Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A New Hiking Trail Entry - Big Bend South Rim

We are going out of February with a slew of travelogues and the last one is about Big Bend National Park, Texas. We have enough material to do several more Big Bend features, so this is a taste of things to come!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Dougga, Tunisia

Dougga, Tunisia

Not so long ago I scanned and uploaded to Flickr some photos of Tunisia and at the time said that a travelogue might be appropriate. In reviewing the material, it seemed the best approach would be to focus on just one location, rather than give a cursory tour of the country. There is no doubt that the Roman ruins at Dougga are worthy of a travelogue. If for no other reason than it might encourage more people to visit the place.

I was fortunate to work in the area in 1993 and 1994 and stayed at the Thugga Hotel in nearby Teboursouk for three weeks at a time. This area of Tunisia has been neglected over the years as the focus of the government has been to develop low cost beach holidays in places like Sousse. If you are prepared to rough it a bit, the Sahel region of Tunisia has a lot to offer, including scenery, archeology, local customs and so on. My suggestion (not in the travelogue) would be to visit Dougga in the spring when the area is green and carpeted with wild flowers. The climate at this time of year is perfect for exploring old ruins!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

And Another One!!

They are coming thick and fast now that I seem to have the system under some degre of control. Cayman Brac existed in the earlier "grey Focalplane" era but now the images can be seen on Flickr in sizes up to 1800 x 1200 pixels.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Another Travelogue!

This one on the Severn Valley Railway is a hybrid in that it involes both railways and hiking. But since most of the photos are of trains, it figures more prominently on the Focalplane Hub as a Railroad feature.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Two New Travelogues

First the Big One - Colorado 4x4 - the details of a week long vacation to Southwest Colorado in July 1996. Lots of high altitude photos from Jeep trails.

Then a "side trip" while we were in Colorado, a railroad travelogue on the fabulous Durango and Silverton Railroad.

Both are accessible from the Focalplane Hub but the railroad travelogue can also be accessed from inside the 4x4 page. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Hoodie Conundrum

Neither being young nor owning a hoodie, I stumbled on this iPod article in MacWorld quite by chance. I have to say that, in the UK climate, the concept of wearing a hooded sweater seems to be most sensible. Obviously retailers think so too as they sell plenty of them. What becomes somewhat sinister is the idea that people who wear hoodies are somehow dangerous to society, likely to cause trouble and therefore should be discouraged from meeting places like shopping malls.

A shopping mall is usually private property, unlike the Main Street or High Street, so the owners can insist on special rules if they believe such rules are in the public good. Last year the Blue Water Shopping Centre in Kent made the headlines by banning hoodies.

Perhaps hoodies deny security cameras a clear look and a reasonable ability to make an identification of a suspect, say, observed to be shoplifting. While events of July 7, 2005 certainly suggest that the more CCTVs we have the easier it is to catch terrorist bombers, I also wonder about the Orwellian concern of a "Big Brother" and how the information on peoples' movements might be used.

But the most bizarre part of the hoodie ban from shopping malls must be the fact that the wearers almost certainly bought them in the same Mall that now bans them from being worn! Isn't that a bit like a bar that sells you a drink but then says you can't drink it on the premises?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Colorado set on Flickr

Nearly ten years ago (it seems like yesterday!) we drove from Houston to Southwest Colorado for a week's holiday. At the time we owned a classic Range Rover and it seemed appropriate to see how high it would climb! We topped out at 13,112 feet on the Imogene Pass between Telluride and Ouray. A wonderful holiday at a time when we rarely had any time off to enjoy ourselves.

Imogene Pass, Colorado

The best of several rolls of film have been scanned and uploaded to this Flickr Set. I suppose we should now do a travelogue to go with them!

Definitely not definately

I know the English language is a forever changing phenomenon and I know I spell words the American way out of habit and choice, but I really don't like to see definitely spelled wrong! It de-finite-ly is spelled this way.

Or is it spelt?

CBSO Youth Orchestra

Last evening we enjoyed a rare experience, one which has me up and awake at 5 a.m. wanting to pen this before a busy day erases some of the details. Two years ago the Midland Youth Orchestra merged into the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra organization and became the CBSO Youth Orchestra. The MYO had a 50 year history of successes but the new concept, to be a part of a major world class cultural organization, has been proved to be a very good move for all concerned.

