Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Flood Markers, Upper Antelope Canyon, AZ

After a break for breakfast, next up was a shoot inside Upper Antelope Canyon.

For those of you unfamiliar with this location, it's most noted feature is that in one section of the slot canyon a bright beam of light shines down from the roof creating a really magical effect (e.g. as shown here and here). But before you get all excited, turns out that this effect is only seen in the summer months when the sun is at the right height in the sky. And, however you look at it, October ain't June!

Nevertheless, it's still a fascinating place with a new sight at every twist and turn. Beware, though: it's crowded, and many of the tours run there are populated with other photographers also toting tripods, cameras and bulky bags of equipment. Solitude, peace and time to ponder where the best shot will be are all in very short supply. Oh, and one other caveat: you see the two bits of wood stuck halfway up the rocks? That shows the maximum height of the last flood waters to pass through earlier this year when the flash-flood season was in full swing; please note, those branches are roughly 20 feet above the canyon floor .....

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

So after a mere 4 hours on the road we found ourselves in Page. Though it looked like we passed some interesting sights, we had to be in town by 5 pm to meet up with the rest of the party doing the same photographic course we were so there was no time to stop-off along the way to explore.

The next two days we'd be photographing in and around Page and then heading south towards the Grand Canyon. The weekend course was being instructed by Alain Briot, a landscape photographer who has lived and worked in that area for many years, ably assisted by his wife and also-artist Natalie.
Format of the course required shooting at both sunrise and sunset plus other opportunities in between, with portfolio critiques and general discussions on landscape photography held in the slots left in relatively full days.

Horseshoe Bend is a section of the Colorado river that is, unsurprisingly, horseshoe-shaped. The plan was to get there early (6 am) so we could be set up by the time dawn broke. Fortunately, although cold, there was little wind, and since we were staying but a few minutes drive from the turn-out spot where we needed to park then getting up that early wasn't too bad.

We walked a few hundred yards to the main overlook area and got to watch the light changing across the entire vista ahead of us as the sun broke cover and climbed over the horizon. Personally, I've never systematically got out of bed and stood somewhere specifically with the intent of shooting the scenery at that time of day, but I now see what they mean by the quality of the dawn light being ideal for photography. The colours are more subtle and interesting, and it's much easier to balance exposure settings to capture both the sky and the ground without blowing-out the highlights. Except for some night time shots, it was also the first time I'd used a tripod, remote release and mirror-lockup on my camera all at the same time! But it won't be the last ..... next stop, Upper Antelope Canyon, where long exposures soon become routine.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Canyon de Chelly (II)

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

After spending close to four hours exploring the valley floor, we headed back to the visitor's centre. Although we had another 250 miles to go that day in order to reach Page we decided to also drive along the upper canyon rim to see Spider Rock.

As you can see, this is an impressive sandstone spire rising roughly 800 feet from the canyon floor. Navajo legend has it that this is the home of Spider Woman who taught their tribe the secrets of weaving.

The rim trail also offers an additional perspective on the White House Ruins and other sites within the canyon.

A wonderful place that I'd love to visit again, especially in the winter when it must look spectacular with a high-desert sprinkling of snow.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (I)

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

We opted for an early start to explore the floor of the canyon. There are only two ways to do this: you either take a tour that includes a Jeep or a truck to get you in there or else hire a guide and use your own car (assuming it's got 4 WD and sufficient clearance). Since we'd rented the Jeep Liberty then we could use option (b).

The reason for the restrictions soon became clear: the canyon floor is nothing but sand, with feet of the stuff in places making it tricky to get through even with the thing in low-ratio, 4 wheel drive.

Perhaps the most iconic picture taken here was by Ansel Adams, an imposing shot of the White House Ruins. Since then, the ruins have been fenced off and stabilised but still prove to be an impressive sight.

My American history isn't that good, but this was also the location of the final battle between the Navajo and US troops (guided by Kit Carson) in 1864. Subsequently, the Navajo were forced to march several hundred miles east to Fort Sumner - the infamous Long Walk - and a great many of them died in the process.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sedona to Chinle: Meteor Crater & Winslow

Meteor Crater, Arizona

Given the room rate, we decided to maximise our time at the Enchantment by taking a hike in the morning. The location of the property puts it at the entrance to a canyon that ends in a natural amphitheatre. Round trip is just over two miles so no great shakes, and the trail is well maintained and largely flat. The guide books claim you can see some Native American ruins but we never found out where they were, though Susan did see some wild boar for what that's worth.

