And how this came clear just before Christmas! We had booked a few days in Paris, buying cheap tickets on Air France from BHX to CDG (that's Birmingham International to Paris Charles de Gaulle, now you understand why airports have three letter acronyms!)

For several days the London-centric media ranted on about how many flights were canceled at Heathrow. These were mostly flights that could be substituted by rail journeys, including all domestic flights as well as Paris and Brussels. There is a gross falacy about such decision making in that most people who don't live near Heathrow use it as a hub, flying, for example, from Newcastle to Heathrow to Bermuda. Heathrow has nothing material to add to the journey except to provide a means for flying from Newcastle to Bermuda. Substituting a rail journey from Newcastle to Heathrow doesn't make any sense at all if your final destination is on another continent and the plane isn't going to wait!

We read the media reports with interest, noting that BHX reported few delays and even fewer cancelations. When it came our turn, our Air France flight, the second of six daily scheduled flights, left on time and arrived in Paris ahead of schedule with about 20% of the seats unfilled on the Friday before Christmas (according to the media the busiest day of the season). Meantime at Heathrow passengers had been living for several days in marquees supplied with free coffee and blankets for their trouble. Approximately 110 miles away from BHX!

The conclusion is reasonable: use your regional airport whenever you can but check first that your airport of choice has the latest navigation equipment. Nearby Coventry was closed for several days and all their passengers were transfered to BHX.

A new passport needed. . . .

This post is for all British citizens. After two and a half years my passport is full. It's those African full page visas plus the stamps they add every entry and exit. Europeans don't even get their pages opened, never mind stamped, Americans have small chops that take up little space. African visas are a money making enterprise. It appears that the UK Government agrees.

So, a day long visit to the UK Passport Agency in London. Except they've changed the name to "Identity and Passport Agency" in preparation for issuing ID Cards at some future date. You book a time to show up and must show up at that time. Arrive early and you will not be admitted. I bet most people, thinking how unreliable public transport can be, arrive early.

Once admitted the queuing system makes no sense whatsoever. Then you go through a security check, passing signs that inform you that the staff must be treated with respect and civility (should not that be a two way street?) before receiving a number. Because I will have to apply for visas, my passport had to be processed as a priority (cost £108), with the finished product available in four hours (don't show up earlier, you will be turned away!). I observed to the clerk that in France there is no charge for a new passport that replaces one that is full before its expiry date. When I asked for a jumbo passport I was told that they are not currently available - maybe in two months time! I was also told that, because it was assumed that my visas were for business (presumptuous!) then the cost was not really a consideration!

Finally, I took two sets of photos which was just as well. The first set was rejected because I was smiling! "But I always smile!" I said, smiling even as I said it. How will you know it's me if I am not smiling in my passport? No direct answer: "Pay the cashier over there."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Merry Christmas!

In case you are wondering, we've been very busy recently. No Christmas letter this year. We have the idea of publishing a letter at some random time in 2007. So it won't be a year end missive. But, just in case you are wondering, we're doing fine and we are looking forward to a little R&R.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Kinshasa to Birmingham - a timeline

December 15 - 2:00 p.m. Check out of hotel in Kinshasa. Minor panic, appear to have lost passport. Find it in suitcase, not at all in keeping with my normal organization, a place for everything and everything in its place.

December 15 - 2:30 p.m. Car arrives to take us to Kinshasa Beach, on the southern bank of the Congo River and ferry terminal. Note potholes in Kinshasa's road are getting larger by the day but regional stability appears to be settling in after the recent elections.

December 15 - 2:45 p.m. Arrive at the Beach, drive through to the VIP area (this costs extra but it is worth it!). Hand passports to agent who disappears. We go to the VIP lounge and enjoy the air-conditioning for a few minutes.

December 15 - 2:55 p.m. Our immigration paperwork complete, we walk across to the jetty and board the "Trans Vip" the executive ferry service across the river to Brazzaville. The river is in full flood, this being the rainy season. Brown muddy water carries floating islands of vegetation past the ferry boat. Locals fill buckets with river water and wash themselves and their clothes in the turgid liquid. No photography is allowed at either beach. I understand the BBC recently had a camera destroyed for filming in this area. My D200 stays hidden!

December 15 - 3:10 p.m. A lot of shouting on the pontoon next to the ferry - in local Lingala dialect - and I learn that someone is late and his secretary (a young lady carrying a parasol - another missed photo opportunity) has been sent to hold the ferry. We wait. The ferry master sounds the air horn in frustration.

December 15 - 3:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes late and we cast off into thr swift current and turn to cross the mighty Congo. Out comes the camera. Subjects include panoramas, pirogues (dugouts) and floating islands. Not as interesting as the beach scenes, but you get what you can get.

The

Floating Islands

December 15 - 3:40 p.m. Arrive at Brazzaville Beach. The usual hassle as officials decide which way we should go. Our passports disappear again, this time in the hands of our Congo Rep. representative. We retire to the VIP lounge for a short stay.

December 15 - 4:00 p.m. Our immigration clearances are approved and we drive through the solid steel gates onto the streets of Brazza. We drive past several bombed out buildings that are reminders of the 1998 civil war. A hotel, a supermarket, an office building. Then we drive up into the diplomatic area and the Meridian Hotel.

December 15 - 4:30 p.m. The Meridian Hotel. We find seats in the lobby and order drinks. And wait until it's time to go check in at the airport.

December 15 - 6:00 p.m. Off to the airport - a short drive (compared with Kinshasa which is about 25 kms from the city center along poorly maintained and lit roads jammed with ancient minibuses). At the airport we check in - first suitace check, then passport check, then ticket check, then check in at the Air France desk. Someting isn't quite right - my ongoing ticket is no longer the 7:35 a.m. flight to Birmingham, it's the 9:55 a.m. flight. No explanation offered. Explanation requested. Response is a sheepish grin. Later find out the plane is late arriving and will leave over an hour late.

December 15 - 7:00 p.m. Back at the Meridian and in time for dinner. After the haute cuisine in Kinshasa the menu in Brazzaville leaves a lot to be desired. Beef Bourguinone is tough. Oh well.

December 15 - 9:00 p.m. Off to the airport again, this time to leave Congo (we hope). With boarding pass, immigration form filled out we quickly pass the first hurdle, immigration. Then the security check. One passenger in the roomn at a time, the machines appear to be working. But the exit door is locked and a rather sad looking Congolese woman demands money to open it. "CFAs?" she says. "Euros?" she repeats with the same pleading inquiry. I hand over 5,000 CFAs ($10) and explain that that will have to cover all our party. She doesn't look happy (thought: could she look happy?)

December 15 - 9:20 p.m. Departure lounge and duty free shop. This is no free enterprise haven. Dirty, poorly stocked with broken airport seats (the sort you cannot sleep on even though you are often asked to wait hours into the night with nowhere else to go) and with no PA system, no TV screen. Fortunately there is only one international departure - Air France to Paris. Just as well, I am not sure they could handle two flights at once in Brazza!

December 15 - 11:35 p.m. After over two hours I decide it's time to join the diminishing line for hand baggage security check. They have set up their table in a dark area of the lounge. It takes forever to check everyone on a full Airbus 330-200. I then walk down the stairs to have my boarding pass checked, re-checked and then cross-checked against my passport. The agents again work in near darkness and take forever to compare photo with face, straining to see the photo in the lights of a passing fire truck.

December 15 - 11:55 p.m. I board the bus and wait. It's hot and humid. The bus tries to leave but someone has parked a container in its way. The driver gets out to move container and the door closes behind him. I wonder if he's locked out. Fortunately he isn't.

December 16, 00:10 a.m. On board at last. Crew don't feel inclined to offer refreshments until just before take off. Gulp.

December 16, 00:30 a.m. Take off, seat reclined, asleep. Just like that.

December 16, 4:00 a.m. Wake up freezing cold. Passenger next to me has her blanket and mine wrapped up around her chin. Go to request extra blankets, but there are none left. Change into warmer clothing reserved for Birmingham arrival, drink glass of water and fall asleep again.

December 16, 7:00 a.m. Beginning descent into Paris with a glass of orange juice and a croissant. Land at Terminal 2F, the same place the Birmingham flight departs from. That's good. Or is it?

December 16, 7:20 a.m. Deplane at Terminal 2F, join security line to re-enter terminal 2F. Experience once again the new liquids and gels restrictions.

December 16, 8:00 a.m. Finally pass through security and into lounge. My boarding pass for the flight to Birmingham is reprinted and I sit down for an hour and a half wait.

December 16, 9:25 a.m. Decide it's time to look for the Birmingham departure. After a problem with the ticket reader we are off onto the bus. The flight is about 25% full. The bus takes off on a journey that seems to be taking us out of the airport - are we being hijacked? No, our plane is just on the other side of Charles de Gaulle airport, and when we finally reach it, it is still being cleaned. We are confined to the bus for 15 minutes. Finally we are allowed on board and I find my seat is in the wrong class. But there is plenty of room to move around, so that's OK!

