Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Animated Radiohead

Came across this on Fantastic combination of graphic-style animation and the Radiohead song "Creep". A must-see for anyone stuck in a dead-end job, desparate for escape. Great work by the animator (3 months and a million frames says all that needs to be said about dedication - and how bad the job must have been he was stuck in!)

Day 5: Icy Straits & Elfin Cove

Nirvana: Elfin Cove, Alaska

The morning was spent at sea exploring around Inian Island and in Icy Straits. Saw sea otters, sea lions and some distant whales, plus various sea birds (kittiwakes mostly).

In the afternoon, we anchored off Elfin Cove, a small settlement numbering just 18 people in the winter and a couple of hundred in the summer when the fishing lodges open and tourists come to town. This last winter, they got 24 feet of snow and only just dug themselves out for the final time before spring brought the cruise ships. Seems like half the town likes to have the additional income visitors bring, the other half though values privacy above all else and would much rather we all went away and left them alone. The debate looks set to simmer indefinitely, especially as they have no formal ruling town council in place to bring things that arise to any sort of final conclusion.

The residents were just replacing their generator sets so there was a fair bit of activity going on. Someone talked to one shop-keeper who said it cost her $3,000 a month for electricity in the winter, which I sincerely hope was misheard for her sake! No wonder she was pleased to see us ...

Although isolated, they do get a mail plane coming in when weather permits and of course boats can come in and out more easily (fishing is the main source of year-round employment) but that’s about it. Funnily enough, though, this was one of the places I mentioned where I could get a cell phone signal and downloaded mail onto my PDA.

Motorola Q: Quick Update

I'm back in Europe again where Verizon hasn't any coverage and CDMA has more to do with rude lyrics on compact discs by American rap artists. However, I just wanted to congratulate Verizon for having coverage in Alaska in places I never expected. Several times while we were out cruising, and quite some way from any signs of habitation, I found a signal and was able to download e-mail, make calls etc. The Q worked as advertised, but still has some idiosyncrasies of its own for browsing web sites. Of course, that may have as much to do with the fact that I haven't read the manual, but let's be realistic here shall we!

Solid 7 out of 10 so far, and that's before it gets used for anything except mail and Internet browsing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Day 4: Sitka

Russian Orthodox Church, Sitka

Originally a small Russian settlement, Sitka now exists primarily as a cruse-ship destination, hosting over 100,000 visitors during the holiday season (May to September). Mostly, it comprises the usual Alaska tourist pick-and-mix of jewelry, tourist shops and t-shirt vendors, plus some local excursion offerings such as kayaking, nature hikes and biking.

It made a welcome change to get off the boat and get some exercise. We did about 3 miles in the morning going through the Tongass rainforest, a unique environment that apparently comprises approximately 15% of the world’s rainforest, with an ecology all its own that's totally different from what we are used to in California.

For us, being a small ship, we had the luxury of being able to dock close to town, whereas the larger ships have to use tenders to bring people to shore. This only hit home when we saw a long line of pensioners snaking back from the dock waiting for the next tender to get them back for meal 4 in the daily regime of at least 5! (They were on one of the large ships we saw dwarfing the dock in Juneau.)

In the afternoon there was a visit to a place where they carve and preserve totems which, while interesting in itself, also offered another welcome opportunity to get in a further short hike around the park where they are located.

Back to the ship, and then heading north.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Day 3: Frederick Sound

Whale Breaching, Alaska

Around 6:30 am, I noticed the engines had been cut which is usually a sign that a) the captain has spotted something interesting or b) they’ve run out of petrol. Thankfully, in this case it was a). In the distance a pod of humpback whales were spouting. However, within a few minutes a whale surfaced much closer to the boat and proceeded to give us a display of fin-slapping, calling, blowing and finally breaching. Even the professional photographer guiding us (Mark Kelley) said it took him years to find a whale that he could legally get close to and see that kind of behaviour and have it be sustained for any period of time. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event that all of us on the ship will remember for ever. Indeed, apart from a couple of more distant and more fleeting sightings, that was the only breaching whale we saw that anyone could photograph.

Afterwards, we continued southwards past a sea-lion basking point towards a wilderness area where we were allowed ashore (with Federal permits only) for a bit of a stroll. Alaska really does seem to do a very good job of protecting its wilderness and park areas, as well as in game and wildlife management.
(BTW, I'll have another go at this shot when I have a moment. The crop doesn't work that well I think.)

