Blast from the Past

Sugar Minott, Ken Boothe, John Holt, Eric Donaldson, Pluto and Boris Gardner at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003
Camera: Canon PowerShot S40 | Date: 23-03-2003 06:28 | Resolution: 2192 x 1370 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 4.9 | Focal Length: 21.3mm (~103.2mm)

With my friends Bob Kiss and John Birch both busy resurrecting old photographs with new software, I thought I would have a go. To give it a real challenge, I went back to my shots from the original 2003 Barbados Vintage Reggae Festival. These were taken indoors using a 4MP Canon S40, which had a maximum usable ISO of 400 (200 was a better bet), and because I didn’t know about such things back then, I captured only JPG, not RAW.

Boris Gardner at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003 (Show Details)

However, Topaz Denoise AI has worked its magic, and I’m very pleased with these.

John Holt at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003 (Show Details)

And yes, that is Sugar Minott, Ken Boothe, John Holt, Eric Donaldson, Pluto and Boris Gardner all onstage together at the end! The very best wishes to those still with us, and may those who have sadly departed this sphere rest happily, but hopefully not too quietly, in peace.

John Holt at the Original Barbados Vintage Reggae Concert 2003 (Show Details)
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What’s My Favourite Micro 4/3 Lens?

Burmese girl on Lake Inle
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 16:47 | Resolution: 3124 x 3124 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Location: Burmese girl on Lake Inle | State/Province: Ngapegyaung, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6

Over at The Online Photographer Mike Johnston posed a question about favourite Micro 4/3 lenses. The obvious answer is the 12-35mm f/2.8. I bought one several years ago largely off the back of Mike’s original review, it sits by default on my G9, and perhaps 90% of my photography by shot count uses it. As he said, it’s like having multiple high-quality primes in one small tube. By any practical definition, that’s my favourite.

I supplement it with the matching 35-100mm (same thing, just longer), the 100-300mm (capable of serious papp-ing, but also of some subtlety – see above, shot between two boats at 600mm-e),and sometimes the 7-14mm (although that gets very limited use given the 12-35mm is so good at 12mm). Together with the G9 that’s my “serious / obvious / heavy” kit. (Note that “heavy” is relative, the four zooms weigh a total of 1477g.)

However, maybe the 12-35mm is a lazy choice…

I also have a second kit, the “social / subtle / light” kit. This consists of the tiny Panasonic 14-42mm “pancake” power zoom, their 45-175mm, and the Olympus 9-18mm. Total weight 460g. These normally travel as spares with my old GX8, but get pressed into service when I need their remarkable physical characteristics. The 45-175mm is a real gem: only 90mm long (and no longer, it’s an internal zoom) and 210g, in adequate lighting it’s capable of shots just as sharp as the 35-100mm f/2.8. Its tiny size makes it unthreatening, its light weight makes it easy to hold the camera above your head (e.g. from the back of a crowd) and get sharp shots, even at maximum 350mm-e reach. However if you’re moving, it has another magic property: its size means that it can be held stable in the slipstream. Last year I was lucky enough to get a flight in a two-seat microlite, and here’s one of the shots I took from the back seat – try that with a 5D and EF100-400m lens!

Shot from the back of a two-seater microlite (Show Details)

Is the 45-175mm lens my favourite? I’m not quite sure, but how about it for a “left field” choice?

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Testing, Testing!

Leopard on the prowl!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:47 | Resolution: 5176 x 3235 | ISO: 320 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Location: Okonjima | State/Province: Okonjati, Otjozondjupa | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Apologies, I have a problem with my RSS feed which appears to require "live testing" to resolve. Please ignore this post, but if you’re already here please enjoy a nice picture of a beautiful leopard!

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From the Ministry of Strange Coincidences…

We’ve been getting through lockdown at least in part by working through Richard Coyle’s back catalogue. As well as things we hadn’t seen before, like the excellent Five Days of War, I tracked down a copy of The Whistleblowers from 2007. Today’s episode: "Pandemic", featuring the semi-accidental release of "The Corona-X Virus" by a suspect drug company. How do I pick these things?

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Demolition Man

Demolition Man

A great piece of futurology, remarkably prescient for this year

The other night we re-watched the highly entertaining Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock and Wesley Snipes (and let’s not forget Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who famously did it mainly to build enough of a Hollywood profile that they’d allow him to play the lead in The Madness of King George).

For a 27 year old film it stands up well: a sparkling, hilarious script based (very loosely) on Brave New World, strong if tongue in cheek performances by the leads, great action scenes. A few of the effects are a bit crude, but that’s not a major criticism. You do wonder if they toyed with the idea of doing it straight, but it works as an action comedy, while Huxley’s key themes about human nature and the dangers of excessive control still come through just as strongly.

