Friday, November 13, 2009

How I Broke an SLK 55 AMG

Sigh. And it was all going so well. But let me back up.

Last weekend I did the AMG Stage II course at Laguna Seca. An element of the course was to run in an autocross challenge competition. This is essentially a single timed lap around a coned-out course, set up on the concrete paddock area at Laguna. So far, so good. We got to run both a practice and qualifying session, and were sorted into 4 groups of 10 drivers with the top 8 (2 from each group) progressing to the final. Glad to say I came out top of the group I was in and so made it into the final, but in the process I broke one of their cars.

Turns out the oil cooler on the SLK 55 is hung low and to the right of the engine bay, at what turned out to be a very convenient height to get hit by wayward cones. Now by "wayward", when applied to cones, I of course mean that it stood still and I ran over it. Well, in fact it and one of its siblings to be precise. And in order to effect at least a measure of revenge one of the two - and I never did figure out exactly which of them were the guilty party - smacked a hole in the oil cooler, resulting in a long streak of nicely warmed oil being deposited over the track. Oh, and a big pool of the stuff in the staging area off to the side. And they had to retire the car.

Tsk, and there was me thinking that AMGs were made of stronger stuff. One teeny weeny cone and the thing's off the road? Pah.

(Nope, I didn't win the final. Was way too conservative on the timed single lap, a failing I am still beating myself up about days later. I hate losing. But on the plus side, I got awarded a Meguire's car care kit for services rendered to said mortally wounded car!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

AMG Stage II Course

Decided to take a bit of a break, so over the last weekend spent two days at Laguna Seca doing the AMG Stage II course. I'll post some more on that later but it turned out that coincident with this, the first running of the course at Laguna Seca, AMG was launching the Mercedes SLS.

Although none of us were allowed to drive it, we were at least allowed to paw all over it and generally take a look at what Mercedes hope will follow directly in the footsteps - tyre tracks? - of the original and now iconic 300 SL Gullwing.

I can't really say it's a beautiful car. The cabin sits a bit too far back in the chassis for my tastes, leaving the whole thing looking a bit unbalanced, at least from the side. Still, it's certainly, err, purposeful, and clearly a descendant of the joint venture McLaren SLR. It's hard though to put oot of one's mind the "penile" effect created by the extended bonnet line (or more aptly, perhaps, the "hood", for those reading this in the US), especially bearing in mind the average age of likely buyers.

Price? Reputed to be around the $300k, which makes the decision not to buy one a bit easier at least. For that money you do however get a unique car, and one that embodies some pretty interesting technology. As an example, the prop shaft, a component that's called upon to transmit the 570 bhp produced by the monster engine without complaint or, frankly, flying into a thousand small and very expensive pieces, is made of carbon fibre and weighs just 4 kg, or about 8.8 pounds. An example was hanging in the small static display area they had set up for the launch and really it's an exquisite piece of work.

Mercedes should be proud of this car regardless of of the petty whinings you see above. It's only jealously at work after all, and I'd promise to utterly change my tune for the promise of a short, weekend-long test drive!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #12

Time to head home, but in order to have a stop along the way we had a single night booked at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. However, there was yet an obstacle to overcome, namely that the Tioga Pass was closed. The snow we encountered earlier in the week had shut the pass a couple of days before. It didn't appear to us that this very early fall would close the pass for the winter, but that didn't mean it would open by the time we needed to use it either! There was another way to reach the valley, but only by following a 4+ hour detour, something we'd much rather not have to do.

The Ahwahnee is not a cheap place to stay - hence he decision to be there just one night - and we wanted to eat in the main hotel dining room, the only available slot being a table at 5:30 pm. Leaving Bodie at 1 pm would allow us to make this comfortably if the pass was open, but with the detour then there'd be no way to make this work.

Thankfully, the travel gods smiled upon us and the pass opened. There was still a few patches of ice around Tuolumne Meadow, something a bunch of Harley riders found out to their cost, with one bike ending up sitting in the middle of a field below the road, but apart that tat it was plain sailing ... err, driving. The only slow down was waiting for a work detail clearing trees from the side of the road around an area that had burned in a fire over the summer.

At the Ahwahnee we stayed in one of the cabins following a recommendation from a friend instead of opting for the main house. Cabin was fine, no real complaints, but hard to really conclude it's value for money if you just view it as a hotel. However, that's not the point. The point in staying here is the location, smack in the middle of Yosemite Valley and hence a unique opportunity to spend a night right under the granite cliffs and open skies of the Sierras. (Oh, and the food at dinner was fine but the scrambled eggs I ordered the next day for breakfast were inedible lumps of rubber. Go figure!)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #11

After Mono Lake we had one more major place to go on the trip: Bodie. I already touched on this location here but thought I'd anyway post another picture now just to show another side of the place.

In addition to the abandoned houses, sheds and varied bits of machinery, a few of the original buildings still have the (presumably) original contents laid out inside. Until fairly recently, Bodie was less well managed than it is now, with the park being open at all hours and with little in the way of restrictions or park management. It was possible to get into places like the hotel and mortuary to photograph and explore, seemingly without much in the way of restrictions. Alas, a situation that holds no more. In order to do the best they can to preserve the essence of the place, access is now much more controlled meaning that you can only peer through the dusty windows in order to see what's inside. (Actually, I think that's a good thing. This place really does deserve to be preserved "as is" without visitors constantly disturbing the interiors of lay buildings, or worse taking things away as souveniers.)

Of the places shown with contents in place, the mortuary to me was the most interesting, conveying best the harshness of the place and most especially the endless mini-tragedies that must have accompanied a mining community high up in the Sierras at the end of the 19th century. It's worth remembering that Bodie is over 8,000 feet above sea level; it's barren, dry and a most unforgiving location at all times of the year. How bad can it get? According to this source, in January, 1880, temperatures fell to -26 degrees F and mules froze to death trying to get additional supplies of wood for heating into the settlement. And trust me, the houses I saw were absolutely no protection at all from those extremes, firewood supplies or not, so it's hard today to imagine just how hard life must have been for the early pioneers and gold miners.

Shown here is a child's coffin leaning against a wall, seemingly ready for an occupant who never ultimately arrived. We don't know why it's there - indeed, we have no real idea if it was ever part of the layout of that room in the first place - but it does make a powerful statement I think.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #10

Home stretch here, at least as far as the photo workshop is concerned. After Bristlecone Pine State Park we headed onto Lee Vining to photograph Mono Lake.

We hit the lake shore for both a sunset and sunrise session, with the sunrise one working better I thought. Mono Lake is famed for the tufa formations dotted along its shoreline. These oddly-shaped towers of soft carbonate deposits give an other-worldly appearance to the lake, especially first thing with a slight mist rising from water, which is what we saw on getting there some 15 minutes before dawn.

Well worth a visit but getting there early pays dividends as it got quite crowded, quite fast, to the point where it was challenging to find the view you wanted without it now having some bloke with a tripod smack in the middle of it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #9

Or, to apply a subtitle, "onwards and upwards". That afternoon, the plan of record was to head to Bristlecone State Park to photograph the trees. As related in the last post, the only wrinkle that had appeared in the crisp, white handkerchief of well disciplined organization was the fact that it was snowing at a level some few thousand feet below where we were heading. Still, we had a plan and concluded we were made of something tougher than nature could throw at us, in early October at least, and hence should get out there and get photographin.

