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.

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

Amusing Pineapples, Hilarious Beach Blanket!

A sea of yellow merchandise at the Dole Plantation shop
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 08-10-2019 11:18 | Resolution: 3978 x 3978 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | State/Province: Poamoho Camp, Honolulu, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 17

The original plan for today was to visit the famous snorkelling beach of Hanauma Bay but Sod’s Law kicks in, it’s now closed on Tuesdays. Instead we opt for a drive up to the north coast of Oahu.

Much of the journey is on a busy freeway, as wide and full as any we have seen in any American city. Honolulu doesn’t have a mass transit system or any public transport beyond a few buses and the result is very busy roads. They are currently building an overhead rail system around the airport and Pearl Harbor and it will be interesting to see if that alleviates the problems.

Once off the freeway onto the smaller roads of the North the first recommended stop is the Dole Pineapple Plantation. This doesn’t sound very exciting, but the car park is absolutely packed. After a short debate we decide just to visit the shop and get a coffee.

Entry into the shop is an experience – it’s enormous, buzzing, and filled in every direction with a sea of bright yellow merchandise. Pineapple clothing, pineapple soft toys, pineapple art, pineapple jewellery. I suspect if you fell asleep (which would be a challenge) they would just paint a pineapple on you and add a price tag.

We forgo the $1200 pineapple brooch with real diamonds, but Frances finds some excellent costume jewellery, including, naturally, a small pineapple pendant. Coffee is served with a pineapple Danish pastry. When in Rome…

Lunch is a nice Fajita at a small "historic" shopping centre on the coast, entertainment provided by yet more feral chickens. After that we have a short walk on a pretty beach, but as usual there’s no provision for casual visitors to spend time there, and anyway it’s too rough to swim. We end up at the Waimea State Park, a small botanical garden developed in a fertile canyon ending in a waterfall. Sadly it’s not the season for many of the flowers, but the park is full of colourful birds.

191008 G9 1009170 (Show Details)

Waimea State Park (Show Details)

Almost without discussion we both decide we want to go back to the "Bakery" at Macy’s. Service and food are again excellent, it’s a good way to finish our last full day in Hawaii.

Day 18

Sadly we say goodbye to Hawaii. (Confusingly that’s "Aloha" again.) Our drive to the airport, car hire return, check in and security take a total of less than an hour, which must be some sort of record. The flight is smooth and unremarkable, although Hawaiian Airlines really don’t have the trick of onboard customer service.

There’s a bit of a trek at the other end to the San Francisco car hire centre, but yet again the Avis Preferred system works beautifully and we get shown straight to our car with one signature on pre-prepared paperwork. However, having booked a Ford Edge, a tiny SUV at the bottom of the range, I’m a bit surprised to be presented with a VW Atlas, which appears to be their response to the Lincoln Navigator. For British readers, that’s about the same size as the Queen Mary. However the controls are all identical to Frances’ VW Polo.

We manage to get the Ark Royal out of harbour and onto the road, and find our way to Pacifica, on the coast just south of San Francisco. I dock the Starship Enterprise, we’re checked in by a charming young lady who has no problem providing service at 11pm, and we gratefully tumble into bed just after midnight.

Day 19

Even though we’re only a few yards from Highway 1, we get a decent night’s sleep and awake to a sunny Pacifica. The primary purpose of today is taking things gently, breaking the travel and helping to unwind the jet lag, but we also do a bit of "practical" shopping, for things like jeans and shirts where we prefer American products (and manage to get several sale bargains).

Lunch is accompanied by further hilarity courtesy of TV adverts. The advert in question appears to be completely straight, but features "The Midden Family". I know for a fact that "midden" has the same meaning to American historians as English ones, and a British advert really wouldn’t feature a family by name if that name happened to be "Rubbish-Heap" :)

We get a very pleasant couple of hours in the sun in the afternoon – at last, a hotel with some provision for this activity! Then it’s off to San Francisco for the wonderful Beach Blanket Babylon revue.

As always, this provides equal opportunity offense, thoroughly sending up a range of politicians, celebrities, ethnic and national stereotypes with a stream of hilarious songs and outrageous costumes (with some very, very big hats). The audience covers a range of ages, genders and colours, but you suspect that we all have a similar political standpoint, and the Trump character is treated as a pantomime villain. The "Von Trump" family singing a version of "Doe, a Deer" which ends "That will make us lots of dough, dough, dough, dough" sticks in my head, but that’s just one moment from almost two hours of laughter.