However what made me want to write about it is how remarkably it stands up as a piece of futurology. This is a 1993 film set mainly in 2032. That date was deliberately a "long way in the future" but is now much closer to us than the film’s origin. In addition we’re currently undergoing an event, with the coronavirus, which is redefining many of our norms, and it’s fascinating how well some changes were predicted. In many ways, we’ve reached a point not far from what is portrayed.

Inevitably perhaps, the computers actually look a bit crude. I’ve always said that 25 years is the time it takes for the computers in any given Star Trek to look outdated: we’ve passed that age for this film, and it’s creators weren’t trying to predict the far future. They did get the level of voice control about right for where we are now, and, writing when we were slowly adopting Windows 3 and the web had a handful of sites, they correctly predicted the connected information world we take for granted. They missed out on the concept of mobile devices, and thankfully we don’t have devices handing out fines for profanity whenever we swear, although it might be fun and fairly straightforward to program Alexa to do so.

The film correctly predicts the demise of cash in favour of computerised money and contactless payments, and the ability to track the movements of individuals, but without portable/wearable computers these capabilities are provided by small embedded chips. We haven’t quite reached that level of integration, but mainly for moral rather than technical reasons: we have all the components. In a world where our phones will now continually log and trace our physical contacts to fight Covid-19, we’re scarily close.

Two other regular activities are contactless in the film: personal greetings and sex. The former is now rapidly becoming so in real life, again accelerated by the coronavirus, and the Demolition Man circular wave is a good option. The latter is not yet, but the artificial insemination process described for procreation is a pretty accurate reality for special cases.

The governor’s council meets by teleconference, albeit with large physical avatars in place of chairs in the council room. With the British government currently operating largely via Zoom, that’s spot on.

With one delightful exception the cars are all electric and self-driving but with a manual option. That’s well on the way, predicted for the middle of this decade. The cop cars have the ability to re-inflate tyres after taking a bullet, but instead we have an equivalent run flat capability and the ability to fill a punctured tyre with foam instead of changing a wheel. Tick. However the "secure foam" which fills the whole car after a major accident looks a bit final, and not an obvious improvement on airbags.

We see a small vehicle, possibly autonomous, being prepared to make a delivery from the restaurant. Online shopping and home delivery for both groceries and cooked food were already a major feature of many societies, but they have become the backbone of many lockdowns, with suppliers desperately seeking efficiencies. In Britain we now have drone deliveries of medical supplies and autonomous home deliveries will surely arrive.

Even some things meant as a joke are closer than the writers imagined. Radio stations or restaurant pianists dedicated to old commercial jingles are laughable, but we live in a world where Ridley Scott’s advert for Hovis (a type of bread in 1970s Britain) has nearly 1M views on YouTube, has a Wikipedia page and is still regularly satirised nearly 50 years on. Other British favourites like the Tetley Tea Folk, the PG Tips chimps and the Smash robots also get regular replays, and I’m sure non-British readers can find their own equivalents.

Another joke more nearly came true than the writers could ever have expected. Stallone makes great fun of a mention of the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library, but we know that Arnie did serve eight fairly successful years as Governor of California, and there was an (unsuccessful) attempt to change the rules to allow him a presidential run.

One thing which has changed less than predicted is language. A lot of fun is made of Bullock persistently misusing 90s expressions such as "shove it" and "blow him away", but they still work for me, and I suspect most will survive the remaining 12 years.

Several years after seeing the film I attended a seminar on electronic document management, at which one lecturer used the memorable phrase "a paperless office is as likely as a paperless toilet". He was wrong. Many offices were already on the way to being largely paperless even before the pandemic, and the increase in home working has only accelerated that. While we haven’t yet adopted the paperless toilet in the West, I have used one designed for Asian visitors which offered functions not unlike the three seashells of the film, with an even scarier control panel. The only paper we see in the film is the annoying receipts for the profanity fines. Like with our paper receipts for contactless payments these are largely just a nuisance, until Stallone finds a use for them to resolve his confusion with the toilet.

Why are the predictions so accurate? One driver is the timescale: trying to portray a period a few decades in the future means you can assume a lot of technical advance, but not enough to make the technology look like magic (i.e. not invoking Clarke’s Third Law). The writers obviously thought about feasible projections from 1990s technology, and avoided anything which would breach known physical capabilities – there are no hoverboards, because we don’t yet have the physics to create them, but it was a reasonable bet that computers should get complex enough to drive a car, with human backup. In his book The Road Ahead, written in 1996, Bill Gates states that we consistently overestimate what we can develop in 2 years, and consistently underestimate what we can achieve in 10, largely because we just aren’t very good at understanding compound or exponential change. Demolition Man benefits from this: it probably underestimates the reality of 39 years on from its release, but at the 27 year mark the technology looks like a good mixture of the established and the feasible.

