Another HDR Experiment

As I said in the last posting, the effect of HDR is most dramatic when there is a wide variation in light and dark areas. Lit night-time scenes are the best subjects, but those are in short supply around here so I have to make do with subjects closer to home.

I was looking around the lounge this morning in search of inspiration when I noticed some ornaments on the main shelf of our dresser. I moved one or two things around, set my camera up for HDR exposures, and after manipulating the image a little on the computer I got this image:

I really like the colours, the way the HDR processing has brought out the grain of the wood, and how the special filters I applied give the photo the look of a painting.

There is a whole world of HDR creativity out there waiting to be discovered!

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Getting back into photography

You may have noticed (you probably haven’t) that once again I have been completely rubbish at updating the blog. This has been due to a bit of a crisis of direction: finding it difficult to set aside time to really focus and write something good, I have chosen instead to neglect this blog and do other things. Those other things include practising writing by unloading my brain onto the keyboard–but you wouldn’t want to read THAT–, and renewing my interest in digital photography.

I have always been a pretty good photographer, but up until recently was satisfied with the results that came right out of the camera. Lately I’ve been connecting with professional photographers on Google+ and their work and advice has inspired me to try harder and see just how good my results can get.

Time for a couple of examples: first, HDR..

Ambassador's Residence, British Embassy, Luanda, Angola.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography involves combining three of more images of the same subject, all taken at different exposure levels. The result gives more detail than you could ever get with a single digital exposure but the process is a bit involved; definitely not something you’d want to do with every picture you take. In addition to “HDR-ing” the image above I added a paint effect, and the final image looks kind of hand-coloured.

Luanda by night

The effects of HDR are even more pronounced in night photography, since there is more variation in highlights and shadow. Using this method you can get really nice night shots with lots of detail that you would otherwise miss.

My next experiment was making a photo look vintage by artificially ageing it. I found this tutorial very useful in achieving this result:

Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. The original image.

Vintage version of the same shot (done in Pixelmator)

It’s amazing what you can do with digital photography if you’re prepared to invest a little time and effort. You can see full-size copies of these and other photos of mine on my new SmugMug page.

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Water Water Everywhere…

Boat trips are a holiday staple, and I consider any holiday that isn’t at least in part on the water to be incomplete. Our hotel in Mumbai was right next to The Gateway Of India, which is also where most of the city’s boat trips begin, so each morning as we headed out into town we had to run a gauntlet of hawkers trying to sell us tours of the harbour. Finally we plumped for the trip to Elephanta Island, which is about an hour’s boat ride away.
By the time we got to the island we realised that we’d left it a bit late in the day (not setting off until 3pm). As the passengers disembarked (or de-boated if you’re American) we were told that the last boat of the day would be setting off at 5.30. By this time it was alrready 4.30 so that gave us just an hour to tour the island’s caves: not as easy as it sounds.

The boat dock is at the end of a long and narrow concrete causeway, so to even reach the island you either have to walk the two hundred yards or pay 10 Rupees each for a return ticket on the narrow gauge railway. The train was one of those little ones with open carriages like you get at theme parks, only older, noisier, and bumpier. Being a 5 Star kind of guy I paid the 40 Rupees for the family to travel in style. The five minute journey was spent watching the half-dozen stray dogs that ran alongside hoping for tidbits and recovering from the whiplash injuries sustained from the train’s jerky start. Once we reached land the sheer folly of the task ahead was clear. Before us rose a long, twisting stone stairway leading up into the hills. The stairs were wet and slippery, lined on both sides by souvenir stalls and covered by sheets of blue plastic sheeting to keep the rain off. By the time we’d reached the top of the climb we were exhausted and sweaty, and had already used up a third of our available time.

We fast-walked to the first cave and took a couple of photos, then headed off in search of the second (there are five). Just short of the second cave we found a toilet block and I was starting to get anxious about missing the boat back, so Elliot went on to view cave #2 on our behalf while the rest of us powdered our noses. The trip back down the stairway was quicker, partly because we were now going down but also because the stall vendors had all shut up shop for the day–another danger sign that time was running out. At the bottom of the hill I bought some snacks and drinks–what with the heat, the exertion, and the anxiety, my blood sugar was running low–then boarded the rickety train back. Once again the train jerked into life without warning, and once again we had stray dog outriders. They looked at me with eternal hope in their eyes as I scoffed all the chocolate biscuits in the pack while staring blankly back.

