Shit Hit Fan!

190917 RX100m4 01071
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 17-09-2019 16:44 | Resolution: 4650 x 3100 | ISO: 500 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 3.5 | Focal Length: 25.7mm (~70.0mm)

Something in the note on my desk this morning hinted that my day was not going to go quite as planned… :)

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Cross-Posting

The E Class gone green!
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 03-05-2016 10:19 | Resolution: 5176 x 3235 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Please bear with me – I’m trying to improve the process of generating new content for my blog, and then cross-posting it to Medium, FaceBook, LinkedIn and/or Twitter as appropriate. Over the next week or two you may see a few test posts like this one. Please feel free to ignore them!

One of the challenges is easily generating and uploading the photo blog, which holds all my images. I’ve created a tool which automates generating the blog, uploading it and then downloading links in a form ready to use in the blog. As a test, here’s a picture of my car before the paint job:

My E-Class before its makeover
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GH4 | Date: 14-05-2015 20:09 | Resolution: 4367 x 2457 | ISO: 500 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

And here’s another of the old VW Eos:

A randomly selected image this morning – my old VW Eos
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 30-01-2015 17:00 | Resolution: 4894 x 3059 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 14-42/F3.5-5.6
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Yes, Kit DOES Matter

That's more like it - hand-held at 1/3s
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 13-11-2015 15:44 | Resolution: 3888 x 5184 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 0.3125s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Views of Rinpung Dzong from Pa C | State/Province: Paro | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Picasso had his blue period. I had a blurry period.

There’s a common line in much of photography writing. Set aside those actively trying to sell you something, and most will at some point claim that "kit doesn’t matter”. The idea is that a good photographer can get excellent results with any equipment. He or she will understand and work within any limitations, potentially even making an artistic feature of them. Conversely the mediocre photographer chasing improvement through better equipment is wasting time and money better spent on training in technique.

However that has not been my experience…

I’ve been a photographer since my teens. Until the mid 00s I muddled along with low-end 35mm film cameras and a variety of relatively cheap lenses, typically “kit” lenses or items purchased randomly from shop displays of used items. Over the years I’d worked up from a “manual everything” camera with fixed 50mm lens to an entry-level Canon EOS SLR which provided automatic focus, exposure and film winding. The photos had their limitations, but I lived with them. They were better than most friends and relatives managed with “point and shoot” cameras, but they didn’t really relate to the sharp, colourful large-format images I saw in magazines or at exhibitions.

That changed with the advent of my first DSLR, a Canon 350D. Now I had a tool capable of producing high-quality digital images, in theory up there with the best of them. OK, auto-focus was slow for anything but well-lit static subjects, and the maximum usable ISO was 800, but by using the histogram I could reliably get correctly exposed and focused shots almost every time, banishing most of the technical issues which had limited my film photography. At the same time I realised that because of the constraints of my work, photography, and travel for it, was really my main hobby, and I wanted to become good at it.

Score 1 for a kit upgrade, but I suspect we all overlook this one.

I knew I needed to improve my compositional skills and my eye for images, but I read widely, attended courses, got some mentoring, and practiced. I do say so myself, but my ability to see, frame up and capture an image improved steadily. I learned to shoot RAW, and started to develop an efficient toolkit to work through and develop my pictures. I took the better ones proudly to my mentor…

…At which point he made a comment about sharpness, and I realised that it was true, many of my images seemed a lot softer than they should. Ignoring those with motion blur (due to subject movement), depth of field limitations or environmental constraints (haze or low light), quite a lot of straightforward static shots seemed to lack “bite”. I tried fiddling with the processing, but to little avail. I wondered if the problem was camera shake, but that seemed unlikely as I have a steady hand, and I proved that I could get sharp shots with my telephoto at full stretch and a moderate shutter speed, and from my non-stabilised wide-angle lens. That should have told me something, but it didn’t.

At the time my main lens was the Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM. This was a decent lens, neat, smooth in operation with good stabilisation, and received decent reviews. It did suffer quite bad chromatic aberration near its limits, but that was usually correctable. However I became convinced that simply because it was relatively cheap maybe it was the culprit.