However there are also warnings, particularly relevant at the current time. Perhaps Demolition Man‘s greatest prediction, albeit not yet realised, regards the state of society.

As in Huxley’s original book, in Demolition Man humanity has survived a disaster and built a safer, more ordered society, but at the cost of many of the personal freedoms which make us truly human and drive our advance. Anything enjoyable but even vaguely bad for you, from alcohol to red meat, is banned. Those unwilling to accept the restraints live in poverty, invisible in the margins.There is no violent crime and no firearms apart from a few in a museum. Life is tranquil, but eviscerated, and completely unprepared for individuals, good and bad, who operate outside accepted norms.

While that doesn’t yet describe the society of 2020, there is a risk that in response to the pandemic we trade away hard-won freedoms, and true democracy, already under threat from anti-democratic forces, is eroded past a point of no easy return.

It’s a good time to watch this film. Laugh at the jokes. Enjoy the action. Marvel at the technical predictions. But take away a salutary reminder that we need to protect freedom and democracy not only from stupid populists, but also from those who quietly say "it’s safer, and for your own good".

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Hungry Birds!

Blue tit babies
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-05-2020 11:08 | Resolution: 2094 x 2094 | ISO: 2000 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Enormous excitement chez nous. We have a bird box, installed in the courtyard many years ago, which has been systematically ignored most years. But not this year. A couple of weeks ago we realised that a couple of blue tits were frequenting it, dragging bits and pieces of nest material back and forth, and in the last week activity had ramped up dramatically but we weren’t quite sure to what what stage.

Then yesterday while Frances was planting she heard some very enthusiastic tweeting, and caught sight of a couple of tiny yellow beaks. Mum and Dad are now running relays about 14 hours a day to shovel food into those tiny beaks. It’s quite interesting to watch the patterns. One, let’s assume it’s Dad, has obviously found a good source of grubs at the other end of the garden and does straight runs right through the Chinese circle, only slowing slightly before dumping said grub into a waiting beak. He was on about a 2 minute cycle yesterday afternoon.

Feeding time – all the time! (Show Details)

The other, let’s assume it’s Mum, is more cautious, and tends to land on a nearby branch or two first before approaching the box more slowly. Sometimes they arrive together and it’s amusing to watch one bouncing up and down waiting for the other to finish his/her delivery.

That looks tasty… (Show Details)

It was never a deliberate plan, but we have four windows with a view of the box, and they don’t seem to mind us standing watching or photographing as long as we’re behind glass. It’s a bit of a challenge photographically as they all move so quickly, and I haven’t yet got the perfect shot of a grub being deposited into a waiting yellow beak, but these aren’t bad. Enjoy!

That cobweb covered in pollen looks good, if I can just reach it… (Show Details)
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Channel Hopping Mad!

DAB Anger
Resolution: 952 x 628

Why are digital radio and TV such exemplars of a bad user experience?

In the good old days of a small number of analogue broadcast channels, watching TV or listening to the radio was a rewardingly simple process. To watch, listen or record you simply selected a channel, and you had a high expectation that the expected content would be there. The move to digital broadcast radio and television (DAB and DVB) should have increased technical quality and choice while maintaining this ease of use. Instead we have been saddled with an arcane, failure-prone process which offers a dreadful user experience, leaving many users frustrated and angry. It didn’t have to be so, and one wonders what technocratic or bureaucratic nonsense managed to create the mess we have.

I seem to spend a lot of time watching the less technically-minded people in my life struggling with this shocking state of affairs, or apologising to them for it. I myself am technically able, and I can usually get a required result but it often takes a lot more time and effort than it should. Neither is acceptable.

The basic mental model for most users is the following:

Unfortunately in common parlance the terms “channel”, “station”, and “programme” (or program, for our American friends) get used somewhat interchangeably, so I’m going to use the following definitions:

  • A “station” is an enduring stream of content from a given broadcaster. BBC1 would be a well-known British example (and hopefully all readers can think of an equivalent).
  • A “channel” is an item in the list of content streams which the device can receive. For example Channel 1 might be receiving BBC1.
  • A “programme” is an item of content, with the term “recurring programme” referring to both series and regular/daily programming.
  • A “preset” is a mechanism to quickly route back to a favourite channel or station.

After a process of “tuning” the device will have a way to present the list of channels and their related stations to the user. As there will be more than a few channels (~200 on my TV) there will be some way to scroll through the list, and a way to assign favourites to a preset. The user can call up a given channel either using its number in the list, or the preset.

A TV will also have a way of reviewing the current and future programmes by channel (the “TV Guide”), and maybe searching for a programme by name. Radios don’t tend to have this.