Just after noon, we headed off towards Chinle where we were going to spend the night before exploring Canyon de Chelly National Monument. On the way, we passed through Winslow, of Eagles "Taking It Easy" fame, and stopped off at Meteor Crater. Overall, we had to cover some 250 miles point-to-point that afternoon so we didn't really dawdle anywhere along the way.

Quite frankly, neither place impressed. The only reason we dropped down into Winslow was in search of a decent espresso. Yes, the town had a coffee shop; no, their machine wasn't working. They claimed it broke that morning; it looked to me like it broke in 1973. Winslow itself comprised one block of anything you'd call interesting, the rest being eminently miss-able. However, at least going there was free. Meteor Crater, however, was even less interesting but it cost us $15 each to find that out! Yeah, well, I suppose you get what it says on the box: a large hole in the ground that was made by a meteor. Trust me - the picture above says it all and I just saved you the money. My pleasure.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Enchantment Resort, Arizona

Day one, we flew from SJC to Phoenix, picked up a rental car and headed towards Sedona. We had reservations for one night at the Enchantment Resort and Spa. Why only one night? Simply, price: cheapest rooms were $395. Still, it's supposed to be one of the top spa-oriented resorts you can go to and given we were planning on hiking most days on the trip then we decided to start off with a bit of luxury. Value for money? Frankly, the resort itself was fine, the spa looked wonderful but the bedroom we had was looking a bit tired for that sort of money. We ended up eating in the spa rather than the main dining room - if for no other reason than they required a coat and tie, a frankly ridiculous affectation in this day and age - but the food was very good, even allowing for the menu laying out in graphic detail how many calories you were about to consume!

On the way we did a bit of off-roading - we'd rented a Jeep Liberty after all - and headed up Schnebly Hill Road to see what it was like. Apart from being a bit bumpy, it was quite an easy drive (even just using 2wd mode) but did allow for some good views over the surrounding countryside.

Pig sculpture? In this shopping center, close to Sedona itself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Still Alive, Still Shooting

Turns out that Internet access has been a bit patchy in the places we have been staying and that, coupled with early mornings, late nights and mucho road miles means I haven't been able to post anything for a week. Should be back to it very soon though. Meanwhile, here's a shot from lower Antelope Canyon to be going on with.
The mornings are very cold here, especially when getting up pre-dawn to shoot the sunrise. It was 45 degrees first thing Monday with a 30 mph wind when we were shooting Lake Powell. No fun, and not much to photo to boot! Antelope was great - if crowded - and looks like I have a few images to work with, Back home tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Winter Draws On

Rainy season is early this year. Despite the fact that we've already had a few small storms passing through the area, roads here are still like skating rinks every time they get wet. And given the way people drive in Silicon Valley - well, California, really - that leads to the inevitable.

Today, Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains was closed northbound for several hours to clean up an accident where a big-rig hit the concrete divider. Fortunately, I was going in the other direction but the back-up apparently went for miles. So far, I've managed to avoid getting caught in the whole sequence of mishaps that the rain has brought, but the odds are not on my side.

Given all that, combined with the forecast for more rain over the next 4 days, heading to Arizona and the high desert really doesn't sound like that bad of an idea after all! Sun, sand and a bit of outdoor exercise will be a nice antidote to the winter-rain blues.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Glorious Victory

Managed to grab a few minutes on Saturday night to watch the England vs. France semi-final in the Rugby World Cup. Thanks to an early - and very opportunistic - try, England built an early lead and stole momentum from the French attack. Despite going into the second half 6-5 behind, England defended extremely well and Wilkinson's boot finally came good and there were enough points to be had to take the game.

It will be a tough match against South Africa in the final, though. Alas, I'll be in Page, Arizona, over the weekend, therefore missing out on both the rugby and the last race in the F1 season. However, I'll record the F1 race and given we're in the wilds of Arizona I should therefore be able to steer clear of knowing the result until I get back ... if I can muster up the self control not to peek of course. And assuming no one sends me a rogue e-mail (hint, hint) crowing about how great Hamilton's performance was.

We're taking a few days break to explore around Rainbow Plateau and the Grand Canyon, including a night or two in Sedona. Over the weekend we'll be doing a photographic course at Antelope Canyon and the surrounding area, a Navajo reservation. Yup, expect to suffer through pictures of red rocks for a while, therefore!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bleeding Heart Tavern: Another Day, Another Dinner

This time, we find ourselves off Holborn, deep in lawyer-land, at the Bleeding Heart. Of the several properties they own, a friend and I ended up at the Tavern, a place whose proud boast is that it's motto in the 18th century was "drunk for a penny and dead drunk for two pence". Well with an reputation like that to support, why wouldn't you go there? So we did.

