Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon is just outside Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert. As you can see in the photo, the origin of the name is very clear: the rocks are red.


(ISO 100, f/10.0, 18mm, 1/250 sec) (click for full-size view)

There is a visitors centre nearby, and a scenic loop rood you can drive on – which is good, because the Nevada desert can be a very hot place and this is a very large area. There are multiple walking trails, too, but this photo was taken in July of 2009, in the middle of summer, so I didn’t really walk around all that much.

Photography

Over the last few years – since the last time I wrote here – I’ve been dedicating more time to photography. It’s been a hobby of mine for quite a while, and I’ve been putting a bit more effort into improving at it recently, including both thinking more about the photos I take and spending time to post-process them.

Then, in the last few months I started going over my collection of photos from the last ten years or so and picking up “the good ones” to work on. I ended up with a small selection of photos that I really like; some of them are particularly beautiful, some are technically good or difficult, some simply have emotional value.

I wanted to share these photos – make them visible to more people – but I don’t really want to simply put them into Instagram or Facebook. So, I’ll put them here, maybe one every week or so, in a random order (thanks to random.org) and let’s see if anyone sees them.

This is the first one. Click on it for a full size view.


(ISO 100, f/5.0, 50mm, 1/125 sec)

I took this one at the Floriade, in Canberra, in September of 2015. It was a cloudy day, so not the best light to photograph flowers, but this one came out pretty good. I just wish the bee were looking towards the camera.

Scary things

[this is a somewhat long post that’s not really about cats]

In the spirit of Halloween (if somewhat late)… a few weeks ago I listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman where he was asked what’s the thing or event that had scared him the most, ever. His answer had to do with reading one of his stories in public; if I were asked that, until very recently what follows is the story I would tell.

My wife and I have a cat. It is a somewhat large cat. Not fat; large, as in a large breed. We got him from a shelter as a kitten, so as far as we know he’s not a pure breed anything, but he has many of the features of a breed called Norwegian Forest Cat – like long tufts of hair in his ears and extending down between his toes, which are both adaptations to snowy climates (sadly, our cat has never seen snow). And the size, of course; Norwegian Forest Cats are some of the largest domestic cats around. You may be wondering, well, how large can this cat be? And I’ll tell you: when I’m sitting on a chair, if the cat stands up on his hind legs and stretches one of his front legs up, he can almost reach my shoulders.

Which brings me to the story I was going to tell. You see, cats can move around very, very quietly. Let me tell you, when you’re home alone, in a very silent house, concentrating on something on your computer, and all of a sudden someone taps you on the shoulder from behind… yeah, quite scary.

These days, though, what scares me a bit is Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. But this is not entirely Amazon’s fault; it is a bit because of Netflix, a bit because of Taylor Swift, and a lot because of Benjamin Crowell.

You may not have heard of Benjamin Crowell. He is a physics teacher in California, but also a sci-fi writer. One of his short stories, “A Hole in the Ether”, appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in 2013. That story is set in a not-too-distant future – 60 years ahead or so – where copyright is very, very important. All devices verify and enforce that any content being seen or heard has been properly licensed; any unlicensed content is reported to the authorities, and penalties are kind of harsh. There’s no such thing as “public domain” or “fair use”; there’s no such thing as “buying” content, either: all content is streamed, even books. And you can’t even turn back the pages without paying for a repeat “performance” – can’t let people stream the same content twice, now can you? Of course, you can only stream content that is available for streaming, and since books are seen as “long-form entertainment” with limited replayability (reading a book takes several hours, few people reread books) media companies are not that interested in that market; most books that are not tied in to recent movies or that are not otherwise famous are not often available (the story revolves around an old phone – from the 2020s – that is left as inheritance when someone dies and that contains an archive of thousands of public-domain books, obviously not licensed and therefore illegal to read; the story doesn’t really end well).

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? So, that’s what Kindle Unlimited reminded me of. Not much – just a bit. Kindle Unlimited lets you read books without buying them, in a subscription model that looks very much like what we’ve had for music for a while now – Spotify, Pandora, Google Music, all do this kind of thing. And they all have this inherent flaw that, well, you can only stream what you’re allowed to. What’s there today may not be there tomorrow, as Taylor Swift so aptly reminded all of us last week. But what got me thinking a bit about this even before that was Netflix, where I had “Battlestar Galactica” (the new version) in my queue for a while, and it was suddenly gone as if it had never existed – the contract expired on Oct 1st so the show is gone. Sure, it’s not like I don’t have enough stuff in my queue, but still, what’s next? Do I have to rush and finish all seasons of “The West Wing” quickly? I learned recently that Ken Burns’ documentaries were almost dropped last July as well, and I haven’t even started with “The Civil War” yet; do I need to find a quiet corner and some 12 spare hours as soon as possible? There is a constant “flow” of content that goes away from Netflix at seemingly arbitrary times.