And we’re already in trouble. People don’t deal well with long lists, so finding what you’re interested in may be tricky. In the UK, they put the original five stations on channels 1-5, fair enough, but the HD versions which you really want are hidden lower down. On our older DAB radios you scroll through the channels one at a time and they are not in alphabetic order, so it becomes a memory test to work out when you’ve reviewed everything. If the station you want is not there it may be because it’s unavailable, it may have changed its name, or you may just have missed it. Conversely there may be duplicate or near-duplicate station names for a range of reasons including technical issues and content variations, but you’ll have to resort to trial and error to find out which one you want.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this was static, but it isn’t. There’s a constant churn:

  • New stations start broadcasting, and existing ones stop, or pause.
  • Station names change. Sometimes this is a minor change, but it can be significant if the broadcaster does a major branding change, the station changes ownership, or a franchise is re-assigned. It’s also possible for the name to remain the same but the content changes, although that’s not something which can be blamed on the DAB/DVB design.
  • Station variants change, or a given channel changes its content variant.
  • Station allocations to channels get changed
  • The technical details for a station’s signal get changed. (It’s more complicated than just a frequency, but “frequency” will do as a shorthand.)

When a station’s channel allocation or “frequency” change, then your TV or radio may no longer be able to find it. A planned recording will fail. One of the most common, and annoying ways, of detecting a change is via a failed recording of a favourite programme. Alternatively you switch on your radio or TV and the previous tuned-in station, or your presets, are either "dead air" or some completely unrecognised random content.

There’s no reliable way of finding out in advance when you need to re-tune, short of a séance or reading the tea-leaves. After the event some devices may detect a changed channel list and invite you to re-tune, but such reminders rarely tell you what’s actually happened, and they come so frequently (more than once a week in our locale) that you tend to ignore them until you find something “wrong”.

If the designers of the DAB/DVB system (as least as implemented in the UK) had thought about the user experience, or had even the slightest knowledge of integration interface design, then it wouldn’t have to be this way. For example, whether you’re consuming an API or filling in official forms the usual practice when an "interface" changes is to allow the old one to continue but "deprecated" for a short period of time while people switch to the new one. Not in the DAB/DVB world – the service gets removed from where it was on the day it moves to the new location, and you have to re-tune. During the UK’s big "digital switch over" event I had to re-tune every device in my house on a specific day, three times.

Let’s put some more technical detail behind the average user’s mental model of this system:

That may be slightly tongue in cheek, but only slightly…

So let’s think about how it might work better. Here are some principles:

  • A digital TV is a computer.
  • A digital radio is a computer.
  • Computers are good at doing technical stuff, humans aren’t. The technical stuff should be invisible to the user.
  • Long undifferentiated lists are bad. Long lists with no obvious structure or order are worse. Lists of 7±2 things are good.

The primary concept for using a TV or radio is the station. I want BBC1. Here are some things I don’t want to be bothered with:

  • Hunting through hundreds of other stations
  • Which channel or channels BBC1 is assigned to, and any changes
  • Which frequencies the channels are assigned to, and any changes
  • Technical variants of a station. I should automatically get the best available version.
  • Content variants of a station, unless I manually select one in which case that becomes my selection.

Taking these together, a simpler model emerges. First the channel list needs to become a station list – channels are a meaningless technical detail. It also shouldn’t actually be a list – that’s a very crude solution for 200+ items. The obvious solution is some sort of tree or accordion structure, so that first you choose from a short list of broad groups ("General entertainment", "News", "Movies", "Kids", "Shopping", "Adult", "Radio" etc.), then maybe from a second level, then from a shorter list. Obviously a good user interface would remember where you were last… As the objective is to make things easier for the user, there’s no reason why a station might not show up in more than one place if that’s appropriate, and on a graphical display there should be a search option.

The list shouldn’t by default show station variants, although there might be an option to drill down to those if a user really wants it. Once I’m watching a given station it should automatically show the best available technical variant (e.g. HD TV), switching automatically but temporarily to a lesser variant if required, and switching back as soon as possible. This would prevent the abomination of the BBC "red screen of death" advising you that it cannot show local content on BBC1HD and you need to manually switch to SD.

If a station has content variations (e.g. for local news) the receiver should default automatically to the most popular variant, but I should be able to manually select an alternative. Again, if my selected variant is not available then the receiver should automatically show an alternate, but only until the preferred selection is available.

This then admits a much simpler mental model, which actually addresses the needs of the user, not some arcane technical complexities:

Tuning should simply not be visible to the user in any form. If there have been technical changes which do not affect the station I am currently watching or listening to, these should be automatically dealt with in the background. I should only be told if there’s a problem which will stop me accessing a preset or favourite station.