Sadly this will be the last time we see the show, at least in San Francisco, as after 45 years it’s coming to an end, but it’s a great way to end our holiday.

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Death of an Alien

An Upgrade Too Far, OR: Don’t Count Your Aliens Before They Explode Out Of Your Thorax!


Prior to 2009, I regularly upgraded our desktop PC / server, changing the entire hardware and/or rebuilding from scratch every year or two. There were several different reasons: this was a time of rapid change in the PC arena; I always rapidly outgrew the available computing power; and on at least two occasions the system had suffered complete failure of motherboard or processor and just refused to be revived.

By 2009 things were settling down, with seven being a sort of “magic number”: Windows 7 was clearly a better, stable version of Windows, and Intel’s Core i7 looked like the powerful but usable processor we’d all been waiting for. I’d been doing some research and everyone raved about Alienware machines, so I bit the bullet, invested about £1,100 and purchased an Alienware Aurora. This, despite being the “smaller” of the two Alienware desktop/tower models, turned out to be over 40cm long, 16cm high and weighed about 15kg. (See The Alien Has Landed, and It’s &*&^(* Huge). So much for PCs getting smaller.

OK, it took up some desk space. But it worked. It sat there, for the most part quietly, and just got on with everything I threw at it. It acted as desktop, server, virtualisation and development platform, PVR and the rest without complaint. It was almost seven years before I found a task which occupied the CPU fully for more than a few seconds at a time. Converting recorded HD TV from MPEG2 to MP4 would keep the processor busy for a few hours, but the machine remained stable and fully usable even under full load.

Fairly early on one of the original hard disks failed, but gracefully and I just moved the content to a new one before there was any serious issue. At about the 7 year mark the graphics card failed a bit more dramatically (its main cooling fan died noisily), but a quick trip to PC World sourced a replacement and we were back up and running in a few hours. Excluding reboots, power cuts and a rebuild in 2013 when I upgraded the system disk to an SSD, I would be surprised if total downtime in 10 years totalled one day. That’s better than 99.97% availability.

The machine was originally billed as highly upgradeable and lived up to that billing. The original 2 slow hard disks became 9TB of fast SSDs. It gained four times the original RAM. The original was based on USB2, but USB3 support was easily added. It started off with one standard definition TV tuner and ended up with 4x HD tuners – my record was recording 8 concurrent programmes. With the looming end of support for Windows 7 a few weeks ago I installed Windows 10 build 1903, which went almost like clockwork, booting straight up with drivers for everything except the E-Sata port, and almost all software installed and ran as expected. I was almost ready to write an article praising the machine’s ability to take everything I threw at it.

I say “almost”. There was one caveat. Windows 10 build 1903 is more of a major upgrade than Microsoft have acknowledged, and it introduces some restrictions on virtualisation software. In particular VMWare Workstation has to be V15.1 or higher. I was previously running V12, but I accept spending about £100 every few years on an upgrade to the latest version, so cheerfully did so again. However as I installed the new version, I got a warning that the new version was not compatible with my CPU. Apparently a 10 year old processor, even a then top-spec Core i7, didn’t support a key feature required by newer versions of VMWare. A quick email to VMWare support confirmed the quandary – no version of VMWare supports both the latest version of Windows 10 and my CPU.

Now I could have left it there. I’m not using virtualisation that much at the moment, and it’s still fine on my laptops. I could have. I should have. But those who know me know that wasn’t going to happen. This was now "a problem" which I had to solve. Some quick research suggested that my processor, the i7-920, was succeeded by a directly compatible faster version, the i7-990X, and that switching to the 990X should be straightforward. Then almost like a good omen, out of the blue I got a phone call from VMWare following up to make sure I was happy with their handling of my email query. Have you ever heard of such a thing? The very helpful chap looked it up – yes, the 990X should work well.

eBay provided a 990X, and on Friday I powered down expecting another painless upgrade. The chip slotted neatly into its zero insertion force socket, I re-mounted the cooler unit, and switched on. The fans all ran, but there was no sign of the machine booting up. I removed the new processor and put the original one back in. Switched on, same result. Fans and power supply OK, but no sign of booting up.

Over the next couple of hours I worked through all the usual options: re-seating the PCI cards, checking cables, re-setting the BIOS. Still nothing. The Alien was dead. My attempted upgrade had killed it.