(I later found out that there are sites where you can see what content will expire soon; as of today, I have 5 days to finally watch “Donnie Darko” before it expires, but “The West Wing” seems safe)

Of course, you can still buy music any time. And DVDs, as long they’re not from Disney. And books, on paper and on bits, DRM notwithstanding. But, you see, I can very easily see a path from the world of today to the world of “A Hole in the Ether”, and widespread DRM, widespread streaming and Kindle Unlimited are all steps along that path. I think Kindle Unlimited scares me more than the others because I have more of an emotional attachment to books than to music or film (and, still, I have embraced ebooks entirely very quickly; that may have been foolish).

A counterpoint one could easily make is that we have always had public libraries, and Kindle Unlimited looks quite a bit like a paid library for ebooks (and most public libraries loan out ebooks these days, even). But the thing is, public libraries buy books, and once they have them no publisher is going to pull a book from circulation; and, really, public libraries are not in it for the money, they don’t care that some of their books are not all that popular (that said, I think ebook loans from public libraries probably suffer from the same contractual problems that Kindle Unlimited does). I also happen to think that if public libraries did not exist yet, establishing them nowadays would be nearly impossible, but that’s another story.

Just to make it clear: I don’t think Kindle Unlimited is a bad thing or evil, and I love music subscription services. I think widespread DRM is much worse, and definitely evil; I think content that you buy but that can be taken away from you afterwards is an even worse evil and another step in that bad path; I think abuses of the copyright system are evil; I think geographical restrictions on content are evil. And I would love to live in a world in which all kinds of content were available at all times – a world in which Netflix (or whoever, I’m not picky) were allowed to stream anything ever made would be fantastic. But I’m scared of a world in which the only way to access content is to get it on demand from a limited repertoire and in which “owning” books, music or films is not something one can do – and I see us as a society taking more and more steps in that direction.

And that is scary.

Iceland

Two months ago, I went on holidays to Iceland. I spent two weeks there, driving around the country, and I had a plan of writing sort of a “travel diary”, describing what I did day by day, with photos, maps etc. I would publish that, but it would also work as a “memory enhancement” (helping me remember the trip).

I think by now I should resign myself to the fact that this is not going to happen, but I still feel like I should write something about the trip. So, here goes.

Getting there

From Sydney, you can either go west and fly through southern Asia and Europe, or go east and fly through the USA. The distance is essentially the same in either direction. I went east mostly because it was less expensive; I flew with Virgin Australia to Los Angeles, then with a small airline (Frontier Airlines) from there to Denver, and then with Icelandair to Reykjavík. It was a long trip, but really not that bad. The flight back was the same thing, reversed.

Being there

As I mentioned, I spent most of the time there driving around the country. I booked a “self-drive tour” with a company called Touris – you choose from a set of itineraries, they book the car and all accommodation for you; your job is to fly there and to drive yourself from one hotel to the next. They even picked me up at the airport, which is when they gave me ridiculous amounts of material for the trip: a 400-page road guide, several maps – personalised maps, with the itinerary and all hotels marked very clearly – plus all vouchers for all hotels. They were very helpful, starting way before the trip, while I was still deciding what to do – they would respond to e-mails with questions very quickly and helpfully. The whole experience went as well as it possibly could.

I should probably mention that, in preparing for the trip, one of the most useful sources of information was a blog called I heart Reykjavík, which has information not only about Reykjavík but the whole country; particularly, the girl who writes the blog did an “around the country” trip just like mine earlier this year, and her descriptions were very useful. That blog is the only reason why I visited Seljavallalaug, and it was a side road worth taking.

Iceland is a very small country, with a very small population – and, just like Australia, most of the population lives near the coast, because the interior of the country is not very hospitable. There is one main road – aptly named Ring Road, Hringvegur (sometimes also Þjóðvegur 1, National Road 1) – that encircles the country, and that’s where I spent most of my time. Reykjavík is on the west side of the country, and I drove from there in the counter-clockwise direction (starting towards the south and east).

Observant souls will have noticed that I went there in the middle of autumn (mid to late October). My intention was to “avoid the crowds”, as most people (understandably) visit Iceland in the summer; it meant fewer people around and cheaper flights and hotels, but it also meant that there was a good chance the weather would not be as good as I’d like. In the end, I was very lucky; other than some rain in the first few days (while I was driving on the south coast) and occasional snow and ice on the ground, most of the time the weather was just great. It was cold, of course, and a heavy jacket and gloves helped a lot in some areas, but at times it was nice enough that a sweatshirt was all you needed. And the days were not as short as you might expect: when I arrived, sunrise was around 8.15am and sunset was at 6.10pm (almost ten hours of daylight); on the day I left, sunrise was at 8.52am and sunset at 5.30pm (a bit over eight and a half hours of daylight). By the way, it feels like sunset and sunrise last forever; the sun never rises too far above the horizon, so the light is always very slanted and it feels like it’s always late in the afternoon. The “golden hour” loved by photographers lasts for most of the day.

