Why I Like My MacBook, But I’m Beginning To Really Hate Apple

Battery Replacement on a 2015 MacBook

I realised a couple of weeks ago, much to my horror and chagrin, that I had been walking around with a potential incendiary bomb. Not that I had done anything wrong – this is a more common practice than we’d like to admit, and it’s quite possible that some readers are doing the same, equally unaware.

The culprit was the battery in my 2015 MacBook. Now unlike the batteries on older laptops, this is sealed inside the alloy case, and not immediately visible to inspection. My laptop was still working fine, with battery life still around 2 hours even under quite hard use, which is not bad for a hard-used 3 year old machine. It was running a bit warm, especially in Namibia, but not so much that it indicated any real problem.

The only thing which was a bit suspicious was that it no longer sat flat on a table. The middle of the base-plate seemed slightly raised relative to the edges. At first I blamed myself, thinking that when I had taken the base off to check to see if you can upgrade the hard disk (you can’t, but that’s another story), I hadn’t screwed it down straight. However over time the problem seemed to be getting a bit worse, and I also started to note that the lid didn’t always close completely flush.

I would probably have let this go on a bit longer, but I happened to mention it to two others on the Namibia trip, who immediately suspected the possibility of a dying and swollen battery. Now this can be a serious issue, so as soon as I was back I went on eBay to order a new battery (fairly readily available at about £70), and opened the laptop up for inspection. If I wasn’t already convinced of the problem, I reached that point when I had undone about three screws and the base literally “pinged” open. With all the screws removed I could see that not only one, but all six sections of the battery were badly swollen. Yikes!

So the battery definitely needed replacement, and a new one was on the way. I carefully discharged the old one by playing a movie until the battery was below 2%, and switched my work to my spare machine. I then started researching the process of replacement.

Now pretty much every laptop I have owned or used in the last 20 years has the following simple process for battery replacement:

  1. Unclip old battery
  2. Clip in replacement

In some Toshiba and Dell/AlienWare machines you can even do a “hot swap” without powering the machine down. The 2011 MacBook gets a bit more complicated, as the battery is inside the case, but it’s still pretty straightforward:

  1. Unscrew the base
  2. Unplug the battery from the motherboard
  3. Unclip the battery
  4. Clip in the new one, and plug it in
  5. Screw the base back on

So surely, it wasn’t going to be that difficult to do the 2015 MacBook battery? Surely not?

I should coco. Like the 2011 Macbook has standard memory boards, and the 2015 device has soldered chips, or the 2015’s SSD has a unique connector, Apple have made battery replacement deliberately difficult. This is the one component which is highly likely to fail through age before the rest of the machine, but it is glued to the baseplate, with key components then mounted over it. The iFixIt Guide has no fewer than 72 steps (I’m not making this up), at which point you have stripped almost the entire laptop, used some quite powerful solvents to melt the glue, and have your new battery in place with the instruction “To reassemble your device, follow these instructions in reverse order”. The last time I followed 72 instructions and then “reassembled my device following the instructions in reverse order” it took me two days, and I ended up with a Renault 5 with working engine and clutch, but 5 large bolts left over. Not keen.

Should I get professional help? For a machine up to about 5 years old, Apple will do a battery replacement, for about £300. Apparently they strip out all the components from your MacBook and mount them into a new chassis complete with new battery, keyboard and trackpad. Presumably the old chassis and related components go to the skip. However apart from the time this might take, I could see my MacBook coming back with all my keyboard customisations undone, and my hard disk which boots into Windows carefully wiped and OSX installed. Not keen.

[Aside: this is still a better position than if you go to Apple with a 5+ year old machine seeking service. Their official position is apparently “We are happy to recycle this for no cost. Here’s the price list for a brand new one”!]

I could look for a specialist, but again I was concerned about timing, and whether I’d get the machine back as I left it. So I decided on a self-fix, but trying to find a solution that didn’t mean stripping out the motherboard and all the peripherals. Now I could see that it might be possible to get a lever under the outer battery cells (the six cells are largely independent) without major disassembly, so I decided to try that route, hoping fervently that the iFixit guidance was overkill (as it appeared to be).

Obviously it’s a bit risky levering up already damaged lithium ion batteries, as you don’t want a fire, but hopefully the risk would be small since they were almost fully discharged. I took the precaution of having a heavy saucepan and lid sitting on a metal skillet at the end of the desk as a fire bucket, and used plastic tools as far as possible.

I also sourced a Torx T5 screwdriver for the internal screws. While the case screws and the inner screw heads look similar, the former have 5 points, and the latter 6. Just to make it a bit more difficult. Actually I’m not surprised Apple have a five-pointed design – the pentagram fits well with their generally Diabolical attitude to service, maintainability and the risk of immolation from faulty batteries…

So here’s my rather shorter process for replacing a 15″ Retina MacBook battery:

  1. Make sure the battery is fully discharged. I left it playing videos which is a good way to exhaust the battery without having to battle battery-saving timeouts etc.
  2. Unscrew the base. Make a note of which screws went where – they are not identical!
  3. Unplug the battery.
  4. Following the instructions on the iFixit guide, carefully remove the trackpad ribbon cable, which runs over the battery and is actually stuck to it.
  5. Unscrew the batteries’ circuit board (to which the plug is attached).
  6. Unscrew the two screws in each speaker which adjacent to the batteries. You can’t remove the speakers (they are held firmly in place by the motherboard and other components mounted on top), but removing the lower screws allows them a bit of movement.
  7. Using a flat plastic lever (I used a plastic fish slice) and (if essential) a wide-bladed screwdriver, slowly lever up the rightmost battery cell.
  8. When it’s free, use side-cutters to snip the connection to the other cells, then place it in the fire bucket.
  9. Repeat the process with the next cell in.
  10. Repeat with the two left-hand cells.
  11. Lever up the two centre cells from the sides until you can get your fingertips under them. Do not lever from front or back as you risk damaging the trackpad or keyboard connections.
  12. Once you can get your fingers under the central cells, they should continue to prise up and will eventually pop out.
  13. Carefully remove any remaining adhesive tape from the chassis.
  14. Site the new batteries, making sure the screw holes for the circuit board line up with the motherboard. This is the bit I didn’t get exactly right, but managed to “fiddle” afterwards.
  15. Remove the protective film, and press the batteries down. Once this has been done they are glued in place and will not move, so this needs to be done carefully. However leaving the speakers in place means that you have good visual guides for positioning as well as the circuit board mounts.
  16. Re-assemble the trackpad cable. This isn’t explained in the iFixit guide, but basically you need to carefully slide the ZIF connector into its socket, then press down the black tab. You can then plug in the other end and screw down its cover.
  17. Screw down the battery circuit board. Replace the speaker screws.
  18. Plug in the battery. Boot up the laptop to make sure all major systems (especially the keyboard and trackpad) are working.
  19. Turn the laptop over and screw up the base. Remember that the two central rear screws are slightly shorter than the others and need to go back in those holes.
  20. Check everything and fully charge the battery.

It worked, I didn’t set fire to anything, and my laptop now sits absolutely flat on the table. We’ll know shortly how life of the new batteries compares with the old.

However, it really doesn’t have to be this way. If Apple cared remotely about their customers and the environment instead of screwing everyone for the maximum revenue then the battery replacement would be a simple clip or screw process similar to the 2011 version, optimised for repairability rather than designed to actively minimise and inhibit it. I’m not impressed.

Posted in PCs/Laptops, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

The World’s Worst Panorama 2018

The World's Worst Panorama 2018
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 19:48 | Resolution: 25535 x 3194 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 3.2 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Here’s my traditional end of trip contribution to the world of fine art photography. Peter Lik watch out!

From the left: Alison, Yours Truly, Nigel, Keith, Paul, John L, John B, Ann, Lee

Posted in Namibia Travel Blog, Photography, Travel | Leave a comment

Namibia – What Worked and What Didn’t

Colourful rest stop somewhere in the Kalahari!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 12:08 | Resolution: 12935 x 2067 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 14.0mm | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Here are some facts ands figures about our trip, and some guidance for prospective travellers and photographers.

Cameras and Shot Count

I took around 2900 shots (broken down to 2788 on the Panasonic G9, 78 on the GX8, and a handful each on my phone, the Sony Rx100 and the infrared GX7). A fair proportion of these were for "multishot" images of various sorts, including 3D, focus blends, panoramas (especially at Wolwedans), HDR / exposure brackets (essential at Kolmanskoppe), and high-speed sequences (the bushmen demonstrations, and a few wildlife events). I’m on target for my usual pattern: about a third to half the raw images will be discarded quickly, and from the rest I should end up with around 200 final images worth sharing.

The G9 was the workhorse of the trip, and behaved well, although it did have a slight blip mid-trip when the eye sensor got clogged and needed to be cleaned. It’s battery life is excellent, frequently needing only one change even in a heavy day’s shooting, and the two SD card slots meant I never had to change a memory card during the day! The GX8 did its job as a backup and for when I wanted two bodies with different lenses easily to hand (the helicopter trip and a couple of the game drives). However it is annoying that two cameras which share so much technically have such different control layouts. If I was a "two cameras around the neck" shooter I would have to choose one or the other and get two of the same model. As I’ve noted before, my Panasonic cameras and the Olympus equivalents proved more usable  on the helicopter trip than the "big guns", and if you’re planning such a flight then make sure you have a physically small option.

As notable as what I shot was what I didn’t. This trip generated no video, and the Ricoh Theta 360-degree camera which was always in my bag never came out of its cover. Under the baking African sun the infrared images just look like lower resolution black and white versions of the colour ones, and after a couple of attempts I didn’t bother with those, either.

This was the first trip in a while where I didn’t need to either fall back to my backup kit, or loan it out to another member of the group. One of the group did start off with a DOA Nikon body, somehow damaged in the flight out, but his other body worked fine. There was an incident where someone knocked his tripod over and broke a couple of filters, but the camera and lens were fine. Otherwise all equipment worked well. Maybe these things are getting tougher.

Namibia is absolutely full of sand, and there’s a constant fine dust in the air which is readily visible if you go out in the dark with a torch. This gets all over your kit especially if you go trekking through the dunes (tick), spend all afternoon bouncing through the savannah in an open jeep (tick), encounter a sandstorm (tick), or spend half a day in a ghost town world famous for its shifting sands (BINGO!!!). The ideal solution to remove the dust is a can of compressed air, but they really don’t like you taking one on a plane. On previous trips to dusty environments I’ve managed to get to a hardware store early on and buy a can, but that wasn’t possible this time. Squeezy rubber bulbs are worse than useless. In the end I just wiped everything down with wet wipes, but it’s not ideal. I’ve now found a powerful little USB blower (like a tiny hair drier) which may work, but I won’t be able to really test it until the next trip.