December 16, 10:15 a.m. Take off. Remarkably quick but then it's obvious: we drove the length of the airport in the bus so the was no further room for the plane to taxi! Things start to look up.

December 16, 10:10 a.m. 55 minutes later we land in bright wintry sunshine at Birmingham International. An airline employee guides us through four (4) locked security doors from aircraft to immigration hall. I am first in line and whisk through. Even more surprising my bag soon follows onto the carousel and by 10:30 a.m. I am driving out of the airport. Oh that the rest of the journey could have been so slick!!!!!

If you add up the time spent standing (or sitting) still, it adds up to 495 minutes! That's more than 8 hours!

CBSO Podcasts

Early podcasts were pretty basic - the UK's Daily Telegraph was a good case in point where journalists simply read aloud their written pieces. But podcasts are coming of age and here is a really good example of the genre:

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has a special place in our hearts so it was with great pleasure that we discovered its podcast series that started back in September. Expertly produced with interesting interviews and recorded diaries, special pieces on each section of the orchestra as well as the occasional snippet of CBSO excellence, these once a month thirty minute podcasts are highly recommended. Of particular interest was the description of a five day, five city European tour this past September, seen through the eyes of management and a second violin member of the orchestra.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Created in Birmingham

Introducing a brand new website, Created in Birmingham, a professional blog that, in the words of its editor/journalist/correspondent/interviewer/researcher:

will evolve with time. In order to deal with something as massive as “The Creative Community of Birmingham” I’m treating it rather like a travel journal as I explore this strange environment. At this stage my main areas of interest are as follows:

Who’s out there? What work is actually being done in Birmingham? And who are the people doing it? I want to put a human face to the portfolios and websites.

How do people do their work? What is it about Birmingham that helps or hinders creative people?

How do people come together? From informal collaborations to collectives to business forums. What’s the map of Creative Birmingham like?

How does Birmingham as a city relate to its creative community? What are the means of communication? What structures are in place? What aspects of the redevelopment are relevant? That sort of thing.

How could it be done better? That’s the big one. I don’t expect a comprehensive and objective answer any time soon, but aiming for one should be illuminating.


So far one item is up, an interview with digital fine artist Rob Youngson. This looks to be an interesting blog, definitely one for the Bookmarks Bar.

Not one of the best journeys. . . .

It didn't help that I was suffering from allergy-induced bronchitis with attendant sinus headaches and so on. But even so, the experience of flying from Luanda to London and on to the Cotswolds by train was not one I would wish to repeat even in a robust, healthy condition.

To be fair, the British Airways flight (BA-076, Boeing 777) was not the culprit.

Leaving Luanda is never easy, even on a local flight to, say Pointe Noire, but a Triple Seven is a big plane and so the formalities tend to take quite a while. With a departure time of 23:55, I left the hotel at 21:00 and arrived at the airport at 21:20. There I joined the back of the line to check in. This line crawled forward at a pace that would make a snail look like a hare, but eventually my ticket was examined (1) and I then waited to be called to the ticket counter. Here (2) I was given a bording pass and my bag was checked in. Except I noted that it wasn't and no tag had been attached. Ten minutes later I left with a baggage claim receipt that matched the tag on my bag. The next line (3) allowed us to wait for entry into the immigration area. Once through the door, another line to the immigration desk (4) which seemed to take forever. Finally, with yet another stamp on my passport it was a quick stride across to the Angolan security check (5). For Africa this was quite impressive and it would appear that both personal and hand baggage scanners were working. I was also asked to remove belt, shoes and so on, again most unusual for the region. Successfully through security, the next stop is customs (6) where you are asked if you still have any Kwanzas, the local currency. I didn't, knowing that if I did they would confiscate it.

At this point there was time for a short hiatus and it was getting close to 23:00 hours, enough time to have a drink of mineral water and meet up with some colleagues who had already gone through the same six steps as I had.

Official boarding time was 23:10, so we decided we should make a move and joined the back of the queue for the British Airways security check (7). This involved a reasonably well executed hand search of cabin baggage as well as a good frisking down. I'm all in favor of this, by the way, as long as I know everyone else on the flight has been subjected to the same treatment. Then we joined another line to show our passport and boarding card (8) to an official. After this I gave my boarding card to the lady in charge of a computer and I was ticked off the list (9). A wait to get on the bus and then a short drive to the plane. At the foot of the stairs we showed our boarding pass again (10) before climbing up to the door of the plane where we were welcomed aboard. That's ten steps and it took two hours!

Now we are on the plane and the two voices over the PA system (Pilot/Captain and Cabin Services Manager) extend a confident aura that we will finally be on our way. We do indeed take off slightly behind schedule but with a promise of an on-time arrival at London Heathrow.

Then, in the middle of the night, the Pilot/Captain wakes us up with a request for any doctor on the flight to make him/herself known as there is a problem with a medevac patient in First Class. Ten minutes later a somewhat more urgent request: Is there anyone on board with medical experience? Thirty minutes later we are informed that a decision has been made to divert to Algiers to unload the patient. This, of course, was not a decision made lightly so it can be assumed that the patient was indeed probably not going to make it for another 2-1/2 hours without a doctor and other medical facilities. It must have been a difficult decision to make as I am not sure I would opt for an Algiers hospital in a life or death situation.

So we landed in Algiers, and, after about 45 minutes, took off again for London. Breakfast was served and we settled down to wait for arrival at Terminal 4.

Now Heathrow is not my favorite airport. In fact it is a place I try to avoid as much as possible. So it was no surprise at all that the first problem was the lack of a gate and buses were used to get us to the immigration, customs and baggage claim hall.

Immigration was easy as was baggage reclaim. So far so good, all I have to do is get to the Central Bus Station for the coach service to Reading Station. But that's not at Terminal 4, so a short (free) ride on the Heathrow Express is required. I just miss one so it's a 15 minute wait for the next train. Once at Terminal 1/2/3 and everything else that is the original Heathrow Airport, it's a long underground walk to the Bus Station. Easier for those who know which way to go for the signage is far from complete (and never mind if you don't understand English, you could get lost at Heathrow and never leave the place at all!). Finally, the Bus Station is reached but the elevators are mal-functioning and it takes 15 minutes to rise up to ground level. At this point I feel I am nearly home. Big mistake, there are still more hoops to jump through. There is a special line to buy tickets for the Reading Coach and they are supposed to be able to sell combined coach/rail tickets. But my request for a Senior First Class Single to Moreton-in-Marsh cannot be accepted by their computer. They do sell me a Senior ticket for the coach journey and I go and look for the coach. The coach is there but no driver, so we wait in what is a pleasantly cold and blustery morning for him to return. Finally, I sit down on the coach. The driver is a joker. I am tired. The jokes don't work. Quiet isn't an option.

Sunday morning traffic in Reading is hopeless (do they all go to church in Reading?) but we arrive at the station in good time and I line up to buy the next ticket. The agent cannot explain why I couldn't have bought one ticket at Heathrow. I then have time for a large cup of hot chocolate at the station concourse (Reading Station is actually not a bad place) before proceeding to Platform 4 where my train will be the third to arrive (the indicator board actually says so!). A train for Penzance arrives and leaves, then one to Swansea does the same. I look down the tracks toward London and see my train arriving. But it isn't going to arrive at Platform 4! I look up at the indicator board. It still says Platform 4. Then the Public Service Announcement. There has been a platform change. Please go to Platform 8. This involves crossing the tracks by a footbridge, knowing all the time that every second must count. I make it in time to board the train and find a seat and collapse, wheezing, for the hour long journey to Moreton. It took me all of that hour to recover my breath.

Home Sweet Home!

Comments on the above. In some ways the experiences in Luanda and London have their parallels. It's almost like traveling from one third world country to another. Heathrow really is not an impressive gateway into Britain. They are currently building Terminal 5 which I am sure will be quite impressive when opened. But what about the existing infrastructure? Half the escalators, elevators and moving people carriers are out of commission, the signage is terrible even for English speaking passengers, there is no help or assistance available when you need it and the entire place looks like it could do with a good clean. Which is kind of what you experience in many Third World Airports!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Congo Tourism?

The way things are, tourism to the Republic of Congo (a.k.a. Congo Brazzaville, French Congo) won't take off very soon. I just spent a night at a beach resort, the Malonda Lodge, which is just down the coast from Pointe Noire. The resort is the brainchild of a retired French couple. Owner Gerard explained that after a career in the oil industry he and his wife decided to settle down in Africa and it is easy to see why.

Right now the lodge caters to people who live and work in the Pointe Noire area and most are connected in some way with the oil industry. So I imagine that the weekends tend to be busy while the weekdays are quiet.