So I set about trying to find a better mid-range Canon zoom. This proved easier said than done. Canon had multiple well-reviewed zooms which were 24mm at the wide end, but that’s only "wide" on full frame, and useless for my style of photography with APS-C bodies. I borrowed a 17-40mm lens, but that seemed heavy, lacked image stabilisation and didn’t seem to produce much better results than what I had. Ditto the 17-55mm, which is a good lens, but a big lump for what it is. At the same time these all equated to about 28mm at the wide end, and I was ideally hoping for something a bit wider. My options seemed limited.

At which point, Canon released the EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM lens. This looked like the answer to my prayers: similar range to the 17-85mm but a bit wider, marginally faster, and about twice the price, so it had to be better, didn’t it? I read reviews and tried one in a shop, all of which looked quite promising. I bit the bullet and purchased one.

Picasso had his blue period. This was the beginning of my blurry period.

I don’t mean that every shot I took was a fuzzy mess. In well-lit conditions straight on to a static subject with no vast challenge on depth of field the results were OK. Subject movement wasn’t a problem either – the lens played very well with the Canon 7D’s excellent autofocus on moving targets. However in terms of my images being a bit disappointing on the sharpness front, if anything the rate seemed to have gone up.


Nice colours, no shake, but still blurry

Some of this was down to my technique. I was arguably becoming too reliant on multi-purpose autofocus, and maybe not paying enough attention to depth of field complexities. Some was due to a straightforward mechanical weakness of the 15-85mm lens: pointed too far up or down the front element would move under its own weight and disturb zoom and focus, but I learned to recognise and manage that. However the fact remained that some images which should have been consistently sharp just weren’t.

Things came to a head on the first day of my Iceland trip, when I suddenly realised that only the autofocus lights in the bottom 2/3 of the viewfinder were active – the others never came on. The lens just wasn’t focusing properly on objects at the top of the image. I swapped to the 17-85mm lens and the problem went away, so that became my main lens for the remainder of the trip.

The 15-85mm lens was still under warranty, so it went back to Canon for repair. Actually it went back twice, as the first time it was returned "no fault found" and my carefully listed symptoms clearly ignored. The second time Canon reported that they had adjusted the front element of the lens. It was a bit better, but not right. I could point it straight at a wall, and either the top of the image would confirm focus or the bottom, but not both.

I went for a walk with friends, and took the shot below. It may not show up well at web resolutions, but it’s a very odd image. The roof tiles reflected in the water are sharp. The tiles photographed directly, without the challenges of reflection, but by definition at the same optical distance, are blurred.


The Canon 15-85mm lens’ failings uncovered

After that walk I did another review of the market, but was still unexcited by any other option. I sold the lens (for a fairly low price to a happy buyer, I checked), and bought another, brand new. It was a further step in the right direction, but I still couldn’t be sure that I was getting the images I should.

One problem is that it’s very difficult to understand the limitations of your kit if that’s all you have to compare. It’s a bit like trying to assess the benefits of Blu-Ray via an advert on a DVD – you only have a DVD quality image to judge. I call this the “can’t tell through current medium” problem. At the risk of channelling Donald Rumsfeld, you don’t know what you don’t know…

I was getting frustrated, and it shows in my portfolio. After the walk which generated the top image, the Canon 7D hardly contributed apart from sporting events, where coupled with the 70-300mm lens it continued to shine. Everything else was taken with other, supposedly "lesser" cameras.

When I bought the Panasonic GH2, I wasn’t intending to buy a "better" camera. I’d become attracted to the idea of mirrorless cameras, and I wanted a "full capability" camera kit which was genuinely small and light. In truth there was also a bit of gadget lust, partly bought on by my growing frustration with Canon, who were also very tardy in upgrading the 7D. Driven by the small/light mantra, I chose as my first micro four-thirds lens the 14-42mm "power zoom" (which folds itself down to a pancake when not in use), a lens which requires prodigious geometric correction in the camera or RAW convertor.