It’s a good practice to check your sensor at the end of every day, especially if like me you use a mirrorless camera usually with an electronic shutter (meaning the physical shutter is often open when you change lenses). I recently purchased a "Lenspen Sensor Klear" which is an updated version of the old "sensor scope" but with proper support for APS-C and MFT lens mounts. That was invaluable for the daily check, but in practice I didn’t find sensor dust to be a significant problem.

The subject matter is very much landscape and wildlife. Others may have different experiences, but I suggest for art, architecture, action and people you should look elsewhere.

Travel

Setting aside my complaints about the Virgin food service and the Boeing 787, the travel all worked well. The air travel got us to and from Windhoek without incident. Wild Dog Safaris provided the land transportation, with Tuhafenny an excellent, patient, driver/guide, and a behind the scenes team managing the logistics and local arrangements. The latter were mainly seamless and without issue, although there was a bit of juggling regarding some of the transport at Sossusvlei, and some of the departure airport transfers. I would certainly recommend Wild Dog Safaris.

If you want to cover anything like the sort of ground we did on a Namibia adventure, then you will spend a lot of time on the road. I reckon that on at least 7 days we spent 5 or more hours travelling, and on most of the others we probably managed 2+ on shorter hops or travelling to specific locations. According to Tuhafenny’s odometer we racked up 3218 km, or about 2000 miles, and that excludes the mileage in open 4x4s provided by the various resorts. The roads were at least empty and usually fairly straight and smooth, even those without tarmac, although the odd jolt and bump was inevitable. However we all managed to get some decent sleep while on the road, and I could dead-reckon our ETAs fairly accurately at 50mph, which is a far cry from the 10mph average I worked out for the Bhutan trip!

Although most locations have airstrips, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent of the air shuttles which move people between centres in Myanmar, at least not unless you have vast funds for private charters. Just make sure you have a soft bottom and something to keep you entertained on the journeys.

Practicalities

I was advised beforehand travel to carry cash (Sterling) and change it in Namibia, on the same sort of basis as my Cuba, Bhutan and Myanmar trips. That was complete nonsense. In Namibia all the larger merchants happily take cards and there are ATMs in every town. Changing £200 at the airport was painless enough, but my attempt to change £90 in Lüderitz turned into one of the most annoying and convoluted financial transactions I have been involved in, and I’m tempted to include buying cars and houses in the list! Namibia hasn’t quite got to the point where you can just wave your phone at the till to buy an ice-cream, but it’s getting there quickly.

Another bit of complete nonsense is "it’s cold in the desert". Yes, it may be a bit chilly first thing some mornings, but I needed a second layer over my T-shirt for precisely two short pre-dawn periods. Obviously if you’re the sort of person who gets a chill watching a documentary about penguins, then YMMV, but I was clearly heavy a sweatshirt, a couple of pairs of long trousers and one raincoat. In addition to shorts and T-shirts one fleece, plus the jacket and trousers for the trip home, would be adequate.

On a related subject, there’s one thing that almost all the hotels got wrong. Apart from right at the coast daytime temperatures are up well into the 30s if not the 40s, and the temperature inside most of the lodgings at bed-time was in the high 20s, dropping to the low 20s by the end of the night (all temperatures in Celsius). In those temperatures I do NOT need a 50 Tog quilt designed for a Siberian Winter. One sheet would be plenty, with maybe the option of a second blanket if absolutely necessary. The government-run lodge at Sossusvlei got this right, no-one else did.

It may be dusty, and there are little piles of dung everywhere from the local wildlife, but beyond this Namibia is basically clean. You can drink the tap water pretty much everywhere, and it’s not a game of Russian Roulette having a salad. It made a welcome change from the experience of Morocco and my Asian trips not having to manage our journey around tummy upsets, which is just as well when we had at least two stretches of over 150 miles without an official stop. Obviously sensible precautions like regular hand cleansing apply, but Namibia really presents less of a challenge in this area.

The larger challenge of the Namibian diet is that there’s a lot of it. Portions tend to be large, and there’s a lot of red meat, frequently close relatives of the animals you have just been photographing. I was fine with this, but I suspect vegans should not apply. Between the food, the beer and snacks in the bus I definitely put on about half a stone, which I’m desperately trying to lose again before Christmas…

Communications are good in the larger towns, but elsewhere you may struggle for a mobile signal and the roaming costs for calls, texts and particularly data are very high. WiFi worked well at the town locations, but at the more remote sites service was intermittent and almost unusably slow. On the other hand, we were in the middle of Africa! This is one of those cases where you wonder not that a thing is done well, but that it is done at all. (The odd exception, again, was Sossusvlei, where they charged about £3 a day, but the bandwidth was excellent.) However Namibia is a country where practical problems get fixed, and I suspect in 5 years this will be a non-issue. In the meantime if you want to do anything more than check the news headlines (say, just for the sake or argument, update a photo blog :)) then plan ahead and batch updates ready for when you’re somewhere more central.

I did suffer one related annoyance. On a couple of occasions an Android app I was using to entertain myself on the long drives just stopped working pending a licensing check, which couldn’t be completed until I got connectivity at the end of the day. There’s not much to be done about this, apart from a post-incident moan to the app developer to make the check more forgiving. It’s worth having a Plan B for anything absolutely vital.

Do carry a small torch. It’s great to get away from light pollution, but the flipside is that it’s dark (shock, horror!!) As well as for night photography we often had to walk quite long distances between our accommodation and the resorts’ central areas, with minimal lighting, and you really don’t want to trip over a sleeping warthog or tread in a pile of oryx poo. I have a tiny, powerful cyclists’ head torch which is ideal. It’s also rechargeable via USB, although as far as I can remember it’s still on its first charge from when I bought it in 2015, so I’m not quite sure how that works.

Finally, retail therapy. Surprisingly for a country trying to optimise the income from high-value eco-tourism, there was almost nothing to buy until we got back to Windhoek and visited a craft market. Most resorts had a shop, but I wasn’t impressed by the merchandising, and when I did find something I liked it was usually not available in my size (clothing), or language (books). It’s not the purpose of the trip, but I do like the odd bit of retail therapy. There’s an opportunity for some enterprising young Namibians.

In summary, Namibia is a very civilised way to see the wild. Some of the wild is not quite as wild as it might be, but that’s part of the trade-off which makes it so accessible, and this certainly worked for me.

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Normal Service Will Be Resumed After Completion Of This Rant

Sleepy Cheetah!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:29 | Resolution: 3345 x 3345 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Location: Okonjima | State/Province: Okonjati, Otjozondjupa | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

The last day of any trip is always a bit sad, and hard work with the travel. However this year three separate organisations covered themselves in something which is not glory, and I have to get this out of my system before I write the traditional tail piece for my blog…

As a bit of compensation, here’s a nice picture of a cheetah, feeling about like I did at 1am on Friday.

Thanks.

Rant 1: Designing Hotel Bedrooms

The recurring dysfunctional ingenuity of hotel designers never ceases to amaze me, and provides an endless supply of material for this blog. On our way back through Windhoek, we stayed at Galton House, which while still quite smart overall and in the communal areas, was probably half a notch down from the Pension Thule, where we stayed outbound. My room was a bit poky and had a couple of major challenges, including very noisy air conditioning, and an Iceland-class duvet (in Windhoek, in the summer!). However the worst fail was that it had one accessible power socket, to the right of the bathroom door, while the desk, the only place I could rest laptop and things on charge, was to the left of the same doorway. I therefore had to spend my stay with a power cable stretched right across the bathroom doorway, limbo dancing under it when I needed to use the facilities.

One wonders what sort of hotel designer comes up with a room with a desk, and no power socket on the appropriate side of the room. That’s up to the standard of the Calais hotel I once stayed in where the lift worked but the stairs were out of order (due to a 10 ft gap half way down.) Admittedly about 20 years ago I did stay in a hotel in England where the only place you could get simultaneous power and modem connectivity was in the hot tub in the middle of the room, but that was an adapted medieval abbey, and plain weird. Galton House is a smart new purpose-built venue. Not a clue…

And to add actual injury to potential injury, most of us had got the whole way around Namibia without many bites, and several of us, including myself, woke up covered in nasty little red marks. Blast.

Rant 2: Midnight Food Service

I’m fully in favour of Virgin holding onto the "full service airline" concept when BA and others have abandoned it. However, if you are running a night flight which leaves Johannesburg at 21.00 local time, and arrives in London at 06.00 local time, I would suggest that your highest priority is to try and enable your passengers to get as much of a decent night’s sleep as airline seating and turbulence allow. This is not promoted by serving, slowly, drinks, followed by a rubbish collection, followed by tepid towels (they were probably hot when they left the galley, but I was at the front of Economy), followed by a rubbish collection, followed by "supper", at about 00.30, followed by hot drinks, and finally followed by another rubbish collection at gone 1 in the morning!

…Followed by inedible breakfast, at about 05.00…

Would it really not be better to just give everyone some booze and turn the lights off?

Rant 3: The 787 Nightmare Liner

I wasn’t impressed by the 787 on the flight out, but my assessment reduced a further notch on the way back. That plane revealed a number of areas where the new technology has aged very badly. One example: the window dimming switch on my window had obviously been jabbed so frequently and hard that  the rubber cover had completely failed and peeled away. Worse, the toilet is supposed to retain the seat upright via some magnetic mechanism, with a nearby "non contact" switch operating the flush. In the loo nearest my seat the seat retainer had completely failed, meaning that I had to sit holding the seat upright with one hand, and every time I moved, the flush mechanism triggered randomly.

This was all on a "nearly new" plane which has by definition only been in service for a couple of years. How that plane will look after 10 or more years use I shudder to think.

I suspect that the 787-200 or whatever they call the "2.0" version will be a good plane, but I’d hate to be in charge of maintaining the oldest versions.

 

</Rant>

In fairness to Galton House, Virgin and Boeing, I arrived back at Heathrow at 06.00 safe, sound and slightly ahead of schedule. In the words of Old Blue Eyes:

It’s very nice to go trav’ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It’s oh so nice to go trav’ling
But it’s so much nicer, yes it’s so much nicer, to come home…

Posted in Humour, Namibia Travel Blog, Thoughts on the World, Travel | Leave a comment

The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 15:19 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Location: Kirkjufell | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

The trouble is, there’s a recurring theme here…

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The Andrew Johnston Namib Desert Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Namib Desert camouflage masterclass
Posted in Humour, Namibia Travel Blog, Travel | Leave a comment

Typically Tropical!

The 2018 Photo Adventures Namibia Tour crosses the line
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 13:19 | Resolution: 3767 x 3767 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Well, a line, anyway. We’ll all be back over the line sometime tomorrow, when we fly back. That’s sad.

From the left: Lee (group leader and owner of Photo Adventures), Ann, John B, Paul, Alison, Keith, Nigel, Tuhafenny (our excellent guide and driver from Wild Dog Safaris), John L, and yours truly.