I awoke on Saturday morning, with several plans going around in my head. However a quick search of eBay suggested a solution which might not be possible in many locations: not one but several vendors within about an hour’s drive offering newer versions of the Alienware Aurora with collection in person an option. I latched onto a vendor who responded quickly to my query, and by early afternoon I was mounting my disks into a two year old Aurora R5. There was a moment of panic at first boot when it said it couldn’t find an operating system, but changing the boot mode from the newer UEFI to the older BIOS standard solved that, and up came Windows. I had to reboot several times and tweak a few drivers, but basically I just carried on where I left off before the "upgrade".

The new machine is much more compact than the old one, but installing the disks was a lot more fiddly, so there are pros and cons. It’s also not as fundamentally upgradeable as its predecessor, having for example connections for only 4 disks not 6. It will be interesting to see if it lasts as well.

The root cause of the older machine’s failure is not clear. Did I do something wrong, maybe screwing down the heatsink too firmly or causing some other physical damage? Did the new processor somehow overload something? I checked the power consumption and thermal rating of the two processors before I did the upgrade and they were almost identical, but maybe some second-order effect came into play.

Most likely, maybe there was a latent fault which just required the slightest provocation to trigger. This is a known challenge maintaining old or very complex systems, which may tick over quite happily, but even as much as a reboot may destabilise them. I remember my father’s story that one of the counter-intuitive findings of very early Operations Research during WWII was that it was actually better to maintain bombers less often, as the destablising effect of frequent maintenance could cause more operational errors than it saved.

What seems undebateable is that if I had left well alone then the system would probably have continued working stably for some time, but whether for 5 years or 5 days I have no way of telling.

While it’s sad that I managed to kill the old machine literally a few days short of its 10th birthday, on this occasion it’s a nuisance not a disaster. Ironically I had actively considered buying a completely new system before the Windows update, but rejected it for cashflow reasons, and because the old system was "working so well". I was aware that attempting to change a core component on such an old machine might have unintended consequences, and while maybe my Plan B should have been more precisely articulated, the version I came up with worked well. The two year old chassis has got me almost the whole way for about half the cost, and fits well with my general approach to hardware.

At the risk of changing my movie metaphor from Alien to Terminator, I do wonder if the upgrade had somehow become inevitable, like the rise of the machines at the start of each new film after being comprehensively prevented at the end of the previous one… If so the inevitability was probably in my subconscious, as my conscious objective was to defer the larger upgrade by attempting the smaller one, albeit with an acknowledged risk.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That is, unless you really want a new one. In that case, fix away!

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

Pearl Harbor

USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor
Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M4 | Date: 07-10-2019 20:53 | Resolution: 3648 x 3648 | ISO: 125 | Exp. bias: -0.7 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 12.8mm (~35.0mm) | Location: USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor | State/Province: Pu‘uloa, Honolulu, Hawaii | See map

Day 16

Today we have another long-awaited organised tour: Pearl Harbor. Preparations are complicated by an additional security directive since we tried to arrange the same trip in 2016 – you are allowed no bags of any form, quite a challenge if you’re going to be out all day and one of you is not big into pockets.

Frances does have one pair of pink trousers with pockets, and is busy stuffing them when there is a loud cry of pain. We discover that the rear pockets are partially closed with dressmaking pins, from a previous start to removing the pockets altogether. Hoist by her own petard, I think they call that.

An aside: this is yet another arguably pointless example of American “security by theatre”. At no point in the day are we closer to the operational parts of Pearl than the range of a very high-powered rifle. We interact mainly with Park Service rather than Naval personnel, and at no point does anyone X Ray us, pat us down or ask us to disclose the contents of our pockets, so it’s hard to see why a small camera bag or purse would be such a risk.

Our taxi from the hotel arrives bang on time, vindicating the hotel staff, but the driver then announces that he has only been on the job a few days… Why is there only one city in the world which regards “taxi driver” as a qualified profession? However thanks to our previous reconnaissance we get promptly to the pick up point and meet our tour. The same cannot be said for another couple, who get completely lost in the mall and have to be collected later.

The tour’s first stop is the USS Missouri. I have been fascinated by this ship’s story since we first saw Under Siege. She saw active service in WWII, including the Japanese surrender, was brought out of mothballs in the 80s and ended up firing the opening shots of the Gulf War, an event which is nicely echoed in the film.

Another aside: there are only two significant female characters in the film. Both play themselves – “Mighty Mo” of course (although her sister the USS Alabama did most of the “static” work), and Erika Eleniak, who really was Miss July ’89.