So why won't tourism take off here? The first reason is the costs involved. Airline tickets are at a premium due to the relatively small Airbus plane that flies three times a week from Paris and the fact that this is primarily a semi-charter flight for people who work in the oil industry. On top of the expensive airline ticket, a visa must be obtained and this requires a sponsorship letter. Visas for African countries are never cheap. Then there is the need to have innoculation against Yellow Fever (the area is serious about this and all visitors must produce evidence of vaccination). The arrival in Pointe Noire is interesting, to say the least, as the present day facilities include one open wooden shed that houses immigration, customs and baggage claim.

On top of these considerations there is the concept that the area is unsafe for tourists. Yes, there are ongoing problems in neighboring D R Congo (a.k.a. Congo Kinshasa) but many of the incidents reported in the media are a thousand kilometers and more from idyllic places like the Malonda Lodge.

I am not sure the Congolese Government will open its doors to tourism very soon. But maybe this is a good thing. Too many places have been opened up to tourism where the result has been a flood of tourism that does little for the country but a lot for the tour operators (Tunisia offers a good example). Some places are better off for not being too accessible even if the costs involved are always going to be higher.

The investment in Malonda Lodge needs to be supported and there is certainly plenty of local enthusiasm for their resort and the fine food in their restaurant. So, if you are reading this and think that an exotic holiday away from Cancun, Malaga or Rapallo would be a refreshing change, do give the Malonda Lodge some consideration!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Chronicle and Zune

The final paragraph of what seems to be a fair, balanced review:

Sorry, Microsoft, but that's just flat-out stupid. In order to please the music industry, ostensibly so labels would agree to sell their music through the Zune Marketplace, Microsoft has taken an exciting idea and effectively neutered it. The way it should work: All files sold via the Zune Marketplace get the limit, but any files in the industry-standard MP3 format should be tradable. That's user-friendly, and it doesn't start from the presumption that Microsoft's customers are pirates.
As it is, the Zune isn't about users turning each other on to music they like. Instead, it's about users doing the music industry's marketing on its behalf.


Seems like the Universal Music Group controls Mr. Softy! Other than that, the review certainly suggests that Zune is a worthy iPod competitor. But you can't have too many "other than thats" when attacking market dominance.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Birmingham Exposure

I am delighted to be able to announce the creation of the Birmingham Exposure website. I am also thrilled and honored to be a part of it!

The concept behind Birmingham Exposure is best quoted as:

This is the group for photographers who live or work in the city of Birmingham in the UK and represents a wide variety of styles and levels of experience.

Many of us met through Birmingham FlickrMeets.

We're in the process of building a website to show off our work


Personally, I think the website design is awesome - they've taken Flickr about five steps further along the path to success - a good indication, by the way, of how creative Birmingham sensu lato has become in recent years.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Lightroom Beta Feedback

There is a certain irony in this post. I just joined up with the forum for assisting Adobe with their Beta version of Lightroom. The whole idea of putting Lightroom out there in etherland before its publication date is to solicit ideas and problems from the general public, aka future users. This should mean that version 1 will already be a stable and desirable product, worth whatever it is that Adobe plans to charge.

And there, sitting on the forum, is a post from GovtLawyer, asking what will happen when the Beta software expires - will he be able to continue using the software? First of all, Mr. Government Lawyer, you downloaded free trial software. And part of the download included a software license agreement that explains what will happen. You didn't have to download the free trial and you don't have to use it. No-one is compelling you to.

It is quite amazing to me that not even lawyers read the small print these days!

But I did like one response: "What do you want, your money back?"

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Podcast Recommendations

There is a lot of choice out there and only so much time to listen. I am finding that the better podcasts tend to be short, or, if possible, I seek out podcasts that have sections so that those parts that are not of much interest can be skipped. Anyway, here are a few I enjoy:

The Engines of our Ingenuity must be one of the best short segment programs on radio. OK, I am biased by the fact that it comes from KUHF, Houston's public radio station. But we always enjoyed John Lienhard's entertaining but short science lessons when in Houston and now they are available as podcasts. To download these, it is best to obtain the link (basically copy the link from KUHF's website) and paste it into iTunes' subscribe dialog box. The latest will download immediately and the previous nine will be shown for available download.

NPR: Story of the Day is a short item chosen each day by NPR's editors. You never know what to expect and this is part of the delight of this podcast. As with just about everything done by NPR this is as professional as it gets in the podcast world. NPR have lots of other podcasts to choose from here.

The Daily Telegraph Podcast started out being pretty dreadful with journalists reading their stories but then they brought in a professional host and this livened up the proceedings no end. The podcast is sectioned so that individual segments can be skipped. Therefore, though it is a long podcast, it is easy to shorten the program!

Morning Becomes Eclectic is a rare gem in that it features occasional live sessions at KCRW Santa Monica's studio. Host Nick Harcourt has a transatlantic accent that doesn't quite give away his roots in Birmingham UK. He and his program have launched quite a few independent bands over the years. As with the other public radio station podcasts I like, you never quite know what to expect with each offering.

Just four recommendations for now. If you want to explore more, here is the best resource (in addition to the extensive list offered by NPR above):

Within iTunes, simply go to the Podcast Directory (click on the link at the bottom right of the Podcast screen). You will be taken to the iTunes store. Don't panic, most podcasts are free!

Next time I will recommend some video podcasts. . . .

Stirchley

It doesn't sound very appealing, does it - Stirchley? And it isn't, really. And being next door to Bournville with its quaker quaintness, the Birmingham area (or suburb?) of Stirchley probably doesn't have a lot to commend it. Also, armed with camera in appalling weather, the place didn't seem very photogenic.

I was visiting Pete for the afternoon and we were both hungry, so Pete recommended a place he had heard about, the British Oak. This pub had recently been "improved" after years of being run down and almost out. It turned out to be something of a revelation. The menu offered a varied selection of honest pub food and I could not resist going back a few years and ordering faggots, peas and chips. Faggots are like Italian meat balls only larger and with more "filler" to add bulk and flavor. I decided to wash this down with a pint of Mild, a brew rarely seen outside city pubs these days. Mild is low in alcohol and therefore often the cheapest pint at under £2 a glass. It also has a different flavor, best called "mild" by comparison with other brews from the same brewery. And this was a local classic, M&B (Marvellous Beer), though I am not sure where M&B brews its beers these days.

The British Oak, Stirchley

The interior of the pub offers the classic suburban pub built in the early years of the 20th Century. A central bar with rooms around it. The first room is the old Public Bar, a place with tiled floor and meant for serious after work (i.e. all evening) drinking. Round the back are two rooms, basically the old Lounge Bars. One is for smokers, the other isn't. Food is served here. The present furnishings include a few large sofas more reminiscent of a Starbucks coffee shop before it gets beaten up by constant use. The walls carry art deco murals and on the fireplace I couldn't help but admire this gorgeous lamp:

Seen in a Suburban Pub

Off to one side is a full size (maybe 3/4, come to think of it) billiard table in its own room. There could be four pool tables in its place but the one large table is so much more in keeping.

The Gentlemens Room has not changed since it was built with those fine porcelain fittings and expertly fitted plumbing that will probably last another 100 years of heavy use. It was good to see that the owners have not modernised the place where it didn't need it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Central Heating by PowerBook

This is yet another iPod related post, but only because ripping DVDs for the iPod seems to use more CPU power than anything else, including Illustrator and Photoshop. I am using Handbrake and once the process starts, so does the PowerBook's thermostatically controlled fan. And it stays on throughout the several hour process.

It's kinda worrying to hear this continual noise, so I downloaded Temperature Monitor Lite and now keep an eye on the sensor immediately beneath the processor. Right now it's at 146.3ºF (I am ripping a DVD while I write this). Normally it would be at around 110ºF.

This entire experience is why Apple switched to the much less energy abusive Intel processor family. My PPC-equipped PowerBook generates enough heat to keep my hands warm in the middle of a Canadian blizzard!

Zune not supported by Vista

And, referring to Zune's WiFi capability, MSFT CEO Ballmer is quoted as saying:

"I want to squirt you a picture of my kids. You want to squirt me back a video of your vacation. That's [an] experience"

Which leads to the phrase brown and squirting. This Ballmer guy is something else.

And now let's see what CNN had to say on Day 1 (via youtube video).

But, and this is important, here is an analysis of what Microsoft is probably looking to do: "There is no Buddhism in the Zune design. It's a brute-force, low tech T-72 Russian tank designed to steamroll up the beach and create widespread chaos and destruction in the music player community. Assuming Microsoft will fail based on the examination of the Zune's features and functions would be a huge blunder by all of us.

Introducing - All Things Birmingham

A quick plug for the Brum Blog.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bill likes Brown!

This photo explains why there's a brown Zune: Bill likes brown; why am I surprised?

iPod airline integration!