We made it to the boat with a few minutes to spare and sat down facing four young Indian lads who had all bought large corn on the cobs. As we set off back to Mumbai across the grey, choppy waters we faced each other: I with my crisps and Coke and they with their corn. Further over to my right were two men with a small boy, sitting by the guard rail.

A little later I finished my crisps and looked around for a litter bin. On not finding one, I did what any law-abiding Brit would do and put the litter in my bag until I’d find a bin at the dock. The four Indian lads were less scrupulous, and one by one as they finished their corn they got up, walked over to where the two men and boy were sitting and threw their rubbish over the side. By this time we were about halfway back, and one of the two men–whom I took to be the boy’s father–was starting to look queasy. I’m not prone to seasickness myself but I could see how the boat’s rocking and tilting could set one off. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he jumped up and threw up over the side of the boat. The rest of us looked on, part in sympathy and part with worry about wind direction. He sat down again, looking pale, but was up and hurling again soon after. This second lot also stayed outside the boat, to group relief, and afterward he stood there leaning over the edge, trying to regain his composure. It was at this point that Abigail remembered the bottle of water she had in her bag. She’d brought it from the hotel room and it was still unopened. Thinking the sick man would appreciate some fresh water she walked over and gave the bottle to his friend/brother. He immediately and silently took it and dropped it over the side. We exchanged a few “what just happened there?” looks with our fellow passengers, all of whom had been on Vomit Alert this whole time, and so had been watching the proceedings carefully. The man quickly realised his error and smiled awkwardly, to muted titters. Sick Man, oblivious, remained with his back to us, gazing out to sea and wishing he had some water.

Posted in Humour, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

MBS Alert!

In my dreams I have unlimited funds and a big house with two double garages situated perfectly amid twisting country roads, but with easy access to the motorway network and within an hour’s drive of London.

And in my dreams I have MBS, or Multiple Bike Syndrome.

Yes, my second double garage would house my collection of motorcycles, one for each of my moods. I’ve been spending a bit of time on Yamaha’s website lately, wondering which bike to get next. I love my CB1300 (Honda) to bits, and there is nothing at all wrong with it, but with so many great bikes and so little time before I’m either too fat or too arthritic to ride, I want to play the field and sample the variety of experiences that motorcycling has to offer.

Yamaha is a great brand and it’s looking likely that my next purchase will sport the Three Tuning Forks.

In fact, If my dreams came true and I could truly succumb to my MBS lust I could get my collection off to a great start without ever having to leave the Yamaha dealership:

I’d have these four:

The Fazer Thou, for everyday use and Sunday morning ridess

The FZ-1 Fazer is undoubtedly the best all-rounder of the bunch, providing a more comfortable riding position than the R1 but with a good portion of its superbike performance. This is the one for flicking around the Twisties on a Sunday morning, and filtering through traffic on the North Circular during the week.

The FJR-1300A, for long trips and weekends away

With all-day riding comfort promised by the adjustable seat, handlebars, and screen, and with heated grips and matching side cases as standard, the FJR-1300 is the Daddy. Perfect for long weekends away with the Missus (if I can get her near it). If Radley did motorcycle leathers I might stand a chance…

The R1, for track days and short sharp adrenaline hits

The R1 is Yamaha’s road-legal superbike, and an insanely fast machine. Crippling on my back after anything longer than an hour, but Fun with a capital F.

...and the MT-01 for posing at The Ace Cafe

And finally there’s the MT-01. I love this bike’s aggresive stance, massive throaty V-Twin engine and high level twin exhausts. A real head turner. This is the one I’d choose for showing off in The Ace Cafe car park.