And the images it produced were so sharp, they just "popped" off the screen. Casual grab shots with the GH2 had a clarity of detail and colour I had rarely matched with the Canons, and only readily achieved with the excellent EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens, rather than the mid-range zooms. I had found my reference!


My first real shot with the GH2 – sharp!

It’s surprising in hindsight, but even with this realisation, it was a long 18 months before I completely moved on. I was both personally and financially invested in the Canon system, and couldn’t change instantly. The GH2 was only 12MP (only 9MP at some aspect ratios). It struggled if the subject was actually moving, by comparison a great forte of the Canon 7D. In addition the early micro four-thirds cameras and lenses were tiny but felt fragile, and I was more disposed to expose the Canon kit to rain, dust or the sands of the Erg Chebbi. Underneath it all I suspect I was still somewhat in denial that a much cheaper, as well as smaller kit was capable of superior results.

The end of the transition came suddenly, via an accident which was happy for me, less so for my friend David. He was trying to shoot the swirling floodwaters of Winter 2013-14, knocked his tripod, and in went his 7D and lens. He wanted time to choose an upgrade replacement, so offered to buy my 7D as an interim solution. He also took a couple of lenses, but wasn’t interested in the 15-85mm. He’d obviously heard me swearing once too often!

The rest of my Canon kit went on eBay. Most sold quickly and for good prices. There was one exception: the execrable 15-85mm took months to sell and achieved a very low price. I was slightly chastened, but not really surprised.

Somewhat before the end I had mentally and practically moved fully into the Panasonic system. I loved much about it, especially the image quality, but also my kit finally included something which Canon had never been able to provide, a lightweight high quality mid-range zoom (the wonderful 12-35mm f/2.8, beloved even of lens snobs). My blurry period was over.

Now I’m sure there are plenty of people doing good work with APS-C Canon cameras, working carefully within the limits of the lenses, or living with their limitations. I could always have invested instead in a bunch of primes, or maybe I might have fared differently if I had got better results from my trial of the 17-55mm lens. However the reality is that I just couldn’t believe Canon would sell bad lenses for good money, and tried to "stick it out", rather than moving on sooner. For every photographer who is constantly chasing the next big thing, there’s probably one like me, constrained by the "I’ve bought it, so I must use it" mentality (or maybe just limited financial resources).

What moved me on wasn’t any clever analysis of reviews or lens performance charts. It was a few quid burning a hole in my pocket, frustration, a bit of gadget lust and a couple of inspiring Panasonic adverts. Effectively "Gear Acquisition Syndrome" saved my photography. I’m not sure to whom that should be a lesson, and I can imagine that this article may well not go down well with partners of dedicated gear nuts, but this is a true story, and you will never hear me say "kit doesn’t matter". I don’t agree.

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Review: Zero Limit

By Jeremy K Brown

Inadequate soapy knock-off of Deep Impact, with random numbers!

This is billed as “Artemis meets Gravity“, but it would be more accurate to say “Deep Impact meets Eastenders“. The main plot element is that a rogue asteroid mining operation accidentally puts the rock on a direct impact course for Earth, and thereafter it is basically a straight clone of Deep Impact, but with a Trumpian, dim demagogue president rather than an Obama-esque one, and a level of soapiness which would shame Eastenders.

The author seems to have a very poor grasp of mechanics, and the course of the asteroid is such that early on it’s “a little closer than the moon”, because the author doesn’t want something as prosaic as the speed of light getting in the way of chatty dialogue between the two central female characters, yet rather later on it’s “about four times further away”. Hang on, doesn’t that mean it’s moving away from Earth?

Other numbers and concepts seem to be equally confused. There’s a good thread about “moonborn” characters being demonised on Earth, similar to current Hispanic and Muslim immigrants to the US, but no explanation of how these amount to any significant numbers, especially given the acknowledged challenges of making the journey back if you were born in 1/6 g. There’s a comparison between the projected impact and the largest H Bomb, but a factor of 1000 goes missing somewhere, and you can’t help thinking that real scientists would use terms like “Giga” and “Tera”, and SI units, which have a well-defined, internationally-invariant value.