Back to the ship to head off to the next destination. And to have dinner, of course!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day 2: Tracy Arm

Bald Eagle, Tracy Arm, Alaska

Both got woken at 4 am by the motion of the boat changing and ominous scraping noises along the side of the hull. We were entering the Tracy Arm area, due south of Juneau, where ice break-off from the glaciers was starting to appear in the channel.

Early in the morning, we caught the sight of a bald eagle sitting on a big chunk of ice just watching the world go by. Fantastic stuff, but it left me wishing a) I’d brought my longer fixed lens and b) hadn’t forgotten to reset the ISO from 800 where I had it the evening before to catch a shot of a passing whale. Bummer. I cursed Canon – and not for the first time - for not putting ISO indication in the viewfinder.

Spend the morning zig-zagging our way up the Fjord to the Sawyer glacier, which revealed itself as a spectacular wall of blue and white ice rising ahead of us.

We were fortunate also to see a couple of large calving events where big chunks of ice fell away from the main flow into the water.

The ship then turned round and headed back towards Fredrick Sound, pausing only for an hour spent boating around in an inflatable, or at least, that was the plan ….

The first set of three boats went out, taking a block of 30 passengers out towards waterfalls and the rock face. Right at that point, a small rock fall occurred and one elderly lady was hit by a chunk of granite sustaining some kind of painful – albeit relatively minor – injury...

Change of plan: the ship now returned to Juneau, docking in the evening, so the passenger could get proper treatment. We put to sea again around 3:30 am, heading back to where we were originally scheduled to be the next day. Everyone took the change in schedule well and fortunately we weren’t that far from our original starting point.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Day 1: Juneau, Alaska

Captive Bald Eagle, Mt. Roberts

We spent the morning walking round the town and taking the cable-car up Mount Roberts. For $25 each, expectations were high. Alas, the trails were still closed up-top thanks to several feet of remaining snow, a fact they only told us once the doors were closed and we were half way to the top! Getting there, you find the usual collection of small stores selling the usual collection of stuff. They had a captive bald eagle that managed to look majestic and extremely sad all in one pose. Someone had shot it and the resulting injuries were too severe to allow it to fly wild again.

In the afternoon we took a helicopter tide up to the Taku glacier where the pilot parked it allowed us out to walk around for about 15 minutes. Flight there and back was spectacular and we had a rare sunny Alaska day by the time we took off so overall the viewing conditions were very good.

Time for a short bus transfer to the dock to join the Spirit of Endeavour, a diminutive ship (70 passengers) compared to the behemoths moored elsewhere in Juneau that cater for a couple of thousand of yoru closest friends at one go.

By the time we boarded the ship at 5 pm we’d seen two eagles (excluding the caged one), & a whale. Great day, but better in store for tomorrow.

So here's the plan ...

Since I'm now close to civilization once again, I'll begin to post some notes from our Alaska trip along with one or more images relating to the place being described. Given the number of images we have you may well find quite a high picture-to-text ration here for a couple of weeks!

So without further ado, over to day 1: San Jose to Juneau.

Heading Home

We are nearing the point of heading back home. Today, after a river trip, we head on to Fairbanks, the furthest north we'll get. Tomorrow, we fly from Fairbanks to SJC via Seattle.

It's been a great trip and we've been very lucky with both the weather and the co-operative wildlife! At last count, we've shot over 20Gb of images .... so expect to be plagued with pictures of this place for weeks to come.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

And Speaking of Anchorage

Here's a shot from the hotel window showing the route out of town ...

Anchorage, enroute to Denali

We're about two-thirds of the way through our holiday and it's been a great trip so far. The weather has been phenomenal for Alaska, with sun almost all the way along. (Compare this to 2006 when locals claimed the sun only came out for 3 days total in the whole summer!) Sounds like a tough winter around here though - anything from 24 to 30 feet of snow last year, even in the more southerly and coastal areas!

Here's one shot to keep us all going until I can get back and post more descriptions and pictures. This was a guide from the ship as we were taking a Zodiac to a wilderness beach for a short stay.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Alaska vacation

Wonderful weather here in Sitka and we have been very fortunate to get a few clear days.

Seen humpbacks, eagles and even glaciers calving. No real internet access though!

Will try and post more later but pictures will have to wait.

Monday, May 14, 2007

B-17 Flight (4)

B-17 & Wartime Record

So finally, a shot of the nose! Once landed, there was ample time and access to walk around the plane and take some extra shots. If these tags are indicative of the actual wartime record for this plane then she flew quite some sorties and acquitted herself well.