The finest grove of trees sits at around 11,000 feet, high up in the Inyo range. To reach it required a fairly long drive up the hill on paved roads, plus about 13 miles on unpaved roads, so it took us over an hour to arrive at our destination. It was cold, but with blue skies at the bottom of the hill all looked well. However, by the time we were well along the dirt track section, it had started to snow. Arriving at the parking lot, we all anyway decided that since we were there it would be good to at least try and get some decent shots, despite the cold. Hey, at least the soft light from an increasingly snow-leaden sky meant that we could get some decent shots without having to manage blow-out highlights!

Out in the trees - which really are spectacular and well worth the visit - it was easy to get engrossed in trying to capture their beauty and to miss the fact that it was starting to snow a bit harder. And then harder. And then it got windy. In the end, though, I think we all realised at about the same time that the snow was now driving hard and it was getting difficult to see the car park! Time to head down the hill and back into the sunlight.

Just to give you some idea, this shot shows you the view across a field to a small grove of trees and a hill on the left, the outline of which you can just about make out!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #8

OK, so now we get to a lake, this time for sunrise. Once again we found ourselves above Bishop, this time at a small area of water high-up in the Sierras. It was bitterly cold being out in the lakeside air at dawn, especially given that just as we were reaching our destination it started to snow on us. Yup, Death Valley to snow in two days flat ... gotta love California!

On the bright side of things, at least the wind had backed-off somewhat so there was some opportunity at least to get decent reflections as a part of the image. Having said all that. before long, even wearing gloves, hat and three layers of shirt, sweatshirt and fleece jacket, I couldn't feel my fingers any more. Time to quit once more.

Driving down the mountain I could see across the valley to the peaks the other side, roughly in the direction we were heading that afternoon. Hmm, wonder if it's snowing up there too ... ?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #7

From Manzanar we drove onto Bishop for a sunset shoot in the mountains behind the town. Alas, the weather was starting to turn and the wind was getting up. Combine that with a chosen location several thousand feet up and now it was starting to feel like autumn. (In fact, it was soon to feel much more like winter, but that's for a future post.)

Ultimately, the original idea of shooting at a lake didn't pan out so instead we all ended up photographing a hillside to try and get the sweep of colour shown by trees fast turning golden as the seasons change. Alas, strong winds and leaves - even when still attached to branches - really don't mesh well together from a picture-taking standpoint, so I finally gave up and headed down the hill again. On the way back, though , I saw the above stacked set of lenticular clouds forming, framed by the intersecting mountains. This is a phenomenon that's a particular characteristic of the prevailing weather patterns in the Sierras and although what's shown here is interesting, a simple Google search will reveal some simply amazing examples from mountain regions around the world.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #6

Manzanar was a location for one of the various internment camps used by the US government to imprison Japanese-Americans and nationals following Pearl Harbour. Clearly, this wasn't one of the finest hours exhibited by the US during the second world war, but since no one can go back and re-write history so it remains a stain on the nation's history. However, at least this gross error of judgement is now being recognised as such, and some amends are being made.

Interestingly, Ansel Adams was retained by the government to photograph the inmates, presumably with the intention of showing just how well they were being treated. A by-product of Ansel being paid to be there by the government "from 9 to 5" was that he could use the remaining hours to do whatever he liked, including taking a number of his most iconic images of the eastern Sierras.

From what remains (and it's now a national park in order to preserve what little is actually left) Manzanar was clearly quite a large facility, holding at peak some 120,000 individuals and stretching across 6,200 acres (the US military never doing things by half, even back then). Although there's now a visitor center and museum, really little else is visible apart from a single guard tower and concrete slabs marking where the various huts once stood.

Manzanar is a bleak looking place, even today with a main road right alongside. In the middle of winter in 1943 it must have been a miserable place to suddenly find yourself, especially when your only "crime" was to be of Japanese ancestry, something against which even a US passport could not provide protection, apparently.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #5

And now for something a little bit different in that after a couple of days on our own it was time to join the Eastern Sierras photo workshop we were using as an anchor for this trip. (Yes, it was again a course led by Alain Briot, and as per the trip we took to Arizona a while back to photograph, amongst other things, Antelope canyon).

As always, an early start, this time to see the Sierras lit by the morning sun through a handily-placed arch, located just above Lone Pine. Again, another popular spot, made worse by adding another 9 photographers from our group. Still, people figured out a way to spread themselves a little, at least once they'd got the chance to photograph through the arch, and as shown above I got my turn in there too.

After some discussion time we headed to a couple of nearby locations from where Ansel Adams made two of his photos of the Sierras in the area (one of which is shown here). Next stop, Manzanar.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #4

Another day, another early start, this time to watch the sun rise at the famed Death Valley sand dunes. This time around there were less than a handful of other photographers in evidence so we had more of this place to ourselves than before. The dunes themselves are a bit of a hike from the road but that bit was fine. What killed me was hiking up and down these things to reach an interesting point from which to photograph. In all honesty, next time around I'd come in more from the west and do a better job of getting into a place where the hills in the background were less prominent, but having said all that it was still a wonderful location regardless.

While I was taking shots of large piles of sand, S was taking pictures of the local wildlife devouring each other, grabbing a great shot that I'll post at some future date showing a desert canine happily trotting off with an nice, fat early morning snack.

To recover, we headed to the nearby park gate (Stove Pipe Wells) in order that we too might grab breakfast, and for me to rehydrate too! Clambering up and down giant beaches without the benefit of drinking water was way more exercise & physical stress than I had originally planned to take at 6:30 am!

After eating we went to Mosaic Canyon. Supposedly, when the sun is up and striking the walls, the polished rocks are supposed to shine in different colours, looking like some sort of illuminated mosaic. Perhaps so, but it never worked for us. Nevertheless, it offered an interesting hike of a few miles into and out of the canyon and once again we had the place to ourselves for much of the time we spent there.

From there it was back to the hotel, checking-out and then driving onto Lone Pine in preparation for the next phase of our trip. To be continued ....

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #3

Having refuelled (us and the pickup) following the morning excursions, in the afternoon we headed off to Nevada to visit Rhyolite, the first of two ghost towns we'd hit on this trip.

While nothing like as large as Bodie, a place we'll hear more about later, Rhyolite was still worth a visit. Above is shown the remaining facade of Cook Bank, originally the largest single edifice in the town and still a dominant element on what remains of the main street. This was apparently quite a lavish property in its day, boasting Italian marble floors and rich mahogany panelling. Suffice to say, neither is in evidence these days, the whole thing comprising not much more than a few free-standing walls and associated steps. (Look here for a shot of how it was in its heyday.)

At the other end of town sits the oddity of a fairly new looking - but now completely orphaned - train station. In fact, it was completed in 1909 and was comprised of what must have been the latest in pre-fabricated building materials at the time, namely the concrete block! At the turn of that century there were, it seems, three railway lines this terminus served, including one that ran all the way to Las Vegas. Alas, all that infrastructure is long gone apart from one abandoned wooden rail car labelled for the "Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad", acting as a rather forlorn marker of what once must have been a bustling and lively place.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #2

As mentioned, we headed back to Zabriske Point before dawn in order to photograph there at sunrise. Fortunately, sunrise was around 6:25 am and we were only a few minutes drive away so that prospect wasn't too onerous. Turns out that this is quite a popular spot with 5 other tripod-toting photographers already ranged across a large rock in front of the public viewing area. Conclusion? Definitely more of a sunrise spot than a sunset place, and well worth getting up early to see.