Ooh, I’m getting all hot under the collar just imagining it. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I’ll only be able to afford one, so it’ll almost certainly be the FJR-1300, the Old Man’s Bike of the bunch. I don’t even know why I’m thinking about this now though–my next bike is at least a year away. Still, it’s nice to dream…

Posted in "There Is A God!", Ageing, Two wheels | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Drowning in Apps

“Middle-aged man beats himself to death with iPad. Coroner records a verdict of ‘Appcidental Death’.”

WEEKEND CHORES

  • Take out the rubbish
  • Clean out the fridge
  • Update my apps

Don’t get me wrong: I love my iPad, but having to keep all my apps in tip top condition is becoming as much a chore as weeding the garden or cutting my toenails. You can keep putting it off, and you hardly notice the day-to-day difference, but in the back of your mind you know the problem is getting steadily worse and that the longer you leave it, the more traumatic attending to it will eventually be.

Here are the four horsemen of my App-ocalypse:

1. New Apps
New apps come out all the time, each doing what they do better than the competition. On my iPad I have two calculators, three news readers, five “Ideas” apps (that I never use but can’t bring myself to delete, because I’m sure they’ll come in handy one day), and more games than I care to count.
Why do I keep buying/downloading new apps that do the same thing as my existing apps? Because they’re newer, and shinier, and they often improve on what went before. My three news-readers are: Pulse, Blogshelf, and Flipboard, all of which do similar things, but they each have characteristics that irritate me, and some that delight me, so I end up keeping all three and using them in different ways.
And games? They’re my little treat to myself; I buy myself a new game whenever I’m at a loose end or need cheering up. After all, it’s only £1.79, right? It’s frightening how all those £1.79’s and £0.59’s add up. I have no idea how much money I’ve spent in the App Store, and I don’t want to know. All I do know is, I only use around 20% of what I’ve bought, the rest having been discarded to the bottom of my digital toy box. And you can’t sell them on eBay.

2. Updates
Vendors regularly update their apps to keep pace with the competition. Whether it is to fix a bug or to add a new feature or two, when a vendor publishes an update, users get the famous little Red Notification Button on their device to announce the update’s availability. The button counter increments for each app update that is added to the store, so if you don’t attend to it regularly the number creeps up. Just like the number of unread emails in my inbox, the update notification sits there quietly stressing me out, reminding me that I have chores to do. ITunes provides the same nagging reminder, but at least I get to choose whether to update an app directly on the device (and have it copy to iTunes on the next sync), or download the update in iTunes and do the reverse. My iPad is currently nagging me that I have 19 updates waiting.

The Dreaded Red Button

Part-way through the update marathon

3. Two iTunes Store accounts
I bought my iPad in the U.S., before it was released in the U.K., because I’m an early adopter (sometimes referred to as a show-off). The U.K. App Store had not yet opened so I got myself an account on the U.S. store. This seemed like a good idea at the time, and for a while I happily bought apps, games and books so that I could show off one of the first fully kitted out iPads in the U.K. Shortly afterward the U.K. App Store opened and the problem went away.

Or did it?

NO.

The problem I have had to carry with me ever since is that updates are tied to the Apple ID used to purchase them. So now when my Red Button tells me I have 19 updates to install, some of them are tied to my U.K. ID and some to the U.S. one, and I have no way of telling which is which (unless I go through them manually and make notes, which I can’t be bothered to do). If I try to get updates on my iPad I get prompted to enter my Apple ID and password each time, and it gets VERY tedious having to continually sign out of one store and into the other, then back again, then back again, then… you get the idea. Things are slightly better in iTunes—you only ‘see’ the updates from the store you are currently signed into—so now I use that because at least I only have to sign out and in once.

4. Multiple Devices
I also have an iPod Touch, and it too uses the same App Store and Red Button system. Things are further complicated by the fact that some apps are iPod Touch and iPhone, some are iPad only, and some are universal (buy once, run anywhere). When I got the iPad I stopped using apps on the iPod Touch, and now use it only for music, but all the apps and games I used to use are still there, and my little Red Button count currently stands at a neglected 37. True, I can grab all the updates in iTunes, but I still have to sync both devices separately, which doesn’t seem worth it for the iPod seeing as I don’t use those apps anymore.