Perfect timing! Air France and Continental (among others) have entered into an agreement whereby iPods will be integrated with inflight services. Most important function will, in my opinion, be in-flight charging of an iPod's battery. Excellent news!

Zune: welcome to a competitive world!

So, today sees the entry of the iPod buster, Microsoft's Zune. As a brand new owner of an 80GB iPod Video, I don't suppose I will be impressed! But perhaps more important, the critics agree with me. Not that they are necessarily free of bias.

Zune comes in one model with a choice of three colors - white, black and. . . . . brown. That last color somehow doesn't lend itself to many positive thoughts. My best shot is that it might resemble post-war bakelite, hardly a positive but better than some other thoughts that are not printable. The case is said to be made of a slightly tactile plastic which is not a bad idea at all for a hand held device.

The biggest difference in operation is that Zune contains an FM tuner as well as a WiFi capability to share songs. Clearly this latter feature is aimed at young users in the school playground or campus coffee bar. An FM tuner is available for the iPod as an optional extra.

But the greatest difference that separates the two competitors is probably in the marketing of music. Let's compare:

iPod uses iTunes which is available on both Mac and Windows platforms and is generally acclaimed as the reason why the iPod has been such a success. iTunes has evolved into a brilliant piece of software - possibly one of the best ever and as a free download even more special (you can use iTunes to organize your existing music without buying an iPod). The Zune software is going to be available only for Windows compatible computers - we will have to wait and see how easy it is to use. Meantime, Microsoft has basically excluded me, as an Apple Macintosh owner, from even considering its product.

The iTunes Music Store (ITMS) has also evolved into an innovative but easy to use (as any Apple product should be) place to buy music. OK, you don't really buy the music. But then you never do buy all the rights to music when it is sold on a disc or tape - just read the small print! You can copy the music you buy from ITMS onto several computers and iPods, certainly enough machines to maintain a friendly accord between vendor and user, and of course all other music sources can be imported from CDs, hijack software, etc. Microsoft has introduced a new music store and, this is interesting, any music bought previously is not compatible with the Zune (including Microsoft's own MSN store which will now close). Microsoft's business model includes paying the music vendors a royalty on each Zune sold. This has been brought about by an insistence from the United Music Group that they must receive payment as all iPod users are basically criminals! At $1 a Zune, this means that Microsoft will be limited to the number of royalty payments it can negotiate and therefore the number of music publishers it will sign up. Also, how can Microsoft introduce an entry level shuffle competitor and honor existing high royalty payments to the big music publishers?

Another way of examining the Zune business model is to consider that United Music Group will actually benefit not only from Zune sales but also from sales of every song it markets through the Zune store. In effect doubling its income stream! This hardly benefits the indies who will only get royalties on sales of the music. Indies gave Apple a hard time so I think we can expect a bigger brouhaha this time around. And just wait for the EU to get their hands on it!

Zune's limited sharing of music sounds interesting but the DRM is designed to knock out the shared file after three plays or a few days, which ever comes first. I don't know if this will be possible, but it seems to me that piracy could easily be achieved by hijacking any one of the three plays and then burning a CD! Also, it is said that the "three strikes and you are out" methodology cannot distinguish between a licensed song and, say, a demo disc uploaded onto a Zune by the demo disc's owner who clearly has the right to his own copyright.

Podcasts. It would appear that Microsoft is not going to offer podcasts. How very interesting! I guess their business model just doesn't make way for free downloads of anything even if such downloads may be fantastic loss leaders! The podcast is rapidly maturing into the better way to disseminate information to people who need that information on their time schedule, not necessarily when the Media deliver it. Podcasts are superb for anyone who travels a lot, whether transatlantic or the daily grind on a commuter train. Maybe the problem is in the name "podcast"? Could there be a parallel universe with "zunecasts"?

In conclusion, I predict that Zune is a brave entry that may not live up to its promises. With only one model aimed at the iPod's higher end, Microsoft will not quickly invade Apple's market share. In shear numbers this Christmas it will be the newly introduced Nano and Shuffle models that will boost Apple's market share. These are cheap enough to be stocking stuffers and are expected to sell very well indeed. Microsoft is gambling on one model being successful because of the huge Windows installed base. Most iPod owners I know are also Windows users (thanks to the cross-platform iTunes software) and some are actively considering moving to Apple for their next computer purchase.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The iPod as a Learning Tool

I was recently made aware of the University of California at Berkeley iTunes site via Pete's November 9 2006 linklog. I must admit that my initial reaction was not exactly positive but then I didn't follow the link to explore more until now.

The various courses available are clearly aimed at the serious student so it can be asumed that the content is basically the same that an enrolled student would receive if attending classes on campus. Without the campus cameraderie, of course. (It does bother me to think that in future students will listen to coursework in isolation and perhaps fail to learn the skills of communication, discussion, point and counterpoint, etc.)

But just like a Google search, or Wikipedia, these free downloads form a formidable resource that is instantly available any time, any where. With the portability of an iPod, the classroom can indeed be a commuter train, a trans-Atlantic airplane cabin, a lonely spot on an unspoiled coastline. Wherever.

There is also a certain altruism in all this information sharing, whether it is Google or Apple that is providing the means of access for free information. Yes, it's true that both companies make a lot of money as a by product of this altruism, but no-one is actually forcing the consumer to spend any money (other than to buy the basic equipment, but in a few cases an iPod is now being made available as part of the course material anyway). In a sense, the very act of education should make such iPod users more discerning when it comes to the "pull" toward those commercial links!

I used to think that anyone wearing earbuds (white or not) was probably listening to popular music - i.e. being entertained. Many of my generation almost certainly would agree with that observation - the banning of personal listening devices in some quiet zones would certainly suggest that they are not very quiet and therefore must be turned up too loud. But free downloadable podcasts and course lectures are probably taking a larger and larger percentage of the playing time on many iPods and other players. Which can only be a good thing. So the next time you see an iPod user on a crowded train, he/she may be listening to a course on, say, food nutrition, courtesy of the UCAL system.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

iPod Usage



The iPod is starting to fill up. This neat display on iTunes explains what is where. The audio, video and photos are all within the iPod partition of the hard drive. The "other" category contains the high resolution images associated with Lightroom and are directly accessible from the PowerBook.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Full Stern Ahead

Having decided to discontinue "Global Warming is Good" as I have not the time to devote to it at the moment, I still follow the events that surround the great climate change debate. The publication of the Stern Report brought out the inevitable "carbon-burning to get there" protests in Trafalgar Square (have these people nothing better to do?) but there has been precious little in the news to put Stern in his place. Ex-World Bank economist that he is, Stern has no scientific credentials and his study was commissioned by the UK Treasury, presumably as a vehicle to introduce green taxes.

I recommend Philip Stott's excellent blog on the subject. Required reading for all those who seek balance in a complex world. And here is another article worth reading, on the BBC website.

[Additional thoughts]

All this concern over the potential for "catastrophic" climate change has got to me! Why are people spending time, effort, money and natural resources going to protest about something that has yet to happen when there are a thousand problems already facing us and in urgent need of solutions. AIDS in Africa, TB on the rise, lack of water and electricity in many third world countries, social problems brought on by religious extremism to name just five.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sunday Snow

Sunday Snow

I woke up this morning to snow. Not a lot but enough to cover the streets early on a Sunday morning and make the sidewalks a little treacherous. The photo above was taken out the office window at 8:30 a.m. Yes, on a Sunday!

Calgary has an excellent system of First Floor bridges and corridors that link many of the downtown buildings. It's called the Plus 15 because it is approxiamtely 15 feet above street level. During the week it is a hive of activity with coffee shops, sandwich bars and so on serving the huge workforce (the building I am in has at least 1,200 workers). But at weekends it is a home for the homeless, assuming they escape the eye of the security guards (who, in some cases, may turn a blind eye). And not all of it is open, as I discovered just after I had woken up three homeless individuals asleep on the hard floor. Retracing my steps I ventured outside and carefully walked the six blocks from hotel to office. I met two other souls.

The temperature is officially -8ºC and it feels like -20ºC according to accuweather.com. It didn't seem that bad to me but I wasn't out in it for very long.

It continues to snow, very small flakes, a sort of frozen drizzle. The wind is starting to drift what has already fallen but I am sure the city will have their equipment out before too long - this isn't the UK, after all!

Winter is here!

So far my first week in Calgary has been most enjoyable with a lot of sunshine and pleasant temperatures. This is all changing fast. Tomorrow it will be -6ºC but will feel like -13ºC. And I have to walk about six blocks to get to work. Luckily I have enough warm clothing with me and, if I didn't, I know I can always buy more here!

They are also suggesting we may get some flurries of snow. Maybe.

Update: Flurry it did! Photos to follow. . . .