This is how it works. Young people aged 14-21 are invited to apply to join the orchestra. Twice a year they come together from all over the region and spend a week in concentrated rehearsals and workshops. Members of the senior orchestra work with the young players while they benefit from the organization that the CBSO offers. But the key, surely, must be the involvement of the music director, Sakari Oramo, and his colleagues who wave the baton and make the music happen. Then there is Symphony Hall, considered to be one of the finest concert venues in the World. Last night, for the first time, the CBSO Youth Orchestra put on a full program in Symphony Hall with the second half under Oramo's sensitive yet firm baton.

We went to the concert for two reasons. The first, to support the concept. The second, to hear Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. We are glad we did. At the end of the concert we could not move from our seats - a truly exceptional experience.

The program began with Britten's Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra. This piece is a technical showpiece and was played under the baton of CBSO assistant conductor Michael Seal. It worked well to introduce us to some fine playing but it did lack that little something extra. The rapport between conductor and players could be seen to be excellent, however, and it became apparent that the players were very attentive to the baton (more so than their seasoned mentors from the senior orchestra, perhaps?)

Next up, also under Michael Seal, the orchestra was joined by young trumpeter Alison Balsom for Arutianian's Trumpet Concerto. This piece, which was new to us, gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate that it can support a soloist and provide the necessary "backing" without trying to steal the show. Again, the technical excellence was there for all to hear and the orchestra was warmly appreciated by both conductor and soloist before the first half of the concert ended.

After the break we settled in to listen and see what Sakari Oramo would bring out of this technically very competent ensemble. We were not disappointed. The combination of great playing, superb conducting and the Hall's acoustics gave us a performance of a lifetime. Elgar's music is high on our personal list and his music is also a CBSO tradition (the composer conducted the orchestra's first concert in 1920). In fact, it would be hard to imagine Oramo being hired if he was not a fan of the great English composer. But I digress.

Oramo brought passion and emotion to the concert (something he does frequently!) and as we were on one side in the fifth row of the front stalls it was possible to witness his involvement as well as hear the results. He was totally at one with the orchestra, coaxing here, controlling there, giving gentle encouragements and showing appreciation. Between the contrasting variations he allowed the orchestra time to compose itself; at other times he moved on quickly from one character to the next. It all seemed so "right"!

The week of workshops, practice and rehearsal all came together under the roof of Symphony Hall. This is no ordinary auditorium for it not only provides superlative sound but the visual experience is special too. So when you recognize all the hard work that went into the concert and you see the calm expressions on the faces of the young players, it might be hard to believe they weren't excited. But we bet they were!

As "Enigma" came to an end the audience erupted into a sustained ovation and it became clear that Oramo was very, very pleased indeed.

He introduced an encore, an Overture by John Foulds, that was brilliant. The encore helped us to come back to Earth after the Elgar but even then we did not rush to leave. Remaining seated while others moved out, we simply marveled at having been present for such a special evening.

And one final comment - the tickets cost all of £7 each. Amazing value considering the level of achievement. Congratulations to all involved, not the least the young players.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Walking the Wye

We hiked a 7-1/2 mile walk today around the River Wye in Herefordshire. Unfortunately we left home in brilliant sunshine but found that all the river valleys were covered in fog that would not lift. So these pictures are a little "grey". Never mind, an interesting walk that included several village churches. The Flickr set can be accessed here.

The highlight of the walk was the church at Hoarwithy. Built in the 1880s in the Italian style, the church looks somewhat out of place in misty Middle England, but it is a gem.

St. Catherine's Church, Hoarwithy

We can also report that spring is definitely on the way. Snowdrops were everywhere while daffodil buds were visible in the warmer spots facing south.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Apple Software

I have been somewhat critical of the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) as well as iPhoto, so I thought I should set the record straight concerning all the Apple software we own and use.

Basically these fall into three categories, OS X, iLife and iWork. We don't own any of Apple's professional series software packages, such as Aperture, though they are certainly tempting products!

OS X includes not only the basic operating system software but also a lot of peripheral programs that add to the Apple OS experience. Examples include Safari, Mail, iCal, Address Book and Stickies. These programs are as stable as the underlying operating system they support and are generally a joy to use.