Posted in Namibia Travel Blog, Travel | 1 Comment

The Twin-Lens Reflex :)

Shooting with twin Canons
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 08:52 | Resolution: 5184 x 2920 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I noticed while gathering for the bushman walk that five of our group were "packing" a pair of Canons. This shot was inevitable.

Thanks to John B for the title – excellent photographer’s joke. I am happy to explain if required.

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Into the Kalahari

Kalahari Bushmen
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 07:26 | Resolution: 3046 x 3046 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/1000s | Aperture: 5.5 | Focal Length: 59.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Having been out until gone 11pm doing the night photography, I boycotted the dawn shoot back in the quiver tree forest, had a bit of a lie in, and joined the party at breakfast. We then moved off north. On maps the B1 looks like a major road: Namibia’s main north-south artery. In practice it’s a fairly narrow single-carriageway road with a surface which has seen batter days, and our average speed was even lower than on the good road from Lüderitz. This adds insult to the potential injury that from where we joined the road to the next major town at Mariental is over 220km without even a gas station or loo stop!

Anyway, we did the trip without incident and only one emergency stop (just as well, as trees are also in short supply), and after Mariental turned east into the edge of the Kalahari Desert, ending up at another game reserve, Bagatelle. I have to say that for a "desert", that edge of the Kalahari is currently looking a lot greener than I expected, but apparently the rains this year were a bit later this year, and that region got more than usual.

We had a relaxed lunch, entertained by some meerkats, but unfortunately I didn’t have my camera. Towards sundown we set off for another game drive. This started well, with good views of kudu, springbok and giraffes as well as various birds. It was spoilt slightly when our driver panicked thinking he had lost his bird-recognition crib sheet, and insisted on turning round and driving back at break-neck speed along the route we had already covered, ignoring our instructions to calm down. (The missing sheet turned out to be behind his seat…). However after a couple of beers watching the sun go down I was reasonably mollified, and I’m quite pleased with the bird photos.


Lilac breasted roller

In the morning we joined a couple of Kalahari bushmen who walked us through the reserve to their camp, pointing out various tracks and giving us a demonstration of traditional hunting and trapping techniques. At the camp we met the wider family and got a chance, unique so far on this trip, to do some portraiture.

It was a little sad when we learned on the way back they actually live in a nice house attached to the lodge and carry the camp around in a Hilux, but I guess that’s progress…

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The Quiver Tree Forest

Quiver Trees
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 26-11-2018 18:40 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Sadly we’re into the last few days of the trip and have to spend most of the next few days hacking back from the extreme south west of Namibia to Windhoek which is well to the north.

Monday started with a short walk around the very colourful town of Lüderitz, which is a Bavarian seaside town, if that’s not a massive conflict of metaphors… The short walk was then followed by one of the longest and most frustrating financial transactions I have experienced – trying to change £100 in the Standard Bank. This involved all sorts of ID checks, the young teller had obviously never seen British money before, and their counting machine refused to recognise one of my £20 notes, so I actually managed to change £90. In 20 minutes. Grr…

The long drive east was straightforward but surprisingly slow, with our driver obviously obeying some size-related limit which hadn’t been an issue on the unsurfaced roads. It’s more comfortable on tarmac, but not necessarily quicker.

By mid afternoon we reached our overnight destination, the Quiver Tree Forest. These "trees" (they are actually giant succulents like cacti or aloes) are found in ones and twos all over Namibia but only grow in significant numbers in a few places. As well as the forest there are other attractions: we were just in time for feeding the rescued cheetahs, which I had expected to be caged in a compound but turned out to be wandering around with the farm’s dogs and toddlers. I got to stroke a cheetah, another personal first.


Go on, pull!

Sunset photographing the quiver trees was very enjoyable and generated some great images, and after dinner a few of us went back to try and capture the night sky with the trees as foreground. I’m not yet 100% convinced about my images, but it was an enjoyable experience nonetheless.


Night sky over the quiver tree forest

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Ghost Towns

Obelixa the brown hyena
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 25-11-2018 11:48 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Today we visited two ghost towns based around diamond mines. In the morning we visited Elizabeth Bay, which is about half an hour from Lüderitz behind a substantial security screen as it shares its location and access road with an active diamond mine.

Elizabeth Bay is quite obviously an industrial site supported by worker accommodation and facilities, even though it is right next to the sea. The location is because diamond-rich sand was dropped as rivers reached the sea, and diamonds could be collected simply by washing and sieving the right seams of sand.

The town is in an advanced state of decay despite only having been abandoned in 1951 because the seaward bricks of each building are simply disintegrating under the onslaught of wind and salt spray, and then buildings collapse in turn.

The highlight for me was an encounter with a brown hyena. These shy and almost (by hyena standards, anyway) cute animals are endangered, and only about 2500 live on the Namibian coast. Some live near Elizabeth Bay, and when we arrived we met a BBC team who are making a documentary about them, using camera traps in the buildings.

Anyway, during my explorations I came face to face, on three occasions, with one hyena, who was completely unfazed and quite happy to be photographed. Our guide confirmed she is an elderly female known as Obelixa, who is habituated to humans, but it was still a fascinating encounter with a quiet, rare creature.

In the afternoon we explored Kolmanskoppe, which is much closer to Lüderitz, and a more straightforward tourist location. This is the source of another set of iconic Namibian images, abandoned mining buildings filled with sand. We had several hours to just wander and photograph at will. However it was quite hard work due to the constant strong wind and biting sand. At one point the eye sensor of my camera got so clogged it stopped working.


Image from Kolmanskoppe

While the fabric of most buildings at Kolmanskoppe is in better condition than at Elizabeth Bay, what seems to happen is any which is not actively maintained eventually loses a window or part of the roof to the onslaught, and then the sand rapidly pours in.

The sands around Kolmanskoppe may be a bit worse, but generally sand is a recurring theme of this trip. Just outside Kolmanskoppe there’s a road sign which says "sand". Without any loss of accuracy the Namibians could just put this outside the airport and have done with it.

Hopefully we will shortly be back at the hotel for a shower. Tomorrow I want to photograph Lüderitz, which is a pretty town, and not completely full of sand!

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The British Government Reviews Its Brexit Strategy

Poly-tickle commentary
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 24-11-2018 09:49 | Resolution: 2409 x 3213 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 4.9 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Sorry it’s a bit fuzzy and not properly focused, but that’s nothing to do with my photography!

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Empty

Ostrich and oryx at Wolwedans
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 24-11-2018 09:48 | Resolution: 3386 x 3386 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 150.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Lee agreed that we could all have a lie-in, so of course I woke up at 4, and was just getting back to sleep at 6 when the sun rose over the mountains and shone straight into my room. Bugger…

Today we moved on from Wolwedans to Lüderitz, a "Bavarian" town on the coast, which meant most of the day on the road. Southern Namibia is staggeringly empty: it’s over 300km of well-graded road from Wolwedans to Aus, at the South-East corner of the Naukluft National Park, during which we passed two graders working on the road, but we think no other vehicles at all.

The new game to entertain myself is to build up playlists for our intended destination or attractions. We were promised a view of the wild horses at Aus, so I had to work to a "wild horse" theme. Obviously I started with Ride A Wild Horse by Dee Clark and Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones. I have two versions of Horse With No Name, by America and Paul Hardcastle / Direct Drive, both good and quite different, so they both got added. A search for "Wild" was fruitful, including Born to be Wild, Walk on the Wild Side and Wild Thing (I have the Trogg’s original, but sadly not the Hendrix version at Monterrey), and then several on a theme: Reap the Wild Wind, Ride the Wild Wind, Wild is the Wind (two versions, Bowie, but also Nina Simone which doesn’t really work in this playlist). Some of the others don’t quite work, but I never miss a chance to listen to Play That Funky Music (Wild Cherry), even if it’s cheating and slightly out of place.

Tomorrow it’s a "Diamonds and Ghosts" playlist, as we’re exploring the abandoned mining towns near Lüderitz.

We did get to see an ostrich on the way out of Wolwedans, but badly the horses at Aus were a bit of an anti-climax. We’ll have another look on the way back on Monday.

Predictably as we got nearer the coast the African sun disappeared and the weather got a lot colder and greyer. I’m now sitting in my hotel room in Lüderitz, with major breakers rolling straight off the Atlantic and breaking on rocks a few feet from my bedroom window. What this presages for sleep tonight I’m not quite sure: it may be quite restful, or it may be bloody annoying. Time will tell.

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The Wolwedans Game Drive

Oryx and zebra at the watering hole
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 23-11-2018 15:10 | Resolution: 4515 x 2822 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

We’ve been a bit spoiled by the game drives at Okonjima, where it was almost a challenge not to see a great variety of game. The Wolwedans equivalent was less productive: after 4 hours in the jeeps under a blazing sun we saw a lot of oryx, one solitary zebra, fleeting glances of a jackal and a fox (they really don’t like being anywhere near humans), and a dot on the hillside which my longest lens just about resolved to something ostrich-shaped.

On the way back the sun was steadily on the back of my neck and I was lucky not to get sunburnt. I can really recommend Coppertone Sport.

However, I really mustn’t grumble. The scenery is magnificent, the oryx are fun, and I’m still privileged to be here. Please enjoy another picture of an oryx:


Oryx sheltering from the sun. I could usefully have done the same thing!

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And Another Dead Tree…

Dead tree at Wolwedans, Namib-Rand Game Reserve
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 22-11-2018 18:58 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 46.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

There’s a long-running joke between Frances and myself that I like to use a dead tree as foreground interest in my photos. In Namibia, it’s often the only viable target, and I’ve found that I’m in very good company. We all had a couple of goes at this one, first in poorer light, and then when the sun appeared from behind a cloud we got the Land Rover to reverse back down the track to have another go. I think it works…

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Into Wolwedans

Sunset in Wolwedans, Namib-Rand Game Reserve
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 22-11-2018 19:32 | Resolution: 5593 x 3495 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

My cunning plan to have a lie-in worked, and I had a great night’s sleep, sorted myself out, and had a leisurely breakfast. Those who had chosen the "third 4.15 start in a row" option got back looking distinctly frazzled.

The drive to our next location was mercifully quite short, as we were getting onto progressively more tricky unsurfaced roads. We’ve come to a private game reserve called Wolwedans (Vol-Ver-Dance). This is one of about half a dozen private owned reserves which together make up the Namib-Rand Game Reserve, a privately owned game preservation area over 2,000 km2 in area, or a bit bigger than the area inside the M25. Wolwedans has a total of 20-30 rooms split over 3 or 4 camps, and is usually frequented by the likes of Brad and Angelina, although I suspect they fly/flew in rather than taking the long road route. I’m not quite sure how we’ve managed to get here for a reasonable fee, but very grateful that someone’s made it work.

The topography is quite different to anything we’ve seen before, with a combination of large savannah areas, dunes, and quite substantial mountains particularly along the western edge where the reserve adjoins the Namib Desert National Park. While the terrain is obviously African, the "big skies" also put me in mind of Montana. So far we have had a very dramatic sunset and sunrise, and we’re off to try and track some game down later.