Canadian Pacific #29

Canadian Pacific #29 - HDR (2)

I've been working today (Saturday) and will be again tomorrow in order to meet deadlines. But all work and no play is no fun, so I took off mid-afternoon to photograph this fine preserved steam locomotive on 9th Avenue, downtown Calgary. First I stopped for a late lunch at an Irish pub as I hadn't eaten all day (Breakfast at 6:30 a.m.) as it was bloody cold and I needed some fuel! Then, feeling a lot warmer, I took a series of photos including this five exposure HDR image.

I am not at all sure I like this, but the reason for doing HDR was that the contrast between dark paint and bright sunlight was so great I knew it would help. In fact there is still too much dynamic range so I may go back and try some different settings.

Then I walked one block north and took this:

8th Avenue Conversation

We have admired this piece of street statuary for some time but this is the first time I have photographed it.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blogger is Acting Up

I have finally found out that, although Blogger isn't working with Safari, it is running with Firefox. Numerous others are having the same problem but Google/Blogger seem unable to admit anything is wrong on their status blog. As several have commented, the worst thing about Blogger is that they never update the status page until they've solved the problem!

I am a bit worried about this (several years ago, pre-Google ownership) I lost my entire first round blog. So I think I will turn on DeepVacuum and at least download all my hard work over the past three years.

The Goat, or who is Sylvia? - a Review

Last night I had the opportunity to go to the theater in Calgary. Friends suggested joining them for a play. Not knowing what to expect, I signed up and bought a ticket. In retrospect the "not knowing what to expect" bit turned out to be the chance of the day not to be missed. Would I have so readily agreed to go had I known what the play was about? Probably, but then again, maybe not.

For the play was Edward Albee's 2002 prize winning The Goat, or who is Sylvia?.

Albee forces us to stretch the limits of our liberal ideals with a plot that includes bestiality, homosexuality and a hint of incest thrown in for good measure. On top of that, the cast includes what seems to be a perfectly functional family that isn't, a highly educated family that also uses its combined intelligence to hurl vectives around like china (and the china is thrown too).

In a nutshell - Very successful architect admits to his best friend that he is having an affair with a goat. Best friend writes a letter to the architect's wife revealing all. Architect's wife hits the roof in an intellectually driven desire to understand. Their gay son intervenes from time to time to add another dimension. The story ends as dramatically as it begins.

I found myself wanting to believe that the architect wasn't really goat f***ing (the play doesn't use asterisks) but that he was misunderstood. But the plot wouldn't let me take the easy road out of the situation and I began to realize, reluctantly, that the man was serious, worse, that he could see nothing wrong with his activities. Yet he was quite the critic when it came to his own son's homosexuality.

The wife/mother raises the atmosphere to screaming pitch with several crescendos that are accompanied by a lot of furniture tossing and china smashing. Her graphic description of how she feels about sharing her husband with a goat finally seemed to break down her husband's profession of innocent love. But she fled the house before he could attempt reconciliation.

The rest of the play, leading up to the finale, I will not reveal here. It would be unfair on any unsuspecting theater-goer to know the ending.

The acting was excellent, all four characters being well cast. The set and lighting were appropriate - a rather nice arts and crafts style room with the usual stained glass window treatments, etc. I will admit to being both affronted and entertained. Perhaps exactly what Albee intended?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

iTunes DRM "cracked"

This BBC article refers to a new program that will allow iTunes music to be played on other MP3 players than Apple's iPods. The article suggests this is something new. Nonsense.

OK, so you download music you purchased from iTunes onto your computer. What the rest of the world has been doing for quite a long time (?5 years) is to then back up the music onto a CD. Apple strongly suggests you do this, by the way! But if we burn the files as AIFF files, guess what, we not only create a CD with tracks that can be played on the car stereo (or any regular CD player) but we can also then load them into a non-iPod MP3 player.

This may not sound that easy but, given the fact that iTunes purchases should be backed up anyway, most of the effort is already expended.

The truth is, Apple's digital rights management (DRM) software, called Fairplay, is pretty inocuous in that up to five computers and iPods can be registered for use and CDs can be burned that allow free export of the songs. It really isn't so different from the days when we copied tracks off an album onto a cassette tape. The key, of course, is that the license on every record, tape, CD, DVD and download says the music is for our own personal use and not for dupication for profit.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Venezuelan Traffic

My second YouTube entry was filmed while driving in Maturin, Vanezuela. Well, I wasn't the driver! Anyway, the idea was to show how driving is in this interesting country of contrasts. People who are incredibly friendly outside their vehicles become maniacal when at the wheel of one. Except my driver, Luis. Things get really interesting after about 15 seconds. Enjoy!

Crossing the Congo

I made this short movie over a year ago. The "executive ferry" runs across the River Congo between Brazzaville (capital of the Republic of Congo) to Kinshasa (capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo). The cities are located at the lower end of Lake Stanley, just before the mighty river plunges through a series of rapids to the coast. All the ships, boats and barges you see are essentially confined to the upper reaches of the river.



This is my first effort using YouTube. The movie was made with my Fuji S7000 in movie mode. I made one other movie with this camera so, until I think about buying a digital movie camera, my repertoire will be limited.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Madonna and Guy Ritchie

I feel bound to comment on what has been going on during the past week or so. The press are, of course, making a mountain out of a molehill while all the "do-gooders" are squealing about human rights and "due process".

Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie have applied for and won adoption rights to a 13 month old Malawi boy, David, whose mother died soon after childbirth. The boy's father has consented to the adoption on the grounds that he is incapable of providing a life for the child, having sent him to an orphanage.

The boy's future can only be brighter. So anyone who claims that he should stay in Malawi on "human rights" grounds is probably jealous. What may be more important, however, is that the Ritchies have brought the plight of African children to the forefront. If they can adopt a child, so can others. That may be a significant change for the better.

Too often the real problems in Africa are over-shadowed by glib statements from politicians and do-gooders. Earlier this year Gordon Brown, UK PM-in-waiting, made a quick visit to Africa to hand over a promise of billions of pounds of aid. He got a nice photo opportunity with Nelson Mandela in return. Bullshit. He wasn't even giving away his own money (though he probably considers it his!)

In Africa (where I spend quite a lot of my time) things are very different from Europe or the Americas. There is extreme poverty and often no hope of making things better. NGOs come and go, busying themselves with grandiose schemes, driving their white Landcruisers from one meeting to another. The UN sends ill-prepared peace-leeping soldiers who rape children in eastern D R Congo. Meanwhile, big business (you know, the people "they" like to blame for everything) quietly goes about its ways, providing jobs, building infrastructure, developing resources and so on. I see the impact of this on a first hand basis and it is just about the only aspect of positive change out there.

Now we have this very wealthy couple making a deal with a destitute father in Malawi in order to take care of one small child. Bravo, Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie, you have my unqualified support. May others follow in your footsteps.

Football/Soccer - on being a Bluenose

This may come as a surprise to many. I am a Bluenose, meaning, I support Birmingham City Football Club, a.k.a. the Blues.

The Blues (not to be confused with late comers Chelsea) were one of the founding members of the original football league in England, along with neighboring teams Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. While those other two teams may have had a more illustrious past (and, in the case of Villa, a reasonable start to this season), I have always been a Bluenose, as supporters are called. Well, that's better than being a Villain or a Baggie!

At the moment the Blues aren't doing very well despite having aspirations to greatness as seen by the large amounts of money invested by the owners Gold brothers and David Sullivan. These characters have plenty of money but it does look like they know how to waste it as well as make it. The manager (or gaffer in soccer-speak) is ex-Manchester United defender Steve Bruce. Bruce may have been a great player but a great manager he ain't. There's a good chance he's going to get the sack later this week and I for one hope he does.

Why?

Well, if you analyze the truly great managers and coaches you will see that there is a not a strong correlation between managers and coaches who were legends at playing the game. In other words, there is a good chance that individual skills do not translate into management skills. This is true in many walks of life and in too many cases we see people promoted into management because of their skills only to fail when dealing with people. I consider Bruce to fit into this category. After every loss he takes the blame (as he should) but never seems to be able to deliver a response. As a result we've seen some truly great players go sideways, even backwards, to be sold at a loss after one miserable season. Part of that responsibility must rest with the owners but they basically buy the players the manager wants.

Across town at Villa Park there has been a revolution since the start of the season with Martin O'Neill taking the helm from David O'Leary. What a difference a true motivator can make with little injection of funds but a whole lot of cajoling and touchline support! That's what the Blues needs.

I am not sure who exactly is out there and available at this time but I bet the owners have already got someone lined up.

What I would most hope for is a manager who can inspire, who understands player psychology and can get the team playing together and above their own individual levels. That isn't impossible. Arsene Wenger has proved it at Arsenel while Alex Ferguson is another who seems able to make the most with what he has. And neither was ever a great player. Birmingham City needs a thinking man as a manager, preferably one who hasn't had an illustrous career with a famous team. Let's see what happens!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Who is "not compatible"?