OS X Tiger is a very stable product which is now in its 10.4.5 version. It seems a good idea to monitor the upgrades and download them as soon as they are available.

Safari is an excellent fast browser with advanced features like tabbing (once you use tabs you can't imagine that they still don't exist on other browser platforms). Not all web site designers test Safari, however, and there are some glaring errors on sites that should know better. The pull down menus on the Houston Chronicle site, for example, do not work with Safari and they have told me I need to use Firefox. This coming from the site that hosts Bob Levitus' Dr. Mac page! One bank refuses to accept that Safari exists and wants us to use Microsoft Explorer (no longer supported on the Mac!)

Mail is an excellent package that is easy to use and stable. Why they changed the interface is a mystery, however, and the latest version is not a good example of Apple's belief that their software should conform to standards.

iCal is a very useful calendar and to-do list organizer. It could do with some plug-ins, like a billing routine that could generate invoices, but this is free software and it does what it does very well indeed!

Address Book is also very useful and I like the way it integrates with Mail. I use OnSync to keep my cell phone synchronized as Apple's own iSync changed beyond recognition when Tiger came out and not all cell phones are supported any more.

Stickies is a classic application based on the Post-it Notes concept. I don't use it a lot but it is now capable of being formatted, etc.

The iLife Suite of programs has just gone through another upgrade and I am disappointed that if you own iLife 5 (as we do) then there is no special upgrade price for iLife 6. iLife is reasonably priced, however, and you get a lot for your money.

iPhoto has as its core a date sensitive organizer and filing system. This is useful but overly complex. Corrupted iPhoto folders seem to be a quite common feature as there are specific instructions on Apple's website about recovering and rebuilding the database. Grey thumbnails are a sign that all is far from well. The photo manipulation software in iPhoto 5 is excellent if not a competitor to Photoshop! The red eye eliminator is particularly good as is the horizon leveler. And if you want to use Photoshop from within iPhoto you can. I hope that iPhoto 6 has addressed the stability issues that I have experienced with iPhoto 5.

iTunes together with the iPod and iTMS has been the major growth factor for Apple over the last few years and iTunes is a very good product as a digital music storage and playback system. It works well with an iPod and has iTMS built in to it. Upgrades are free for this iLife component, which is good!

iMovie HD is powerful software and one of the bargains for Apple users who also own a digital movie camera.

Garageband is not something I use but I understand it is an interesting piece of software with lots of plug-ins.

iWeb is new with iLife 6 and basically promises to deliver a lot more of your iLife suite output to the internet, including web site design, podcasts, etc.

iDVD is a very useful tool for authoring DVDs from home movies. Again it is not something we use but it adds to the exceptional value of the iLife suite.

Which leads on to iWork. At the moment iWork still only contains two products, Pages and Keynote. A spreadsheet would be a useful third program and it may be "in the works".

Pages is a very effective competitor to Word and almost qualifies as a Desktop Publishing Program. Almost but not quite. Apple's various templates are good but not that good.

Keynote is a very real competitor to PowerPoint except, of course, that no-one else in the Windows world has Keynote! The export from Keynote to PowerPoint does work, however. What I have found is that some PowerPoint files that will not load into Mac Office PowerPoint will import into Keynote. Then the file can be exported back as a PowerPoint file that will load. Well done Apple!

And that's it. The total cost of the software listed above is $129 + $79 + $79. That is a lot of software for $287!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is iPhoto stable?

I am not really sure. We have had some problems with iPhoto and, to be quite honest, I no longer feel confident about using this software and organization system as a mainstay for archiving our digital images. Flickr seems to be a better approach but even then it is obviously sound practice to back everything up to CD. The problem with iPhoto is the way images are filed - a very complex folder system that essentially files everything by date uploaded (or the EXIF date taken if available). So, if things get corrupted (the infamous grey thumbnail problem that is clearly quite common else Apple would not have a dedicated help page for it) it takes forever to reorganize the images.

I quite like Photoshop 7's browse facility and I am sure Photoshop CS offers an even better solution. But in the meantime I think we are going to use Flickr as the main storage facility with CD backup. The comfortable feeling about this is that the images will be stored at two discrete locations so should there be a catastrophe. . . .

And Flickr does mean that images can be easily shared with friends, family and the great unwashed beyond!