The drive back after sunset last night was interesting, with the drivers of the two Land Rovers opting to drive with lights off, relying on their night sight. It was quite peaceful, and probably avoided spooking the game (which seems to be a guiding rule here), but I suspect I would have used more light.

The Namibian diet (or at least the tourist version) is taking its toll on my waistline. Last night we only got to dinner at 9 and then had 5 courses (although the first three were only a couple of mouthfuls each).  I couldn’t get into my green shorts today, so I just hope the other ones come back safely from the laundry… I suspect it’s going to be the apple and coffee diet for me when I get back.

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Deadvlei

Tree at Deadvlei
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-11-2018 07:06 | Resolution: 5224 x 2939 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 38.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Deadvlei is the home of the iconic Namibian desert image: a dead tree on a salt plain with an orange dune in the background. Despite the ubiquity of such images, in practice it’s a single relatively small location, a bowl in the dunes maybe 500m x 200m. Hundreds of years ago it was a small oasis with fairly healthy vegetation, but the shifting dunes cut off its water supply, and the trees died. However in the dry, sterile conditions they have only decomposed very slowly, and are effectively now petrified. The other thing which is surprising is the salt pan – I was expecting a fairly thin even crust like you see in pictures of Bonneville, but instead it’s a rocky, lumpy and very solid arrangement.

Our tour bus took us the 70km down the Sossusvlei valley to the end of the surfaced road, and we then took a 4×4 shuttle 4km through the sands to the jumping off point for several walks. It’s about 1.1km to Deadvlei, a distance which I would normally knock off in about 12 minutes, but walking on the sand proves very difficult, and it took me over half an hour. My combination of small feet and, er, large frame means I just sink into the sand with every step, and it’s suspiciously like wading through treacle.

Regardless, our timing was good and the walk fully justified by the scene. We had timed our arrival to be there just as the sun was reaching into the bowl, and we got great shots of both trees just emerging from the shadows, and in full light against the orange dunes and cloudless blue sky.

We were just packing up to go back when we got the first hint of what was coming, some lines of sand being whipped across the salt, which stung the legs as they hit them. We had a brief respite as we walked back, but by the time we arrived at the car park we were in the middle of a full-blown dust storm, so bad at times other vehicles were invisible except for their lights. We had a 4km drive in an open 4×4 through this, which was not pleasant. I’m not sure that it was ever actually on my list, but "sandstorm" can now be ticked off.

We had a relaxing middle of the day, but I was starting to feel a bit weary and couldn’t face the walk into Deadvlei twice in one day, so at the end of the day while the rest of the group went back to Deadvlei John and I commandeered the 4×4 and went photographing dunes off the sand road. We got some decent shots, but it’s a challenge as the salty ground and scrub vegetation make getting a neat foreground a real challenge. I made a few "rookie errors", including shots out of focus and then trapping my finger in the car door, and decided that I really need to not do three 4.15 starts in a row. Tomorrow I’m going to boycott the dawn start and have a lie in…

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Oryx from the air

Oryx from the air
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 20-11-2018 07:06 | Resolution: 3174 x 1984 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/1000s | Aperture: 3.2 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

‘Nuff said.

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Nice Chopper (Ride)

Namibian dunes from the air
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 20-11-2018 06:45 | Resolution: 5391 x 3370 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Up at 4.14, but in a very worth cause, our helicopter flight over the Namibian dunes. We had to take it in turns, as the company only have one helicopter with three passenger seats flying at this time of year, so I volunteered to go first along with Alison and John. We were met at the park gates by the pilot, a big South African called Pierre. After the usual necessity of signing one’s life away, he drove us out to the chopper, which turned out to be dramatically smaller than the last one I flew in, many years ago in Barbados.

Called a Raven II, this is a great sight-seeing device, with a clear bubble canopy, plus in honour of the photographic trip they had removed the doors, giving us each a wide view to the side, plus I could also shoot through the canopy to the front. It was fitted with harnesses very similar to standard car seat belts, but at least Frances’ fear that I would be left with two odd ends like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park was unfounded.

I have to confess that the first minute or so of the flight was a bit disconcerting, in that such a small craft has to tilt down quite sharply to build up speed, when you are still fairly low to the ground. However things quickly stabilised and we were humming along down the Sossusvlei Valley. We were initially battling poor light, but our luck held and the sun came out exactly when required, when we were turning over Deadvlei and Sossusvlei. However the slow appearance of the sun meant I got some very rare shots of the hills behind the dunes wreathed in cloud and mist – Pierre reckons he only sees anything other than straight sunshine about 8 days a year.

We then flew deeper into the dunes, and back to the airfield via some meadows with oryx, ostriches and jackals. These were trickier to photograph, but I did get one great shot of the oryx.

We were back at the hotel by 8am, just in time for breakfast, and had a great lazy morning before the rest of the group arrived back.

For the afternoon shoot we were meant to all go back to Deadvlei, but there was a problem with the booking for the 4×4 required to take us through the last 4km of sand track from the bus stop, and we had to re-plan. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting dunes and trees along the road back to the hotel.

Another early start tomorrow – our turn to go to Deadvlei.

Addendum – Size Matters

If you’re going to do a “doors off” helicopter flight then the physical size of your equipment matters (ooh er missus :) ). Smaller is definitely better. I got great results with my Panasonic G9 and the 35-100mm lens (70-200mm equivalent). Another group member shooting with the equivalent Olympus kit was also fine. However those shooting with the big Canons and Nikons and 70-200 or 70-300 lenses were finding great difficulty getting sharp images. The dual stabilisation of the Micro Four Thirds cameras helps, but the biggest contributor seems to be the fact that the big lenses project out of the cockpit into the slipstream, and the wind-shear on them makes them very difficult to hold still.

I also had the Panasonic GX8 with the 12-35mm lens for wider shots, and I was able to have both on the floor in front of me and switch between them. That arrangement also worked well, but would be tricky with physically larger cameras.

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We’re On The Road To Nowhere

Old vehicles at Solitaire, Namibia
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 19-11-2018 14:40 | Resolution: 5098 x 2867 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Playlist for today:

  • On The Road Again : Canned Heat
  • Highway Star : Deep Purple
  • Bright Side of the Road : Van Morrison
  • Call Me The Breeze (I keep blowin’ down the road) : Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Goin’ Down The Road (A Scottish Reggae Song) : Roy Wood
  • King of the Road : Roger Miller
  • Rockin’ Down The Highway : Doobie Brothers
  • Roll On Down The Highway : Bachman Turner Overdrive
  • Rollin’ and Tumblin’ : Canned Heat
  • Davy’s On The Road Again : Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
  • The Long and Winding Road : The Beatles
  • Crossroads : Eric Clapton / Cream
  • Rollin’ On : Uriah Heep
  • Road to Nowhere : Talking Heads
  • Road to Hell : Chris Rea
  • Highway to HellI : AC/DC

Did I mention it was going to be a long drive?

The south western quadrant of Namibia, an area comparable with Northern England, consists of the Namib Desert, and apart from a narrow corridor about 2/3 of the way down, plus a short stretch of coast, is all in one of two national parks. These are not crossed by road, and the few tracks into them are strictly controlled. The problem is that we start the day just north of the north western corner, and we need to get about halfway down the eastern edge. Therefore we have to circumnavigate the park on a Namibian "C" road. These are mainly unsurfaced, but wide and well graded. However speeds are inevitably slower than on tarmac, and there are periods where the ride is very rough, or it gets very dusty, or both.

We left civilisation at Walvis Bay, just south of Swapokmund, and the next habitation and services are over 200km away, at Solitaire, which appears to exist to service weary travellers at a key road junction. They do so in style, with a great collection of photogenic wrecked old cars, and their special, an excellent apple pie.

Another hour or so of driving brings us to Sesriem, gateway to the Sossusvlei area, and our base for the next few days. More than one night in one place? Luxury.

The Sossusvlei Dune Lodge is inside the park, which is good news for our forthcoming dawn starts. It’s run on a surprisingly Germanic basis, with more rules and constraints than we’ve experienced elsewhere. Quite a few of the rules seem to relate to keeping pests out of the rooms: mosquitoes (fair enough, although it is the middle of the desert), and baboons (I wasn’t expecting that).

Another early night: up just after 4 for the helicopter flight!

Addendum: 4am

Well, that blokes’ baboon repellent seems to have worked. The mosquito net also proved an effective barrier, locking a single mosquito in bed with me all night. Bugger.

Sleep was OK for quality…

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Hot Dry Desert, Cold Damp Desert

Yous truly under the rock arch in Spitzkoppe Park
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 18-11-2018 11:05 | Resolution: 5184 x 2920 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0.33 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 64.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Despite the distractions of the chalet’s canvas roof I eventually got an OK night’s sleep, and woke up ready for action. With the sun just rising we had a great pre-breakfast shoot at Spitzkoppe, with the rock formations beautifully lit by low sun, and just a few whispy white clouds breaking a clear blue sky.

The Spitzkoppe Lodge is quite new. The unresolved issues with the roofs are one challenge, breakfast turns out to be another. Lukewarm coffee is a recognisable drink. Lukewarm tea is a waste of ingredients and a challenge to the nausea response.

After breakfast we drove to the other side of the park and made a short climb up to a rock arch. I scrambled up to the arch itself and had my picture captured, just in time before the group of about 15 Germans arrived via a much gentler path from the other side…

We then headed for the coast, along an absolutely straight, flat and empty road. At the start we were at about 1000m, in baking sun with the sand punctuated by occasional clumps of scrubby grass. At the end we were at sea level, under a grey sky, much cooler, with the sand punctuated by occasional small mossy mounds.

Lunch was taken at our driver’s favourite cafe in Hentis Bay, which appears to be a sort of African Clacton-on-Sea. The cafe is also recognised by another member of the group and clearly a known target. The food is tasty and the portions more than generous: I have something called a terrazini, a large flatbread stuffed with chicken, bacon and cheese and then toasted. Nigel goes for a burger, which turns out to be about the size of a discus.

After lunch we spend an interesting but surprisingly cold half hour photographing a shipwreck using very long exposures. It’s very good practice for me to remember how to drive a camera in manual mode, something I rarely do.

It’s a short drive down the coast to Swapokmund, a rather larger city, somewhat reminiscent of a European seaside town. This looks prosperous, but somewhat dead on a cold Sunday evening.

You can tell when a Namibian town developed by the signage and street names: somewhere which has developed since independence will be almost entirely English. Those which developed in the mid 20th century will use English and quite a lot of Afrikaans. Swapokmund obviously dates back to the 19th century and there’s a lot of German – our hotel is just off Kaiser Willhelm Strasse.

Early night. Long drive tomorrow.