B-17 Flight (3)

Starboard Waist Gun, B-17

We flew out over Monterey and then turned right back towards Salinas. First-off, I headed down to the forward nose area where the bomb sight was still in place. Alas, the trigger was off to the side and non-operative otherwise I could have scared the hell out of some farmers ... From that point I went towards the rear of the plane to see how things looked from the side and top.

Part way through the fog cleared a little, mostly because we were heading inland at that point. I made a point of taking some shots (pictures, I mean!) from the starboard-side waist gun position since that was my father-in-law's crew position. As you can see, you have to be careful where you point the .50 cal as you have a clear shot at the outboard propeller, never mind the other planes in your own formation.

And that was it. All too quickly we were back on the ground wishing it were like Disneyland where you could queue-up and go round again.

Next year I might do the 24 or 25 if they all come back, but I have to say I may fly "Nine-O-Nine" again. Worth every cent, and highly recommended.

Alaska Calls - Service May Be Interrupted

I leave today for almost two weeks vacation in Alaska, some of which will be spent on a short cruise (Inside Passage from Juneau and back again) and some hiking in Denali National Park. As seems likely, if e-mail and internet access is limited then blog postings may get to be a little less predictable for a while here. I know I can post text via e-mail, but not pictures. Nevertheless, I’ll try and keep in touch as best I can, connectivity permiting! Bad news is I'll feel obliged to post weeks worth of shots of grey skies, ice and trees ...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

B-17 Flight (2)

Airfield Looking Back From Radio Operator's Position

I ended up seated behind the pilot for take off and landing. Sounds good, eh? Well, let's not get carried away: in practice, this means sitting on the floor between the pilot's chair and a bulkhead, trying hard not to kick the large, red fuel transfer valve for the port wing-tanks that was right in front of me.

We had about 15 minutes for pre-flight checks and taxiing, plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of all 4 engines on part-throttle idle, drifting in and out of synch and sending waves of vibration through the airframe. Stirring stuff.

Anyway, time to go and the pilot pushed the throttles to full power and off we went. Hard to get an impression of how fast we were climbing but overall it was a smooth and seemingly-quick take-off.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

B-17 Flight (1)

B-17, Monterey Jet Center

Glad to say, the weather was good enough to allow us to fly, with the marine layer in Monterey sitting around 1,500 feet and no ground fog. Only 6 passengers (9 is the max)and we were airborne for around 30 minutes.

Simply put, what a fantastic opportunity to fly in such a historic aircraft. I'll post more later but here's something to be going on with - my ride parked outside a hanger at Monterey airport.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Redwood City Politics: Impeach Bush?

I had a VC event to attend last night in Redwood City. I stayed until around 7:30 before heading home and was on my way out of town when I saw this window display. Not sure I quite captured what I wanted to but the eagle-eyed amongst you will notice a reflection of the Statue of Liberty as part of the composition. For some reason that wasn’t entirely clear, there was a scale model of Lady Liberty on the roof of a single-story office building across the street!

Shooting reflections like this is hard: I can never quite seem to get the reflective and transmissive parts of the image in balance, and with just a P&S camera then the degree of control one has is very limited.

Anyway, I think the message is still clear!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Motorola Q Review: In The Beginning ...

Since I’m heading off to the wilds, I finally gave in and decided to go fully mobile for reading e-mail. Yeah, yeah, I know, 5 years after everyone else out here, but I figured a long beta period was required!

Given that I am somewhat stuck with Verizon in order to get even halfway decent coverage at home, my options were limited. I’ve not been impressed with the Treos I’ve seen, largely thanks to their size and relatively poor phone & battery performance. Blackberry devices can be had via Verizon, but then your ability to synch directly with Outlook is lost. Personally, I don't like things with little pointers, if for no other reason than I lose them, so wasn't constrained by the need for a touchscreen.

Motorola therefore looked favourite, at least on .html. And black was the choice du jour, obviously.

It arrived overnight via Fed Ex, and complete with the basics necessary to fill it up with lots of scrummy e-mail goodness.

After calling Verizon to unlock the thing, it quickly became clear that it would be faster to have IT set up the Outlook synchronization for me since you need all kinds of insider-information in order to make it all work off the right server. (You may also find that you have to disable certificate checking on the Q in order to make it work properly, too.)