Next up we drove to Dante's View, a 5,500 foot peak not far down the road that offers a fantastic view across the Valley. (Here's a map for those of you following along at home.) Only downside is that it's cold and windy first thing in the morning and all of a sudden your cell phone actually gets a signal (though barely) so the real world intrudes once again if you are foolish enough to leave it switched on. Which I had.

After a quick side trip through the wonderfully named 20 Mule Team Canyon trail we stopped back at the hotel to grab an early lunch before heading out again in the afternoon.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #1

Now I'm back from Japan and hence have a little more breathing space, I thought I'd post a few notes from our recent trip to the Sierras, along with, of course, some pictures!

We started out with the longest drive, taking a day to get from the Bay Area out to the Furnace Creek Ranch hotel in Death Valley. (We actually wanted to stay in their other, plusher property but it didn't open for another two weeks.)

To make the drive manageable, we opted for the shortest route, which even so meant something like 9.5 hours on the road. Still, apart from the long, dull stretch of I-5 down to Bakersfield then it wasn't too bad, offering more and more visual interest the closer one got to the mountains.

Despite the drive we still felt up to getting in a quick sunset shoot at Zabriske point, testament to a) it being the first day and b) the relative comfort of the seats in a Toyota Tacoma pickup! As it turned out I did all the driving on this vacation, but even after over 1,700 miles round trip my back was fine and really I wasn't particularly uncomfortable at all, at least not from the driving!

The Furnace Creek Ranch was a fine place to stay with a couple of restaurant choices and basic-but-clean accommodations. I'd happily go back, especially for the central location smack in the middle of Death Valley.

Next up ... Zabriske Point sunrise! (You saw that coming, right?)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Tokyo With Love

While we were away last week I saw on the news that Tokyo was hit by a typhoon. The trains were knocked out, there were severe floods, and all this was accompanied by very high winds. I was glad, therefore, to have missed suffering through that storm by being in Japan one week later rather than earlier. Little did I know that this would be a mess I'd miss twice.

Somehow, the storm made its way across the Pacific largely intact, hitting the Bay Area coastline Tuesday of this week resulting in, you guessed it, sever flooding and strong winds. (Doubtless it would have stopped the trains too except the USA barely has any of those things worthy of the name any more. It did stop the cars though when they closed Highway 17)

This two day storm dumped some 10 inches of rain where we live and, thanks largely to falling trees, took power out for over a day. Yup, missed the whole shooting match once again by being in Tokyo, much to the chagrin of those left back at home to clean up the mess. Still, at least we had a decent period of notice and I was able to clean up the roof, gutters and gulleys before leaving, which seems to have helped us get through it reasonably intact.

Looks like this will be quite a wet winter. After all, it's only just started and we've had 25% of what we got in the entire season last year hit the ground already ....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Although the title applies to Bodie, a California gold rush ghost town, it could also be applied to this blog. Things have languished around here a bit of late, due largely to an overload of stuff to do at work and play.

On the play side, S and I just got back from a week in the eastern Sierras where half a day at Bodie was one of the highlights. As I get a free slot or two I'll post some more on the overall trip but suffice it to say we had a great time, enjoying 90 degree temperatures one day and ending up in a snowstorm two days later. Oh, and had three earthquakes within one fifteen minute spell just to remind us that we were still in California. Over the course of the trip we did about 1,720 miles, including some mild off-roading. (Kudos to Toyota for the Tacoma pickup because it turned out to be a very comfortable ride for the on-road bits and very capable for the off-road sections.)

Am presently in Tokyo, back at the weekend; posting will therefore continue to be a bit erratic!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lords Of The Samurai

We finally got round to visiting the Lords of The Samurai exhibition this weekend, still running at the Asian Art museum in San Francisco. Spread over three rooms and featuring some 160 artifacts, this is as much as anything a history of the Hosokawa family whose personal inventory of objects forms part of the Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa collection in Tokyo, the primary source for this exhibition.

Overall I'd rank is as "interesting" rather than "must see" largely because of its narrow focus and hence limited ability to address any one aspect of samurai history and culture thoroughly. Personally, I'd have liked to see more of a logical progression of artifacts through either a time line or else more of a grouping of objects around different aspects of samurai life. (I'd also ding them for less-than-perfect presentation of the swords in this display, especially the tachi that were poorly lit and shown edge down, making it hard to study the hamon properly.)

For me, the most interesting section featured items relating to Musashi, the legendary master of the two-sword fighting technique and the best known codifier of the samurai Bushido through his (originally scroll-based) "A book of 5 Rings".

However, don't rush round to see any of it until you check the date. Tomorrow is the last day, and that of course assumes you are reading this on Saturday 19th September! And just to heap even more disappointment upon you, photography is banned, hence the photo above is of another artifact from the permanent collection in the same museum and not even something Japanese in origin. Bummer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How Big's The Internet?

Right off the bat, let me start by saying a) I don't know and b) depends anyway on how you want to measure it. Regardless, if you believe what's written here then the answer is about "10 Empire State buildings".

The source of this was trying to answer the question of what it would take to print out the Internet, and as a by product to produce some very nifty graphics to represent the answer. Without knowing the basis for the analysis it's hard to argue one way or the other but let's assume it's correct. For me, this begs another question: how does that compare with the number of discrete books held in libraries around the world?

According to a recent Guardian article, the British Library alone has 650 km of shelf space holding some 150m items. (Which, according to the writer also poses a severe security challenge. Amongst over 9,000 items listed as "MIA" are such diverse tomes as a luxury edition of Mein Kampf, produced to mark Hitler's 50th birthday in 1939, and a medieval text on astronomy. Probably wasn't the same borrower who swiped both, mind ....)

Given , therefore, that just the books in the British Library already consume almost 200x what a printed version of the Internet supposedly would, it seems the printed word still has the upper hand despite the obvious rapid rise of the Internet as a new form of information distribution & storage.

How big's the Internet? "Small when compared to books", I suppose, but apparently growing much faster than any other form of human communication ever devised!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fate Worse Than Death

From A Silicon Valley Life

There was an interesting segment on the BBC World Service I caught on the way to the office today. Triggered perhaps by the election of a new and more liberal government in Japan, the BBC ran a piece on the death penalty in that country and how it manages to be one of the most inhumane instances of a practice that is itself already deemed inhumane in much of the developed world.

As documented in a recent Amnesty International report, Japanese prisoners on death row suffer an number of additional deprivations above and beyond merely being confined and under sentence of death. Prisoners are, for example, forbidden to move around their cells except to use the toilet; they are not allowed to talk to their jailers - indeed, they are not even allowed to make eye contact with their captors. But perhaps the worst thing of all is that they do not know when they will be executed. The BBC reported that prisoners are only told on the morning of the day the sentence is to be applied that this will in fact be their last day on earth. Imagine what that must be like. Every day you wake up waiting to hear if this is it or if you have another day to live. Every morning, day in and day out, you face the uncertainty all over again as to whether or not you have a future that stretches out beyond lunch time.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Amnesty concludes that prisoners are basically being driven nuts by this approach, and I quote "The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last on Earth is terrible enough. But Japan's justice system also sees fit to bury its death row prisoners in the most punitive regime of silence, isolation and a sheer non-existence imaginable."