I use Apple's Safari browser. Some website designers haven't heard of it which is surprising as it is either the third or fourth most used browser out there. But they probably think there's only Windows anyway! Sometimes they do understand that they have not supported other browsers than, say, Internet Exploder, and, having identified an alien browser, post this message:

Some features of this site won't work because your browser is not compatible. More...

Surely such designers have got it the wrong way round. The message should read:

Some features of this site won't work because our site is not compatible with your browser. We are working on this problem and will soon have a solution. Meantime, we ask that you consider the temporary use of E******r, even though that company ceased to support your operating system some time ago.

Cabinda

I recently spent a few days on a reconnaissance trip to Cabinda, a small enclave of Angola that supplies a lot of oil to the western world. I was actually there in order to try to cross into a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but never actually made the border crossing. But Cabinda is an interesting place so a few pictures have been posted to Flickr.

What comes across is that this country, which recently (~2002) ended a 30 year long civil war, has a long way to go to catch up. A major part of the problem has to be the large number of land mines that remain concealed around the country. Mine clearance is not something that seems to have a high priority and even the knowledge of where mines may be is not always remembered with candid honesty.

I traveled with an interesting character, Nick, who is a mine clearance expert. Much of the work involves talking to local people about where mine fields were established during the war. The mines are then either cleared or flagged. The latter does not appear to be a long term solution as the signs and tapes are often removed by villagers who may simply be ashamed that the mine fields still exist. Mine fields are not that common in Cabinda but of course it only takes one.

By design a typical land mine only maims, it does not kill. So it is no surprise to see a lot of people in Angola with injuries and the capital, Luanda, has many street beggars with missing limbs. There are fewer casualties visible in Cabinda so it is possible that there were fewer land mines laid here. Typical locations for mine fields include around a village meeting place (often a shade tree), along the fences around government installations and military bases, and at road junctions.

The challenge today is to get the economy back on its feet. Angola is a major oil producer offshore but there remains some potential onshore as well, so mine clearance is a priority, particularly when starting new exploration seismic surveys. Unlike in neighboring Congo (that's the old French Congo, not DRC) Cabinda shows little sign of prosperity despite the oil wealth. Farms and smallholdings seem to flourish in the Congo, I never saw a vegetable plot in Cabinda. Fish seem to be the only locally supplied foodstuff. In the countryside the wildlife has largely been hunted into extinction and the jungle can be eerily quiet with just a few birds audible in the trees. I was told that the locals will kill and eat "anything". We came across one party of undernourished hunters but they had nothing to show for a morning's work.

The locals often have a hard time understanding foreigners and their ways. One example is that, under Health and Safety rules, locals cannot be given lifts in company vehicles even though this is a time-honored way for villagers to hitch a ride to town. This does create a "them and us" mentality but even so the people are often more than friendly. At one small town we were feted with cold beer by the "mayor" and local military commander in a gesture of friendship that also carried the notion that jobs and other economic benefits were available should we start work in the area.

Cabinda seems to be neglected by just about everyone. The NGOs and charities that seem to be everywhere in Africa were missing. Schools have been built but many are not open as there are few teachers. Those that are making it in society have little respect for those who haven't (i.e. it's strange how drivers speed up through a village, just to show off their job, skills and new found position).

It will be interesting to see how quickly things change (or not). I was constantly reminded of an earlier entry about Africa.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

One Year of Flickr

I just renewed my annual membership and have the following statistics to report:

Photos uploaded: 2,512

Photostream Viewed: 25,317 views and rising

Number of Contacts: 62

Number of Groups (Pools): 97, of which I administer 5

Most Viewed Photo: 1,813 times

Washover Channel, Padre Island

(Note: I have no idea why this photo is so popular!)

Most Interesting Photo:

Southleigh Church, Devon

Most Commented Photo:

South Devon Coast HDR

Ali and Zoë

Congratulations to Ali and Zoë! On Saturday we witnessed and celebrated their Civil Partnership Signing Ceremony at the Richmond Hill Hotel in Richmond, Surrey.

Ali and Zoë

This lovely couple have been together for some time but this ceremony puts the seal on their relationship. In England, Civil Union for same sex partners was passed into law in December 2005. Here is a short paragraph from wikipedia.

We found the entire day absolutely wonderful! To see the families come together and support these two women in achieving their dreams and aims was very special.

Having lived within one of America's largest gay communities (Montrose, Houston) we understand the difficulties facing those who desire to "come out of the closet". Enclaves like Montrose exist because people feel more secure among their own kind. All too often gay teens find themselves ostracized and driven away from home. So it was really exciting to see so much family support.

I mentioned to Ali and Zoë that they have a role model in Houston who has risen through the political ranks of the city to become elected as City Controller - the second most important position after the Mayor. I worked with Annise Parker during the 1990s. In 1997 Annise ran for City Councillor At Large and came a distant second in the first poll. The candidate with the most votes did not have more than 50% so there was was a run-off. The well organized gay community turned out in strength and Annise romped home. Her election to Controller in 2003 was based simply on her positive record - by this time she had earned the respect of the community at large. As wikipedia mentions, she is a possible mayoral candidate in 2009. Imagine that, a lesbian mayor for America's fourth largest city, located deep in the Bible Belt!

And this is really the point of my digression. There is absolutely no doubt that Ali and Zoë are great people but they will be even greater for their openness and full expression of the love and caring they have for each other.


Ali, Zoë and Ali's closest family

Bravo!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Wootton Wawen

I don't know how many times I have driven through this lovely village (bespoiled by the main road but surviving nonetheless). The other day I decided to stop and look inside the church of St. Peters, advertised as the "oldest church in Warwickshire". I should have done so long ago!

St. Peter's, Wootton Wawen

The history of Wootton Wawen mimics many similar sized villages, with its manor house (now a hall), mill and millstream, black and white half-timbered houses, important roads and a canal.

The church is an interesting structure with the original Saxon stone chancery preserved inside the later Norman walls and tower. So that, in the heart of the church you can see the difference between the seim-circular Saxon arch and the much stronger and splendid pointed Norman arch:

St. Peter's, Wootton Wawen

While I was inside the church the wind outside was blowing quite strongly and the roof rafters were creaking rather alarmingly, though I am sure the building must be safe. An inspection on the outside shows that there has indeed been a lot of movement of the structure and several areas have needed significant buttressing. It looks as though many enlargements have taken place through timne, not always with a prudent thought as to how much the existing foundations might be calable of bearing.

I spent some time taking HDR shots of the rafters and while doing this I remembered that, probably 40 or 50 years ago, thieves stole all the lead sheeting off the roof one night.

Church Rafters

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Is patriotism misguided?

This afternoon I have some time on my hands, the first in quite a while during a weekday, and I have been catching up on e-mails and so on. Friends in Houston and Atlanta have been sending me political PoVs for some time but the latest transcends all others. While I won't be discussing it here, the link is worth following (Clinton vs the Neo-Cons and Fox news). So please come back after you've viewed the "show".

What this exchange got me thinking about was my subject line: is patriotism misguided?

When America goes to war, even an unjust, silly, stupid, war, its citizens tend to fall in behind the leadership and give huge support even though they may not agree with or understand the political issues. I guess this stems from the fact that the Federal Government is supposed to have very limited powers (Ha!) and one of them is to secure the borders against foreign aggression. Also, the government is so often aided and abetted by a media that fails to fully inform and educate the electorate.

So, warmongers and hawks have worked out that a war against a foreign aggressor is probably going to get that partiotic support. Which is almost certainly why they set out to do what they do. The entire operation is masked by statements like "we must support our troops", "it would be unpatriot not to support our boys in the war effort" and so on. Yellow ribbons are sold and bought by the mile. The flag, as always a powerful symbol of nation building, is brought into play and with hand on heart the politicians lead the soldiers into war. Except they (the politicians) stay behind to keep the fires of partiotism stoked while young soldiers die on foreign soil.

So where does all this patriotism get us? Well, the first stage has already arrived - disillusionment. The government's popularity is down the toilet, it's single minded attitude toward the war on terror has meant neglect to the economy, a weakened dollar and a lowering of the political standing of the nation on the world's stage.

I don't necessarily subscribe to my friends' belief that Bush is stupid (he has significant paper qualifications to suggest otherwise) but I do think that the Neo-Cons he is guided by are following a twisted and cynical agenda that cannot possibly achieve its objectives. And while we pile up a wall of hatred in the world of Islam, we are also degrading that sense of patriotism at home that should be such a positive influence.

In short, patriotism should not be invoked by politicians to support their misguided agendas. We shouldn't let them get away with it.

Hell Phones

This article on wired.com struck a consonant chord with my own feelings about cell phones (a.k.a. mobiles). I concur with just about everything the writer has to say about hell phones but I would add one more comment. The user interface on the average hell phone is nearly impossible to learn (and retain as an infrequent user), being unnecessarily complex, crammed with too many unwanted features, and designed for someone who is probably 40 years younger than I am!