Despite being subterranean, the atmosphere was welcoming and brightly lit. And despite being billed as a French restaurant the menu is actually unrelentingly British. I had prawns and avocado to start (and you have to have been brought up in the UK in the 60s & 70s to know what a cliche that is) with fish pie to follow.

Fish pie was great. Large portion, big chunks of fish, hot, tasty and colourful: weapons grade comfort food, in short. Prawns and avocado was exactly as per that description, the prawns though being covered in something a notch above what would have been, 35 years ago, at least, a tasteless and oddly hued cream concoction. Frankly, though, unless you want to try it for the kitsch value, pick something else. It all seemed good. (And no, they didn't charge extra for the bloody bread in this place. A-men.)

My one regret was that I couldn't manage pudding. That apple and rhubarb crumble was calling out to me, but alas I was too stuffed to hear by that stage.

About 40 quid for two people including a couple of drinks. Good food, good value, good choice. Definitely one for the winter.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Frontline Club & Restaurant

Thanks to "I" for pointing me towards frontline, a media club just off Praed Street and a couple of minutes walk from Paddington station. In addition to a members room, the club has a ground-floor restaurant open to non-members.

The space they have created is light, open and modern with high ceilings and exposed brickwork over stripped hardwood floors. In addition to being the restaurant, it also serves as a venue to show iconic photojournalist shots from the past 50 years. These include St. Paul's standing alone through a circle of smoke during the blitz, that classic Eisenstaedt shot of a sailor kissing a girl in Time Square on VJ day and British Soldiers in Belfast in 1971. (More recent shots are also exhibited on the staircase to the bathrooms, taking us right up to date with pictures of the US forces in Iraq.)

Menu is classic British food but brought up to date both in terms of presentation and execution. I started with pea and ham soup which was served hot and steaming in a large, deep bowl. (No nouveau cuisine-sized portions served here. It felt more like dining in the US than a well regarded restaurant in London.) For main course I went for the pork chop served with pan haggerty (aka potatoes dauphinoise) and pork scratchings. Again, good sized portion and well cooked, though the pork was a bit bland I'd have to say the overall dish was good. Others in our party of 7 had duck breast ("excellent") and stuffed pumpkin ("very good"). Puddings covered things like sticky toffee, Queen Mab's (creamy set mousse), ice creams and an excellent cheese plate from Neal's Yard. Alas, I was well past full by that stage so can't opine on any of it but my colleagues all gave them good marks.

Price? About 450 quid including drinks (excellent wine list, too). Not bad for a party our size eating out in central London. And you can also feel good that profits from the restaurant help support the charitable effors of the Frontline Forum.

Gripes? a) they charged for the bread they brought out, albeit at 50 pence a portion. Why?? b) the waitress didn't mention the specials at all, one of which I heard about from a server at an adjoining table and I would have chosen for my main course (skate). Apart from that, everything was handled well.

Verdict: would definitely go back, and if you are in the area it's a great choice either for business or for "personal eating" (there must be a better phrase than that but my brain is still fogged by jet-lag and the after effects of the wine we managed to sink last night!) It is open all day and quite frankly it's worth visiting just for the photos, let alone the well done, well-priced food.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Room With A View

The vista in question being of one of the twin towers fronting the Paddington station terminus. I seem to have had some luck when checking-in and got a top floor room with a small balcony area outside. The picture above shows the principal view.

Room rate? North of $600 per night ... and that's by no means the most expensive hotel round here, not by a long chalk. We booked way-late and ended up with very few options. Good job the air fares were cheap because in terms of accommodation this is fast becoming a seriously pricey option. (Just to set the context, around the corner in W2, an 800 sq foot flat is listed for a little over $1m, and this is in Bayswater for heaven's sake! As BAR pointed out last week, in a more desireable area like Chelsea you can easily pay double that.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Gutted ... But Still Hopeful

Blitzen' Benz

I was hoping here to be celebrating the first British Formula 1 world champion since Damon Hill clinched it in 1996, but alas it was not to be - at least, not yet.

Lewis Hamilton had a shot at clinching the championship in the penultimate race, in Shanghai, early this morning. Alas, he slid off trying to make the last corner before reaching the pit-lane. He'd stayed out too long on worn tyres and that, combined with very slippery conditions, meant his hopes were dashed as his car ended up stuck in the gravel trap.

He still leads the points total for the year and so nevertheless goes into the last race in a strong position, but it would have been a fitting end to a quite remarkable year to see him wrap it up with one race still to go.