The BBC interviewed a local writer as to how the Japanese people could allow this state of affairs to exist? His take was that a) it was literally a one-in-a-million group of individuals (120 inmates from a population of around 120 million) and hence largely ignored, b) these individuals had to had committed multiple murders and not just one and hence by definition seen as being the "worst of the worst", and c) that their crimes automatically proved that they were so far outside of society that they were beyond any such thing as inalienable human rights.

Historically, there's been no political will whatsoever to change this practice. However, it turns out that the change of government may well usher in a more open-minded approach. One of the new cabinet ministers has been an outspoken critic of the Japanese approach to handling death row prisoners, offering an opening to effect some much needed change.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

McLaren vs. Ferrari

Despite the headline, we're not talking F1 (though with all that's going on in that world then perhaps we should be) but rather road cars. After having developed the iconic McLaren F1, still one of the most desirable cars ever produced, McLaren focused its energies instead on an increasing collaboration with Mercedes, ultimately resulting in the MB SLR McLaren. By this stage the road car partnership was going less than well with sales falling short of target and McLaren less than thrilled about the design limitations applied by Mercedes who wanted more of a GT sort of vehicle while McLaren were all hard-core sports car.

Now the divorce has been agreed, the two parties are off doing their respective things which, in the case of McLaren, looks to be very interesting indeed. With the specifications listed here, and given that the indicated price is indeed correct, then Ferrari had better watch out. The two companies have been locked in combat on the track for many years; looks like the fight will now be spilling out onto the road as well!

Update: Here's Jay Leno's take!

(BTW, apologies for the extended absence. Too much going on and too little time to try and get it all done. Work continues to be the curse of the drinking-and-otherwise-leisured classes.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When Porsche Got It Right

The Porsche 550 and 718 Spyders were one of those lines of cars that somehow came together just right. Small, light and nimble, the original 550 defined "sports car" for a whole new generation, even without aspiring actors killing themselves in one and propelling it to cult status. Originally conceived as a racing car but with tremendous showroom success too, the 550 won the Targa Floria in 1956 and its successors - one of which, a 718/2 RSK is shown above - went on to collect even more race wins before this basic outline was replaced in the early 60s with the 904 (which looks remakably like a Ferrari Dino) closed coupe design that was only available on the road in limited numbers to meet homologation rules.

Interestingly, it's said that a German F1 driver drove a 550 straight under a railway crossing barrier in the 1954 Mille Miglia. Given that the above version is no higher than a small picket fence, I can quite believe it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You're Leaving?

Yup, with summer winding down it's time to get back on the road again. Once again I find myself in LHR's T5 waiting for an onward connection. This will be a short in-and-out trip, back at the weekend so nothing too onerous.

Seems like a pleasant day here in London. The sun is trying hard to come out for more than just a fleeting appearance, so I may have actually caught the end of what, by all accounts, has been a less-than-stellar summer here in the UK. However, looks like there are supposed to be thunderstorms tomorrow in Stockholm with showers later in the week, so I may yet get to see some rain. Actually, given how dry our summer is in California, I won't mind that too much.

(No dogs were harmed in the creation of this blog, but one at least seemed a bit disappointed at my impending absence.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Porsche 917: A Racing Legend

Here's a shot of one of the all-time racing greats: the Porsche 917. This is the short tail version, first produced in 1969, with in this case the full 5 litre engine, up from the 4.5 litre of the initial production.

Ultimately, the 917 was good for over 230 mph, and a 0-60 time of a quite remarkable 2.7 seconds. According to those who campaigned it, including names such as Brian Redman, Mark Donohue and Derek Bell, it was a real pig to drive, being both very fast and very unstable, all at the same time. In race trim it ended up producing north of 1,100 bhp while in qualifying trim, with boost would up to maximum (a quite astonishing 39 psi), it was reputed to put out around 1,500 bhp.

The Porsche 917 and its derivatives dominated GT racing for many years, scoring maiden Le Mans wins for Porsche in 1970, and again in 1971. Steve McQueen also drove one in the Le Mans film in 1971.

This is a quite astonishing car, and it was a rare and special treat to see multiple instances of this thing going round one of the world's prettiest race circuits. Quite a day!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good News - Aliens Don't Smell

Well that's a weight off my mind I can tell you. I mean, it's bad enough being abducted and probed without also having to deal with bad alien breath or armpit odour (especially good news given how many limbs they likely have). Thankfully, the UK has finally allowed such important facts as these to be declassified.

In addition to knowing that alien space ships don't smell, we also get to find out many other things that the UK government have been deliberately hiding from the general population (something devotees of Torchwood or Dr. Who will already be all too aware of).

Firstly, they have an infinite variety of shapes, sizes and types of craft. No two sketches are the same, other than to note that many of them look to have been drawn by a spatially-challenged 5 year old.

Secondly, and for as-yet unexplained reasons, flashing lights are good, apparently. Either these aliens just want to yank our collective chains or they forgot to turn off the landing lights, not realising that these would make them somewhat conspicuous to even the most casual of observers. (Seriously, not even a half-way decent invisibility shield amongst them?) I find this all to be quite perplexing. Did NASA engineers, when working out the basic architecture of the LEM, ever reach a point where one of them slapped their forehead crying, "Bloody hell, we forgot the flashing lights. We'll have to scrap the mission and do it in a hanger outside of LA instead"? I think not. Well, at least not the first bit. So, unless this is as the result of some galactic edict, equivalent to the imposition of the back-up beeper we humans decided to stick on all lorries and trucks, then flying around some - likely hostile - planet advertising your presence with megawatt strobes going off all over the place really isn't the smart way to go.

Thirdly, don't ever, ever, treat seriously a statement from, as the BBC puts it, two blokes from Staffordshire who told the police that, "as they returned home from an evening out an alien appeared under a hovering UFO hoping to take them away" because "an evening out" was most likely a huge piss-up at the nearest pub. Just look at the drawing of the alien they saw and tell me it 'aint so!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Flying Ferrari

I spent Saturday at the 36th running of the Monterey Historics meeting down at Laguna Seca. Despite the on-going Lockheed fire, burning some 10 miles west of home, visibility wasn't too bad and although you could smell the smoke it didn't really cause any problems either for myself or the camera.

I'll post some more pictures etc. over the coming days but here's one for starters. This is a 1958 Ferrari 250 TR Testa Rossa, doing something it was never designed to do: kangarooing over rough terrain! According to the driver, David Love, he missed his braking point for the Corkscrew corner and ended up bouncing over the run-off and into the tyre wall. Fortunately, damage looked to be light but he ended up parking a few yards down the hill and jumping out.

Warning: motors sports can be dangerous, especially in the area of one's wallet ....

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Polar FT40 Heart Rate Monitor Review

For my birthday, and recognising that I had just hit 52, I decided to change around what I was typically doing at the gym each week. In order to make it more aerobic rather than just being based on weight training, I opted to get a heart rate monitor as a present this year. And I'm glad I did, because it's been a revelation.

I chose the Polar FT40, a middle-of-the-range device that cost around $140, including the chest strap and transmitter. Setting it up was quite easy requiring just telling it things like height, weight, age etc.

As part of the functionality, Polar identify two ranges you can be in : fat burning or fitness. These are roughly equivalent to the temperate and aerobic zones in the typical literature (e.g. here). Initially, the watch calculated that the break point between these two zones for me was 117 beats per minute (bpm) but now after about 4 fairly decent sessions it just upped it to 119 bpm. Interestingly, this break points at 70% of maximum is very close to what's calculated by the formula here (using the Tanaka method), which gives me a maximum heart rate figure of 172 bpm vs. the earlier link which gives me a maximum rate of 182.