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Thrills and Disappointments

Granite formations, Spitzkoppe
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 18-11-2018 07:10 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

5am call, quick cup of coffee and back in the big FWD for "leopard tracking". This was a dawn game drive with a tracker for the radio collars fitted to the park’s other leopards. On the way we stopped to photograph more diverse ungulates (including wildebeest this time), baboons and some colourful birds.

We eventually tracked the other female down to a thicket about 100m in each direction, but she seemed to be moving. We drove back to the main track and I suddenly spotted a shadow moving at the thicket’s edge. We positioned ourselves in time for her to cross the track just ahead of us. Another gorgeous animal, and this time we were definitely not the prey.

It’s a six hour drive, including lunch, to Spitzkoppe. At least this allows me to variously catch up on sleep, writing this blog, and Angry Birds. Namibia’s roads are well surfaced, empty, straight and very boring.

Packed lunch from the game reserve included an oryx wrap. There’s a pattern emerging here…

Spitzkoppe is where a bunch of dramatic granite monoliths rise out of the otherwise flat desert, not unlike an African Monument Valley. We enjoyed the long drive in, promising ourselves some great late afternoon shooting, but by the time we got to the lodge and checked in the sun had disappeared behind clouds and the light was rather disappointing. Still, we can look forward to Dawn tomorrow.

Night 4 – Addendum

Ready for a good night’s sleep?

Sensible bed-time? Check. Sensible start time tomorrow negotiated, as worst case I can just photograph the sunrise from bed? Check. Right amount of food and alcohol, not too much, not too little? Check. Room temperature wrangled from "furnace" to "comfortable"? Check. Pillow adjusted to right height with towel? Check.

Ready for a good night’s sleep.

This is when I discover the major structural flaw in the design of the Spitzkoppe chalets. The base and sides are solid, but the roof is a weird double canvas affair. If it’s meant to manage temperature it doesn’t work. What it does do in any breath of wind over Beaufort Scale level 1 is whip, creak, groan, snap and pop vigorously. Something a bit stronger and it sounds like it’s about to come off. At midnight I decide the latter would be a good thing as then I could finish the night under a clear and silent Namibian sky. Sadly it doesn’t happen. At least that explains the earplugs in the soap dish.

The sleep deprivation experience continues.

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A Long Drive, then a Great Opener

"Beautiful", the leopard
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:44 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 150.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

It’s looking like we will spend a lot of time on the road. Once our transport arrived on day 3 we drove back out to the airport to collect the final member of the group, then back past our hotel in Windhoek, then another 3+ hours north to the Okonjima Nature Reserve. There we transferred immediately to a 14 seat open-air FWD and set out on our "game drive".

This was absolutely excellent. Within shouting distance of the lodge we had seen warthogs, giraffes, oryx, springbok, kudu and various other ungulates whose names I can’t remember. Then we went into the cat enclosure.

First up were the cheetahs, which are apparently very used to humans and had also been recently fed, so were just lying around like large spotty moggies. They are smaller than I expected, but just as beautiful. It was great being able to photograph them at a range of 20m or less with no concerns on either side.

The leopard was a different matter. Okonjima have two adult females, both rescued from elsewhere, one of whom roams the main park with her two sons, but the other is kept separately as otherwise they would fight. The captive female has been trained to come to a hide from where she can be viewed at very close range. This is an unnerving process as she prowls up and down inspecting each visitor in turn, and would obviously love to get into the hide and choose from the menu if not prevented by an electric fence and mesh.

Maybe this was an encounter with a top predator who viewed us as potential prey. Maybe, but I have another theory. I think she has become a working animal with a reliable routine. All I could hear in my head was Joanna Lumley’s voice saying "sorry darling, I have to go. I have another group of tourists to scare."

Whichever is the case, she is aptly named with the local translation of "beautiful". Well deserved.

Dinner was oryx carpaccio, followed by oryx sirloin, and a chocolate mousse. "Chocolate oryx", surely?

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Back On The Road

View of the Posh Bit of WindHoek from the Hotel Thule
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 15-11-2018 18:58 | Resolution: 5176 x 2915 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

I’m off on my photographic travels again, this time to Namibia. I’m travelling with Lee Frost of Photo Adventures, as I did to Cuba and Morocco, and it promises to be an interesting mix of landscape, wildlife and general travel shooting.

As is often the case, the first two days were largely taken up with travel, although I learned my lesson from the Myanmar trip and made sure we built in some rest time as well. I can never sleep on a plane, and going straight out shooting after a long journey leaves me fit to be tied…

The main flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg was smooth, although delayed by a change of plane which significantly cut into the relatively short transfer time at the far end, and saw us almost sprinting through the terminal. However in marked contrast to recent experiences with BA, Virgin did an efficient job of boarding (by row number), and Johannesburg Airport staff did an excellent job of triaging their queues, so we got the connecting flight.

The long-haul flight was on a Boeing 787 "Dreamliner", which is a real curates egg, good in parts. The new technology like the electronically dimming windows works brilliantly, but some well established technology appears to have been sacrificed. I couldn’t on my own recline my seat, and the seat back pocket is now wholly inadequate. The tray table is a ridiculous design which slopes downwards and is made out of some shiny plastic – a young lady sitting near me got a glass of water in her lap halfway through dinner, and I’m aware she wasn’t the only one. On a single flight! How on earth did that ever get through QA? Why industrial design has to be this odd zero sum game is a complete mystery. If it ain’t broke…

Minor complaints aside the air transportation got us to Windhoek on time. It’s a surprisingly long drive from the airport to the city, I reckon at least 25 miles, and that’s another mystery, given that most of the intervening countryside is completely empty and flat as a pancake. I can only assume that the former owner of the airport land was on the "where should we put the airport" commission.

Windhoek, at least the bits visible from the main roads, is a spacious, modern city. For our first night we stayed at the Hotel Thule, which sits on a promontory overlooking the rest of the town. It’s a very pleasant place to stay and also seems to be one of the "in" places for the locals to eat. A gentle afternoon and late start next morning at least started my batteries recharging.

Dinner is an oryx steak, slightly overcooked but otherwise delicious.

So far it’s warm, but manageable during the day, but hot at night, not less than about 26°C.

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Fraud Prevention: Why Don’t Banks Do More?

Banks constantly tell us to do more to protect our financial details against online fraud, but we live in a world where there is often no alternative to exposing important financial information to potential misuse. The frustration is that there are some relatively simple services the banks could provide to avoid this, but for some reason, probably just their inertia, these are currently unavailable to a lot of users.

Single Use Credit Card Details

Paying for stuff online frequently involves a big act of trust – when you type in your credit card details you are effectively handing the receiving party the keys to thousands of pounds of your money. You want to hold the merchant to a very high standard of behaviour with those details, which is probably justified for a big household name, but what about other cases? A smaller organisation may be perfectly honest, but may hold your card details in a form which could be vulnerable to an unrelated attack.

Worse, the payee might not have honourable intentions for your card details. You don’t have to be doing anything very nefarious to come across potential examples: the other day I was trying to track down a manual for a second-hand watch, and the only download sites wanted me to "register a credit card" before proceeding. Possibly innocent, quite possibly not.

I really shouldn’t have to expose powerful payment credentials in such a situation. My strong preference is to use a trusted intermediary like PayPal, but that’s not always an option. The best alternative solution is the concept of a "single use credit card" – a set of virtual card details used for one specific purpose, with a short lifetime and very low "credit limit".

However while this is a well-established concept, actually getting hold of such details turns out to be very difficult. As far as I can see, no mainstream UK bank offers this service. Several of the big American banks do, but not to UK customers. Capital One have such a service built into their online support tools, and I have one of their cards, but I couldn’t access those tools with my credentials.

There are a couple of third parties offering the service in the UK, but often only with an expensive subscription. The honourable exception appears to be EntroPay. It’s a bit fiddly getting set up so that you can load their cards from your regular credit card provider, and cost me a 20 minute call to my bank, but I now have a virtual credit card with a £5 credit limit and no other uses. Ideal, but harder than it should be.

This is not rocket science. The fact that several major US banks readily offer such services confirms that this is feasible. We pay substantial fees for access to banking, so why can’t UK banks follow suit?

Payment-Only Account Numbers

In the move from cash and cheque to direct bank transfers even for small personal payments we have also adopted another behaviour which is perilously close to leaving your keys on your front doorstep. This is the practice of sharing your bank account details with anyone who offers to send you some money. This is another practice which leaves me deeply uncomfortable.

Again there is a relatively simple solution. Your account should have a second "shadow" number which can only be used for paying in money, not for withdrawals or other actions (although it might be the visible account number on payments you make). This becomes a "public key" which you are comfortable sharing, while the real account number remains a private secret shared only by yourself and your bank. That then becomes a useful piece of two-way authentication, whereas at the moment someone who knows your account details could have got them from a discarded email or similar. If someone only has the "public" number, then neither your nor your bank should take any instruction from them.

The idea of public and private keys is well established in the electronic world, and ironically the banking system has used physical versions for years – think, for example, of the "hole in the wall" deposit machines for which many people have a key allowing deposit, but only the bank has a master key for collection. However, I’m not aware of any UK banks offering this simple service.

Payee Account Verification

The next is as much about error as fraud prevention, and may be specific to certain banks, but certainly in the Lloyd’s system if you are setting up a personal payment there is zero feedback on whether you have the right account number . The system doesn’t even require you to type in the number twice for confirmation.

Any party in the chain might have made an innocent error, and if the result is a valid account and sort code combination then the funds will be misdirected. If you received payment details via some insecure mechanism such as email, it is also not impossible that a fraudster could substitute their own details, and you would be none the wiser until the real recipient complains about the missing payment.

I suppose banks might argue that showing the account payee name could allow a certain level of account number "guessing", but that sounds specious to me. The simple solution is to combine this change with the payment-only shadow number concept above.

Payment Notice

Finally a simple prophylactic against the "your money is in danger, please put it in this account (of mine)" scam. Banks could insist on either two days’ notice or a personal phone call before any transaction which either largely empties an account, or exceeds a certain threshold. Notice could be provided via the banking application to cut down on administration. For most users, most of the time, this would be no problem, and it would require that any more significant transaction is either planned, or has a "cooling off" period in which fraud checks could be carried out. "Instant access" would still be possible, but only after a phone call or bank visit in which you could be asked "has someone told you to do this?".

Credit card companies do this all the time – mine insisted on an exchange of texts and a call to OK a payment of £5 to Entropay. Yet I know someone who emptied three accounts under a scammer’s instructions before a bank manager asked the key questions. There’s a bit of a mismatch there.

Conclusion

We all need to play our part in fraud prevention, but that goes double for the banks, and a few simple service enhancements along the lines above would make financial life much more secure for all.

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Is Theatre Killing Theatre?

Is the theatre its own worst enemy? Is it the engine of its own destruction?