Fingers crossed that in Brazil in two weeks time he can still lift the driver's title for himself and Mercedes McLaren, thereby becoming not just the youngest champion ever but also the only driver to come out on top in his first year in F1. And if you get the chance and want to see what the fuss is all about, just watch his final qualifying lap for Shanghai. A quite astonishing performance, seemingly effortless but yet completely focused. It's no exaggeration to say that Hamilton is the first modern-era driver I've seen who could realistically be compared with Ayrton Senna.

Off Again

Travelling back to Europe again, this time to London for a couple of days of senior staff meetings followed by prospect visits in London and Cambridge.

Flying United this time, partly to try and keep at Premier Executive level and partly because they had the best prices (less than $900 return).

Looking forward to being home again for a while, especially as it requires staying in London.

Given the barely-credible level of house prices in the more desirable areas then I may never be able to afford to live there again, but at least I can enjoy visiting at someone else's expense.

Friday, October 5, 2007

All Hands, No Deck

Yeah, well, I suppose it was inevitable. Once we'd had the necessary work done to repair the deck on one side of the house following our termite problem already discussed, it was always on the cards that it would serve merely to show just how awful the rest of the decking on the house was. And lo, it came to pass.

For the price of a high end, very-nicely-loaded-thank-you BMW 3 series, we are now having the remainder replaced too. Yes, yes, I get all the arguments about how it preserves the value of the house and makes it more appealing when you sell, but then to my way of thinking so too would parking that same BMW in the driveway and throwing it in the with sale. Such logic, alas, doesn't seem to be universally appreciated so a new deck it is then, dear.

Caution? More like a bloody great wealth warning!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Winner Is ...

Fancy a dance around your handbag, luv?

"I" wins again! Nice one.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Patter Of Tiny Paws

Bachi The Dog

Actually, not so tiny.

Yup, we have a new addition to the family: he's about 6 months old and came from a rescue facility south east from us in California's central valley. Judging by the size of those paws then he has some growing yet to do so we're not exactly sure how big he will get, just that he'll get, well, bigger. Meanwhile, he has enough puppy-energy on tap to power the entire neighbourhood if only you could find a way to harness it. Shadow, the other dog, is having to deal with both that energy surplus and indeed the whole "rebellious youngster in the house" thing. While he's happy to play along some of the time you can see him reach the limit of his tolerance, quickly followed by a bit of the old alpha dog dominance kicking-in as he takes back control and puts Bachi back into his proper - i.e. lowly - ranking in the pack hierarchy! Doubtless, they will figure it all out between them over time but meanwhile it makes for the odd incident of scrapping dogs in the house. Probably good to keep the decent china out of the way for a while, then!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Don't Try This At Home

It's been one of those days where the sky falls around your ears without any warning clap of thunder or gathering of clouds to give you advanced notice of what's about to happen.

A senior level manager at a large electronics company that's a customer of ours found a case study on our web site that related to his group, and promptly went ballistic. Turns out, though, that we created this piece based on information contained within an academic white paper that they had agreed to allow to be published. However, we didn't get their permission to release that same basic information as the basis for a marketing piece about the customer concerned, and that's what caused this to go pear-shaped.

It's one thing to have theoretical right on your side - the paper is public, therefore the data is public after all - but the mistake we made was to then take that state of affairs and infer from it that we could reuse the information in anyway we wanted without the customer raising a red flag. Demerit points to marketing for taking a unilateral decision on this one, but it's also on my head to ensure that such things are done properly and done right. Mea culpa.

We'll get through it, but creating additional rods for our collective backs isn't what we need at this point in the year. Somehow, it's the self-inflicted wounds that sting the most!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Told You So ...

It's official: eBay's purchase of Skype was a bust. Well, if not exactly a bust, the fact that they have written off some $1.4 billion makes it a half-bust at least (isn't a half-bust, a breast?) Additionally, the CEO, Zennstrom, gets the boot and they apparently negotiated a one-third pay out of the incentives part of the deal, but declined to reveal whether or not that was justified by the obviously-disappointing results.

What were they thinking? Indeed, was any thinking involved? Since when does anyone with half a brain believe the financial projections of a start-up for crissakes? Oh, except VCs, of course, who if they stopped believing the insanely-optimistic projections of those pitching to them would suddenly realise how close to the edge they were in fact standing.

Upshot? Don't expect Mystic (not) Meg over at eBay to be doing any Web 2.0 acquisitions in order to grab "eyeballs" any time soon! And someone, somewhere inside eBay will be looking for a job for even daring to think this made sense.