Now I have a handle on my heart rate throughout a workout, I can ensure I stay in the chosen zone throughout. Interestingly, that's causing me to work out harder and longer because it stops me skiving off and resting too long between sets. It also has made me use the exercise bikes some more in order to go long enough overall to burn an indicated 200 calories.

The chest strap hasn't turned out to be either uncomfortable or hard to keep placed, and so far it's really not been something that has got in the way at all of working out or otherwise been a distraction.

Of course it's early days and it will be interesting to see if I can stay the course! So far, so good though, and the net result is I'm certainly getting more exercise than was the case before.

Negatives? The watch is a little bulky for me and the strap and strap clip are a bit of a pain because the catch pin is too loose and the strap retaining band too stiff. But really, that's about it. Otherwise, it really does do what it say on the box, and does it well.

Oh, one other thing. The transmitter seems to work a little too well! I noticed the other day that my heart rate was being broadcast to the two bikes either side of me. No problem so far but at some stage someone's going to wonder why they are pedalling harder and harder but their heart rate doesn't appear to be responding!

Highly recommended, especially for numerically-biased engineering types who also want to work out by the numbers!

Sunday, August 9, 2009


It's just been revealed that there's a new level of price been discovered above stratospheric: Veyronospheric. Named after the Bugatti Veyron, the 1,000 HP supercar from your friendly local purveyor of Golfs, it reflects not only the million pound price tag it costs to acquire one of these things but also that it attracts running costs that would make an Arab oil sheik look twice at the bills to see if someone was (unwisely) pulling his leg....

The latest copy of evo magazine details running costs for one of these things that up until now no one has really revealed. Here are a few examples, and all prices quoted in GBP.

First service: 13,645 GBP. Then they get pricey.

Tyres: replace every 2,500 miles for the princely sum of 6,325 GBP each. Every three tyre swaps, throw in a new set of wheels for good measure at an additional 29,900 pounds for the set.

Fancy the extended warranty? Two years for a mere 63,000 pounds! Absolute bargain.

Evo went on to calculate that, over four years of ownership and doing some 3,000 miles per annum, servicing and depreciation would mean that each single mile you drive will have cost you 38.51 GBP, or roughly $64. Nipping down to the shops for a tin of cat food has never been so expensive as it would be in one of these.

Turns out, the only thing faster than the 250 mph Veyron is the speed with which owning one drains your bank balance. Lottery winners need not apply. Owning one of these requires serious money!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Redneck Swimming Pool?

You tell me! Takes the notion of tailgating to a whole new level, though. It used to be about just BBQ and beer, but now there's a way to get the whole "by the pool" experience thrown in for good measure.

And Europeans wonder why so many pickups get sold over here?

(Thanks to Jalopnik for this and the other 11 examples of motoring folly.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tough Times All Round

Just in case you thought Silicon Valley was somehow immune from the currently high levels of US unemployment, the graph above, published by Silicon Alley Insider, shows we are just as stuffed as everywhere else is in the Golden State. To judge quite how crappy this is, you have to appreciate that outside of the Bay Area the only other industries you can work in are (a) agriculture, the employment of which isn't even measured because it's all done by undocumented workers and (b) construction, which has basically stopped.

Please also note one other thing: the current unemployment level is 2.5 points higher than it was after the dot com bust in 2001. In other words, not only is tech having a major workforce meltdown again this time around but so too is just about every other aspect of the Bay Area employment scene.

Although this might be good if you are moving into the area because you already have a new job here (cheaper housing, less traffic on the roads, eager contractors to fix things on your new house) it's makes it very tough for anyone who is already here but unemployed.

Make you think that maybe taking the leap now and changing jobs is a move you might want to think twice about unless it's somehow more secure than where you are today. It 'aint pretty out there in new job land just now ....

Sunday, July 19, 2009


As you can see, I ended up back in San Francisco again this past week, but this time with a couple of differences: a) it was on business, and b) I made it up early enough in the morning to try and catch the sunrise. Alas, all I caught was fog. Very pleasant morning though, and I was nevertheless able to grab a few shots before heading back out of the city still early enough to avoid the inevitable traffic build-up.

Tomorrow I am off to Japan, just in time to catch the ongoing monsoon season. Fortunately, typhoon Molave already headed north so with luck I should avoid any knock-on delays from the problems this caused in Hong Kong. Even so, the weather forecast is promising 80 degree daytime temperatures with heavy rain and gusty winds. Lovely time, therefore, to be using the crowded Tokyo metro system and wearing a suit!

Back next weekend before heading again into San Francisco for DAC.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Anti-Aircraft Flowers

Getting married has always been something that's a bit hit-or-miss, but up until now it's rarely threatened the lives of those hired to make the happy day pass with a bang. According to the BBC, that just changed.

A bridge and groom in Italy hired a small plane to fly past the wedding party and drop a bouquet for a line of women guests to catch. Alas, the flowers never quite made it that far, electing instead to dive into one of the engine intakes thereby bringing the whole shooting match down, destroying a hostel in the process.

Thinking laterally, therefore, can't we save some money by using ground-to-air daffodils instead of missiles to protect key installations from attack by, say, the North Korean air force? If a small bouquet can bring down a twin engined plane, just think of the havoc a decent sized floral display could inflict on a fast moving jet fighter? Or, in the case of the aforementioned North Korean air force, a small microlight kitted out-with a paintball gun?

Cut the defence budget & save the country: buy flowers instead.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Firework For The Common Man

Really, I despair. Despite the obvious dangers of playing with what's basically explosives on a stick, it never ceases to amaze quite how stupid some people can be. Now, you may want to blame it drink, drugs or over medication; you may think it's all down to a deprived childhood, poor nutrition from birth or a mother who smoked (crack, most likely); you may even conclude it's just youthful high spirits or a "phase" your precious youngster is going through. Well, it's not. Some people are simply, wholly and utterly congenitally stupid.

I submit in evidence the above. A future Darwin Award winner is shown standing on the bumpers of two adjacent cars while one of his "friends" lights a firework rocket placed directly under his crotch. Yes, it's that dumb. And yes, it has the expected results.

Gives a whole new meaning to the term "crotch rocket" which, as I type this, I now realise probably offers an explanation as to what they hell they thought they were doing. When you are that dim-witted it must make it difficult to accept that this is a term applied to a fast motorcycle, and not something to be taken literally.

Really, I despair.

Monday, July 6, 2009

City View

Even though noting this plan right now is largely an excuse to post one or two more shots of San Francisco, I'm looking forward to doing a two day photography seminar in and around the city at the end of September. Details here. Chris Honeysett has a wonderfully sparse way of looking at things and clearly has a detailed knowledge of San Francisco and how it looks through the lens of a camera.

Meanwhile, this public sculpture is called "Cupid's Span" and sits close to the Bay Bridge, on the Embarcadero. It's part of the overall redevelopment of the entire area following the serendipitous clearing of the ugly freeway that used to blight the area prior to 1989. In addition to the park which contains this sculpture, the main attraction as a result of the regeneration has become the Ferry Building. I'll post a bit more on this later once I get round to doing something with a matching picture, but suffice it to say it's become one of the premier gourmet markets in San Francisco and the centerpiece to an entire waterfront area.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Happy July 4th.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Given that we're doing acronyms this week, here's another: "customer of the week", an accolade I just garnered at the Starbuck's I go to daily when in the office.