Within an hour or so, the device basically worked. Worked, that is, but with one small hiccup – it deleted all my calendar appointments from Outlook occuring after April 27th and then promptly synch’d that change back to the server. Net result was I then got to spend all morning the next day restoring Outlook from a backup in order to recover my diary. Neither I nor IT knows why this happened, but happen it did. Anyway, since that point it’s not been an issue so I’ll chalk that up to a random act of nature rather than some fundamental flaw.

Size, weight, form-factor? Basically fine on all counts, especially given the need to squeeze a keyboard in there somehow. As the picture shows, it compares reasonably well with the Motorola Razr, and has a much better level of customization available than does that phone (which exhibits one of the poorest UIs I’ve encountered on a hand-held device.) Battery life as an e-mail platform seems to be roughly two days, but I’m sure that’s sensitive to how often you poke at the thing to read stuff, change options, look cool in meetings, etc.

Price was approximately $240 but with the promise of a $50 mail-in rebate which, I only noted on the paperwork and not on the web, I may not get as the fine print seems to say that it’s only for business customers. We’ll see. With the low-end package of 450 minutes peak-time chat and unlimited data, this will run you $80 per month in service charges, so long as you pledge your allegiance to Verizon for a 2 year term.

I’ve had little chance to play with things like web browsing or other stuff, and have no idea at all as to how it works as a phone. (I decided to keep the Razr plus existing number as my primary phone until I see how well this thing works out.)

I’ll let you know how things progress and if it works as I want it to when travelling out-of-town, especially to places with less than stellar coverage like, say, Alaska, where I can't even figure out from the Verizon web site if data download is an option …

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Moving On

It’s time for us to look at moving offices. Our present lease ends in August and the landlord is looking to raise rents too high here, so although we are happy in this space, it’s forcing us to look elsewhere.

Rents in the South Bay are now in the $2.25 to $2.75 range (FS) for the size of office we’d be looking at. Compare that to the $1.65 we pay now and the problem is clear!

Apart from cost, the other challenge we face is that our needs are relatively modest space-wise, so we end up chasing accommodation in the most challenging segment, i.e. total space less than 6,000 square feet.

We’ve identified a couple of options in the same general area but have been a little disappointed at the unwillingness of landlords to do any sort of deal. Further proof, if any were needed, that the Valley economy has picked up strongly in the past two years.

(Stop Press: In fact, not only was one landlord unwilling to offer any deals, they just countered with the fact that they will increase rents to $3 per square foot at month end!)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

One More For Luck

Black Flag

Processed this one a bit differently. Net effect is that it brought out the tyre tracks that cross the start-finish line to the point where it almost looks like black waves are lapping the circuit between the car and the flag marshall, acting as some kind of barrier.

(Coincidentally, I got black flagged at Laguna once when racing there. The car had lost third gear so you had to hold it in second going up the hill and change straight to fourth. Alas, that extremely noisy point in the rev. range occured right under the monitoring microphone ... )

UCSC Course Part III

Tools Of The Trade

Here's another shot from the UCSC course. I'm slowly getting round to working through them...

Meanwhile, summer kicked-in here in San Jose yesterday, with temperatures in the 90s already. Should be cooling down back to normal as the week progresses but never the less it's a reminder that this year could be a hot one of the forecasts hold. Spending time in the office, therefore, isn't all bad just so long as the A/C holds out.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Doesn't This Look Like Fun?

While at Laguna weekend before last, there were several driving events all going on at the same time. Therefore, throuhgout the day some number of students were on the skid-pan which, as you can see, was kept wetted down in order to reduce grip and to save tyre wear. Being used for car-control practice I saw both BMW 3 series vehicles and a couple of Mazda RX-8s, one of which is shown above.

Definitely something I'd rather be doing myself than photographing someone else doing it!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Joshua Tree

California Desert Preserve

Thanks to Wikipedia for the following …

“The name Joshua tree was given by a band of Mormons who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree's unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky. Ranchers and miners who were contemporary with the Mormon immigrants also took advantage of the Y. brevifolia using the trunks and branches as fencing and for fuel for ore processing steam engines.”

Vintage Flying

Just signed up for a trip on a B-17 out of Monterey Airport next weekend. Several WWII aircraft tour around the USA offering rides, including a B-24 Liberator and a B-25 as well as the B-17. (Coincidentally, my father-in-law flew B-17s out of the UK during the war.)