The tour of the Missouri is excellent. We are broadly familiar with the military history, but get a lot more detail about the formal end of the War. Mcarthur’s speech from the surrender ceremony still rings today:

Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed. And in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way. I speak for the unnamed brave millions homeward bound to take up the challenge of that future which they did so much to salvage from the brink of disaster.

We were not, however, aware that the Missouri survived a Kami Kaze strike. The ship and crew were very lucky – the bomb and much of the plane went to the bottom, leaving a small fire, a large dent in the deck edge still visible today, and no American casualties. When they were cleaning up they recovered the pilot’s body, and the Captain insisted he be given a military burial at sea, complete with a rapidly stitched together Rising Sun flag. Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Lunch includes a whirlwind visit to the aviation museum, and then the afternoon is dedicated to visiting museums about the Pearl Harbor attack, and finally the USS Arizona which lies in the harbour with over 800 sailors and marines “eternally at their post”.

USS Missouri from the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor (Show Details)

Day 16, Supplemental

While the day has been hot and sunny so far, on the ferry to the Arizona we watch rainclouds literally spilling over the ridges behind Honolulu and by the time we are back on the bus it’s tipping with rain.

The Call to Duty tour by Hoku has run like clockwork, no waiting in line, tickets and provisions handed to us exactly when needed, and Mark, our driver, is friendly, professional and very knowledgeable.

The last stage of the trip is a drive-by tour of the military cemetery in a small extinct volcanic caldera, and a number of Honolulu landmarks, although sadly the weather impinges somewhat on visibility.

We leave the bus in the centre of Waikiki to have a look at the posh hotels and shops. We know we’re in trouble when we go into the loos in one of the malls, and the seats have a control panel! Frances had a hot seat, but dared not try any adjustments.

Dinner is in a nice restaurant above one of the malls. Very pleasant, but essentially the same meal as the previous night costs twice as much.

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Waimea to Waikiki

Waikiki Beach at sunset
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 06-10-2019 18:10 | Resolution: 5106 x 2872 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | State/Province: Moana, Honolulu, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 14

Waimea is an odd place. After a lazy morning we go out in search of a coffee. The tiny cinema opposite has updated its programme. Apparently this week it’s "Angry Bird 2", showing on 5 days, "Sat cloed". There are two obvious inferences: they’ve run out of Ss, and they are closed on Saturday. However neither is supported by the evidence – last week the film was "Hobbs and Shaw", and later on (on Saturday evening) there is plenty of evidence of punters arriving…

We walk the length of Main Street looking for a coffee shop in increasing desperation. We’re just about to give up, when we realise the very last building has about 10 signs saying "coffee" or "expresso". It’s only missing a Terry Gilliam hand in the sky pointing down.

Can I get a coffee here? (Show Details)

The lady who runs the coffee shop cheerfully announces to us that she’s an old hippy but we could probably have guessed… However she then goes on to explain that before she dropped out she was a professor.

I am about to say "What were you a professor of?" but some sixth sense kicks in, and it comes out "Of what were you a professor?"

"Comparative linguistics."

"I’m glad I just got the grammar right then."

"Don’t worry. I used to correct my husband’s love letters to me."

The conversations we have on holiday.

Day 15

We have a very quick and efficient transfer to Oahu. After the other islands Honolulu is a bit of a shock, but the busy freeway takes us to within a few hundred yards of our hotel. This turns out to be a rather twee historic guest house up on the hill well above the bustle of the city.

The check in process is slightly fraught as the hotel seems to be staffed entirely by an oriental family each of which commands a different subset of the English language, and Frances is also somewhat concerned about the reports of multiple dogs and cats. However in practice the only real problem is a very low door into the bathroom which leads to a few "ow, bugger" moments.

The hotel is near the University and we get lunch at a nice student café, followed by a second course at McDonald’s when Frances gets a sudden craving for an apple pie.

After settling into our room we go down to the Ala Moana Beach Park, to see what’s going on and to case the joint for catching our tour in the morning. The recce proves to be worthwhile as the Ala Moana Centre covers multiple blocks and houses a mall of over 300 shops.

The beach front is a hive of activity. We see fishing, surfing, jogging, family parties and multiple weddings or photo shoots taking advantage of the late afternoon light. We get a great sunset and in particular dramatic golden light on the big buildings behind Waikiki Beach.

Waikiki Beach at sunset (Show Details)

Back in the shopping centre we go into Macy’s and look for their food court. There’s something called "The Bakery", which suggests a couple of old ladies with a stack of sandwiches and a coffee machine, which would do fine. However this turns out to be a lively full service restaurant which does a great prime rib for very little money. Result.