I finished the book because I wanted to write a review, but this is really one that wasn’t worth completing.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book, Fiction, and Science Fiction.
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Review: The Spy. Why?

By Andrew Gross

Fictionalised re-telling of the Telemark story. Why?

While this is an enjoyable read, it prompts one big question. Why did the author feel that a heavily fictionalised re-telling of this utterly thrilling true story was needed? In the preface Gross says that he wants to tell “the story of how only a few brave men put an end to that threat”, but but then proceeds to invent a cast of central characters who are at best “drawn from” the real players and have their names changed. My decision to read the book might have been different if I’d realised up front the level of fictionalisation.

The central part of the book (between the commando raid and sinking the ferry) is almost entirely fictional, involving “Kurt Nordstrom” in not one but two love affairs. Now I get that “Kurt spent the summer of 1943 on the plateau eating reindeer and dodging the Germans” isn’t going to fill a lot of pages, but  a shorter more focused tale would have been fine. Once you realise that this section is what it is, it calls into question how much of the remainder is historic.

The irony is that a lot of this is unnecessary. By Gross’ own admission, the dramatic chase which separated one of the escaping Gunnerside team from the others actually happened, just to another character not the invented American, and the true story of how the plant’s night watchman interrupted the commandos setting the explosives not once but twice in search of his glasses is both funny and more dramatic than the way it’s told here.

Beyond that, the story has been told well, with less fictionalisation, several times in recent years. The BBC documentary accompanying Ray Mears’ excellent 2003 book was superb, with interviews of many of the real players. I thoroughly enjoyed the tri-partisan 2015 TV series The Saboteurs which succeeded in portraying the perspectives of not only the Norwegian commandos and their supporters, but also the British and Norwegian commanders, and key participants on the German side. Even the still enjoyable 1965 film sticks to the truth at least as much as Gross’ book.

The book was originally  published under the title The Saboteur, which makes perfect sense, but then got re-titled The Spy, which makes none, as there’s very little spying involved, and a lot of sabotage. Maybe this was to avoid an obvious clash with the international TV series, but it raises another “why?”.

If you want to read an enjoyable wartime romp with some real key events, then this book is fine. If you’d prefer to understand the background, achievement and the real players, track down one of the TV series.

 

Categories: Reviews and Thoughts on the World. Content Types: Adventure, Book, Fiction, and History.
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Review: Darwin’s Cipher

By M A Rothman

At last a good new techno-thriller, but maybe not murky enough?

I like a good techno-thriller, but since the death of Michael Crichton and with Phillip Kerr moving onto German detectives and unpleasant tales of first-person murdering pickings have been thin. I have enjoyed the works of Daniel Suarez, and the more “techno” output from Preston/Child and William Hertling, but having exhausted their catalogues I was getting a bit desperate for my latest trip. That’s when I found Darwin’s Cipher, the second novel from M A Rothman.

The basic plot is a simple one: advanced gene therapy being developed as a cancer cure is surreptitiously diverted into potential military applications, and both the medical and military uses generate very dangerous side-effects, which have to be contained or reversed. The story romps along at a good pace, the “techno” elements are well developed and fairly believable, and you come to like the competent, well-meaning central characters, turning pages enthusiastically to see if they can avert the apocalypse.

The writing is perhaps a bit weaker on the conspiracy side of the thriller.  There are lots of secondary characters with varying motivation: good, bad, and those doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. However these motivations are readily revealed and rarely change, and it lacks the sheer murk of a good conspiracy. Also whereas the technical elements are either tidied up neatly or left hanging deliberately, that’s not so true of the darker plot elements, and several key aspects are left unexplained.

That said, these are minor complaints. I did enjoy this book and I’ll definitely read Rothman’s other techno-thriller(s).

In an afterword the author explains that it’s very difficult to get traditional publishers interested in such material, despite the success of Crichton, Kerr and others.  That’s a shame, because it’s a genre which continues to intrigue me, and does have an audience. However it looks like we have to continue to go hunting to find the good ones, even before trying to discern the plots of the stories themselves.