Let me explain what I mean. We love the cinema. We go most weeks, and most weeks we come away feeling well entertained, even inspired. We have a pretty high hit rate: I keep a note of the films we see and score them out of 10 – this year we have awarded several 9s and a couple of 10s. The last film to score less than 5 was Guy Ritchie’s execrable King Arthur over a year ago. (Admittedly, that was so bad we had to rush home and watch the Antoine Fuqua / Clive Owen version just to remind ourselves what good looks like, but failing once a year at a cost of about £25 I can accept.)

Going to the cinema can even be an "event". In the Spring we caught the first showing of Avengers, Infinity War in Barbados. With the assembled "Marvel fans of Barbados" this was not unlike a good Panto – applause for the heroes and cameos, boos for the villains, mass cheers and gasps in all the right places. Hilarious. We also went to the Dambusters 75th Anniversary event, with a great introduction broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall, followed by a beautifully cleaned up restoration of the film. Again, wonderful.

But surely, it must be even more magical seeing great actors in person on the stage? Maybe, but our practical experience varies. For a start, you don’t always get to see the names you expect. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hollander, John Lithgow and Keeley Hawes are just some famous actors we paid to see on stage, and didn’t due to last-minute cast changes. We did get to see F Murray Abraham in The Mentor. He was fine, but the play was only about an hour long, and a load of introspective b*****s. We came away feeling somewhat short-changed.

Even more disappointing: Robert Powell and Lisa Goddard in Sherlock Holmes – The Final Curtain. Now we saw Robert Powell play Sherlock Holmes once before, in the hilarious Sherlock Holmes The Musical, so we had a not unreasonable expectation of being entertained again in like style. Sadly not. The new play is a dark, grim, rambling, soul searching piece with neither action nor humour. The plot, as much as there is one, centres around Mary Morstan/Watson turning out to be Moriarty’s sister, which raises a question, not well answered, about why she waits 30 years to attempt to have her revenge. It runs for about 40 minutes each act, which is a relief given the poor writing, but poor value for money in any event. To add injury to insult this was our first visit to the Rose Theatre in Kingston, which is cramped, dark, poorly ventilated and with a poor view from about 20% of the seats. There’s a reason why round Tudor theatres were replaced by square or horse-shoe shaped ones…

Now we really enjoy the theatre, with the right content. There are some stalwarts: the local pantomimes, and musicals with high production values. (For example the current West End revival of Chess is absolutely superb, but good seats, travel and a meal beforehand are going to cost around £200 a head.) It’s also perfectly possible for theatre, even with a budget production, to hit all the spots. A few months ago we saw David Haig’s Pressure, a delightful play about both the mechanics and the personal dynamics of the D Day weather forecasts. It was educational, telling an important true story which deserves exposure, enthralling (we know the final score, but not how close it came), and entertaining – laugh out loud funny in the right places.

The trouble is that while we seem to be seeing more we enjoy on both the small and silver screens, it seems to be more and more difficult to find genuine entertainment on stage. The tendency towards a focus on grim introspection seems to be catching. For years one of our favourite theatres, The Orange Tree in Richmond, mixed into its programme both unusual subjects (the story of Gerald Bull and the Iraqi Super Gun) and innovative entertainment (French farces in the round, with sound effects instead of the usual multiple doors). However for the last couple of seasons the fayre has been endless relationship dramas, and nothing has appealed.

It’s generally a challenge, and discouraging when the cost of a night at the theatre is so expensive. Disappointment might be better managed if theatres were obliged to be more truthful in describing their repertoire: obliged to use words like "grim", "gloomy" and "introspective" where appropriate, and forbidden to use the word "comedy" unless it’s actually funny. However I suspect a challenge under the Trades Descriptions Act might be tricky…

This leaves us going less and less frequently to the theatre, and seeking other forms of entertainment instead. I know we’re far from alone – very few of our friends go even as often as we do. Oh well, there’s always the flicks.

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That Was Too easy…

There is an old plot device, which goes back to at least Homer, although the version which popped into my head this evening was Genesis of the Daleks, a 1970s Dr Who story. A group of warriors fight a short but intense battle, and appear to triumph. In Dr Who, the Kaled freedom fighters burst into Davros’s headquarters and think they have dispatched him and his dalek bodyguards. Just as they are starting to celebrate, one of them, typically an old, grizzled soldier who has been round the block a few times, says "Have your instincts abandoned you? That was too easy." True enough, a few seconds later the elaborate trap is sprung, and the tables are turned.

Android 8 is like that. Not that it’s in the service of a malevolent genius, although I’m beginning to wonder, but it lulls you into a false sense of security, and then throws some significant challenges at you.

I got a new phone last week. I have loved my Sony Experia XA Ultra which I have used for the last two years, but been constantly frustrated by the miserly 16GB main memory. The Experia XA1 Ultra is an almost identical device, but with a decent amount of main storage. I had to forgo the cheerfully "bling" lime gold of the XA, replaced by a dusky metallic pink XA1, but otherwise the hardware change was straightforward.

So, initially, was the transfer. Android now has a feature to re-install the same applications as on a previous device, and, where it can, transfer the same settings. This takes a number of hours, but seems to work quite well. I had to manually transfer a few things, but a couple of hours in I worked through the list of applications, and most seemed to be in order with their settings. I could even see the same pending playlist in the music player which, after a lot of trial and error, I installed to randomly play music while I’m on the bus.

The new version of the Android alarm/clock app seems to be complete b****cks, and more trouble than it’s worth, but there’s no barrier to installing the old version which seems to work OK. My preferred app to get Tube Status updates is no longer available to download, but I could reload the old version from a backup. So that was most of the problems in the upgrade dealt with.

My instincts had abandoned me. It was too easy…

I had also forgotten Weinberg’s New Law. ("Nothing new works")

I got to the gym, and tried to play my music, using the standard Sony music player. Some of it was there, but the playlist I wanted wasn’t. I realised the app could no longer see WMA files (Windows Media format), which make up about 95% of my collection. A bit of googling, and it turned out the recommendation was to install PowerAmp, which I did, and it worked fine.

Then I got on the bus, and tried to play some randomised music. Nothing. The app had the files in its playlist, but couldn’t find them. I rapidly confirmed that the problem again was WMA files, which had suddenly become "invisible" to the app. After yet more trial and error installing, the conclusion is that it’s the Android Media Storage service which is at fault. Apps which build their own index (like PowerAmp) are fine. Apps which are built "the proper way" and use the shared index are screwed, because in the latest version of Android this just completely ignores WMA files.

Someone at Google has taken the decision to actively suppress WMA files from those added to the index. This isn’t a question of a problematic codec or similar – they had perfectly good indexing code which worked, and for some reason it has been removed or disabled. I can only think it’s some political battle between Microsoft and Google, but it’s vastly frustrating that users are caught in the crossfire.

I trust Dante reserved some special corner of Hell for those who break what works, for no good reason. If his spectre wants a bit of support designing it, I’ll be glad to help.

And I’ll resist saying "that wasn’t too bad" when I upgrade my technology…

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Prediction Realised: The AlpinerX

My AlpinerX
Resolution: 1280 x 1400

In October last year I wrote an article celebrating the hybrid analogue/digital watch and offering some architecture and design observations from my collection of them. I ended up slightly sad about the style’s fall from fashion, but confidently predicting that new models with smartwatch capabilities would be forthcoming. It turned out that I did not have to wait long.

In March Alpina announced the AlpinerX, via a KickStarter campaign. That approach was designed to work around a frequent challenge with new digital watches from smaller brands, that of guaranteeing sufficient early sales to justify decent batch sizes of the components and materials. Predictably, I was an early backer, and my watch arrived in mid-June.

At first sight, this is simply a classic analogue/digital watch. I have read reviews comparing it with the Breitling Aerospace or Omega Speedmaster X33, but a much closer existing comparator is the Tissot T-Touch Expert Solar. That watch is a similar size, style and price and has a similar sensor set. The two watches share similar deep integration of the hands with the digital functions, so that they become, for example, the needle in compass mode.

However the AlpinerX goes further. It has a couple of extra sensors including a pedometer and a UV level meter, but this is also a fully-fledged connected smartwatch, just as much as an iWatch or equivalent, and it really comes into its own in partnership with your phone.

Size and Styling

Regarding the watch’s design, we should start by addressing the elephant in the room, or more correctly the elephant on the end of your arm. While it’s certainly not the largest gong around, it is a big watch, 45mm in diameter, larger than the Breitling Aerospace, and 14mm thick, much thicker than the Tissot T-Touch Expert Solar (or latest Breitling Aerospace Evo). This is not going to slide unnoticed under a dress shirt cuff. The size is a result of several factors. First fashion – we have all got used to wearing a dinner plate on our wrist like something from The Fifth Element – and its outdoor focus. Practically its composite case (which Alpina call glass fibre) may well have to be a bit thicker than a metal one.

However although I haven’t confirmed it, my money is on the size of the battery, or batteries. If Alpina’s claims are borne out they have pulled off a remarkable coup: a watch with the rich sensors and connectivity of a smartwatch, but with battery life measured not in hours or days, but around two years just like its non-connected cousins. I hope that promise comes good: Alpina haven’t provided a “sleep mode”, like older T-Touch models, in which the watch can be put into a battery-saving dormant state when not being used, and I do hope I’m not going to be changing the battery too frequently.

Although it’s quite large, it’s not a heavy watch by any means (a benefit of the composite shell), and it sits comfortably on my fairly average wrist. The Tissot, with its solar power solution, may be slimmer, but the AlpinerX is perfectly wearable, albeit better with casual clothing.

The watch has a simple, clean design, with simple white digits on the face, matching markings on the bezel (which rotates to work with the compass) and clear intermediate markings. The digital display takes up most of the bottom of the dial, dark yellow in background mode, or white on black when lit. Unlike some designs, the digital display has been positioned symmetrically, and all the cardinal points of the analogue display are retained.

Alpina offer buyers the ability to select the colour scheme of almost all elements of the watch, allowing extensive customisation, although in reality the main choices for most components are black or navy – the latter being a sort of dark purple (which I rather like) rather than a completely neutral blue. In the expectation this will be a travel/holiday watch, I have chosen cheerful orange highlights wherever possible: for the hands, the ring, and the stitching on the leather strap. I also have a rubber strap in bright orange, but so far the leather strap has proven adequate for my use, and very attractive with a texture reminiscent of woven carbon fibre.

Operation – General Observations

Operation of the watch is very simple, using the three buttons on the right-hand side. The “pusher” button in the crown lights the display and toggles through the main functions. Within a selected function the bottom button selects sub-functions (e.g. count up or count down) and the top button does start/stop.

The rotating “crown” appears to be simply decorative. As we will see, Alpina have missed a number of opportunities where this could usefully provide setting adjustment , but that’s not the model here. For more complex settings this is a watch controlled not directly, but via the companion app on your phone. That allows the local controls to be simpler, but does sometimes mean that it can take some digging into the app to find out how something is managed.

The free-rotating bezel (with click stops) provides a compass indicator which can be teamed with the compass needle to provide azimuth and heading indication. At least it does something useful!