1+2+3+4=AAARGHH!

So thanks Apple. You make lovely toys and I can’t stop myself from buying them, but all the time I saved by having my digital life made portable I now spend trying to keep my iOS house in order.

How likely is it that iCloud will solve all my problems? Not very.

Posted in Rants, Technology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Two Moving Dining Experiences

I like to eat out. So do lots of other people. With so many places to choose from, what kind of new tactics can restaurateurs employ to make their own establishment stand out? One interesting approach is to switch attention away from the menu and look at how you can make the dining area itself more dynamic and engaging. I had two dining experiences recently in restaurants that change while you eat. One was a glitzy and expensive place in Las Vegas, where the ‘changes’ were hi-tech and choreographed like a Cirque du Soleil show, and the other was a casual and expensive place in Luanda, where they were a little more incidental.

Encore Las Vegas (pic courtesy vegasdealexpert.com)

Encore is one of Las Vegas’s newer hotels and suffers from the need to outdo its older neighbours to attract business. The casino is quite extraordinary: imagine walking into the vestibule of the palace of a Disney princess with a gambling habit and whose favourite colours are red and gold, and you won’t be far off. From the thick red carpets to the ornate golden pillars, all carefully lit to bring out the reddy-goldness of everything, the place is dripping with opulence. The Las Vegas Strip is a World Wonder of spectacle, yet Encore succeeds in taking it even further over the top.

The slots pay out in fairy dust (pic: playnowonline.tk)

Among the half dozen or so restaurants that border the casino is Switch Steak, so called because the restaurant likes to switch and because they do steak. As we perused our menus and the wine list (which was as thick as a Bible) we kept one eye on our surroundings, waiting for something to happen. It was actually quite distracting having your attention pulled in two directions at once. The stubbornly motionless dining room was preventing me from choosing what to order, with its promise of imminent animated spectacle.

Switch, about to switch (pic from blog.offandaway.com)

Then it happened: the music changed and got louder, the lighting changed colour, and the restaurant started to move about. The formerly flat ceiling started drawing itself up into a hidden vaulted space, rose light fittings became hanging chandeliers, and dividing walls ascended into recesses in the ceiling, exposing a garden on one side and the back of the cocktail bar on the other. It’s like being on a Disney ride, only you stay still while the ride gyrates around you. I looked around at the other diners while all this was going on. Some—like us—were gazing around in wonder at the show, while others just got on with their conversations and meals. I wondered how they could just ignore the fact that the building in which they were dining was moving around them. Of course the answer became apparent as the evening went on; Switch changes from low ceilinged, walled in, to high ceilinged, open plan every half hour, so for those approaching dessert the novelty was  wearing off. And it got a bit old for us too, spectacular as it is. During the second half of the meal we studiously ignored it all. It had ceased to be thrilling and original and had instead become merely irritating, even to the point of intruding on our privacy. The meal was very good but very expensive, and I’m glad of the experience, but I feel no desire for a repeat performance.

Thursday nights in Luanda are Dinner-on-the-Ilha-Night for Karen and me, and last night we went to Coconuts. Like most other restaurants on the Ilha, Coconuts is a beach club where you can rent a sun lounger by day and enjoy cocktails and dinner at night, under a canvas roof strung between palm trees, with muted lighting and chillout music completing what is intended to be a sophisticated tropical vibe.

Coconuts (pic: coconutsluanda.blogspot.com

It tries hard but doesn’t quite live up to my description; the food and wine are overpriced (this is Luanda) and even in the dark you can see unsightly detritus on the beach, including, last night, a discarded chest freezer. The way Coconuts ‘changes’ is very different from Switch. It’s usually quiet when we go and last night was no exception, with about three quarters of the tables empty. The waiters seem to be trying to make up for this by constantly moving them about. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of watching waiters hurriedly reconfiguring a dining area to accommodate a large party, or putting tables back after a large party has left. Well that’s what they do at Coconuts all the time, but the large party never seems to come. As we sat choosing what to order a table floated past us at head height, closely followed by three chairs, and the same thing happened again when our meals arrived. I looked around for the big group they were clearly preparing for but there wasn’t one. It’s as if the Manager tells them to do this just to keep them busy and to give the impression that they’re gearing up for another busy night. It was during the third bout of table carrying that all the lights went out and the music stopped. No Disney-style entertainment this, but a simple power cut. When the power goes out in a public place in Luanda everyone cheers, so we cheered. This is a regular occurrence and on this occasion we were dark for about ten minutes. Everyone got on quietly with their meals, just about able to see what they were eating in the moonlight. Then the lights came back on and we all cheered again.