Perhaps the AARP should campaign for cell phone designs that older people can understand and use! That would be heaven sent!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Flickr.com vs. photo.net

Several years ago I was an active member of the photo.net community. This was when Philip Greenspun was still involved (in fact I think he subsidised the entire operation during its inception). Primarily an American thing, photo.net was often more equipment oriented than creativity oriented. Long debates about whether the X lens was better than the Y lens would often end with insults being hurled until someone would write "Why don't you all get outside and take a few photographs with those damned lenses?" A day later the same people would start arguing the inevitable Nikon vs Canon debate. And so on.

A year ago I was introduced to flickr.com and signed up as a "Pro". My reasons were two fold. Pete recommended it and I saw it as a useful off-site back up repository. A year later I see it all quite differently. Flickr does have the equipment freaks but mostly it is all about creativity and sharing of that creativity. Even more interesting is the fact that the community even gets away from computer screens and has flickrmeets. I've only been on one such event but it was fun and rewarding. Watching others' techniques is always fascinating and there's a lot to learn from how others use their equipment to be creative. Flickr is also a true "web" of activity and I have contacts from all over the place with all types of interest. Some of these have a real sense of humor so the repartee that exists in some comments threads can be amusing (or trite, depending on the PoV).

So, I now rarely visit photo.net but have become a frequent Flickr contributor. And Flickr has become an integral part of focalplane.com, providing an ever changing front page. It may now be owned by Yahoo! but that doesn't seem to have influenced its somewhat goofy interface at all. Go Flickr!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Downloading and Viewing an iTunes movie

Now that iTunes have full feature movies available to buy (or is it license?) and view, I thought I would try it out. Not that there is much of a selection at the moment but if you like Disney movies. . . .

I selected the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Downloading was an interesting experience. Late evening Europe time is late afternoon in the US so the system seemed to be running very slowly and even timed out several times. So at midnight GMT I paused the download and restarted it at 7 a.m. this morning. With most people fast asleep across the Atlantic the feed was much more rapid. In fact I would guess it was faster than the movie's run time. Which is an interesting point. Broadband may be capable of supplying a movie feed in real time but not if the system is overloaded.

The quality of the movie is excellent on my computer screen (I watched the movie in full screen letterbox mode. The movie comes as it is, no additional tracks, no trailers for other movies, etc. Which I appreciate. There are chapters just like on a DVD (this is a new feature of QuickTime 7.1 I think. And the on screen controls are easy to operate with a mouse.

I am going to have to try it on a larger screen or projector system because this would be the real test.

As to the movie. It cost $9.99 plus sales tax which is cheaper than buying it at this time on Amazon.com. for $13.99. I do have to burn a back DVD so that will be a small extra price to pay. And I am not sure if I can then play this DVD file on another computer. This will need some research to see if there is a way round the DRM. I am not trying to do anything illegal here, by the way, but I do want to know if I can easily play the movie on another computer for my benefit when somewhere other than at home.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The true Freedom Fries

After the start of the second Gulf War, many Americans refused to call French Fries by any other name than Freedom Fries, in response to the French Government's stance against the invasion of Iraq.

These days we are starting to find out the truth about exactly what Freedom can mean in Iraq. Not that it was any better before the invasion, but the problem is that the US, having espoused the concept of freedom for so long, is holding thousands (in this article 14,000) of Iraqis and others for long periods of time without trial. Many are finally sent home after months of detention but with no apology and no compensation.

This is no way to win the war on terror. But it's a damn good way to fan the flames.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Brazilian Girls

They have a new album out and I downloaded it from iTunes today. Different from their debut album which is good in that so often a new band seems to get stuck in the rut of its early success. Some of the tracks are X rated (just like the first album) but if you're grown up there's nothing to shock. I am told that this New York band are terrific live and the four videos available on iTunes certainly suggest that it's true about what is said.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Grey is the new Flickr

Just click here to get the new Flickr. You also need to see the thread here to get the complete picture!

Whatever Happened to MTV?

Yes, I know, it's still around. But whatever happened to those early years of Dire Straits and Bruce Springtseen, the Cars, Peter Gabriel and everything else originating in the 1980s? The reason I ask is that I recently downloaded some Bruce Springsteen vidoes from iTune and got a huge notalgia rush! "Born to Run", "Glory Days", "Tunnel of Love". Yes, they were the glory days of MTV. At least, that's my opinion!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Apple Financial Podcast

This idea could catch on! As a small shareholder in Apple Corporation I welcome the idea that I can listen to an entire financial quarterly review on iTunes. The alternative is to follow one of many analysts and their many "takes" on the subject. Always better to go to the source! And this is a way in which the source comes to you. May other companies follow suit (Microsoft, any chance?)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Needville cockfight killing

This all sounds quite surreal. I used to visit Needville back in the 1980s and to be honest, it is a stop on the way to somewhere else. It is also signposted off Highway US 59 at Richmond. That was, until today, it's main claim to fame. But as this article will attest, Needville is now newsworthy, following the shooting at a cockfight. Cockfight? Yes, a cockfight. Who'd a thought it.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Geotagging Flickr with Google

A relatively new twist on Flickr is the ability to easily geotag the location of a photograph using Google Maps. This in itself is useful and fun but there is also the intrigue that two companies, Google and Yahoo, who compete in so many areas, can be united by a simple application created by a smart individual.

To add this Javascript plug-in to Flickr, simply go here and follow the instructions. At the same time you will get (if you want) all the background and explanation as to what is going on. You will also get to know the clever individual aemkei who did all this.

So far I have geotagged four of the five photos in the Arts & Crafts set. More will come but it's going take a long time to catch up the backlog, particularly as I am very busy just now.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Hewn & Hammered

I recently discovered this Flickr Group and it brought back many good memories of the Craftsman movement in the United States. In many ways the Arts & Crafts movement may have started in the UK but it really flourished in America. And still does.

Houston, Texas, may not be renowned for Arts & Craft architecture but in fact there are large swathes of Craftsman style home built in the 1910s through the 1930s in areas like Montrose. Such developments suffered from inner city neglect and many fine homes have been "scraped" by hungry developers. But, interestingly, many have been saved and lovingly restored. And to assist in the process there are several firms dedicated to providing original and replica pieces of furniture and the all important interior design motifs that make the Craftsman style what it is.

My challenge is now to add to the Hewn & Hammered group with examples from Chipping Campden and Broadway, two of the original Arts and Crafts centers during the late 19th (Broadway) and early 20th (Campden) Centuries.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cheap Eats in London Town

London is becoming a very expensive place to eat these days. But recently we found an oasis of cheap eats - the Royal Overseas League restaurant in St. James. How we found out about this place is a story in itself. April is a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society and we frequently dine at their modern restaurant located on Northumberland Avenue. This is a veritable oasis of quiet and good cuisine, a place where you can hold and hear a good conversation while enjoying excellent food.

So we booked a table (or rather, the hotel concierge booked a table) and five of us piled into a cab and off we went. To a closed down club building (closed for renovations in August). On the door, in small print, a notice advised us that members could enjoy reciprocal membership at the Royal Overseas League. Joke - the ROL's club was yards away from our hotel, necessitating another cab journey back to St. James.

We entered the lobby and felt we were entering one of those time warps that Hollywood can conjure up. Art Deco style furnishings suggested that the place hadn't seen more than a fresh coat of paint or two since the 1920s. Then we entered the brasserie restaurant where our table was reserved. Everything about the place felt somewhere between 1920 and 1950, including the menu and the service. For the four of us who grew up in the 1950s this was interesting, for the fifth member of our party, a Frenchman from Bordeaux, this must have been a complete culture shock, a venture into the unknown, a journey into the kitchen of a mad Englishman!

The menu was indeed a throwback - sausage and mash, £6.95. In St. James, London!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bad Flight Scenario

Just read this report on a disturbance on a flight from Heathrow to Washington that had to be diverted to Boston.

So, here you are, sitting in a, say, Business Class seat for which you have paid big bucks. The staff are rude, the service is lousy, the headphones don't work and they have run out of your favorite alcoholoc beverage. Don't, what ever you do, complain. You may end up in Boston in handcuffs and legirons.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Passenger Profiling

Seems that a lot of politicians have a problem with the concept of passenger profiling. This BBC report has some of the background. Personally, I quite understand the implications of passenger profiling. Suppose, for example that I frequently fly to and from Iran on business. Wouldn't it be fairly obvious that I could be more of a security risk than someone who takes an annual holiday to Spain and two weekend breaks a year to France? The whole point is that I could be more of a risk and therefore I should be subject to more scrutiny than most. If my business in Iran is legitimate, then why would I be worried about additional security screening?