Categories: Reviews. Content Types: Book, Fiction, and Science Fiction.
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Random? That’s a Coincidence…

A randomly selected image this morning - my old VW Eos
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX7 | Date: 30-01-2015 17:00 | Resolution: 4894 x 3059 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO PZ 14-42/F3.5-5.6

My programming project of the last few weeks has been to build my own “rolling portfolio”, which shows random images from my photographic portfolio as either a screensaver or a rolling display on a second monitor. I’ve implemented a number of features I’ve always wanted but never had from freeware/shareware options, like precise control over timing, the ability to quickly add a note if I see a required correction, and the ability to locate and review recent images if someone says “what was that picture you were just showing?”.

Having previous blogged about the poor quality of “random” algorithms in Android music player apps (see  How Hard Can It Possibly Be?), I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and write my own preferred random algorithm. This does a recursive, random walk down the selected folder tree, until it either finds an image file, or a dead end (and then tries again). This was refreshingly easy to implement, and as expected runs quickly without needing any prior indexing of the content.

Also as expected, the simplest implementation returned a disproportionate number of hits (and therefore a lot of repeats) from folders with a very small number of images, but that was easily fixed by adding a “weighting” at the second stage of the walk, to reduce the number of hits on smaller portfolios.

Job done? Maybe. I started to notice that I still see the same image selected twice in quick succession, and sometimes more than twice over a day or two. At first I thought this might be an issue with seeding the random number generator, so that I was re-generating the same random sequences, but a quick check confirmed that wasn’t the problem. The next most obvious possibility (to me!) was an issue with the Microsoft .Net random() function, so I added some logging to the app, recording each random number, and then fed a day’s worth through some frequency analysis in Excel. That got Microsoft off the hook with a clean bill of health: there’s a slight preponderance of zeros, which I can explain, but otherwise the spread of results looks fine.

At the same time, I also added logging for the selected images themselves. In yesterday’s work hours operation the screen saver showed 335 images, of which no fewer than 21 were duplicates. Given that I have over 3500 images in the portfolio, this seems very high, but maybe not.

This is a known problem in mathematics, a generalisation of the “birthday problem”. It’s so known, because a common formulation is the question “given a room of people, what is the probability that at least two have the same birthday?”. While you need at 367 people to guarantee a duplicate, the counter-intuitive result is that with just 23 people in the room, it’s more likely than not. The generalised equation for the solution is the following:

E = k – n + n(1 – 1/n)k

In this n is the number of items, k is the number of random selections, and E is the expected number of duplicates. Feed in k = 335 and n = 3500, and you get the outcome E = 16. That’s close enough to my observed value of 21 (this is all random, so any one measurement might be either side of the expected value, but the order of magnitude is right). Couple this with the way my mind works, looking for patterns, and I must therefore expect to see some repetition. However it’s clear that the algorithm is working fine, it’s just the normal workings of probability.

Another implication of this is that as the sample grows, some images will naturally appear several times, and others may not appear at all. If we take 3500 samples, the expected number of duplicates rises to over 1200, so over 1/3 of the images will still be unselected.

Do I fix this? The relatively simple resolution is to keep a list of selected images, and use that to discard any selections which are repeats during a given period. However I would rather run this without a data store and maybe, now I can explain it, I’m comfortable. Time will tell.

Posted in Code & Development, Photography, Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

The Jester and The Unicorn

A purple unicorn

A fable, sort of…

The jester who wanted to be king asked the crowd “Do you want a purple unicorn?”

Almost half the crowd said “We are happy as we are, and we don’t believe unicorns exist”, but slightly more than half said “Yes please, we’d love one.”

The king wanted his people to be happy, so the king’s men spent three years looking for a purple unicorn. They spent much of the kingdom’s treasure, and annoyed many of the kingdom’s friends, constantly asking for unicorns which they did not have, because unicorns don’t exist. Other realms laughed at the king and his kingdom, and important matters in the kingdom went without attention.

Eventually the king’s men came back and said “There are no unicorns. We’ve found a nice horse we can paint purple and glue a fake horn on its nose, will that do?”