If changes affect my current station, then in an ideal world they would be communicated to the receiver in advance, and the receiver would automatically apply them at the right time, or, even better, the old technical details would continue to work for a crossover period to allow receivers to catch up seamlessly. In a less than ideal world if the receiver is switched on and technical details have changed for the selected station then the first thing it does is retune that station, and then process other changes in the background.

If the station name has changed, but the content hasn’t, the receiver should just handle this transparently. Obviously that means that behind the scenes there needs to be some form of persistent station ID independent of visible name, but that’s something that we deal with all the time in the IT world, it’s really not rocket science.

The only circumstance in which switching on the receiver should result in dead air or a random station is if the preferred station has permanently ceased broadcasting. Nothing else.

It’s not difficult to think of a model which would actually make digital TV and radio usable, and it’s inexplicable why broadcasters and manufacturers have made such an appalling job of it so far.

In the meantime, our DAB radio sits tuned to FM, and our TVs are all tuned perpetually to channel 231 (or is it 130?) for BBC News, except on the HD ones where it’s 107, until the next change… Oh well.

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Raising the Bar…

Obelixia - primary resident of Elizabeth Bay - my shot
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 25-11-2018 11:48 | Resolution: 5159 x 3224 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 286.0mm | Location: Elizabeth Bay | State/Province: Elizabeth Bay, Karas | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Assuming that we all get back to travelling, it looks like I have seriously raised the bar on my own travel photography. Not only did we get to shoot at one of the same locations as Seven Worlds, One Planet, but it looks like I got to photograph the same individual! (Spot the distinctive pattern of bites on her ears.)

From Seven Worlds, One Planet (Show Details)
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A Ray of Sunshine

A ray of sunshine
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 01-05-2020 19:40 | Resolution: 4979 x 3734 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 30.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

For about ten minutes at the end of each evening the sunlight lights up our newest sculpture through the Chinese circle. I thought it would be nice to share this:

  • it’s a pretty image in it’s own right,
  • I’d like to celebrate the fact that after several weeks I’ve finally just about finished reworking, updating and rehosting my website,
  • … and this is a good test of my blogging software!

PS – it turned out to be a better test than I expected. Half an hour later I’ve learned how to use SSL with the .Net web client! Working now!

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Small is Beautiful

Miniature sarcophagus from the Tutankhamun exhibition
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 30-12-2019 12:54 | Resolution: 2832 x 4248 | ISO: 2000 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 25.7mm (~70.0mm)

Here are a couple more of my shots from the Tutankhamun exhibition. The sarcophagus is a particular delight, as the full-sized items did not travel from Egypt, but this 6″ version did. In real life it’s tiny – if you look carefully you can see a pin to the left of the belt – that’s a normal mounting pin, not a bolt! So I have a picture of the sarcophagus, almost as if we’d seen the real thing.

I’m very pleased with this image. It was taken at f/4 and ISO 2000, through glass but from only about a foot away. Depth of field was a significant challenge, but I cheated slightly by putting the result through Topaz Sharpen AI in focus mode. The result is sharp in most areas, although the top of the headgear and tip of the beard are still slightly out. Noise wasn’t really a problem, although Topaz did clean it up slightly.

However this is mainly a testament to the Sony RX100, rather than post-processing. It may be the size of a packet of cigarettes, but it’s capable of images just as good as an interchangeable-lens camera ten times its size and weight. It’s not a “point and shoot” compact camera, it’s a big camera made small. However small doesn’t mean cheap, even this five year old variant costs over £500 if you find someone who still has new stock. The latest variant costs almost as much as a top-end Micro Four Thirds camera or mid-range DSLR.

Necklace featuring Akenaten, from the Tutankhamun exhibition (Show Details)

But that’s absolutely right. Making tiny things which are just as good as the full-sized versions is hard, takes a lot of work, and demands arguably even more skill. I would hope the Pharaoh’s advisors accepted that when they commissioned a jeweller and a miniature artist to make these items. It’s equally true today.

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Wonderful Things

Statue of Tutankhamun
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 30-12-2019 12:42 | Resolution: 3194 x 4259 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 19.9mm (~54.0mm)

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Ahead of the opening of the new museum at Giza dedicated entirely to Tutankhamun, some of the treasures from his tomb have been doing a last "world tour", including London’s Saatchi Gallery. They will be there until 3rd May.

We visited the other day, and I simply have insufficient superlatives. "Blown away" maybe just covers it. It’s hard to credit that many of these beautiful statues, jewels and other grave goods are over three thousand years old.

