Saturday, June 30, 2007

UK Terror Attacks

This shot was taken by someone at Glasgow Airport and posted, along with pictures from other travellers caught-up in the attack, on the BBC web site. These pictures convey what was going on as well as anything from CNN could, and they were being posted within minutes of the crash thanks to cell phones and high-speed networks. The democratisation of photography that the digital revolution has brought us is an unstoppable force, and in my view it's a force for good.
However, that basic right to take pictures in a public place is going to increasingly become curtailed. As Mike over at The Online Photographer highlighted, NYC is proposing to limit what kinds of photography will be allowed in public places, and how long can be spent preparing and shooting both video and still shots.
This is all being done in the name of preventing terror attacks, of course, but no one can explain quite how that will work. Do we have any evidence that video or still images have contributed to such attacks? Have any attacks been foiled because the authorities have caught & prosecuted prospective terrorists apprehended while on a reconnaissance mission? And if you think this is indeed a logical step that will make us all safer, what about other, equally valid moves that must also then be taken such as banning cell phone use in public in case the perpetrators are calling in situation reports, or there's a phone-based trigger device (as appears to be the case in London) primed and ready to go?
Knee-jerk legislation, the application of which will inevitably be left to interpretation by local police, is not the way to make a difference here. As London has decided, and rightly so in my view, you are much better off installing your own video surveillance equipment and allowing people to go about their daily business unencumbered.
Banning private citizens from using cameras won't stop anyone from undertaking these attacks; allowing us all to take pictures at any time, might, though, help to capture both the incident itself and the perpetrators.

Friday, June 29, 2007

iPhone - Not My Phone

No, I don't have one. No, I'm not lining up for days on end to be amongst the first owners. And no, despite being smack in the middle of Silicon Valley, I don't in fact plan on getting one any time soon. Here's why:

1) $600 is too much for the release 1.0 features announced so far. ($900 + on eBay)

2) It will be buggy: newly integrated software stacks always are.

3) One of it's strengths is that it can act as a platform for other Safari browser-based applets; one of it's weaknesses is that few yet exist. Though I think this ultimately will prove to be it's strongest suit, I'd rather wait a while to see what plays out here.

4) Cingular is the exclusive service provider for this thing, and that's not an option for where I live. (GSM networks have less coverage here than CDMA ones.) Furthermore, Cingular has about the worst data rates in the USA with their EDGE network that the phone will fall back to if it can't find an open Wi Fi network for internet access.

5) I already have two phones, and don't need any more plans, devices, numbers or bloody chargers to lug around.

6) It's a bit big for a phone, a bit small for a pocket PC, a bit pricey for a PDA.

7) While the gesture-based UI looks to be innovative and appealing for some functions, still not clear to me how well this touch-screen with "fingers only" will work for basic things like typing e-mail messages etc.. TBD, I guess.

Kudos to Apple though: the fact that (a) they must have got one sweetheart deal out of Cingular for exclusivity almost guarantees that they are going to coin it regardless of how this all plays out; (b) the scheme whereby you *have* to have an iTunes account in order to unlock the thing is a stroke of genius; and (c) the saturation media coverage seen over the past days has been largely free and gratis, courtesy of the 4th estate.

Hit or miss, Apple wins.

The Terminator's Musical Box?

Frankenstein meets Jean Michel Jarre? However you classify it, seems from the video that this is one instrument you want to see "live". Hard to describe this thing except by sticking to the facts: it's a solid-state Tesla coil generating long, high-voltage sparks modulated to create musical notes.

Probably won't be featuring as a prop for a pub band near you anytime soon but I bet it will show up at some heavy metal thrash in the not too distant future.

Enjoy. I found it oddly compelling.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Paris Liberated - So How Was It For You?

Anyone watch the interview with the newly-released PH last night on Larry King? Nope, me neither. I was at a (free - kind of) Sheryl Crow concert, courtesy of Freescale, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Universal Studios. (I did say we geeks know how to party, right?) However, I did just see a couple of highlights and wished I'd recorded it, if for no other reason than to help me get to sleep tonight.

Larry King had to keep finishing her sentences; she denied ever taking drugs (yeah, right); her favourite bible passage was "don't have one"; yes, she was strip-searched; and overall the whole experience was "gross". She claimed to have read to pass the time (hard to believe) and to have written down her thoughts (laughable).

Oh, and she overcame her claustrophobia in the second stint in the pokey by "talking to herself". Bet that was a thrilling externalised Socratic dialogue .....

Please, oh powerful TV gods, can we now have her sink into total obscurity?? Please?