Next time we go out I’d quite like to eat somewhere where the lights stay on and the furniture stays put.

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Somewhere, Anyone?

My friend Keith and I were both wifeless last weekend, so we decided to go to the cinema at Belas Shopping in Luanda Sul. Their website is not always helpful, and always in Portuguese, so you can only get an approximate idea of what fillums are showing (I posted on Facebook the other day that I would henceforth say ‘fillum’ instead of ‘film’. I’ve only done it once (just now) and I’m already fed up with it).

Being wild and impulsive types we thought we’d just turn up at lunchtime, grab a bite to eat and then choose what to see based on the posters and start times. Lunch over (not worth writing about, food court), we strolled into the foyer to peruse the posters. There were no ‘Big’ films on—by ‘Big’ I mean films that I’ve heard about, seen trailers of, and particularly want to see. The usual male-oriented fare such as Unknown, Fast Five, Limitless, Hangover II, were on offer but didn’t blow our skirts up, so in the end we plumped for Sofia Copolla’s Somewhere: a film neither of us had heard of. We knew about her Oscar for Lost In Translation, but I haven’t seen that either and I don’t know whether Keith has.

Somewhere was interesting.

The film is about the private life of a young and good-looking movie star in Hollywood and attempts to show how dull, repetitive and unfulfilling his life is off-set. It’s a good subject for examination but any such treatment is bound to result in a film in which very little happens. There are no car chases (although he does voice concerns about being followed), no explosions, no guns, no fights. So, the question is: is it worth watching?

Before I tell you what I thought, watch Dr. Mark Kermode’s review. Somewhere prompted one of his famous rants:

…bit harsh.

Kermode and Mayo, for those who don’t know them, host a weekly film review show on BBC Radio 5 Live, and they video the studio at the same time. Mark is usually a bit over the top; talking about films on the radio I guess it behooves the presenter to inject some theatrical energy into the reviews. That’s Mark’s style and usually I find it very funny. This one is still funny I guess, but I disagree somewhat with his comments on the film.

I quite liked Somewhere. After a disconcerting start during which Keith and I exchanged worried looks, we realised what the film was trying to do and accepted the long periods of nothing-much-happening as a frank observation of the emptiness of fame when the curtain falls. The protagonist, Johnny Marco, is only seen off-set: driving around, vegging out in his hotel room, and so on. I had never heard of Chateau Marmont until I watched the Kermode video, so while watching the film without realising the legendary status of the place he was staying in, some scenes made more sense in retrospect than they did at the time. For example there’s a scene where Johnny steps into the lift, followed by Benicio Del Toro–playing himself I guess. As the lift ascends Benicio says, “What room are you in?”, to which Johnny replies, “59.” Benicio gives a little smile and says, “Cool. I met Bono in 59,” and then they get out of the lift and go their separate ways. At the time I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, but I do now. It’s this sort of assuming-you’re-‘with it’-regarding-the-Hollywood-lifestyle that Kermode hates, and I too found irritating. Johnny gets an access visit from his 11-year-old daughter, which turns into a prolonged stay, and it’s when Cleo is around that his life starts to resemble normality: out go the pole-dancing twins making house calls and in comes Guitar Hero on the Wii, card games and cooking. Yes, it’s a bit self-indulgent. Yes, it’s irritating and boring at times, but throughout I ‘got’ what Copolla was trying to convey and found it meaningful, sad, but also reassuring: the film made me feel a bit better about not being rich and famous myself. Not much, but a bit.

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