All those who had never believed in unicorns said “told you so”. Many of the others said “OK, we agree”. But others were angry, blaming those who had never believed in unicorns. Some were so obsessed with the idea of a unicorn that they wanted to shoot all the horses, just so they would not get a horse painted purple with a fake horn glued to its nose.

A wise king could simply have stopped the search, saying “unicorns do not exist”. A wise king could have told the crowd “You may vote again. But just to be clear, unicorns do not exist, so you are voting for a horse painted purple with a fake horn glued to its nose.” But the foolish king thought that the only important thing was not upsetting those who wanted a unicorn, so the search continues…

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Icons, or Heroes?

I’m slowly working through, and very much enjoying the BBC series Icons. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether it makes any sense to have a "final" in which "iconic" sportsmen, politicians and scientists go head to head, but that’s not the real issue. The big problem is that the series has wholly the wrong name, and should be called not Icons, but Heroes.

To qualify as a 20th Century icon, a person should be:

  • Instantly recognisable, to a large proportion of people,
  • Representative of some characteristic of the 20th Century,
  • Usable in the abstract, perhaps through a caricature or a single word, to stand in for others and key concepts.

The simplest and least controversial example is probably Albert Einstein. Everyone knows that smiling face and wild hair. Through a series of seminal papers in 1905 and the following years he established not only relativity theory but also key elements of quantum theory, the two major planks which ensured that 20th Century Physics diverted strongly from the Victorian version. I can use the single word "Einstein" or draw a very crude cartoon of a smiling face with spiky hair and a bow tie, and it immediately invokes a range of concepts in the beholder.

Einstein was also a hero. He completed his early work despite a number of personal and academic setbacks. A Jew, he escaped Nazi Germany and helped the allies to defeat the axis powers, but then became a strong proponent of denuclearisation and peace. He qualifies both ways.

At the other end of the scale, consider Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton is undeniably, absolutely a hero. The story of the Endurance voyage, and how his leadership bought them all back safely despite horrendous tribulations bears endless retelling. Shackleton is certainly a personal hero to me: I have read books about him, watched programs, travelled to exhibitions. I managed to track down a copy of the wonderful dramatisation by Kenneth Branagh and we re-watched it just a few weeks ago.

But is Shackleton a 20th Century icon? How many people would recognise a picture of him out of context? I might struggle myself. Also in many ways he represents not 20th Century exploration, but the end of the Victorian era: plucky white men opening up the dark areas on the world’s map. There is a case for considering the Endurance story as a precursor to Apollo 13, that other great 20th Century tale of explorers rescued, but it’s not a strong one.

If you want an iconic 20th Century explorer, you really have to focus on aeronautics or the space race. There are many heroes, but the best chance for an icon is probably Neil Armstrong. We may not all instantly recognise his face, but that picture of a man in a spacesuit standing next to the American flag, or those words announcing "a giant leap for mankind" are certainly iconic, and representative of a type of exploration which didn’t exist before, and no longer really exists now.

In the political space, Winston Churchill is certainly an icon. His name and face, even in caricature, immediately invoke concepts such as strong leadership, freedom fighting tyranny, a blend of conservative and liberal ideals sadly lacking today. He is a clear exemplar of one side of 20th Century politics. His qualification as a hero is more nuanced: his amazing talent for being in the wrong place at the right time, his determination to do the right thing, his dominant skill as a leader, orator and writer all support it. However I acknowledge that his position on issues like Ireland and India, and his errors such as over Gallipoli and Singapore do at least slightly offset his great successes elsewhere. His icon is also capable of being misused, for example by those who view him as a symbol of British independence, who carefully ignore his post-war advocacy of unifying international institutions such as the UN and EU.

However, if you accept Churchill as a 20th Century political icon, you also have to consider another: Adolf Hitler. As an icon he qualifies without question. We instantly recognise his name and image, even if it’s just a simple cartoon of the hairstyle and moustache. He also stands as a clear exemplar of the other side of mid-20th Century politics, and a clear warning of the risks of allowing the rise of his like again. Icons do not have to be heroes. They can be villains.