On the plus side, free coffee! On the minus side, I will only get there twice this week. Still, fame is fame but fortune is better, so even just two free drinks is better than none.

Happy July 4th!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Yes, "absent without blogging" is indeed the crime, and I plead "guilty as charged".

It's been a busy month, what with a fair bit of travel at the beginning and a quarter close at the end, both combining to take away whatever spare time there ever is in this life and making it seem like 30 days went by in 10.

Having said that, thanks to a friend in San Francisco we managed to see two operas in one June weekend, namely Tosca and Porgy & Bess. I've seen Tosca once before many years ago but didn't remember it that well going in to see this performance. Thankfully, it was a very strong production that was well sung and extremely well acted, so it was easy to reconnect very quickly with the tragic Tosca and the death-by-accidental-but-non-accidental-shooting of her lover, all set against a backdrop of Napoleon's successful Italian campaign of 1800. A very human and - for an Italian opera - very straightforward work that is truly timeless.

For me at least, Porgy and Bess was a complete unknown, other than of course having heard some of Gershwin's music extracted and turned into show tunes over the years. Leaving aside the controversy over what may or may not be no more than stereotypical presentations of African Americans, as a complete operatic body of work it's extremely well written and the performance on the night was absolutely top-notch. As required in the original writing, it featured an all-black cast that collectively delivered performances with real depth and sparkle, ably bringing to the fore the various individual roles that this opera features. Turns out that this is of particular importance here because it's as much an ensemble piece as it is a vehicle for the eponymous Porgy and Bess, something I certainly never realised beforehand.

Couple of interesting things struck me. Firstly, it's clear the drug trade had much better marketing in those days. Branding coke as "happy dust" beats anything the dealers have come up with subsequently. Who wouldn't want to try some happy dust versus, say, a pinch of smack, crack or horse? Secondly, for coastal folk they appear to have an unnatural fear of buzzards. The venerable albatross I could understand; seagulls, too, have their detractors; but buzzards? By the coast? Must be a southern thing.

Ah yes, the race question. It is hard to ignore, so let's not. From my standpoint, the simple answer is that after 75 years it's time to put that whole tortured and difficult debate to the rear, and focus instead on the role it plays as a work of art. And one of the purposes of art, surely, is to reflect the period in which it was produced, capturing a point in time through one of the (now increasing) array of media via which artistic vision can be successfully expressed. "It is what it is", in short; the product of a gifted white male who wanted to use an existing novel by DuBose Heyward as the basis for a folk opera.

What may look dated and stereotypical to us wasn't of course viewed the same way by observers in the mid 1930s, and indeed the work was often met with contemporary criticism regarding its portrayal of poor black workers. This prevailed over many years, and was apparently still evident in the 1970s.

As I saw mentioned elsewhere, it's a worthwhile exercise to perform a little thought experiment here: how differently would we view this work if it comprised the basic same libretto, directions and music, except with an all white setting? Would there have been the same outcry because of the negative view shown of poor white fishermen by such a production? Would we have decried the idea that poor whites can only resolve their problems through violence or temporarily escape their poverty through drink, drugs and gambling? Likely not, and so I prefer to think of this work in a color-blind way, enjoying it as theatre, as opera, as art, and not as a piece of social commentary.

As always, your mileage may vary!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Not An Award You Want To Win

Following on from the last few posts, something caught my eye today as I was checking the news. So here's the question: which country holds the unfortunate record of being the "most bombed nation on earth?"

Turns out the answer isn't WWII-era Germany, Russia or even the UK. The unlucky recipient of this dubious award is in fact Laos, at least according to this article. During the Vietnam war, some two million tons of high explosive rained down on Laos, costing some $7 billion dollars in total. This tonnage, "exceeds all the raids launched by every side in Europe during the whole of World War II."

Alas, the danger is not past. In the same article it states that even today there remains some 600,000 tons of unexploded ordnance to plague the population today, leading to an estimated 6,000-plus deaths since 1975.

Despite the obvious dangers, the Laotians have become adept at foraging parts from all the metal littering the countryside, turning them into very serviceable everyday items such as razor blades and roof guttering.

UXO clearance activities are proceeding, and it's actually well paid work in a country where high levels of poverty still remain, but with such a huge task facing them it will be many decades yet before the country is given the all clear.

Hope springs eternal that we'll manage to avoid making this kind of mistake in the future, and indeed smart bombs do seem to be greatly reducing the total tonnage used in conflicts whilst in parallel increasing the effectiveness of what is dropped. Still and all, we should never underestimate the ability of the human race to completely screw over the earth and a few of its inhabitants in the name of national security or political influence.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

P-51 Mustang #5

Given that I am now back on US soil once again and replete with access to a (mostly) working PC, combined with broadband that doesn't cost 15 quid a day ... yes, I'm talking about you the Sofitel Hotel at Terminal 5, LHR ... then here's one more shot from the Mustang adventure. I like this one as it evokes a "late-afternoon, mission accomplished, returning to base" kind of feel.

As you may have noticed, I've been posting more black and white shots to my Flickr account to accompany the past few entries. I recently got a copy of George DeWolf's book on black and white processing and printing and so have been trying to put to work some of what's covered in there. Quick form review? Finally, a photographic book that manages to merge together both the artistic with the practical, and from which you can really learn. It does a really good job of starting from scratch, using the science of perception to explain how the brain assembles a view of the world that combines luminance and reflectance, hence pointing the way forward to creating images that really resonate with the viewer. From there, the author walks you through a workflow aimed at unlocking the optimal B&W image from the raw (RAW?) data provided by the image sensor that actually doesn't take into account at all how we see the world around us. George uses both Lightroom and Photoshop in his approach, and via those tools really digs into exactly what it is about a classic, full tone B&W print that gives it the punch and impact that you can see from a mile-off but which I for one have always struggled to systematically produce. Highly recommended.

Oh, and of course the picture above is in colour!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

P-51 Mustang #4

The B-24 was loaded with 5 bombs and was going to be starting its run at around 3,000 feet each time. The Twin Beech was stationed to port of the Liberator and we, in the P-51, were to starboard. As soon as turned onto approach for the drop zone I quickly realised that this was to give the camera plane the luxury of having the sun behind them, shining onto the Mustang and the Liberator and giving the perfect lighting set up. Alas, that meant I was shooting into the sun, hence the need to process the above somewhat to bring back some detail!

Adding in a few practice runs, combined with three single-bomb missions plus one double, we must have spent close to an hour running this segment of the flight, sometimes flying just above or below the flight level held by the B-24 but basically staying in formation.

Accuracy? They were doing pretty well on the north/south line-up, according to the spotters on the ground and in the air at least, but continually striking the ground some 200 to 300 yards to the right of the target. Still, that's not bad for bomb sight technology that's over 60 years old.

All too soon it was time to head back, land, and allow the ground crew to prep the planes for the second mission of the day, one that was now destined to be more like a night raid than a day time one given that it was 6:30 pm already.

All-in-all, a fun day and one I will remember for life. My only disappointment was that at no time do we really push the P-51 to do anything other than fly somewhat meekly around, sticking in the shadow of the B-24. This was a bit like getting a ride in a Ferrari 288 GTO and finding that the driver was limited to doing no more than 50 mph and using only 3,000 rpm. Understandable, but a shame nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

P-51 Mustang #3

Finally, it was time to fly. Getting into the rear cockpit was easy and because of the age of the plane - even though it was pretty much in "as new" condition but brought up to date with modern instruments - I was pleased to get a parachute as well as harness belts. A decent headset rounded off the package along with precise instruction as to where the sick bag was stashed, something that was never even remotely needed.