Mynydd Du Travelogue

Exactly 24 hours after completing the hike, and thanks to digital photography and computers, here is the latest travelogue.

The No. 11 Bus

As any proud Brummie will tell you, the Number 11 "Outer Circle" bus route is Europe's longest circular urban bus route. It's been around (sorry for the pun) for quite a while and shows no sign of stopping. Meanwhile, Pete Ashton has decided on a major year long project to document the No. 11. Read about his ideas and some of the comments elicited so far. If anyone reading this, now or in the future, can help with stories about the bus route I am sure Pete would welcome the material.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Mynydd Du (Black Mountain)

Our plan for Saturday (after a week of admiring sunny weather while working) is to drive early Saturday morning to Mynydd Du. Otherwise known as the singular Black Mountain and located west of the Brecon Beacons, this area is not unlike the Berwyns. So cameras will be stowed in the backpack and the mission will be another travelogue! Red kites are a feature of the area and the F5 and 300mm telephoto will be lugged up and down the mountain just in case. Keep fingers crossed for good (absolutely no clouds) weather!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Don't Buy iTunes Classical Music!

Over the weekend I downloaded the CBSO/Rattle performance of Mahler's 8th Symphony. I wish I hadn't. The interpretation is excellent, the sound straight from Symphony Hall. A bargain. Until I started to listen to it. Rather than explain in more detail, here is what I submitted as an iTunes review (we'll see if they publish it!):

A great fan of Mahler's music and a frequent member of the CBSO's audience when in Birmingham, I decided to download this recording. I immediately wish I hadn't. iTunes has divided the music into its 25 tracks but has done so in such a way that you cannot enjoy the music. It sounds like someone took the original tape and hacked it into separate pieces using a blunt axe. All I can recommend is that you buy the CD and upload it to your computer. Until iTunes learns how to deal with this situation I will not buy any more classical music or, for that matter, albums where the tracks are supposed to run together.

The music, the performance and the interpretation all deserve 5 stars but not the way iTunes has presented it. Imagine someone in the audience who coughs in your ear between each section of the symphony. You would not be too happy. The experience is much the same.

I am really disappointed by this as, in theory, I want iTunes to succeed as a way to distribute music over the internet. But the delivery system and the product must be to the same standard as the CD I could have/should have bought.

It will be interesting to see if I get a response from iTunes. If I do, I'll post it on this blog.

Four hours later, I checked and they have posted the review!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

DVD Regions, DRM and the "Global Economy"

I've been aware of this for some time. The global economy isn't that global. Here are some examples:

Write a check on a dollar account to a dollar account in a different country (in this case from the US to the UK). The check takes up to three weeks to clear. Even a wire transfer can take several days.

Try to get photos printed using Apple's iPhoto printing service when you are in a different country. Perhaps because you have relatives there. Apple UK won't accept a US registered user as a customer.

Try to gift an iTunes download (following the same approach as the iPhoto example above). Doesn't work.

Buy a DVD collection when you live in one region and then move to another. The DVDs won't play on most locally bought machines (I know there are ones that do work and for some reason they are the cheapest in the store).

So why all this Regionalization of DVDs and country specific Digital Rights Management? As far as I can tell, it is designed to prevent internet shoppers from getting a better deal on a foreign site. There's probably more to it than that. Meantime, I do have to wonder how many sales have been lost as a result.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Berwyns Travelogue

Less than a week since we were up there, here is the travelogue.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Not everyone who will read this will probably agree with me, but I am very pleasantly surprised with UB40's latest album. The thirteen tracks of "Who You Fighting For?" are all excellent. Much of the album is classic UB40 with strong signatures of their first album, Signing Off, still there after 26 years.

But the best track, for me, is "Reasons" (go to iTunes and listen to their snippet, I am not sure how to link to iTunes). Quite simply, this is truly multicultural (and I use the word in its most positive, not political, sense). As well as the inevitable reggae beat, this track has a North African vocal overlay that simply knocks your socks off. It's kinda Small Heath meets Handsworth (you have to be from Birmingham to understand the implications of this). I have no idea if the track was written and recorded after the infamous Birmingham Riot of 2005 (not the far more more historically significant Birmingham Riot of 1791) but if it was, then UB40 has provided a musical blending of cultural differences that is a good way to start the building of bridges.