Monster Golf Drive

Now this is what I call a concept car! To quote from evo magazine, "it has a 6 litre, twin-turbo W12 engine mounted where the rear seats should be, sending 641 bhp (650 ps) to the rear wheels. ... It's claimed the uber-Golf will hit 62 mph in just 3.7 secs and go to an equally supercar-like (and fairly scary) 201.8 mph."
Judging by the ground clearance shown in the above picture, though, the first speed bump or steeply graded car park exit you meet would be both expensive and deeply disturbing, both to you and to the front splitter and what look like 22 inch rims with rubber bands wound round them.
Gotta' love them Germans - wunderbah job, guys.

Fancy Hotel Syndrome

Why is it that "high-end" properties in everyday hotel chains try to emulate the splendour of a Roman villa or the style of a French chateau? Without fail, they get it wrong. Ornate fast bleeds into excess, style into schmaltz.

Please, Marriott, give up. Develop a look that better fits the 21st century. Bin the swagged curtains and ugly patterned carpets. Lose the overblown furnishings and wood panelling. And above all, please junk the spewing flamingos. We thank you. And yes, this is a theme I'll be returning to ....

I Wins Again

Yes, it was Mika Salo's GT2 Ferrari 430, shown here at the Freescale Technical Forum.

Who said us geeks don't know how to party?!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Photo Quiz 3

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to name the principal driver of the above car! And yes, it is a Ferrari. There are some clues in the picture and also clues in other posts about where I am.

Enjoy! (My money is on "I" to clean-sweep #3 because he has some inside knowledge, but we'll see!)

Answer in a couple of days.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bomb Scare In The Air

Yup, I was on that United flight diverted because of a “suspicious device”. And here’s the secret that wasn’t revealed on the 6 o’clock news – it was a broken calculator. I know, because the bloke that found it was in the window seat next to where I was sitting.

First off, United began the day swimmingly by posting that the departure of UA292, SFO to MCO (Orlando) would be about 35 minutes late because the in-bound was held up somewhere. Alas, they subsequently forgot to mention in the Red Carpet club that,rather than hanging around waiting for it to show, United had instead found another 757 stuck down the back of the sofa and given us that one to play with. Just by luck I happened by the monitors and saw that the departure time had been set back to 2:51 pm again. Excellent – just time to collect my stuff up and head off, arriving at the gate right as it was boarding.

Some 10 minutes after I had sat down, the guy in the window seat shows up all hot and sweaty, as no one had told him either that it was back on track and now leaving on time. Anyway, some 35 minutes late (so yes, we were now leaving when the original, delayed plane was supposed to) we were ready to take off.

A few minutes after we were airborne, man-in-window-seat (MIWS) asks me if I have a screwdriver about my person. Well, actually, no, being as how TSA tends to frown on such things these days. He then shows me something he found in the seat pocket in front of him. I take a look, and it was a small, thin calculator with a diary function included, but one that clearly wasn’t working anymore. He took it back, stared at it for a bit and then called the stewardess. At this point, I knew we were screwed; even more so when he explained what he had found as follows: “Excuse me, but I found this in the seat pocket. None of the buttons work, it’s set to the wrong date and the back’s scuffed-up.” Nice going, Sherlock.

Stewardess trots off towards the pointy end of the plane and returns a couple of minutes later to re-check his story, and presumably to see if he’d donned a turban and grown a beard. Finding nothing amiss with Mr. MIWS, off she trots once more, and then comes back and restarts the drinks service. Could sanity prevail? Hell no.

Next up, some bloke in an embroidered shirt and a fashionable beard shows up and starts the questioning thing all over again on Mr. MIWS. Where did you find it? Who are you? Who are you travelling with? He was clearly one of the air marshals that now travel the friendly skies on a regular basis, and for once actually found something to do.

Things drag on for a bit, and then the real fun begins. The video system is shutdown and the stewardesses all run around collecting headphones and blankets like, well, like they were suddenly worth something for a start. One then came on the intercom and started waffling about “certain procedures” and “we’ll get through this with teamwork”, the latter phrase which she then repeats multiple times over the next ten minutes. (By the time we landed she seemed almost on the verge of hysteria, her voice starting to crack.)

Next up, the cleared the back four rows and made the displaced passengers sit in rows further forward. “OK”, you may say, “so what?” Well, alas, the flight was full and so they had to perch in between existing passengers, almost none of which had the faintest idea why this was happening. Indeed, all this time there was no information of any short except the same phrases getting repeated time and time again. Meanwhile, the now “suspicious device” is all wrapped and cozy inside a heap of blankets and securely bound by yes, you guessed it, headphone cords.

