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


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.

Friday, August 04, 2006

PowerPoint problems - Keynote to the rescue!

Microsoft's PowerPoint is a "now you love it, now you hate it" piece of software. I am not sure that all the blame goes to Microsoft for this, rather it is the fact that users abuse PowerPoint more than any other software package. PowerPoint can be pushed way beyond its natural capabilities and I have been known to receive a file several hundred megabytes large containing graphics that could be enlarged to the size of a small town without pixel degradation.

The problem with this is that many PowerPoint users have no idea that they are abusing the software. They can do it, therefore it must be OK!

But Microsoft does have to be held to account for selling what is a bug-ridden and sloppy piece of software. One website is dedicated to explaining all the issues that affect PowerPoint users, not the least being the dreaded red cross in place of metafile graphics.

Put these two negatives together and sometimes you will receive a PowerPoint file that simply crashes the program (particularly if it's cross-platform, designed on Windows XP, opened on OS X). As a Mac user I have found out a simple workaround. Using Apple's own presentation software, Keynote, I simply open the PowerPoint file in Keynote and save it as a .ppt file. It usually seems to be a lot more robust after the two "translations". Not everything comes through intact but at least the system doesn't crash.

Most Interesting (Flickr)

South Devon Coast HDR

This photo was taken last week, processed on August 1 and has been viewed by over 600 Flickrites already! It is now my "most interesting" photo on Flickr acording to their rating system. It certainly is one of my favorites. Although I took the photo, I have to say that Nature provided the subject, for which She should be duly recognized!

Technically, this photo is a combination of five identical frames with a -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, range of exposures. These handheld shots were then loaded into Photomatix and, using gentle fingers on that program's controls, the result is a true tone HDR image.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing is relatively new and the subject of much abuse. After making several gratuitous excessively toned images, some of which I like:

Stormy Weather

I have settled down with the true tone end of the HDR spectrum. More on this subject later!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Lane Closed to Ease Congestion

So says a sign on the A38 trunk road west of Plymouth. Sure enough, the center lane of three, giving priority up a steep Cornish hill, has been closed with red cones. How the hell this eases congestion, I do not know!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

South Devon

We have been exploring South Devon during the past week and found some stunning coastal scenery that is being uploaded to Flickr (they will be in their own set, South Devon.

We've decided not to be too specific about the location of some of the photos. We found out about this specific area by doing a search on the internet, so the information is available for everyone. We simply don't want to make it that easy as we are very much aware that if the small coves and beaches became over-crowded the area would lose its appeal.

Swimming off Devon this summer has become quite amazing. The water is not cold and allows for long periods of immersion, giving the opportunity to swim greater distances. All in all we are getting good tans and keeping very fit.