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Tours and Shows

Luau Kalamaku
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 04-10-2019 19:52 | Resolution: 2913 x 2913 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 62.0mm | Location: Luau Kalamaku | State/Province: Puhi, Kauai, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Day 13

We have booked a guided tour of the Allerton Gardens. We are both expecting a short walk through a botanical garden with someone spouting a lot of Latin names, but it turns out to be nothing like that. Robert Allerton was a contemporary of Hearst and created what can best be described as an "outdoor Hearst Castle", a series of wonderful "outdoor rooms" spread over a large bay previously owned by Hawaiian Royalty. Robert’s companion John was a talented architect, and the gardens are full of clever water features, all still working well as they approach their centenary.

Allerton Gardens (Show Details)

Our guide Dave is very entertaining. A successful farmer and botanist in his own right he is knowledgeable about both the history and the biology of the gardens. In addition he tells us about the extensive use of the gardens as film locations, including for the famous "fruit kebab" chase in the second Pirates of the Caribbean. However the highlight are the enormous ficus trees which provided not one but three separate iconic scenes in Jurassic Park.

Allerton Gardens (Show Details)

In the evening we celebrate Frances’ birthday at a Luau, a classic Hawaiian dinner and entertainment. We have chosen well, the floor show is up to West End standards with great costumes, dancing and a thrilling fire eater/dancer. We also get on very well with the others at our table, yet again (as in the helicopter) comprising not one but two honeymooning couples.

Luau Kalamaku (Show Details)

Tomorrow is Frances’ birthday – we’ve celebrated very well.

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Helicopter over Hawaii

Flying above the rainbows (Waimea Canyon, Kauai)
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 03-10-2019 10:12 | Resolution: 5176 x 3235 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 12

The morning is centred on an activity I have been looking forward to all summer, my helicopter flight. After a short drive I arrive on time, check in, pay, and watch the safety briefing, which seems to be significantly more involved than that for flying over Namibia with the doors off, or over Barbados in a motorbike with wings.

Then about two minutes before take off I discover that they’ve actually managed to miss me off the passenger manifest, so we have a short panic while that is resolved. However I end up with the prime seat in the front of the chopper, next to a very small lady to balance the load!

The Na’Pali Coast from the air (Show Details)

The flight itself is wonderful. Shay, our pilot is very entertaining, the scenery is magnificent and we fly really closely to the Jurassic Park waterfall, the Na Pali Coast and the big mountains in the middle of the island. The doors make photography a bit more challenging and I’m continually adjusting the polarising filter to try and handle internal reflections, but the results look promising.

Proof! (Show Details)

In the afternoon we explore the tourist centre of the south of Kauai, and end up having dinner at a hotel restaurant watching a classic Hawaiian sunset. Perfect.

Typical Hawaiian Sunset (Show Details)
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Waimea Canyon

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

Day 11

Sleep is again interrupted by bedding problems and over-keen roosters.

Chickens are in fact a major factor on Kauai. Almost everywhere you look you can see one or two padding around, and it’s rare that you can’t hear a cockerel. We learn later that although most are feral, they are quite welcome as they feed on insects which would otherwise be a problem, and are effectively protected (in contrast to feral pigs, for which the Parks Service will happily give you a permit and probably a gun.)

One of many feral chickens in Hawaii, here at Allerton Gardens
(Show Details)

Wherever I travel there are usually species which has adapted to living off the scraps of human activity: pigeons, the little brown birds on Barbados, the feral dogs of Bhutan. Here it’s chickens, and they’ve even got bloody good at crossing roads!

We opt for a light breakfast and then head up into Waimea Canyon. This is just as dramatic as billed – deep and full of interesting forms, but a combination of rock with contrasting greenery and dramatic waterfalls, unlike its cousin in Arizona.

Waimea Canyon
(Show Details)

An entertaining and informative busker at Waimea Canyon
(Show Details)

The views are also enlivened by quickly changing weather. At one point we are looking down onto the inaccessible Na Pali coast, the view is clear, then completely disappears in low cloud and then clears again, in less than 5 minutes. We eat our sandwich lunch sheltering in the car from a sharp shower, and read that the mountains in the west of Kauai are arguably the wettest place on earth.

After exploring the canyon we have a relaxed afternoon shopping in a local historic town. However it proves surprisingly hard to purchase a cup of coffee after 4 pm. Kauai shop working hours are so short they make a joke of it themselves, but it does seem oddly un-American.