We land, and the pilot comes on and says there’s this security thing and how we should sit there and wait for a nice man to come on the plane and tell us what to do. Fair ‘nuff. But you have to wonder why, if they felt this was serious enough to divert us to Denver airport, and in very short order at that, they were then OK with parking the plane at a normal gate in the B terminal, right between two other aircraft, and surrounded by terminal buildings, fuel trucks and ground staff?

The entire plane then disembarked into buses and we were told we had the fun of being re-screened again but then to head back to the departure gate. Fine, except no one told the security people at airport screening, so they wouldn’t let us through to be scanned because, surprise, surprise, no one had a boarding pass! After another 15 minutes someone more senior than the janitor’s dog showed up and we were allowed to move on through the process. Long story short, we re-boarded a flight that was now 4 hours late and due to arrive into Orlando at 3 am.

Once seated, they reassured us that the plane had been searched by the FBI and TSA, and then the “aisles, seats and overhead bins had been checked by a bomb-sniffing dog”. Blimey. That was either a giant dog whose head was 6 feet from the ground and could reach high enough to do that, or it was some kind of midget breed that they could bung into each bin to check it out by scampering around. The things the Feds have at their disposal that we can only dream of….

Having handled the “device” in question then to me it was over-reaction, but that doesn’t mean I was surprised by the response. However, what did depress me was the total lack of information supplied on what was *actually* happening at any point in this whole production, with instead meaningless phrases being substituted for us all being treated like adults. And that, to my way of thinking, is unacceptable.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Orlando, sans Disney

In-Flight Catering, United Airlines

On the road again, this time heading to Florida for a tradeshow. Of course, my United outbound is already showing a delay, and being Sunday I can well believe that SFO will be heaving. Thankfully, I think the hotel that's being used as the venue is quite a way from the nearest Disney property - itself quite a feat in Florida - so I should avoid getting too caught up with any of that traffic once there.

Forecast? 93 degrees, humidity climbing and cloudy. I'm not going to like this ...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Morning Light

Galcier Face, Illuminated

This was taken very early one morning as the sun was rising and just as light was hitting the face of the Margerie Glacier (Day 7 post below). I think this is one of those images I will have to come back to and try processing in different ways until I find one one I am happy with. This is more tightly cropped just to highlight the band of sunlight, cutting out the mountain and sky behind.

Friday, June 22, 2007

CIA Family Jewels - now open for viewing!

Next week, the CIA is declassifying a number of documents that have been referred to as the "Family Jewels" because they detail key operations that the agency wanted to keep buried, but an early sight of a 6 page summary document has been made available today here.

In 1973, the newly appointed Director demanded a report detailing all the skeletons that were in the CIA's cupboard so he had some idea as to what he was getting himself into. By the end of June, all 693 pages of that report will finally be declassified and there's been much media speculation today as to what might get revealed about assassination plots and the like.

(As background and for those of you outside the country, it's worth remembering that the CIA is prohibited from pursuing covert activities inside the USA against its citizenry, so much of what is supposed to be in this report relating to domestic operations goes against that law.)

Anyway, as you may imagine I was hoping for graphic reports of nefarious plots with exploding cigars, poisons, people being abducted to foreign countries and tortured (sound familiar?) etc. Alas no - or maybe not yet, at least. Castro-hunting aside, it all seems rather amateurish, like MI2.5 got the subcontract to handle this stuff and they put it in the in-tray of Mr. Bean.

In summary, it seems they opened a few letters going to Russia and Cuba, broke into a couple of apartments, and followed some people about for a bit. (Does anyone think this stuff isn't still going on??) But then I hit pay-dirt. Have a butchers at this ...

"Between 1967 and 1973, the CIA funded research in some institutions, apparently including academic institutions, on the general topic of behavioural modification." Cool! A secret plot to create a plague of zombies they could send to Moscow! It continues, "According to Colby, these activities included the participation - 'on an unwitting basis' - of some US citizens, who were not told of the true nature of the testing." Secret drug trials? Neurotoxins? Let's see. "The example given by Colby was that of a pole put in the middle of a sidewalk, with peoples' observations recorded as to which side of the pole they would walk."

The vicious bastards. How could they? Such unspeakable cruelty, even in the face of the obvious Red Menace, is hard to justify - let alone condone - were it practiced on enemy combatants at Gitmo, let alone innocent civilians wandering along the street in the late 1960s. I am sickened. I may have to move back to the UK in protest and in order to preserve my civil liberties.

I predict an Oliver Stone/Michael Moore film about this appearing at a cinema near you very soon.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Amber Light

As I will recognise, this was from the Hilton hotel at Heathrow. (And no, I haven't gone all Rasta-man on you, what I should have typed was "I", a loyal reader from the UK.)