Brooch from the "Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" Exhibition (Show Details)

I would also like to say a big "thank you" to the exhibition’s organisers. The numbers were being managed perfectly – enough that a reasonable number of people get to see the treasures, but not so busy that there was any jostling or a problem if you wanted to study an item closely or take a photo. Buggies and large bags aren’t allowed, so that filters out two of the main causes of congestion. This also ensures that the children present are old enough to appreciate it, and I have to say it was a delight to see so many youngsters engaged with the exhibits, not just dashing from screen to screen.

Tutankhamun and admirer at the "Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" Exhibition (Show Details)

The captions and explanations are displayed either above or below the exhibits, large enough to be read easily without constant manipulation of glasses. These include both practical explanations, and apposite quotes from The Book Of The Dead.

The exhibition is also, bar none, the most photography friendly one I have ever attended. There’s no restriction on taking images, and little on equipment although flash is banned and large kits discouraged under the "large bags" rule. Tripods are not explicitly banned, but similarly covered and I didn’t see anyone attempting to use one. However there’s no need for them as the exhibits are all well lit, with dark backgrounds and a clear attempt to avoid reflections, hotspots and distractions. I just used my diminutive Sony RX100 mk IV, but any medium-sized DSLR or mirrorless with 24-70mm zoom lens would be equally acceptable and successful.

I was very please with the results from the Sony. Most didn’t need any correction beyond what Capture One applies by default with maybe some highlight and shadow recovery. For most images I just cropped in on the artefact, knocked the background back to black, and removed any remnants of the surroundings, for a "pseudo catalogue" look. Alternatively you could leave it lighter and include a bit of context, like my photo of a young admirer above.

The ancient Egyptians believed that you only truly die when the last person speaks your name. If that’s right then Tutankhamun succeeded in his quest for eternal life beyond his wildest imaginings. If you get a chance, then go to the exhibition and speak his name too.

Statue of Horus from the "Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" Exhibition (Show Details)
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A European Visitor’s Guide to Hawaii

Looking down to the Na'pali Coast from the top of Waimea Canyon
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 02-10-2019 12:35 | Resolution: 5583 x 3489 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Waimea Canyon | State/Province: Haena, Kauai, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Sunbathing, service, costs and chickens!

Hawaii is a great place to visit, but based on our recent experience some things may come as a surprise to European visitors, used to comparable destinations in Europe, the Caribbean or mainland USA. For those planning a trip, here’s what you really need to know.

The TL;DR version:

  • Sunbathing is not a thing
  • Housekeeping is not a thing
  • Service is not a thing, especially in the evening
  • Opening hours are only just a thing
  • Coffee shops are almost not a thing
  • Public restrooms are not a thing
  • Chickens are everywhere but the roosters can’t tell the time
  • Bedding is wildly inappropriate
  • It’s frighteningly, eye-wateringly expensive, and accommodation is a complete rip-off
  • However, the scenery is great, and Americans do organised tours very, very well

Sunbathing is Not a Thing

Here’s a pattern which should be familiar to travellers to Southern Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean (and indeed most sunny parts of the world which welcome tourists). On a quiet day, or maybe after a busy day’s exploring, you go down to the beach or pool. You lie on a sunbed and slather on the sunscreen. Some helpful lad or lass brings you a nice cocktail. If you’re not at your hotel maybe the deal is that you pay a local a few dollars for the use of the sunbed, and as an added incentive he sells a few more drinks at his bar. Win-win.

Not on Hawaii, or at least not anywhere we managed to go. The concept of “lying in the sun” appears to be an almost alien one, and the idea of practical support for this activity almost taboo. Some beaches have a car park and a changing/toilet block, but that’s about it. Nowhere did we see sunbed rentals or a beach bar or similar. You are welcome to lie on the beach on a towel and bring your own supplies in a cooler, but that requires rather more specific provision than most people doing a fly-drive will have with them. Now it’s possible that this is to try and keep the beaches “unspoilt”, which would be fair enough, but then you’d expect to see an alternative at the hotels. Only one hotel in our entire three weeks had sunbeds by a pool, and that area was plastered with signs forbidding almost all enjoyable activities, including the possession of alcoholic drinks anywhere nearby. Of the rest, a couple had chairs which could be moved into a relaxing corner in the sun, most didn’t even get that far.

Mainland USA doesn’t have this problem. The two California hotels at each end of our most recent trip, including Handlery’s within 100m of Union Square in San Francisco, both provided for a quiet hour in the sun. We’ve even managed to lie by the pool in Idaho, Montana and Vermont – under glass, admittedly, but that’s a good solution in colder climes. It’s just something which decent mid-range hotels do. Why the Hawaiians don’t provide for you to quietly lie in their sunshine is a mystery.