We have a good dinner, and then an early night, with a rather more restful nights sleep.

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To The Summit

At the Summit of Haleakala
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 29-09-2019 11:17 | Resolution: 5381 x 3363 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Location: Haleakala NP | State/Province: Kaʻonoʻulu (historical), Maui, | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 8 – Haleakala

For a mountain lodge the night is surprisingly noisy: large vehicles on the road, guests moving cars around all night, and a rooster who gets confused and starts crowing at 1 am. In addition we have a somewhat binary provision on bedding – a quilt which is far too hot, but it’s too cold for nothing.

We make an early start. An excellent breakfast makes up for some of the privations, and then we head up the mountain. In contrast to the Road to Hana the road up Haleakala is consistently two cars wide and beautifully surfaced and cambered. It would be a joy to charge in a sports car, but on a normal day it’s also very pleasant to motor up gently observing the speed limit and the great views.

At the top there are three viewpoints providing different perspectives on the volcano’s crater. This isn’t a true caldera – the main vulcanism stopped a long time ago and what’s now visible is the result of erosion by wind and rain, with a few volcanic vents breaking the surface. However the range of colours and shapes make for some great photos, with Mauna Kea (on the Big Island) visible in the background, showing what Haleakala looked like in its prime.

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

The crater of Haleakala (Show Details)

On the way back down I’m getting a bit mesmerised by the constant turns and the warm afternoon, and we stop just outside the park at an excellent coffee shop. We get there just a few minutes before they close. At 2pm!

Back at the hotel mid afternoon we have a pleasant few hours in the sun, although we have to sit at a picnic table (no loungers) and I become slightly annoyed at the bureaucracy one shop assistant attempts to impose on my buying a second beer…

Dinner is again very pleasant, we dismantle the quilt to just use the cover, and the rooster keeps quiet until after 4 am. Much better.

Day 9

We bid farewell to the mountain and spend the morning exploring the west coast, location of the main tourist beaches and hotels. It’s OK, but not visually exciting and the retail opportunities are very poor after Paia and Makawao.

On the way back into Kahului Frances finds a fabric shop. After about an hour we leave with several lengths, including both a fish pattern and Angry Birds for future shirts for me.

We have a quiet afternoon by the pool and an early dinner – tomorrow we move on to Kauai.

Day 10

The flight to Kauai is full but short and uneventful. It flies very low and we get great views of the intervening smaller islands. As the plane is a Boeing 717 I reckon that "completes the set" and means that over the years we have flown all major models of the company’s jets.

There’s a slightly annoying bus ride to the Lihue airport car rental lot, but once there I literally just show my ID and get handed the keys to a shiny new Mustang. Whether this is astounding efficiency or the general Hawaiian avoidance of work is hard to assess.

The road to Waimea is heavily reminiscent of the main road through northern Barbados, but with occasional glimpses of much higher scenery in the island’s centre. When we reach the hotel it turns out to be more of a motel – perfectly well equipped but again nowhere to sit in the sun, and very limited on-site service. The most confusing instruction is an 11am check-out time, before the office opens in the morning!

Waimea is where Captain Cook first landed in Hawaii (Show Details)
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We’re On The Road FROM Hana!

Waterfall from the Garden of Eden
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-09-2019 13:00 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 1000 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 50.0mm | Location: Garden of Eden | State/Province: Haiku, Maui, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Back on “The Road to Hana”, but now “from”. The northern stretch is well-surfaced but we’re soon back to regular single-lane bridges. Our early start means we are well advanced on the way back before we meet consistent traffic, but you can imagine that later in the day in peak season it could get a bit frustrating.

This is the wet side of the island and there are some great waterfalls along the way. However some of the expected landmarks seem to be either absent or hidden, and others are a bit underwhelming, although the wet weather doesn’t help.

The honourable exception, and definitely our favourite attraction, is the Garden of Eden, a charming arboretum laid out just above the road, reaching about a mile up the slopes with views of a couple of dramatic waterfalls and also right down to the sea. We get a latte at the coffee stand (at last!) and have an entertaining chat with the operator who admits that at age 20 she effectively “ran away to sea”. This appears to be a common pattern among the non-Polynesian Mauians.

Waterfall from the Garden of Eden
(Show Details)

“Rainbow trees”, alongside the Road to Hana
(Show Details)

We finally get back to Paia in the early afternoon, and head up the mountain. First stop is Makawao, a small town with a twee “western style” shopping street housing a range of galleries and boutiques. Frances and I are both attracted to one gallery where the artist puts her designs on a variety of media including T Shirts. Apparently Mick Fleetwood is a regular customer, but we establish that he is a rather different shape to yours truly, and sadly I come away empty handed, but Frances buys two.