I just liked the quality of the evening light and shadows, plus the fact that it's rare for that road to be free of traffic while the sun is still up!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Do We Expect Too Much From Technology?

I've been following with interest the debut of Canon's latest top-of-the-line digital pro sports and journalism camera, the EOS 1D Mark III. It's the first model to include dual processors, a new 14-bit-depth sensor and offers a quite amazing 10 frames per second shooting rate. Canon has made much of the new auto-focus capabilities, a critical feature for sports shooters in particular who never get a second chance to grab those key shots that keep editors happy and them employed.

That's why this post from the highly-regarded Rob Galbraith was very interesting. Based on extensive real-world usage, he sees the new auto-focus capabilities as a backward step compared to the previous model and this leaves many pros now wondering what's happening over at Canon's Japanese HQ where the company has been on a roll of late.

In the sequences he shows, clearly the nature of the subject constitutes a very difficult test. For example, the sequence of a girl running shows that the main centre AF sensor starts out on a plain black shirt and is constantly crossed by her arm moving up and down as she runs. But let's remember that this is exactly the sort of situation the camera is supposed to be designed for and hence this is what makes the analysis so interesting.

The problem seems to be one of back focussing where the actual plane of maximum clarity is behind where the point of focus in the viewfinder has been placed: in short, the camera is lagging behind. It's therefore worth noting that the arm crossing through the focus point should pull focus forwards, if that's at all the issue, and he anyway counters this by showing the same sequence shot on the older model that yields a much higher number of well focussed shots. (Though I have to say, the differences are hard to see in these web pages so you have to take his word as a professional!)

We all know engineering is a discipline of compromise, and I'm sure that's at play here deep within the bowels of Canon. For example, the faster shooting speed may generate other focus issues not encountered before; up-down sensitivity vs. left-right might now be different; certain lenses may be better at keeping up than others; the whole set-up may be much more sensitive to calibration than before; and who knows what else.

I guess the good news is that cameras these days are no more than computers with a lens on the front so fixing this is probably just a matter of downloading a software update, if indeed there's something here that needs "fixing". Either way, fascinating stuff and I'll continue to monitor this as things develop (sorry for the pun).

(And the answers to your other questions are: "approx $4.5k retail", and "thinking about it, but likely too rich for my needs/abilities".)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

They Must Have Invented Anti-Cheese

Look, I know this isn't the kind of stuff you really care about, but no reason why that should stop me now because I've made an important discovery on a topic that has flummoxed me since I moved here. Why has cheese become completely tasteless?

I wanted to grab something quick to eat today and had previously picked up some frozen meals and stuck them in the freezer here in the office. Today's tasty offering? Organic macaroni cheese. Yum, bloody, yum. Actually, despite the sarcasm, I really was looking forward to it, dazzled as I must inevitably have been by the use of the word "organic" on the label. I mean, how mouthwateringly wonderful must it therefore be? Macaroni, hand-rolled on the thighs of Italian virgins ... oh wait, that's ridiculous. I'm thinking of cigars. Well actually, I'm now thinking of Italian virgins and coming up with nothing but nuns. Anyway, back on planet earth ... visions of al dente macaroni slathered with a wonderfully pungent sauce, blending together three artisan cheeses from a cow shed somewhere in Tuscany, or the rural bits of France, was all too much. Time to eat.

Put it this way, I should have binned the meal and eaten the box. Blindfolded, I would have said "soggy macaroni, stuck together with flour-and-water paste" because cheese was the one ingredient that it seemed totally devoid of.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not lambasting all American cheeses here. I've found some pretty decent ones that are very competitive with 'yer average Cheddar, Brie or Roquefort (though I have to say that none of them were associated with anything served in a cardboard box).

Clearly, something is amiss, and now I have it figured out: it's the pernicious influence of anti-cheese. In order to avoid making dishes with any sort of flavour, thereby risking some frivolous law suite stemming from a consumer who came away with an actual taste experience, manufacturers add "anti" versions of the main ingredients to keep the taste buds below a minimum level of excitation. Fiendish, incredibly simple and frighteningly effective, a fact borne out by how many of these prepared meals exhibit absolutely no flavour at all.

Very neatly, this also explains why genetically modified ingredients are being fought against. Until the food processing industry can come up with the anti-equivalents, they can't risk this stuff getting into the food chain and dangerously stimulating our taste buds. You read it here first, people.

This is all 100% true. If you don't believe me, go and buy any supermarket frozen meal here in the USA, heat as instructed, eat slowly, savouring all that non-taste, and then tell me I'm crazy!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Valley Un-rumours

So Semel is out at Yahoo! then, eh? Seems like Yang's annointed successor is no longer in the driving seat, instead being shuffled to the (non) role of Chairman.