But we live in a politically correct age where it is more important to be "nice" to people than worry about whether or not they are more likely to be a terrorist. Let's face it, the only people I am aware of in recent years who have strapped explosives to themselves with the intent to kill others are fanatical Muslims. I am not aware of any other social or racial group that does this. I am sorry that this implies that a lot of innocent people will be screened that "look like Islamic fascists" but if that is what will keep our skies safe and at the same time minimize the disruption to society, then that is what has to happen. Remember, if our society is disrupted, then the terror-mongers have won.

"One small step for. . . ."

Back in 1969, a certain Neil Armstrong stepped down form his spacecraft and was the first human to place his foot on the surface of the moon. As he did so, he made the famous statement "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

The original high resolution recording of that moment in history has been lost. But don't worry, NASA has lots of (inferior quality) copies.

Here is one such source for you to relive the moment. You will need RealPlayer. In all honesty, the sound isn't that great, but then this is a copy!

But wait, there's more! This 38 MB Quicktime movie covers Armstrong's entire descent onto the surface of the moon. Quite anti-climactic in this rendition as the shouts and cheers at Mission Control are not on the soundtrack!

Now for a possible reason why the original magnetic tapes are missing. Sometime between then and now the movement for sexual equality demanded that Armstrong's rehearsed statement is discriminatory. Armstrong represented all humans, not just men. So, in this crazy PC world we live in, it is entirely possible that someone in NASA simply dumped the tapes in a fit of chagrin.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Weston-Super-Mare

We visited this Victorian seaside town on Saturday to celebrate Kay's 80th Birthday. We also took some time during the evening to walk out on the Grand Pier and have a drink on the seafront.

The Grand Pier, Weston-Super-Mare

Weston could also be called Birmingham-on-Sea because it is traditionally the closest seaside town to the center of the country and, because of the railways, became a favorite day trip destination from Birmingham and the industrial Midlands during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Although Weston has seen better days, the place was surprisingly vibrant on a (cool) August Saturday evening. The Grand Pier, which is privately owned, is a marvellous throwback to times past. The entry to the pier is free and the "attractions" are many. But perhaps the best attribute of the pier is its ability to provide access to "fresh sea air", something that must have been especially wanting to all those Brummies escaping for the day from brass foundries, steelworks and family workshops.

The tides at Weston are typical of the Severn Estuary in that they have a huge range. Early in the afternoon we couldn't see the sea, by the time the sun was setting the tide was almost all the way in. The beach is not exactly sandy, more like silty at the top but muddy further down.

Airport Security

Since my earlier report not much has become clearer and much remains unknown, at least as far as the general public is concerned. The upheaval at airports continues so Al Qaeda, I assume, must be pleased with their efforts even without a single martyr. The UK Government is claiming our airport security will remain safe with the new restrictions in force. In fact, the reports suggest that The security measures are making travel more difficult, particularly at a busy time of year, but they are necessary and will continue to keep flights fully secure.

Fully secure? Then explain how people are finding things stolen from their hold baggage. If people behind the scenes at airports can open bags to take things out then we have to assume that they can also put things in. How well profiled are airport staff - cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, etc. at British airports? Given that profiling is frowned upon in PC UK, I have to assume that there is a chance that the odd mechanic, cleaner or cabin crew member could be on the wrong side of reason.

Israel's El Al, considered to be the safest airline flying, uses profiling to separate those who may be a threat from those who are unlikely to be a threat. Politically correct random searches do little to find the real threat, indeed they can alienate the very general public who otherwise might be a lot more helpful and supportive.

The most important "fact" at the moment is that a dozen or so planes did not fall out of the sky over the Atlantic. But as the many conspiracy theorists will point out, we have actually not been given much evidence, yet, that the acts of atrocity would have taken place. The thought that a 1984 type scenario is unfolding within the neo-con cabals of Washington DC is very worrying to those who believe in Freedom.

To try and sort out what is going on, I have studied the mainstream news (BBC, etc.) and then listened to the first hour of this week's Republic Broadcasting Network. At the end of all this I feel none the wiser but very concerned that I don't.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Apple iPhone

No, it doesn't exist, at least not yet. But the rumor mill is willing it to exist sooner rather than later. The first iTunes phone was a disaster, so why should I get excited about this vapor-phone?

Well, to be honest, I doubt if I would buy one as I already have an iPod Shuffle and a Motorola cell phone. The former has the inevitable Apple design - ease of use, simplicity, etc. The latter is a monster of complication. So if Apple were to produce a simple to use iPhone then I might consider it.

Cell phones are clearly designed for the younger members of society. Look at all the advertising hype, look at the major reasons cited for owning a 3G phone and you can see that older members of society are not counted as the main market. The menus which drive cell phones vary from make to make and model to model. Quite hopeless in many cases to even know how to end a call when borrowing someone else's cell phone!

So maybe Apple is on to a winner here. Time will tell.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Anti-Terrorism Operations

The news this morning is dominated by the revelation that the UK security services have uncovered plots to blow up planes in mid-flight between the UK and the US. First we should recognize the good news, that the security services have been able to infiltrate and uncover the potential threat before it could be realized. Though it has to be recognized that there may be other terrorist cells that have not been uncovered by the operation.

As a result the UK Government have introduced draconian measures aimed at preventing the carrying on board airplanes of potential terrorist materials in hand luggage. The latest BBC and Daily Telegraph reports may well be updated during the day, but these links were active at the time of posting.

My immediate reaction to the almost total ban on hand luggage was one of incredulity. Mainly because these days, when on flights to places like Venezuela and West Africa, I am reluctant to put anything of value in the hold of the aircraft. I am also aware that baggage handlers probably don't care too much about the contents of my baggage even if it only contains clothes, never mind my computer.

My second reaction, the knee jerk one, is that once again the terrorists can claim victory even without a bomb exploding in mid-air. We the people are losing valuable freedoms in the name of security measures. Along with this thought is the realization that there is precious little to do on a 10 hour flight to Houston or Calgary than watch third rate movies and TV sitcoms and drink what the airline provides in the way of fluids (passengers will not be allowed to carry any fluids on board a flight).

But logic may yet prevail. The stuff that we used to be able to hand carry on board will still go on board only we won't be able to access it on the plane. That's the knee jerk reaction by the authorities. Yet the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster is believed to have been caused by a device triggered in the forward hold of that aircraft. Maybe when the initial dust settles, some common sense will prevail. I hope so.

Monday, August 07, 2006

On Gentrification

This seems to be a new word in the English vocabulary. Perhaps it's only "new" in the sense that it is getting a lot more visibility in this day and age. I first read about the gentrification of the seamier side of London a few years ago and thought, well, that can't be all that bad. But in reality, what is happening in Britain today is an attempt at a complete makeover of the traditional with what one friend calls the "Disney Theme Park characterization" of our society.

For my example I would like to take you on a tour of a lovely North Cotswold town, Chipping Campden. A little history of the place is worth spending a paragraph of your time (or so I believe) as it sets the scene. A Cotswold Wool Town, Campden was a wealthy place in the 16th and 17th centuries but fell on hard times when Cotswold wool ceased to be the best in Europe. By the end of the 19th century the town was a back water but, because of this, it was a well preserved back water. In came the Arts and Crafts Movement and Campden received its first "makeover". These visionaries, tired of the Victorian concept of mass production, aimed back to a gentler time and took houses that were falling down and remodeled them, adding their own imprint but otherwise preserving what would have been lost. The Movement did not survive for long (less than 10 years) but the legacy is strong and still persists in the hearts (and not a few businesses) in the town.

A hundred years later and Campden is enjoying another renaissance. This time as a tourist paradise and location for retirees and second homers. In itself there is nothing wrong with this. Except for the gentrification factor. Let me explain.

Here is a classic Campden home.

Cotswolds as it should be

Note the fine construction that is far from perfect yet all very normal. The brick on the gable, for example, is a practical solution for the chimney flue behind. The garden is typically olde Englishe, a sense of chaotic order that simply works, blending the house into its environment.

Next, a gentrified Campden house.

The latest Cotswold gentrification

This house is a complete makeover of a nondescript structure that nobody can really remember much about. The past several months have seen a plethora of contractor vehicles parked on the grass verge near but not in front of the property while the structure was enlarged and then conspicuously thatched. Finally the landscaper moved in with a signature design that has been seen twice before in the town. Red geraniums formally planted with conical conifers at regular intervals. The grass verge is conspicuous by its splendour while the adjacent verges are rutted and lacking in grass.

Yes, there are other examples. Even a lowly 15 year old cottage got the same makeover while in the satellite village of Broad Campden the firm of Knight Frank is offering this property for almost a cool £3 million (if the link is still active when you click on it, check out those conical conifers!)

Sadly this last example was a classic Arts and Crafts Movement barn conversion. Here is a photo taken several years ago:

Arts & Crafts Classic

The Cotswold "look" has since disappeared.