For those used to more complex smartwatches with high-resolution OLED displays, the simple two-line alphanumeric digital display might look a little crude. However it suffices to provide most of the information you need while actually on the move, and presumably helps deliver the excellent battery life. Again the operating model is for detailed review to be done on the much larger display of the phone. On a positive note, the simple display could be readily combined with the design of any of my Swiss hybrid watches, even the diminutive 1987 Omega Seamaster Polaris, so maybe there’s scope for a smaller, neater variant of the watch at a later date.

When illuminated (which happens by default every time you switch functions or activate the connection to the phone) the digital display is bright and clear. When the backlight is off the digital display is a bit dim, but there’s no issue with the clean, high-contrast analogue indicators (or hands, as they are otherwise known :) ).

The watch has a number of nice touches. For example, one of the challenges with this style of watch (which is also a problem with multiple dial chronograph watches, although it’s rarely mentioned) is that sometimes the hands obscure a key part of the digital display. Alpina has come up with a neat solution to this – simply swing the hands out of the way of the display when the user activates the digital display. (However it has to be said that the neatest solution for smaller watches, adopted by Rado and older Casio and Seiko models, is an oblong case with digital displays above and/or below the dial. Sometimes simple is best.)

Pairing/Connection

Use of the AlpinerX depends heavily on connection to a phone. It is therefore rather annoying that the process of connection can be rather fiddly and unreliable, especially with Android devices. Experiences vary – mine is that the two devices will connect and communicate easily immediately after the phone has been rebooted. However if thereafter the phone’s BlueTooth is turned off and on, or the devices are separated for a long time, then it can be tricky to get the connection working again, and the simplest, but not ideal, solution is to restart the phone.

What seems to happen is that the watch thinks it is connected but the phone does not, and in this mode there’s no reliable way to restart the process. I just hope that Alpina can improve things and deliver a firmware and/or app fix, which at least is an option here.

Timekeeping Functions

Ultimately, setting the extended functions aside, this is a watch, and so needs to provide good basic timekeeping. It therefore comes as a surprise that some capabilities standard in every digital watch since the 1970s are either missing, or delivered in a non-standard and somewhat clumsy fashion.

The biggest omission is the alarm function. Either I am being very stupid, or the AlpinerX doesn’t have one! There is no way to simply set the watch to make a noise at a pre-appointed time of day. You can set the watch to receive a push notification from your phone, and then set your phone to provide the alarm, but Alpina warn that doing so can harm battery life, and if you are going to do so, you might as well just use the alarm on your phone. If your phone suffers from late alarms due to the brain-dead Android “doze” mode, then this watch is not going to help you.

There are no direct controls to set the time on the watch. The idea is that the watch takes its primary time from the phone, which in turn takes the time from the network. This allows an elegant, simple solution to travel adjustments and so forth, but it’s not clear how to make micro adjustments if needed. In my experience “network time” can sometimes be adrift of the time provided by a good watch. If you are in an area where the network does not provide reliable time indication (like during a flight) you will have to adjust your phone manually, and if you don’t have your phone when you need to adjust the time, you’re stuffed.

Operation of the stopwatch is straightforward, but the count-up/count-down timer is really annoying, as you have to set the target value on the phone before it can be used. This is one example where it would be really useful to provide a way (the rotating crown, obviously?) to set the value locally. If I’m going to have to use my phone, I’ll just use the timer app on my phone, or wear a thirty year old watch where this just works.

Fitness Monitoring

On a more positive note, the AlpinerX does provide some very useful fitness monitoring features: principally a pedometer and a “connected GPS” mode for tracking an exercise route and duration. If you’re not doing complex exercise and you don’t need heart rate monitoring, then you don’t need to wear a Fitbit. That could provide a useful simplification to the holiday gadget set.

As pedometers the AlpinerX and Fitbit Charge 2 agree within 0.2%: 12 steps in over 6300 on my first test. However they behave very differently in “connected GPS walk” mode. The AlpinerX can be fiddly to get started with first GPS fix, but then very accurate – you can see where I double back to my car at the start of the walk with the parking ticket. The Fitbit is very crude by comparison, taking only a handful of fixes in an hour. The result is about a 10% difference in distance, with the AlpinerX’s figure of 4.7km rather more believable than the Fitbit’s “straight line” estimate of 4.3km. (The Fitbit is also more painful to sync with your phone if they have been disconnected for some time, although the AlpinerX can get confused if you turn Bluetooth off and on and try to reconnect. You pay your money and take your choice.)

The AlpinerX’s “phone first” model means that it only provides a simple time display during the exercise, and I would like to see this extended to some basic “steps/distance so far” information. Yes, I know I can get my phone out, sync them and read the phone, but I don’t want to do this when walking.

I haven’t tried the sleep monitoring, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope for it. Even with its heart rate monitoring the Fitbit can’t discriminate (for me) between “asleep” and “lying awake but still”, and I don’t expect the AlpinerX to do any better, especially since I would probably have to use the “under the pillow” mode. If you thrash about all the time when you are awake it might work…

UV Sensor

The AlpinerX has something which I haven’t encountered previously in a watch, a UV sensor. The marketing claim was that “AlpinerX can give timely warnings to reapply sunscreen or seek the shadow…” This is a great idea, but unfortunately the initial implementation falls a long way short of expectations.

Based on the claims, I was expecting an intelligent function which would continuously monitor UV exposure throughout the day. Plug in some information about your skin type and the strength of your suncream, and the phone would automatically set an alarm to remind you when to take action. Fat chance.

As far as I can see, the current implementation requires the user to switch the watch to UV monitoring mode and manually initiate each measurement. The phone then displays a very simple set of maximum, minimum and average values for the day. There is no concept of history or cumulative values. There is also no way to get the promised “timely warnings”, because there is no alarm function.

There is a text page in the app which provides some guidance on interpreting the UV measurement, but I’m not convinced of its value. The guidance is almost exactly the same for all UV levels from 3 to 11, effectively just “use SPF 30+ sunscreen and re-apply every 2 hours”. That’s for a range which at one end shouldn’t trouble anyone but a troglodyte albino, and at the other would rapidly scorch an Ethiopian mountain dweller.

Alpina really need to sort this out, or modify their claims. Regular automatic measurements and an exposure history would be a start, and ought to be pretty simple to achieve.

Altimeter and Barometer

Like the Tissot T-Touch watches, the AlpinerX provides altimeter and barometer functions. Like the Tissot watches, it has then same challenge that with a single measurement it my be difficult to disentangle changes of weather and changes of location during the same period. You can come back to your starting point after a day’s travel which included weather changes and the altitude doesn’t quite return to its initial value. The AlpinerX does, however, appear to do something clever with either average pressure or in concert with the phone’s GPS and will correct itself given a bit of time at rest. Advantage AlpinerX.

The app displays a continuous periodic readout of your altitude throughout the day, but like the UV, the barometer reading is displayed as a crude set of current, maximum and minimum values. Given that the rate of change of pressure can be important, it would be great, and presumably relatively simple, to be able to see this as a timeline as well.

Thermometer

The AlpinerX has a built-in thermometer. Like other watch thermometers, this tends to indicate the temperature of the wrist while being worn, but the AlpinerX seems to be better than most, with a smaller error and quicker recovery to ambient temperature when then watch is removed, maybe due to the non-metal case. Ironically temperature is displayed as a timeline in the app, but tends to hover round a fixed value close to human skin temperature through the wearing day.

Guidance and Documentation

While the watch does many things well, getting the best from it is a real challenge given the frankly appalling documentation which is delivered with it. The box includes a thick printed manual … which doesn’t cover this watch at all! There is a three page “getting started” leaflet, but that doesn’t cover key functions such as time setting. Between the two of these I spent some time trying to pull out the crown, which is how other watches in the Alpina range achieve that, and I’m lucky that I haven’t broken anything.

You need to find the relatively well hidden link to download a PDF of the 23 page version of the manual to have a hope of understanding the watch. Why a printed copy of a 23 page manual isn’t included in the box is a complete mystery. The fact that it isn’t downloaded automatically with and intelligently linked directly from the app is a travesty.

It doesn’t help that the app is a graphic example of how ease of use and ease of learning are completely separate and sometimes even conflicting objectives. There is little or no help to find your way through its structure and the options. Once you have found how something works it is usually easy to use repeatedly, but I do wonder how many users will abandon some tasks altogether, defeated by the poor guidance.

Conclusions

I do like the AlpinerX. It is a smart, capable watch and has delivered on a majority of its promises, if not all. It has already supplanted my Fitbit for my fitness walks, and I expect it to become my primary travel watch, although given the additional dependency on my phone, I may have to carry a second more traditional hybrid watch on longer trips, just in case.

Coming to this watch from my experience with older hybrid models, that phone dependency is a challenge, although I suspect users of other smartwatches might be less surprised. I would prefer the AlpinerX to be independently capable of all the traditional timekeeping functions, including setting alarms and timers, without recourse to the phone, and I don’t see a good reason why it isn’t.

With my other watches, any limitations are permanent, for the duration of my ownership. By contrast the AlpinerX architecture does allow some of its limitations to be addressed through firmware updates or even simple app changes, and I hope Alpina listen to me, and other users, and work hard to progressively improve the product. At the same time, I would like to see them open up the data, and maybe even the app functions, through a development API or SDK. The independent developer community could deliver significant value to users if this watch is treated as a platform, not a closed product.

If Alpina are thinking of further similar models, then I suggest they do treat the Breitling Aerospace Evo as a reference, not for its functionality, but for its size. It pulls off the trick of being wearable as both a casual watch, and also with formal or business attire. A smaller and thinner AlpinerX model which could do that might make it into my list of regular daily timepieces, and that would be a great result.

This is a good watch, and at least partially realises my prediction about the future of analogue/digital models. It’s not without frustrations, many of which could have been avoided, some of which can still be fixed. It will be interesting to see where Alpina take it, and whether others recognise a good thing.

Posted in Thoughts on the World, Watches | Leave a comment

Panasonic G9. Close? Yes. Cigar? No.

Beware, bears! Russian strongman and former commando Mikhail Shivlyakov “psychs up” friend and fellow competitor Konstantina Janashia from Georgia, ready for a successful 480kg deadlift.
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 31-05-2018 15:07 | Resolution: 5017 x 3763 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6

This article was also published as a guest article on "The Online Photographer".

My Panasonic GX8 arrived pretty much on the day of official availability and has been my primary camera for almost three years, including two major photographic trips, and innumerable other opportunities in between. It improved on the already good GX7 with "just right" sizing, a better sensor and higher speeds. Like many other owners and fans I was looking forward to a fairly straight replacement – all Panasonic had to do was fix the awkward exposure compensation control and improve the action autofocus and it would be pretty much perfect. Fat chance.