I remember when this - i.e. his joining Yahoo! - all went down in 2001, it was lauded as "Hollywood takes over Silicon Valley". Of course, it's the reverse that's really happening, with the likes of Apple, Netflix and others leading the charge to help the celluloid barons down south understand that the world is changing and that they are better off getting with the program than they are trying to slap security around it and hold back the digital tide.

Anyway, Yahoo! is trading up after the close so I guess that's Wall Street's vote in and counted! Of course, Semel did a lot of good things in fixing up Yahoo! (it was a basket case when he got there) but when the benchmark is Google it was always going to be tough to go toe-to-toe with the top dogs in Mountain View.

Can Yang do a Jobs and revitalise Yahoo! once again? I wouldn't bet on it ...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sunset Cruise

Processed a few more shots from Alaska and started to try some processing in the LAB space in Photoshop instead of the RGB. It seems very powerful on a particular kind of image (canyons and sunsets so far!) and I'm reading a book on these techniques to try and better understand the what/where and why. Anyway, here's one to be going on with.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Motorsports Overload

A fantastic weekend's racing in prospect. The 24 hour Le Mans running in very variable weather conditions, Lewis Hamilton putting his McLaren on pole again, besting Alonso fair-and-square, and, for those of you who like 400 miles worth of left-turns, NASCAR in Michigan.

For me, I'll take one and two but pass on three. Nevertheless, I tuned in for a quick look to see how JP Montoya is fairing. "Not great", seems to be the answer. In the last 10 races he's not been able to finish higher than 20th, though early in the season 5th was his best result. Doubtless, it's a car/team issue because he's clearly a very quick and gifted driver, but was this really worth throwing in the F1 towel for?? Right now in the practice session I'm watching he's dead last. Bummer, dude!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Something Calming


A simple image just to calm my jangling nerves while I sit, tensed, listening for the sound of tiny jaws chomping ...

I May Be Looking For Donations

As per the earlier post, we were having to fix our deck thanks to a termite infestation. Well today, as we feared, it looks like we've discovered other places in which they've taken up residence. So far, we're $3,000 in the hole for the deck work, plus up to another $3,000 to open up areas of the house just to investigate further. The termite guy, doubtless with some trace of "woo hoo - I've hit pay dirt" in his voice, reckons we may have to tent the place, depending on what they find. We will, of course, get a second opinion, but I have a feeling that whichever way this goes it's going to hurt....

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Public Transport User Interface

Embarcadero, San Francisco

Earlier this week I had a breakfast meeting in San Francisco so decided to go green and take BART into the city. Mistake number one was parking at SFO instead of Millbrae. Still not sure how I ended up in the short-term car park at the International terminal but I think it had a lot to do with a 5:30 am start and a brain that was on therefore on autopilot. Anyway, all that aside, made it on time and so the next step was to buy a ticket.

Across all the public transportation systems I've used over the years - Tokyo's included - BART wins the prize as having the worst and most impenetrable ticket machines I have ever encountered. All I wanted to do was to buy a return ticket to the Embarcadero, not, apparently, a simple function that the machine supports. The routine went like this ...

- stick credit card into machine to start the process. Offered a bunch of ticket options that seemed to be squarely aimed at regular commuters (monthly tickets, tickets discounted for seniors, transfer tickets, etc.)

- randomly pick one of the above.

- figure out I now have to load some amount of money onto the card I chose. But how do you figure out the cost of the journey you want to take? Turns out, you read it off the piece of paper stuck, if your are lucky, to the side of the machine. $10.30 turns out the be the answer.

- ticket I picked has a minimum amount of $38 it turns out. Cancel; start-again.

- OK, back where I was with what looks to be a basic ticket but still one onto which you have to load some amount of money to cover your journey. But, you quickly discover, $1 is the smallest increment. (So why the hell do they price in dollars and cents??) OK. Pick $11.

- spend 5 minutes figuring out that the reason the transaction keeps failing is because said machine doesn't take American Express.

- dig out the only cash I have - a $20 bill - and try to get back to same place.

- after more failures, realise that the maximum change the machine will dispense is $4.50, meaning I have to load $16 onto the ticket for a journey that's supposed to cost $10.30.

- finally get a ticket I can use, plus $4 change ... delivered to me all in quarters. Clearly, this is an element in Gavin's scheme to support the SF homeless because the first guy I found panhandling after I got off the train got the lot so I wasn't stuck lugging around all this change in my pockets.