My pilot, Stu, was pretty well versed in flying these things, having first learned 50 years ago the ins and outs of a P-51 flying, as he said, "when the ammo was still live" during the cold war! In addition, Stu actually owns his own P-51 so it's hard to think of anyone more qualified to sit up front and man the controls.

We taxied out to 29R and took off without drama, setting into a circling patter at 1,500 feet over the airfield waiting for the Twin Beech and B-24 to get airborne and catch up. This seemed to take quite a bit longer than Stu anticipated, but I didn't mind. It was fun just to watch the various planes moving around the airfield and getting prepped for takeoff.

Once the group was together, things headed east to the bombing zone, a mown strip of land graciously donated for the day by a local farmer and sitting some 30 miles east of Stockton.

Monday, June 1, 2009

P-51 Mustang #2

My P-51 ride was really an adjunct to another activity, a two day camp, built around the B-24, aimed at giving participants a feel for what it was like to fly a mission in one of those WWII bombers, though of course without the risk of being shot at by fiendish, well-gunned Nazis. From what I heard, this involved gunnery training, some history and a fair bit of waiting around, which all sounds to me very authentic, especially the "waiting around" bit.

According to the advance paperwork, I was supposed to accompany the first flight of the day at 10 am. I actually took off just after 4:30 pm so I too got to appreciate the "hurry up and wait" aspect of the armed services. Still, that gave me plenty of time to roam around with the camera for a while. And yes, Stockton in the summer means very harsh light with temperatures to match, hence the extensive use of black and white in the pictures I'll be posting!

In good war time fashion, participants took the opportunity to scrawl on the ordnance encouraging slogans intended, presumably, to give the bomb disposal teams something to read whilst they were dismantling stuff that hadn't gone bang upon impact.

Also associated with the camp were a group from Arizona who were helping out and who dressed the part, setting up shop in the premises of Vintage Aviation, a company run out of Stockton airport who restore vintage equipment, including the Twin Beech seen acting as a camera platform in one of the shots I'm posting. They did a great job and truly added some atmosphere so thanks, guys, much appreciated.

Friday, May 29, 2009

P-51 Mustang #1

Yes, after all that the answer to the quiz was indeed "Mustang", but the airborne version rather than the car. Clue number one was a picture of the 27 litre Merlin engine that transformed the high-altitude behaviour of the plane when it was first tried in the airframe in 1942 as a replacement for the original Allison lump. As a result, the P-51, as it was now designated, became a powerful, multi-role aircraft that carved it's own legend into the skies over Europe and the Far East.

The version shown above is the only two seat instance of the P-51 ever produced and not a configuration the War Department ever commissioned. This conversion was done by a wealthy previous owner who did a ground-up restoration - more like "created a new plane from scratch", in fact - who wanted a professional pilot to fly it while he could ride shotgun in the rear cockpit. Subsequently, this plane was bought by the Collings Foundation for around $2.5m and now operates for some 500 hours a year at various location offering rides to the lucky (i.e. those willing to spend the money) passengers. Such as me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Clue Two

For what I'll be up to tomorrow, that is. But don't read this one literally .... though "catching air" is an integral part of the process. Just add the above to the first clue and I'm sure the answer will become clear!

(Original poster from here at 4.99 GBP, which is a real bargain if you ask me.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Swine Fever Fever

If you have a cold or are "a lady of a certain age", don't whatever you do travel to Japan just now. You won't like what will happen to you. And neither will those around you, as you all find yourselves in quarantine for 7 days. Oh yes, it's swine fever fever all over again.

I got a note Sunday morning from United that my Tokyo flight was delayed by 50 minutes. I was a bit surprised as the weather was set clear and sunny both ends of the route, so just put it down to the normal on-going decay of United's fleet of 747s. ("Ah, no, sorry, that particular model is out of warranty now, and anyway with that mileage on the clock what do you expect? Stuff's bound to be breaking down and falling off.")

It was only when on-board that there was an announcement as to the real reason for the slippage: new health checks in Tokyo! Oh. Joy. In addition to the usual immigration and customs documentation, we now had to fill out a hastily printed (and hastily translated by the look of it) medical history form basically asking, "do you now, or have you ever, had a temperature?" Well hopefully I have some sort of temperature otherwise I'm dead, but I'll let that pass. It also asked if you were on any suspicious drugs. No, not methamphetamine, but rather anti-virals, anti-colds or I suppose anti-swine medication.

In true Japanese form, such things are not to be taken lightly. Failure to pass either the written or the infra-red exam - and more on that in a minute - will mean being in medical quarantine for 7 days. But on the plus side, you'll be accompanied by those seated within a 2 meter radius of your seat just so they can be doubly sure to have locked up all the likely suspects. Yes, it's pointless, but at least it's thoroughly pointless.

12 hours later we pull up to the gate at Narita. We are ordered to stay seated. We obey. A posse of booted-and-suited medical staff come on board in order to deal with the unclean load of foreigners who are now cluttering up their nice clean, sanitary airport. Not only are they wearing face masks but they have eye screens, nylon bunny suits, latex gloves and small rubber boots. Somewhere a British MP is probably dreaming of such things, but if so they were in First Class getting a private examination. We just wanted to get off the bloody plane.

First off, one of them whips out an infra-red camera and starts scanning the entire aircraft, row by row, looking a bit like some sort of post-apocalypse photographer trying to record the mayhem laid out before them. Heaven help you if you were a bit menopausal at the time because you'd really have a hard time explaining to some poor student why you didn't have swine flu but rather were pumping heat into the plane because of an untimely hormonal imbalance. English wasn't their first language, nor even the second; I think it ranked somewhere down at 47 just after that African tounge clicking thing. The poor girl checking the form was therefore running her finger over each and every line, slowly & meticulously checking every single entry, including seat number, destination and whether or not you were going to escape into the wilds of Japan to "go traveling about" as it put it. Engaging in a dialogue on any point whatsoever would undoubtedly lead you straight to medical jail, albeit with much bowing and apologising, so it's better just to sit still and stay cool. Literally.

Fortunately I passed, apparently chilled enough to be allowed entry despite the steam now coming from my ears at being stuck here for 40 minutes and missing the bus I planned to catch. I was given a green piece of paper that seemingly signified I was in rude health. And I quote, "This document is to certify that you have passed quarantine inspection". Well, good then. However, not so fast. "If you have any symptom such as coughing, you are requested to wear a mask for preventing the spread of infection. These requests are made to protect you as well as your family." Given my family isn't in Japan, "not so much" on this one.

Apart from now now having to stand in another line in order to wave the green bit of paper at yet more officials, I could now sneeze free from fear of incarceration, cough without concern. However, I should perhaps point out that standing in a corridor for 10 minutes, packed cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of other people from around the world, to hand in said bit of paper to said officials probably exposed me to even more risk of catching the flu that anything that I was going to see on the plane. Sigh.