From the beach outside the Hana Kai Lodge (Show Details)

Housekeeping is Not a Thing

Most hotels in civilised countries service your room on a daily basis, making up the bed, changing at least the linen you’ve left in the bath-tub, replenishing supplies. This is not a regular provision in Hawaii. There were a couple of honourable exceptions, mainly in the most expensive properties, but as a rule the patterns were either “every three days” (= “once in your stay if you’re lucky”) or even in one case “at the end of your stay” (= “None, but we can’t write that down on and we probably can’t get away without changing the sheets and towels for the next guests”). A couple of times we put in requests for some specific assistance with bedding and were completely ignored.

Service is Not a Thing, Especially in the Evening. Opening Hours Are Only Just a Thing

The lack of hotel housekeeping is one symptom of a more general challenge. A lot of Hawaiians seem to be unable to reconcile the fact that tourism is their major industry with the fact that this means operating shops, bars and so on for a reasonable number of hours in which tourists may wish to purchase what’s on offer, and then cheerfully providing service to the punters. It’s not so bad in restaurants where the serving staff rely on tips, but elsewhere it can be a real challenge to get any help. We stayed at one expensive lodge where there were no dedicated hotel staff – you had to ask in the shop and restaurant and see if anyone could help you. At the “No housekeeping ever” “boutique hotel” the woman who gave us our keys and showed us to the room literally ran in case we had questions or needed help. Another hotel staffed the office so rarely that we thought the manager was just another guest looking for help. Their check-out arrangements were positively Kafka-esque, with a large notice in the room demanding check-out before 11am, but an office which did not open until after that time. Good luck if something needed sorting out on the bill.

Opening hours on Maui and Kauai are so arcane and limited they make a joke of it. We found shops which didn’t open until 11am but were shut again by the end of the afternoon. On our drive down Haleakala we found a wonderful coffee shop but arrived only 10 minutes before it closed – at 2pm. On our day in Hana we failed: that coffee shop had turned off its coffee machine at 3pm, and only sold banana bread by the whole loaf, not the slice. Paia may be a busy tourist centre, but try getting a coffee or a beer after 8pm…

From the summit of Haleakala. Mauna Kea in the background. (Show Details)

Coffee Shops Are Almost Not a Thing

Even if you’re there in core hours (11am – 2pm, any day except Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday ), it can be tricky to find a good latte in some centres. Even some quite substantial shopping streets appear not to have a coffee shop, or if they do, it’s well hidden and probably shut! Maybe it’s the lower popularity of hot drinks in the warm climate, but where you do find a place with a coffee machine and an open door they are usually doing a steady trade.

At the same time, sparkling water seems to be a bit of a novelty, and we found several locations where this wasn’t an option. That’s even more of a mystery. You shouldn’t go thirsty on Hawaii, but some compromise may be required!

Public Restrooms Are Not a Thing

Hawaii can be a challenging place to get caught short. It’s not so bad if you’re somewhere run by the Parks Service, or a shopping mall or larger restaurant, but most shops and smaller cafés have a sign in the door “No Public Restroom”. This doesn’t just mean “customers only”, it can mean “no customer restroom at all”, even in medium-sized restaurants, which elsewhere in the world would by law have to provide a customer WC. Keep your fingers, and your legs, crossed!

Luau Kalamaku (Show Details)

Chickens, Chickens Everywhere

Wherever I travel there are species which have adapted to living off the scraps of human activity: pigeons, the little brown birds on Barbados, the feral dogs of Bhutan. In Hawaii it’s feral chickens. If you’re eating outside you’re unlikely to miss one or two padding around, and it’s rare that you can’t hear a cockerel. The islanders welcome them as they also feed on insects which would otherwise be a problem, and the chickens are effectively protected.

This would be OK if their timekeeping followed acceptable norms, with roosters announcing the dawn but keeping schtum the rest of the time. Unfortunately they don’t, frequently crowing all the way through night and day. Added to inappropriate bedding and noisy air-conditioning this contributes to the likelihood of disturbed sleep.

After watching a few we can confirm that Hawaiian chickens have adapted to modern life and have got bloody good at crossing roads. It’s just a shame they can’t tell the time.

The "Jurassic Park" trees, and a feral chicken, in Allerton Gardens (Show Details)

Wildly Inappropriate Bedding

Hawaii is a bunch of tropical islands. Unless you’re right at the top of Mauna Kea or Heleakala, the temperature usually reaches 30°C in the day, and rarely dips below 20°C at night. It’s therefore puzzling to find that the standard bedding provision is a nice warm 15 Tog duvet! The problem with this is that it may be just cold enough you need something, but a duvet is massive overkill. A couple of times we tried getting said duvet downgraded to “just a sheet, please”, but without success. Eventually we just got into the habit of extracting the duvet from its cover and using the latter on its own. At least with only intermittent housekeeping we weren’t having to do this every day…

It’s Frighteningly, Eye-Wateringly Expensive

Hawaii is scarily expensive. I accept that it costs a fair amount to get there in the first place, as you’re travelling halfway around the world. Also I know that all holiday costs for British visitors have been inflated by about 20-25% after the 2016 Brexit vote, and I have to discount that. However even comparing like for like Hawaii is just so much more expensive.