Colourful shop at Makawao
(Show Details)

The road continues rising, and eventually we reach the Kula Lodge. Dinner is Prime Rib while looking down on a very dramatic sunset over West Maui.

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Hunting Coffee in Hana

From the beach outside the Hana Kai Lodge
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 27-09-2019 06:40 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 64.0mm | State/Province: Hana, Maui, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Day 6

I make a fairly early start and go down to the small beach to watch the sunrise. Just as the sun is getting established it starts raining, but the result is an amazing rainbow behind the hotel, and great light on the beach.

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

This was planned as a rest day, so we have a gentle morning. After lunch we try the Museum and Cultural Centre, but it’s shut. Fortunately the Lava tubes are open, and absolutely fascinating. I learn a bit about the different types of lava, which seem to be most accurately described using Hawaiian and have fun trying to photograph the cave with camera in one hand and torch in the other.

Inside the Hana Lava Tubes
(Show Details)

Hana does seem to be a town without a coffee shop. We stop at the banana bread stall, but at 3.30 they have switched off their coffee machine and are not prepared to just sell us a slice of cake, only a whole one. Useless. Is this really America?

I have no idea why, but I don’t have much luck with sandals. Today for the third time in about as many years, both of my relatively new sandals decide to simultaneously self destruct, on this occasion with both soles completely detaching. The Hana local store sells me a pot of glue, which turns out to be a sort of foaming filler. The soles are now firmly attached, but with odd blobs of yellow filler poking out around the circumference. Frances not amused at the inelegance. Evo Stik added to holiday checklist.

Dinner is accompanied by an entertaining game of "do you know what it is yet?" Crowd pleaser standards, played on a Ukulele and sung in an impenetrable Hawaiian accent. :)

Inside the Hana Lava Tubes
(Show Details)
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We’re On The Road To Hana…

The Pools at Ohe'o
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 26-09-2019 13:42 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Location: The Pools at Ohe'o | State/Province: Kīpahulu, Maui, Hawaii | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Day 4 – Retail Therapy

We’re awake early, and spend an hour catching up with political developments in the UK. Then at 7am we discover behind a nondescript door next to the “boutique doss house” a wonderful coffee shop which does the best breakfast of the trip so far.

Fed and watered we explore Paia. There are some good “retail therapy opportunities” (much needed after the previous night), but we have to forgo those which don’t open until 11, or only when there’s a Q in the month… Nevertheless I get a couple of great T shirts in a shop part-owned by Alice Cooper (Alice in Hulaland). Frances finds some pineapple fabric to replace the net curtains which she washed when slightly the worse for wear after a glass of wine at the end of a long day, removing the pattern!

Frances also takes a fancy to a rather nice blouse embellished with one-off appliqué. We start to move away when we realise it’s $300, but the sales lady seals its fate when she points out that the workshop has added pockets. “I don’t do pockets,” Frances announces, “in fact I usually remove them if a garment has them.” Of which more later…

After that we bite the bullet and drive back towards Kahului, the island capital, and find a more suitable hotel. Lunch is delayed slightly while we pay a visit to the Hawaiian version of Primark: Frances has yet again come on a hot holiday without any summer dresses! For the princely sum of £30 we get not one, but three. Sorted.

The new hotel is in a less charming location, but everything works, the staff are friendly, the room is a good size, and we get a quiet afternoon by the pool and a decent night’s sleep. Tick.

Day 5 – The Road to Hana

Maui is dominated by two main features. In the middle of the main part of the island is Haleakala, a 10,000 ft volcano. Around the edge is “The Road to Hana”, named for the small town at the opposite end to Kahalui. Read the tourist guidance and you would think this is a slightly scaled down version of Bolivia’s “Road of Death”. Fortunately that’s bollocks.

Recovering from the Road to Hana
(Show Details)

It is a small road which gets a lot of tourist traffic, especially along the North shore of the island. A lot of people try and drive the road to Hana and back in one day, and that can be a bit fraught. The southern section is shown on maps as unsurfaced and is described with dire warnings. However we’ve been told that a counter-clockwise circumnavigation is not only possible but desirable as there’s a lot less traffic, so that’s what we decide on.