Instead, and not for the first time, Panasonic have shaken up the Lumix G range, with the GX9 effectively moving down the range, and all the new goodness going into a new "stills flagship" the G9, which sits at the top alongside the video-centric GH5 and its variants.

After a bit of prevarication, I decided that I was due an upgrade, and plumped for the G9. My new camera arrived a few days ago. This review is based on the first few days’ moderately heavy use. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive, or dispassionate blow-by-blow review, but a set of personal impressions from a long-standing Panasonic user and fan.

Body Style and Size

At first the G9 looks like quite a different camera, larger and more expensive, and more of a "DSLR ethos" than the rangefinder-style GX8. I’ll come back to cost, but the size issue is deceptive: put the two cameras side by side and it’s clear that the only real difference is the G9’s DSLR "hump", and a slightly deeper grip, which is academic unless you use a very small pancake lens. Given that similarity it’s surprising that the G9 is a significant 171g (about 6oz) heavier. The camera offers better weatherproofing and a bigger battery, and does feel a bit more rugged, so that’s acceptable. Unlike its predecessor, but like my old Canon 7D, it feels like it might take the odd knock without problems. In practice, you get used to the weight quite quickly.

Like every new flagship camera the G9 is initially priced high, but this gives Panasonic and their dealers some room for manoeuvre with discounts, trade-ins and freebies. Depending on how you look at it my G9 cost me only about 2/3 of the advertised price, or the 5 year lifetime cost of my old GX7 net of trade-in was about £250. I can live with that.

Controls and Ergonomics

Back in early 2016 I wrote an open letter to Panasonic regarding the GX8, acknowledging its good points, but identifying opportunities to improve the ergonomics and usefully extend its stills capability. They clearly ignored the letter for the GX9, but either great minds think alike, or it did influence the G9.

Ergonomically, I am a fan of "electronic" control, by which I mean the ability to set camera functions fluidly between on-camera buttons and wheels including your choice of programmable controls, the menu system, and stored custom values. By contrast "fixed switches" break this free control model and cannot be included in stored settings for custom shooting modes. In addition, I am short sighted and wearing my "distance" glasses the tiny markings on such controls are effectively invisible.

The GX8’s exposure compensation control is a good (or should that be bad?) example of the latter. Apart from breaking my preferred control model it is also badly placed – I found that to operate it I either have to take my right hand off the camera and reach in from above, or somehow slide my thumb behind the camera, which usually results in both adjusted exposure and smeared glasses! No such problem with the G9 – you can quickly set up the camera so that the rear wheel, under the right thumb, controls the primary exposure value (aperture or shutter speed as appropriate), while the front wheel, easily in reach of the shutter finger, controls compensation. Vice-versa if you prefer. Perfect.

Unfortunately, however, Panasonic have perpetuated, and even aggravated one of the GX8’s other ergonomic failings, and arguably introduced a new one! The perpetual horror is focus mode. The G9, like most of the G series, has four main modes: manual focus (’nuff said), autofocus "single" (half press the shutter button to focus, then full press to expose with that focus), "follow" (another single shot mode, but if the primary subject moves while the shutter button is half pressed, the camera refocuses), and "continuous" (aligned to the high-speed shooting modes, refocuses for each exposure). The ideal solution would be a button which toggles between the modes. That’s good enough for a lot of very good cameras. However the G9 has a switch.

If you must have a switch, then surely it should have four modes? Nope. You select manual, continuous or single/follow on a three position switch, then have to dive into the menus to choose between single and follow, or the several variants of continuous. To add insult to injury, at least in the GX8 you could set the button in the middle of the focus switch to toggle between single and follow. Not on the G9, at least not with its initial firmware – this is set to AE/AF lock (which I personally never, ever use) and not programmable. The obvious fix is to make that button programmable so that when in the single/follow position it toggles between the two, when in the continuous position it toggles between the various variants of that mode, and when in the manual position it does something equivalently useful like turning focus peaking (highlighting) on and off. This could be fixed in a firmware update – I will just have to write to Panasonic and cross my fingers.

The other fixed switch on the G9 is for the drive mode (single, high speed, timer etc.) On the GX8 this is on a button, which is much better as you can include infrequent or situation-specific settings (like high speed mode) in appropriate custom shooting modes, and just leave the main aperture-priority settings or equivalent on single-shot, with a much reduced risk of going to take a shot and being in the wrong mode. The G9 arrangement seems like a retrograde step, but liveable.

Strengths


Krzysztof Radzikowski sets a new world record with a 150kg dumbell lift

That brings us from some arguable weaknesses of the G9 onto its real strengths. It’s fast – so fast it has three high-speed modes: high (about 5FPS), super-high 1 (about 15FPS) and super-high 2 (about 20FPS). The two super-high modes also have a very useful feature for sports and wildlife photography: hold the shutter half pressed and they will continuously store a few frames (about 0.4s worth) in the buffer, and write these to the card when you press the shutter, so if you are fractionally late clicking, you don’t lose the event. The downside is that you need to use the super-high settings with caution: if you are saving RAW + large JPEG files super-high 2 will chew up your memory cards at roughly 1GByte every 1.5 seconds. Another reason why I’d prefer to lock this to a custom mode!

Autofocus is much improved over the GX8, although I have to admit that my first sporting event with the new camera didn’t give it that much of a workout: in absolute terms, strongmen don’t move fast. it’s impressive to see a 150kg (330lb) man jogging with the same weight in each hand, but it’s not the harshest test of autofocus! However I can report that the G9 seems to adjust focus very quickly in continuous mode and seems to have missed relatively few shots. If there’s any pattern to the misses they tend to be the first shots of longer sequences, when I may have been moving the camera into position on the action. I’ll have to try and find something involving horses or fast cars for a better check.

Sensor readout also appears to have been improved, with a bit less banding on pictures of LED displays, and no obvious rolling shutter effects so far, although a higher-speed subject will really be required to confirm that.

The other area where Panasonic seem to have listened to my prior pleas is in support for bracketed and multi-shot images. In addition to the established support for exposure bracketing (for HDR), the new camera now does focus bracketing/scanning, as well as bracketing for aperture and white balance. Intelligently, even in single-shot drive mode you can choose to have the bracket shot at high speed to minimise the effect of subject or camera movement. The focus bracketing capability is something I have been seeking for a long time, and records full RAW files, a completely separate capability from the camera’s other ability to do in-camera focus stacking or post-shot focus selection from within a 6K movie file. Bracketed photos are clearly marked in their metadata, which makes it quite easy to build a script to sort them out from the rest of a day’s shooting.

Battery life is excellent – at the aforementioned strongman competition the camera was on for most of the five hours of competition and took about 600 shots. It used one battery and was about 30% into the second, much better than the GX8 would manage. I can also confirm that the two card slot arrangement works fine, effectively doubling the memory capacity, so I wasn’t fiddling with cards.

Two other ergonomic points are worth making. The rear display can be manually set to a nice bright setting for outdoors, but it’s automatic setting is far too dim. The EVF is large, detailed and bright, but as adjusted for my glasses has an odd pincushion distortion, with noticeably curved edges. This is nothing to do with the lens, which the camera corrects as required, but the way the EVF display is presented to the eyepiece. It’s not a major problem, but annoying to an inveterate picture-straightener like myself, especially as I haven’t had that problem with any of the predecessors.

Otherwise it’s pretty much business as usual. Image quality appears to be just the same as the GX8, much as expected given the common sensor, and the camera has a nicely familiar feel even if some of the controls are different and it’s definitely a bit heavier. Stabilisation is at least as good as the predecessor, with no noticeable penalty from the increased weight, but it’s clear that the full multi-second goodness of "dual IS 2" will have to wait until I can afford to start replacing my lenses with the new Mark II versions.

Conclusion

Would I recommend it? If you’re a committed Panasonic user, or have no existing mirrorless camera affiliation, and you want a very high capability, stills-centric camera, then absolutely. However if video is your thing, the GH5 may be better, and if you really don’t need the high speed or new advanced stills features, then a GX-series camera will save you weight and money. This is a very good camera, but not perfect. Panasonic still have room for improvement…

Posted in Micro Four Thirds, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

OK Google, Here’s Another One…

Having established that there’s a real, valuable use case for Google’s phone-call-making AI (making outgoing calls which have to be routed via complex menus, lengthy queues, or security gatekeepers) I got thinking.

When I was in my early 20s and worked in a real office with doors and a bit of peace and quiet, I had access to a much valued colleague who’s function has almost entirely disappeared from modern life, unless you are enormously rich and powerful. She was called "a secretary".

One of the secretary’s functions was handling incoming phone calls: blocking the nuisances, re-routing the misdirected, taking understandable messages if I was not available, or putting the caller through with a clear announcement if I was. Where "a secretary" scored enormously over "a telephonist" was in knowing a bit about my business and me personally and being able to make some decisions on her (it was usually a her) own. She could also recognise regular accepted callers by their voice and deal with them much more quickly than strangers.

I’d like a computer which can do that.

Now this is definitely a step harder than just placing outgoing calls, but only a step. We don’t have to create a full-blown JARVIS (Iron Man’s AI butler) to get a lot of value.

Recognising known contacts by their voiceprint and incoming line details should be pretty straightforward, and it should be easy to make the list manageable, adding rules about how to deal with different people at different times. Taking messages can be a hybrid of two technologies. Because the caller is talking to a computer the call audio can be recorded, but the automated secretary could run through a simple script to get a direct call-back number ("now you are sure that’s direct and he’s not going to have to go through some horrible menu to get back to you"), spell out the caller’s name and company if it’s not recognised, and get an identifying account number or similar so I can verify the call’s veracity and quickly get my case recognised on call back. These could all be popped into an email or text to me, so I can see them written down rather than having to listen to them and write them down myself.

Those capabilities alone would get rid of a lot of nuisance callers. Scammers who want to offer to move my money to their own accounts are not going to want to leave verifiable contact details, or will not be able to provide valid authentication. Sales calls are a bit different. Most "spam" callers don’t waste their time with answering machines, so if we make the AI secretary recognisable as such that will get rid of most. Any who are really persistent can then be recognised by "trigger" words, such as "PPI", or "double glazing", or "the security department of Microsoft Windows" (yeah, right), plus non-verbal cues like the double-ring of a connection from Asia, or the chattering background in an Indian call centre, just like I do it. That would be a really powerful application of machine learning technology. I could choose how my secretary deals with identified nuisance callers: just hang up, choose a random insult from a list and hang up, keep them talking until they get bored, or redirect the call to an 0898 number where I’m sure the young ladies will be happy to listen to them all day, for a fee.

While we’re at it, let’s make the voice and personality programmable. I had Joanna Lumley’s voice (Purdey rather than Patsy) on my satnav for a while, and that would tick a lot of boxes for me, as a 50-something male. But I can also see the charm of recreating some famous fictional assistants: JARVIS, or how about Chris Hemsworth’s character from Ghostbusters 3, ladies?

OK Google. How about this?

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