Thankfully, BART itself is a very good system with largely on-time trains and a reasonably convenient set of routes. However, quite how a tourist coming into SFO and wanting to get into the city is supposed to figure all this c&*p out after 11 hours on a 747 I have no idea, and quite frankly this is a disgrace for somewhere that's supposed to be a showcase for all that's great about technology.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Alien Invaders

A couple of months ago I was woken up in the middle of the night by this very loud "crack" coming from somewhere in the house. It sounded to me like something quite important to the structure somewhere had snapped. Anyway. I went around the place but couldn't see any signs of damage anywhere, so gave up and went back to bed.

This weekend I noticed that one of the main supports for the deck on the outside of the house had split, revealing a large and well-fed family of termites living in it! I think I have finally figured out what the noise was - it was the sound of $2,500 vaporising in an instant, because that's what it will cost to replace this chunk of wood. Bugger. And that's working on the - as yet untested - assumption that the family hasn't moved out from its original home to colonise other bits of wood like, oh I don't know, shall we say the house frame?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Drink? Thanks, I'll Have What He's Having

New York Times, front page centre, today.

"Cairo, June 11 - First came the breast-feeding fatwa: It declared that the Islamic restriction on unmarried men and women being together could be lifted at work if the woman breast-fed her male colleagues five times, to establish family ties."

Well that will come in handy the next time we run out of semi-skimmed in the office and I fancy a cuppa. Might have to revisit our hiring policies relating to acceptable breast size though if we are to ensure an adequate supply ....

(Probably good that I don't post any pictures to accompany this one.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Day 11: Denali to Fairbanks

Sunrise, Icy Strait, Alaska

Due to catch the train again around 4 pm this afternoon in order to head to Fairbanks where we can catch a plane back home. Yup, the trip is nearly over.

In the morning we took a trip in a jet boat down river to visit a small camp where some of the locals talk about their life here and show us how to pan for gold. Yeah, it was all a bit touristy but what the heck. I view it as supporting the local economy, and in any case I can always stand a trip in something with twin Ford marine engines that can travel at well over 30 mph across shallow rapids (most water it ever needs is 6 feet to get up on it's plane).

One guy who talked to us got by as a trapper in the winter. Seems he gets around $500 for an arctic wolf, $300 or so for a fox and somewhere between $100 and $200 for smaller animals like sable etc. His trap line was handed down to him (not clear from whom) and it seems that Alaska does, from his perspective, a very good job of wildlife management. So there you go.

After panning for gold – and finding the odd fleck or two (which everyone does because they buy-in tailings from old mines) – we headed back to the hotel to catch the train. Or not …

There was a fire on the track above DNP that closed the line, so all trains were cancelled therefore. Anyway, the hotel took charge and after a couple of hours they sorted out some buses to ferry us instead. Once we were on the road it seemed like we were finally on the home straight and good to go, until, that is, the bus broke down! After some messing around the driver managed to reach someone on the radio (nope, no cell coverage where we were) and call up the cavalry to supply a replacement bus. We finally got to the hotel around 11 pm or so, but hey it was still light so it didn’t feel quite so late!


Anyway, that was about it. Flew back on day 12, getting home just in time for me to drop my bags, get a night's sleep and then straight away head off to Europe on a business trip.

We had a great time, and would heartily recommend the notion of small ship cruising around the Alaska coastline. Both my wife and I learned a lot from a photographic standpoint and I have to say the wildlife was spectacular and very, very co-operative!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Technology, Productivity and the Dynamo

Interesting article in Slate magazine arguing that technology, by itself, doesn't do much to improve industrial efficiency. It's only when social or human change takes place in parallel do things really start to improve. And this doesn't happen quickly - by looking at the evolution of the dynamo and its impact on industrial efficiency early in the 20th century, Professor David (Stanford) found it took up to 5 decades for the full impact to be become apparant.

"David's research also suggests patience. New technology takes time to have a big economic impact. More importantly, businesses and society itself have to adapt before that will happen. Such change is always difficult and, perhaps mercifully, slower than the march of technology.

More recent research from MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson has shown that the history of the dynamo is repeating itself: Companies do not do well if they spend a lot of money on IT projects unless they also radically reorganize to take advantage of the technology. The rewards of success are huge, but the chance of failure is high. That may explain why big IT projects so often fail, and why companies nevertheless keep trying to introduce them."

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Complex From The Simple?

Here's a fascinating glimpse of some work going on inside Microsoft and elsewhere based on the notion of hyperlinking together separate images to create a navigable 3-D world that's free of restrictions around image resolution, viewpoint, etc.

If nothing else, it justifies us all taking holiday snaps and posting them to Flickr!

(Browse round the TED site while you are there. Some fascinating talks on a whole range of topics from God to global warming.)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Valley Rumours

1) Facebook to get bought for $2billion by Yahoo!