The Western section is a good road up over the edge of Haleakala. We stop at a charming new church, a garden dedicated to Sun Yat Sen and all the Chinese who helped develop Hawaii, and a great little coffee shop attached to a winery. We decide against the wine tasting, just in case the southern section is really as bad as described.

Sun Yat Sen Garden
(Show Details)

It isn’t. Most of the road has a very good tarmacked surface with appropriate barriers where required. One stretch is down to the standard of the roads in Surrey, with multiple patch repairs but still surfaced. A few short stretches don’t have any asphalt, but they are well graded. This is the dry part of the island and has almost a moorland feel, but it’s a moorland which borders a dramatic Pacific coast, and for a while we can clearly see the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, peeking out from a cloud just like Bali Hai. Our own island is the same, with our views up Haleakala truncated by low cloud a couple of thousand feet up the slopes.

Church on the Southern Road
(Show Details)

As the road rounds into the Eastern section things change a bit, with the road hugging the base of dramatic cliffs. Some parts are narrow and we have to pay attention to passing places. Things are somewhat fraught for a few miles north of the park and waterfalls at O’heo Gulch, but only because the more substantial traffic has to carefully juggle through narrow stretches including a number of one lane bridges.

After a while the road widens again and we come into Hana itself. We find that in contrast to Paia we have lucked out with a great apartment with a stunning sea view. Excellent.

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Off To Hawaii

Panorama from Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 23-09-2019 14:16 | Resolution: 17390 x 3581 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Location: Union Square | State/Province: Downtown, San Francisco, Califor | See map

We finally managed to make our trip to Hawaii, which was cancelled at the last minute in 2016. Here’s how we got on…

Day 1

We have a faultless flight by Virgin to San Francisco. Despite dire prognostications we leave and arrive on time, and speed quickly through US Immigration. I decide we should try the BART which gets us fairly quickly half way (after being shown how to work the ticket machines), but we then sit forever at a station awaiting clearance through a section undergoing engineering work (this is a Sunday afternoon). We transfer to a taxi and complete our ride to Union Square that way. Our hotel Handlery’s is still as it always was. However there’s just a suspicion that this trip may have some aspects which take a few goes to get right.

Day 2 – San Francisco

Thanks to copious jet lag we’re awake in the middle of the night, but then manage to get back to sleep through to nearly 7, amazing.

American TV is weird, and some of the adverts are unintentionally hilarious from a British viewpoint. We love the drug adverts, with their long lists of potential side-effects, just like the "Caine Madness" in Evolution. There’s a new nadir today which has us both in stitches: a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, but the compound has apparently "… been linked with PBL, a brain disease leading to paralysis and death". I’ll take my chances with IBS, thanks.

We find an early breakfast, then do some shopping around Union Square based purely on who’s open (Forever 21!!). By the time we’ve shopped and had coffee the queue for the cable car is around the block. We decide to walk across the city and try and get the cable car back, which turns out to be both good exercise and a great way to observe the changes to San Francisco since we were last there. The tourist spots are definitely busier, and some areas look a bit dingy and in need of a bit of TLC, but otherwise the changes aren’t too dramatic. We visit Lombard Street, "the crookedest street in the world" and Fisherman’s Wharf, then manage to get the cable car back for an hour by the pool and an early night.

Sea lions near Pier 39
(Show Details)

Day 3 – The "Boutique Doss House"

Back to San Francisco Airport, and we get our flight to Maui. It all goes like clockwork, the plane arrives 1/2 hour early, and we’re punished by an equivalent delay before the luggage even starts to come through. Fortunately the car hire process is very quick and we reach our initial destination, Paia, in time for a late lunch.

Arriving at Maui
(Show Details)

Paia is clearly where artists, surfers and hippies who don’t quite fit in elsewhere end up. The shops are charming, but some of the practical arrangements less so. Our "boutique hotel" turns out to be poky, noisy and with zero customer service. The woman who gives us our keys literally runs before we can ask any questions, there’s a long list of dos and don’ts on the bed, and I realise it’s the only hotel of the whole trip which has taken full payment in advance (probably due to a history of people cancelling when they see "the accommodations"). The toilet is not so much as "en suite" as "dans chambre", next to the head of the bed separated by a thin curtain. I suppose "boutique doss house" doesn’t work as well…

We have an interesting hour watching wind and kite surfers at the local beach, then an early dinner.

Wind-surfing at Ho’okipa Beach
(Show Details)

Our much-needed beauty sleep is interrupted by pillow problems, what appears to be a loud lecture in Dutch at about 1 am, and a literal cat fight at about 4…

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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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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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.



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