The entry level cost of accommodation in 2019 seems to be about $180-$200 a night. For that you get very little: a small room, minimal service, no food, maybe a coffee machine and free toiletries, maybe not. (One of the hotels actually listed “toilet paper” as a specific provision, I kid you not.) There won’t be any sort of a view or casual/communal seating area. If you are on an upper floor you will be personally manhandling your luggage up and down stairs. If you want something a bit better the price rises quite steeply – the nicer lodges we stayed in were all between $250 and $300 a night. To put that in perspective, we have four other experiences of spending $180 or less per night on accommodation in the last year:

  • Copenhagen is a notoriously expensive city, but this July about $180 per night got us a very nice hotel about 100m from the tourist hub of Nyhavn, and within a short walk of most of Copenhagen’s other attractions. The hotel had very helpful 24 hour front desk staff, a high quality hot and cold breakfast included in the price, an outdoor bar overlooking the harbour for when the sun was out and an indoor bar for when it wasn’t. We had a small but fully appointed room on the 5th floor overlooking Sankt Annae Platz, with a view of the beautiful old port authority buildings.
  • The hotel in Pacifica (just outside San Francisco) on the way back from Hawaii cost about $170 per night. That included breakfast, a sea view, a large room with jacuzzi, and a front desk who cheerfully booked us in, including a room change to avoid too many stairs, at 11pm.
  • We paid about $180 per night to stay in a Norfolk mansion house for my friend’s 60th birthday. As well as the elegant building set in extensive and beautiful gardens, the cost included breakfast, snacks and some booze!
  • The Heure Bleue Palais in Essaouira, Morocco was easily 5 star, excellent service – nothing too much trouble, great food with a wonderful cooked breakfast included in the price, top location in the walls of the old city with a view of the whole town from the roof-top pool. It cost about $145 per night.

At the other end of the scale the better accommodations in Hawaii could be compared in quality and provision to something like the Peaks of Otter Lodge at which we stayed on our 2014 trip to the USA South-East. That was probably the most expensive accommodation of that trip, at about $140 per night.

The Hawaii accommodation costs do seem to have escalated dramatically in the last couple of years. We had originally booked our trip in 2016 and had to cancel at short notice, but re-instated it this year with almost exactly the same itinerary. That means I can directly compare 2016 and 2019 prices. One example, the Kula Lodge cost less than $210 per night in 2016, but more than $290 this year. The Hana Kai had also increased by about $80 per night in the same period. These increases of 35% or more are massively higher than inflation. It’s not clear whether this is a continuing trend, or there’s a common one-off cause.

Food and drink are also much more expensive than elsewhere. Outside the very centre of San Francisco, the going rate for a beer is about $4. Take into account the fact that a US pint is about 20% smaller than a UK one, and prices are comparable to home. However in Hawaii we were paying up to $8 or $9 for a pint of beer! It’s the same story for a latte – about $4 most places in the UK or California, up to twice that in Hawaii.

Waterfall from the Garden of Eden (Show Details)

On a Positive Note…

This might all sound a bit negative, and I don’t want to put readers off going to Hawaii, but just help to set realistic expectations. We enjoyed our trip, but it was impossible to not feel somewhat ripped off by the poor service and high costs. If we’d been primed properly on what to expect we might have ridden more easily over the challenges, and enjoyed the good bits even more.

The scenery is great, especially Haleakala on Maui and Waimea Canyon on Kauai. We saw everything from lush greenery to a volcanic “moonscape” so convincing it’s where they trained the Apollo astronauts. Despite the dire warnings you read in some places even the Road to Hana is perfectly straightforward to drive over its entire length. Hawaii is a feast for the eyes.

The various organised tours and trips all worked very well. Each had a friendly, knowledgeable and helpful guide/driver/pilot and each was an experience we will treasure. While not cheap, the prices were comparable to similar events elsewhere, and represent decent overall value. I could certainly recommend the Blue Horizon helicopter tour of Kauai, the Pearl Harbor and Allerton Gardens tours, and the Laua Kalamaku.

The highlands of Kauai from a helicopter (Show Details)

Regarding travel, eating and accommodation the trick is probably to do some independent research. TripAdvisor seems to reflect reality fairly well, whereas sites like Booking.Com seem to have less detailed independent advice.

Plan, set your expectations, and you’ll really enjoy Hawaii.

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