It will be interesting to experience, even in a very limited way, what it must have been like spending endless hours manning those planes to and from bombing runs over Germany. Of course, it will in no way be close to the real nature of flying combat missions in war time, night-after-night passing through German AA batteries in a flimsy metal tube while also being strafed from above by fighters, but nevertheless I’ll be sparing a thought for those whose lot-in-life that was.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Hard Path To Walk

Blue Path, Brighton Seafront

Recently, a great sales guy, known to a number of my team, contacted us regarding whether or not we had any vacancies. He was already out looking, had made the first move towards us and we knew he’d been thinking about a change for almost a year. Long story short: we made him an offer which was accepted. So far, so good.

However, there was one twist to this story: the CEO of the company he was leaving and I have been friends for years. I slept not at all the night before the salesman in question was going to tell the CEO he was leaving – and where he was going! Fortunately, I think we handled it professionally and my friend took it very well indeed and understood that we hadn’t been at all predatory, striving hard to “so the right thing” throughout.

This very professional attitude is in strict contrast to another situation where the same thing happened late last year, resulting in another CEO I knew (though not anything like so well) basically blowing-up and causing a gulf between our companies that took months to heal.

Moral of the story? There are as many kinds of CEOs, with as many different areas of sensitivity or blind-spots, as there are companies to be run!

Why anyone ever wants this CEO job is beyond me, especially in a start-up. At least in a larger company when, at 3 am, you find yourself once again unable to sleep because of stress, you can lay there and take solace in your huge pay packet and likely even bigger severance deal!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Help Canon Win: Go Buy a Nikon!

Thanks to Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer for highlighting this post which basically says that Canon is winning the war against Nikon.

The article states that the upcoming Mark III from Canon is all the evidence the author, Lloyd Chambers, needs that Canon is taking his requirements as a professional photographer seriously. Surely that’s to the good since such an approach ought to flow benefits down to the broader consumer in the long run and make Canon more competitive and profitable in the future? Well, yes and no. Clearly, the answer is “yes” when you look at technologies like image stabilization, more capable sensors, auto-focus technology etc. However, for things like on-camera adjustment of focus calibration and 10 f.p.s. shooting speed then it’s not so clear that your average point-and-shoot user will be seeing those any time soon.

The real issues here are overall company size and resources, and competitiveness. Canon can afford to invest in loss-making efforts both in terms of camera technology and optics (a point Lloyd makes himself) in order to keep that coveted spot as the favoured supplier to photojournalists, sports shooters, wedding photographers and other professionals. They can do that because it’s their consumer activities that pay for it, an area where Nikon doesn’t have the reach or pull that Canon has. I mean, when was the last time you saw a Nikon photocopier, printer or, frankly, pocket P&S camera being whipped out at Disneyland? However, Canon isn’t making those investments just to please themselves: clearly, they do so in order to beat Nikon out of even niche markets, such as the truly professional space, in order to try and deny then breathing space.

Are the days of the specialist technology provider who leads-the-charge in any given market therefore over? Alas, I think the answer is “yes”, at least in the case where they hope to differentiate themselves solely by technical advancement. It’s ultimately a dead-end strategy. Whether it’s the car business or the camera business, the equation is the same: economies of scale + profits = market dominance. That's the only sustainable way to afford the luxury of high-end products and showcase brands that are almost always loss-leaders. Ford is broke, hence it sells Aston Martin (who ironically just turned a profit); Leica is still in business but really only because of the brand loyalty of its customer base (see this analysis of the digital M8) and not because they offer anything that's technically differentiated.

Ironically, therefore, the reality is that in order to keep the market vibrant and to continue to force the Canons of this world to aggressively push the envelope of technical excellence, the answer is clear: buy Nikon gear!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Run-Flat Rip Off?

Saw this post over on Auto Express. Seems that, based on their records, UK's Kwik-Fit (think Jiffy Lube crossed with Big O Tires), reckons that run-flat tyres a) deliver 30% less miles before needing to be replaced and b) are then 20% more expensive once you reach that point than their ordinary equivalents.

"Yeah, but that's still better than being stuck somewhere with a flat", you may say. However, they also go onto say that the chances of that happening are once in every 10 years per car.

Now the situation here in the US may be different regarding that last statement at least - I've had two on the Porsche in 6 years over 23,000 miles and two on the Acura over 7.5 years and 130,000 miles - but if it's even close to accurate then the costs of those trun-flat yres must far outweigh the benefits.

So, can you simply swap a set of run-flats with normal tyres? I think not, at least without replacing the rims too? And what about the stiffer walls on run flats and how the suspension is calibrated to work in conjunction with the limited flex the wheels now exhibit?

Anyone out there got experience with all this?