No idea how long they will stick with this, but it's still a big story here so I expect it will be a while. It's not being applied across the board, just on flights arriving from countries with known cases of swine flu. On the plus side, no one yet seems to have realised that seasonal flu has way more impact than the swine kind so hopefully this is just temporary and won't become a much loved feature of every trip here. And at least it's being done very, very politely. Woe betide the poor traveller arriving into Paris if the French authorities ever think "that looks fun" and decide to join in. Doesn't bear thinking about.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Drones, But With A Real Sting

We've all seen mention of late of the increasing role played in Iraq and Afghanistan by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) but it wasn't until I saw this video did it hit home quite how powerful a weapon they have now become. It's a web-version of a 60 Minutes piece (US television documentary show) that goes inside the control center for surveillance missions flown by these vehicles and really helps explain why they are changing the nature of how war is being waged in the 21st century.

Near the end you will see a segment where the reporter is shown, via an overhead view, standing on the apron in front of a hanger talking to two men. It's clear who is who and is obviously a real-time feed. However, tt was then pointed out that the images were taken from a UAV flying at a quie remarkable altitude of 10,000 feet over the airfield. And despite being told exactly where it was, the reporter could neither see nor hear it. Now, hold that thought.

In an earlier segment combat footage is used, this time taken in the infra-red spectrum. According to the commentary, what's being shown is a pair of insurgents that have just attacked a US patrol. You can clearly see one of the men is holding a "hot" object that looks like a rifle, the heat signature apparantly due to it having just been fired. For them, the bad news was that the UAV monitoring them has a laser targeting system and carries matching bomb accessories. The vengeance metered out from on high is therefore swift, merciless and delivered without any warning whatsoever. The result is not pretty, but it is devastatingly effective.

The eerie thing is that all these missions are "flown" from a command past in California, with only the take off and landing being managed my operatives in-country. Pilots have breakfast at home with their families, drive to the office, clock on, fly remote surveillance and combat missions, clock off and drive home in time for dinner. "Good day at the office, dear?" "Not too bad. Killed some insurgents and helped track the safe withdrawal of a covert ops team. What's for dinner?"

Change has a habit of creeping up on you unannounced. It taps you on the shoulder and makes you jump rather than coming at you from the front where you can track it as incoming. And ans you will see, this is one big change that's sneaking around out there.

So far, this is largely an airborne capability that's being deployed, but how long before there are ground-based equivalents, all handled from somewhere safe, air conditioned and softly humming, connected to the sharp end of war by nothing more tangible than a satellite link? It's not hard to see how a tank could be managed via the same capability so likely the next step is not that far off. Combine the two and you can now see a way to have entirely remote missions, comprising joint air and land-borne assets, all deployed and managed from far away and handled via satellites. Terminator 4 anyone?

On the plus side, there are clearly costs to be saved both in terms of human life and equipment, and it offers a very powerful way to support existing ground operations. But on the down side, you have to be concerned at how much more likely it will be that civilian casualties increase as a side effect of boots on the ground instead becoming eyes in the sky. Regardless, life - and now war - increasingly becomes a video game. We in Silicon Valey are not surprised.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Yup, Still Here

Not been posting much for a while here, largely because work has consumed even more cycles than usual. Back on the road next week in Japan before returning for a few days and then going to a trade show in Orlando and onto Europe. However, in between I do have something fun planned. Clue above .... care to guess what?

More news soon.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It's Gonna Be Huge ... Trust Me

Nope, not a bad line from a 1970s porn film but rather what must have been the pitch for satellite radio back in the early 1990s. Forged in the "white heat" of the US computing and technology boom, both Sirius and XM offered a future where radio finally got away from the old AM/FM days of narrow coverage, incessant advertising and limited programming choice, finally to become a first class citizen in the personal entertainment field.

For a while all seemed to go well, with both companies making headlines by grabbing key talent and competing with each other to win more of the key car brands "factory included" lists. Alas, that phase was pretty short lived. Before long it became clear that the only viable market, despite the early promise, was indeed in-car entertainment, a market that suddenly was being radically changed thanks to the iPod.

There's nothing wrong whatsoever with the system, programming or anything else (though my BMW factory-fit receiver still loses the signal too often for my tastes) but what is a problem is the $12.95 a month. In practice, I'm sure most drivers use one, or at most, two, satellite channels, supplemented these days with HD radio (free) and their own personal toons via an iPod (also free).

In my case, BBC World Service is the "go to" gig, with an occasional foray into Radio 1 just to see what the yoof of the UK is up to. For me, the BBC is always worth listening too, which is why I stream Radio 4 over the Internet at work all day long for the princely sum of zero dollars and nil cents.

While I'm willing to fork over the readies, the chart above shows that I might well be in the minority. Add to that unwillingness of Joe-public driver to spend the cash, that dramatic fall off in car sales is pulling the rug completely from under the merged Sirius XM group. Even if they are able to keep a significant percentage of the subscribers who already use the service active, the underlying trend of sharply declining new additions, thanks to miserable new car sales, is weighing down the company to the point of exhaustion.

Personally, I hope they manage to get back to a path of regular growth and regardless have a business model that allows them to stay solvent. But however you look at it, "huge" has turned out to be less than tumescent and more along the lines of "deflating fast". Alas, in this case it's pretty hard to see the satellite radio equivalent of Viagra showing up any time soon.

Listen long, my son, because soon it may be gone.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Once A Green Pioneer ....

[Images: The Santa Cruz Wave Motor, originally from Scientific American; via John Haskey].

Over the past year or so, much has been written about how Silicon Valley is reinventing itself as the centre of the green energy movement. VC money has been flowing thick and fast down that particular hill, especially when the gradient was steepened by oil being over $100 a barrel as it was until the economy fell off a cliff in 2008. However, despite the price collapse the long-term needs are clear enough that this particular wave continues to build, and green energy is therefore still a hot sector here in Silicon Valley.

What I didn't though realise, until a day or so ago, is that we've been here before. Silicon Valley was a leader in pioneering new forms of renewable energy over a century ago, a crown it's now starting to polish up all over again.

In the late 19th century, economic develop was a function of how much local access there was to one or more sources of energy. Without yet an extensive electricity generation and distribution system, the ability of individual communities to develop manufacturing businesses was therefore naturally very limited. However, the one thing you can be sure of in the USA in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, is that there is no shortage of creative thinkers willing to tackle even the most daunting of challenges, and so it was with energy supply.

As detailed here, there arose in California a whole series of machines intended to extract power from the sea in order to help foster industrial development along the state's extensive coastline, including right here in the Bay Area.

In 1877, an Oakland resident filed a patent for tidal-driven wave power. Over the next 20 years, a string of water-powered motors of various designs sprung up along the California coast from San Francisco southwards, including installations at Capitola and another in Santa Cruz.

Closest to home, the machine in Santa Cruz was up and running by 1898, providing, in this instance, pumped sea water for street cleaning and dust control.

The wave motor was basically a column inside the cliff, connected to the sea via another tunnel below the water lever. Inside the first tunnel was a float connected to a pump; as the water level inside this system rose and fell with the waves, so too did the float, allowing water to be pumped from a valve-controlled chamber up to street level.

This simple but effective system served the community well for 12 years, acting as both pump and tourist attraction rolled into one.

Just over one hundred years later, California is again looking to wave power to help float it's economy. PG&E has signed a deal to take electricity from a wave generation station due to go live in 2012. Furthermore, California has a plan to derive 33% of the state's energy requirements from green sources by 2020, so this is only the beginning.

Hopefully, the results this time around will be both better and longer-lived, but regardless it's amazing just how California is now sailing down routes that it has already explored long ago. Innovation, it seems, truly is part of California's genetic makeup, and access to abundant energy in order to foster economic growth remains an absolute priority.