2) Netflix to get bought by Amazon

3) Cadence to fall to private equity (Blackstone or KKR)

Clearly, there are a lot of spare dollars sitting in either corporate coffers of in the hands of the private equity barons that have to find a home. Nice for those on the receiving end, but how much of this is being driven by something other than the rational logic of merging businesses, consolidating markets or whatever? You have to wonder if those on the executive teams in these companies all of a sudden took a new view of their businesses as being somewhat "maxed out", and are struggling to see how to keep up with the expectations Wall Street now has of them?

This peaking M&A/private equity activity could be another market bubble in the making, with all that this would imply about Dow and NASDAQ futures over the next 6 to 12 months. I hope not, but this is all starting to feel strangely familiar ....

Bigger Bears ...

Someone asked to see this one a bit bigger ... and always being of an obliging nature, here we go!

Day 10: Denali National Park

Bouncy Bear Cub

Today, we started in the morning by taking a round-trip bus tour into the body of the park. Private cars are only allowed a few miles into DNP, largely just in order to access campsites. In order to reach further in, you have to take a bus. Fair enough, and not uncommon these days in the NP service (Zion, Bryce and others do the same sort of thing). It soon became clear the reason why this rule was in place here: although the road is in good shape over the first part, it soon turns into an unmade track that narrows in places to one lane. Despite that, the surface was in pretty good condition but I can see that if they opened it to cars the punishment it would take in a season would be considerable; the access would get blocked as people stop to take pictures etc.; and there were a number places that had sharp drop-offs that would require a lot of extra expenditure on crash barriers etc. if the road were open to all-and-sundry.

There were around three rest stops that were available (the whole trip was about 8.5 hours all told) and as we drew up to the second one there was clearly something going on. We could see an excited huddle on the small viewing platform they'd built overlooking a river about 30 feet below. Turns out, a mother bear and her cub were on the ice right in front of the stop, completely ignoring the humans, staying intent instead on looking for food and enjoying the lovely sunny weather. Junior was frisky so we got some great shots of them playing together, with the mother bear taking time to teach her cub how to get ready for life in the Alaskan wild. ("If it moves, eat it.")

On the way back we got off the bus early and hiked a couple of miles down to a lake before heading back to the park visitor’s centre and via a shuttle back to the hotel.

Denali (aka Mount McKinley) was actually clear for part of the day and easily visible as we drove into and out of the park. A full round-trip expedition to climb this peak takes around three weeks and is classified as a challenging climb. Looking at it, even from afar, this seemed understating it somewhat ...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Day 9: Denali by Train

We spent most of the day today on the Alaskan railroad going the 250-odd miles to Denali National Park. Caught the train around 8:30 am and arrived around 4 pm.

Definite upgrade from British Rail, not least because the food was better and it arrived on time despite the challenging terrain it crosses. I was very impressed by the time I got off, a confidence that was to be severely dented in a few days time …

The train wound its way through some interesting scenery and the viewing cars on the back afforded everyone a great view of what was going on outside.

We arrived at the Princess Lodge Hotel, situated close to the entrance to the park, and although it was clearly there to serve the needs of the large cruise lines (i.e. Princess Cruises, who own it) it was clean and comfortable, with food that was “OK” but not great.

Competition Time: What's This?,+-116.848060&spn=0.015621,0.022058&t=k&hl=en

Answer in a day or two!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Canon: 50 megapixel picture of the neighbour's cat anyone?

Canon just announced they have created a DSLR-sized (19mm by 28mm) 50 megapixel CMOS sensor. No stated intent to make this into a production item yet, nor have I seen any discussion of the noise performance something with this many photosites on a relatively small chunk of silicon might exhibit.

Clearly, what they mean to convey here is that anyone who thinks the pixel wars are over is sorely mistaken. Canon is keeping up the pressure on its rivals in a move that's akin to the old cold-war tactics: state a stretch goal and show enough forward progress to make it seem like this is a mainstream effort that will inevitably succeed.

Having said that, I want one, and I want it NOW, with lenses to match and a 10 fps burst shooting rate! Oh, and for around $1,000 please.

Day 8: Heading Back to Juneau

No Vision, No Parking

Today we got back into Juneau, docking around 8 am. We were very sorry to leave the ship – Cruise West did a great job all round and I’d heartily recommend them - but it was time to move on, this time north into Denali National Park.