A basic qualification for iconic status is that someone, or something must be famous, or infamous. However the BBC series has been so determined to not just parade a series of middle-aged white men that they have made some odd choices with the candidates. I enjoyed the story of Tu Youyou, the Chinese lady who discovered an important antimalarial drug, but can you honestly propose as a "20th Century Icon" someone whose individual identity was carefully suppressed until well into the 21st?

I have just sneaked a look at the results, and I see that neither of my prime examples of unquestioned icons (Einstein and Churchill) got through to the final. That doesn’t matter: I also consider both Turing and Mandela among my heroes, and I will still enjoy the rest of the episodes. However even if it risked being confused with that series about people with imaginary physical super-powers, rather than just real mental ones, I think the series should have been called simply Heroes.

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Testing, Testing

Kolmanskoppe Single Shot
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 25-11-2018 15:49 | Resolution: 4080 x 4080 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | State/Province: Kolmanskop, Karas | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve been having a few problems with my RSS feed, hopefully now fixed. If you view my blog via the feed and don’t see a picture from my trip to the Kolmanskoppe diamond mining town, please let me know.

Posted in Namibia Travel Blog, Travel, Website & Blog | Leave a comment

The Favourite: A Great Opportunity Missed

I was really looking forward to The Favourite. It had a lot going for it. The period – the reign of Queen Anne, the end of the Stuart dynasty and the wars with Louis XIV – is an important piece of British history but has rarely been tackled in modern popular culture. The core plot of battling rival Queen’s favourites was a good one, with great scope for a hilarious period romp. The three strong leading actresses, great costumes and the wonderful Hatfield House locations were all strong positives. And yet I came away feeling very disappointed, that I had just spent two hours watching a very average film, with a great film trying to get out.

The main problem is that the film seems to be suffering a major identity crisis. It can’t quite decide whether it’s a bawdy romp, a serious drama about interpersonal dynamics or a sombre historical portrayal. As a result it misses all three targets. I appreciate that Anne was quite a tragic figure, and there are some unavoidable poignancies, but a slightly lighter touch would have let the "bawdy romp" out to play, rather than keeping it somewhat repressed.

The music (I’m very tempted to write "the alleged music") really doesn’t help. It actually took me a while to realise that the incessant sawing on a couple of string instruments was actually meant to be incidental music, rather than just some weird background sound effect representing troublesome Stuart plumbing or the like. This gets to the point where you are listening to it rather than following the action and dialog, and then you suddenly get blasted by a full "Night at the Opera" fanfare on the organ, for even relatively minor twists in the plot. It reminded me of the ghastly alleged music in Dunkirk, but at least Christopher Nolan had the excuse that he was trying to tell three overlapping stories with time playing out at completely different rates, which isn’t the case here. Now I know that occasional twinkles on the virginal or the odd burst of something recognisable by Vivaldi are very traditional, but they would have worked here, whereas what was provided definitely did not.

The dialogue was unnecessarily crude. I have no problem with swearing, but it needs to be in the right context and period. If I watch something about 21st Century New Jersey gangsters (for example), and every other sentence has a f*** or c*** that’s fair enough. Take two incompetent hit men, stick them in an enforced holiday in a charming Belgian town, and you can even make that a hilarious core part of the work, as in the incomparable In Bruges. But in The Favourite it just feels out of time, and out of place. It’s also wholly unnecessary. 18th Century English was rich with frequently hilarious euphemisms for sex, body parts and so on, and a bit of effort could have sprinkled these into the dialogue to much greater effect. As Upstart Crow demonstrates so well, you don’t even have to bother with the detailed historical research: I have no idea whether Elizabethans actually used the term "cod-dangle", but we all get what it means, it sounds right, and it’s genuinely funny.

I did enjoy some bits of The Favourite, and I did laugh in many of the right places. It’s not The Revenant. But just as the central character in that film spends a grim time hiding from his protagonists in a horse’s corpse, The Favourite feels like a better film has been partially hidden by a layer of pretentiousness and crudity which it really didn’t need.

Posted in Thoughts on the World | Leave a comment

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.

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

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…

Posted in Humour, Iceland Travel Blog, Namibia Travel Blog, Travel | Leave a comment

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.

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

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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