Since our flight wasn’t until early afternoon, we took a side trip to the Mendenhall Glacier. This was just a short bus ride out of town and was clearly a popular tourist destination judging by the number of visitors we saw walking there. Associated with this glacier is a large waterfall that sits alongside. This seemed to be flowing at full tilt as the heavy winter snows had clearly now begun to melt quickly. I was crouching down on some boulders taking pictures and noticed some kid up above throwing rocks. I didn’t think much of it until he threw one that was a) large, and b) struck about a foot behind me. The air turned blue as I emphatically explained why that wasn’t a smart thing to be doing …

Off to the airport to catch a flight to Anchorage. Everything went smoothly and we had a couple of hours in the town before dinner. We asked an Alaskan resident earlier in the trip what they thought about the place. Their response was “small town with big city problems” and that seemed to sum things up very well. Apart from a few shops and restaurants in the downtown area it didn’t seem that Anchorage had much to offer (though dinner at a local brew-pub, was very good, with us having some of the best calamari I’ve ever eaten.)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Depreciation blues - cars or computers?

Seems that someone in Silicon Valley has bought an old Cray Y-MP to use as a kids climbing frame in their house. Original 1988 price was listed as being approx. $5m, but the knock-down bargain "once in a lifetime Sunday special" figure they paid for it wasn't given. Regardless, it seems reasonable to assume that there must have been a big chunk of depreciation built into the deal or else these are people with enough Google pre-IPO stock to wallpaper a bedroom with.

By way of comparison, I tried to figure out how much a car with similar credentials might go down over that period. Seems to me a top Mercedes sports car might fit the bill - fast, well engineered and with a specific purpose in mind, but not something that will achieve a rebound in valuation because it's a classic like a Ferrari or a Lambo say.

The 560 SL, a 2 door roadster, cost approx. $61,000 list price in 1988 and on the used market I found one, in average nick, for about $10,000. Allowing for taxes and extras, let's say the original price was therefore $70k and you got $10k back for it 19 years on. All-in-all, a depreciation of around 86% then.

By that measure, the Cray should have been $700,000 which, with the caveat above about Google stock, I'm willing to bet it wasn't! A few k at most I'd guess.

Therefore, the overall conclusion has to be that I'm better off buying a new car than a new high-end computer. Excellent - just the answer I was looking for! Isn't maths a wonderful thing?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Day 7: Glacier Bay

Up early again this morning to see the sun rise on the Margerie glacier. Success! The morning was clear – if very cold – and the rising sun did indeed hit the crests of the glacier, albeit an hour or so later than we were expecting. It’s an almost magical experience sitting alongside the glacier in the dawn light listening to it cracking and groaning as the whole huge mass of ice moves slowly towards the water. In the late 18th century, when Glacier Bay was first charted, the ice spread all the way to the entrance in Icy Straits, closing off the entire area at the head of the bay where we were moored. In effect, by getting this far up the channel we were enjoying the results of a couple of hundred years of global warming!

Mark used his experience of photographing here to guide the captain of the ship to place it in different locations to make take maximum advantage of the sunrise and various views of the glacier.

One area, the John Hopkins Inlet, past the Lamplugh glacier where we paused for a while, was closed off to prevent us encroaching on the breading ground of the Harbor Seals that were active at the time so although we got close (within 6 miles of the face pf the John Hopkins glacier) we didn’t go further up that particular inlet.

After a day of touring around the area watching the sea life amidst calving glaciers and remote coves we headed back towards the entrance to the Bay and the ranger station, dropping off the two native interpreters who talked to us about what their life was like growing up there and also the park ranger who accompanied the ship for the past 24 hours.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Day 6: Glacier Bay

Humpback Diving, Alaska

Sailed into the Glacier Bay area first thing and spent the morning whale watching. And what a morning it was! We literally saw more whales than we could count, though I only saw two breaches and those were off the starboard side of the ship, very early in the morning, and with no warning. After a while, though, you got to figure out the pattern of “standard” whale behaviour. Mostly, the whales we found seemed to be resting on the surface before heading down deeper to feed again. They would sit there for a bit and then, perhaps when we got too close, take off, diving and rising every minute or so to breathe. After three or so cycles they’d then decide to dive deeper, showing their fluke (tail) as they strive for extra leverage and momentum. Wonderful stuff to watch, and often you could hear them calling out to other whales in the area as the cycle went on.

Afternoon was spent ashore in Glacier Bay National Park hiking along the sea-shore. Found the carcass of a dead moose along with signs (read, “pooh”) of moose and bear having been around not long ago. Mark Kelley, the resident photographer on the trip, was kind enough to invite us along on this walk as he took a break from the ship himself. Mark has obviously photographed here extensively and it was great to spend an hour or two chatting with him about his experiences in Alaska and what it’s like to be a pro up here. (“Great” is the answer, if you can hack the climate.)

Another incredibly sunny day. We’ve been so lucky with the weather that at some point it will have to change. The locals claim last summer comprised three sunny days in total....