“Fewer people around”, however, also meant that lots of places (and even roads) were already closed for the winter. On three stops I was the only guest at the hotel I was staying in (two of them were reasonably large hotels, the other one was a large guesthouse), and in smaller towns the choices of places to eat were quite limited. Visitor centres at some attractions were closed, and even some of the possible itineraries for the tour were not available. Also, many sea birds had already flown away – so, no puffins around. I still think I made the right choice, though; I got to have some taste of the icy side of Iceland (driving through the mountains in the north) and even the major tourist attractions were not full of people at any time. Even Reykjavík seemed like a very quiet country town. I would seriously recommend going either very early (March, April) or very late (September, October) in the season.

Speaking

Icelandic is a Germanic language, so there’s some similarity with English, but you’d only notice that in writing, if at all; it sounds nothing like English (or even German). Thankfully, most people there do speak English very well (and some like to show it; a school-age girl – maybe seven or eight years old – approached me while I was trying to read a poster at a historical site and started explaining to me what the poster said), and even street and road signs are often in English. But not always, and the farther you get from Reykjavík the less English you’ll see (and the better the chance of running into someone who doesn’t speak English).

A few months before the trip I bought a book, “Beginner’s Icelandic”, that came with CDs with dialogue and pronunciation guides. I spent several hours studying that and, while I absolutely can’t speak Icelandic and I could not understand a word of what I heard on the radio or TV there, what little I learnt was very useful for understanding road signs, restaurant menus and similarly small bits of text here and there. And Google Translate helped me understand the manual that came with the SIM card I bought.

Eating

I did not try any of the most unusual Icelandic dishes (seriously, fermented shark meat is not something that attracts me). I did have skyr, their yoghurt-like cheese that is sold everywhere in much the same way yoghurt is sold here, and it is pretty good. I also had lamb, of which they eat a lot, and some types of rye bread that tasted amazing. Other than that, I can say that the burgers from the Hamburger Factory in Reykjavík are really, really good.

Driving

Roads are pretty good most of the time, but a small section of the Ring Road on the east coast is not paved; still reasonably good. I had to drive on gravel roads a few other times as well, and they’re usually ok (if a bit scary when icy). Pretty much all bridges have a single lane, so you have to give way if someone else is already on the bridge (another benefit of going late in the season: only once in the whole trip I had to wait to use a bridge). My car was a 4-wheel drive fitted with snow tyres; because it was late in the season, the tour company strongly recommended getting this kind of car, and I think it was a good idea. Fuel is kind of expensive, around A$2.30 a litre, but at least the price didn’t change all that much even in the more remote areas, and finding places to refuel was never a problem.

Looking

You can see every possible type of landscape there, from glacier-covered mountains to geologically-active mud flats (and many, many, many waterfalls). Which reminds me: that is a very geologically-active country, and the whole country smells vaguely of sulphur (I’m not exaggerating; I wish I were). Particularly, hot water is always from geothermal springs, and it definitely smells when it comes out of the shower.

But, back to the landscape, it is a very beautiful country. I stopped very often by the side of the road to take photos or just to look at the sights, and in many places I wish I could have stopped but there was nowhere to. Although, to be fair, in most places I could probably have stopped the car in the middle of the road and walked out to take photos with no problem at all (as I said before, there were not many people around).

Speaking of photos, I came home with nearly 1,400 photos and a few videos. A small selection of photos (130 or so) are in my Google+ page: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Many of the photos are geo-tagged, so if you click on “photo details” on the right you’ll see where they were taken. And, if anyone wants to see the other 1,300 or so photos, let me know.

And that’s it. I really, really enjoyed the trip, and I would very much like to go back again (although that probably won’t happen for a while, Iceland is a bit far from Australia). Next time I wish I can do it in a different season; I’d love to see what the country looks like in spring, when it’s waking up after winter. And, to be honest, even winter sounds like an interesting time to visit.

Well, next time.

Dates

On the 12th of April, 1981, I was exactly nine and a half years old (half years are important when you’re that young). That was the date of the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, with the Shuttle Columbia spending the next two days in orbit with a small crew of only two astronauts (it was effectively a test flight). I was fairly young, but I do remember watching the news about the launch — it was a big deal at the time. I particularly remember that, differently from later flights, the external fuel tank was white, and not orange — orange is the “natural” colour of the protective foam around the tank, and painting it white added a significant amount of weight to the tank, so they stopped doing it at some point.

On the 28th of January, 1986, I was a bit over 14 years old. That afternoon I was at a friend’s place, his mother had the radio on and I heard something about a rocket exploding after launch in the US, but didn’t pay much attention to it; I didn’t know there was a Shuttle launch on that day, and assumed it had been an unmanned rocket carrying a satellite, or something similar. It wasn’t until I watched the news on TV at night that I knew what had happened to Space Shuttle Challenger, taking off for what was supposed to be mission STS-51-L. I remember being sad on that day and obsessively following the news for weeks after, and I was very happy when Discovery flew the first mission after the accident, in September 1988.

On the 1st of February, 2003, I was already an adult, and I was spending a quiet Saturday at home until I happened to look at the news online (I think it was on cnn.com) and read about what had happened to Space Shuttle Columbia, returning to Earth after mission STS-107. I very distinctly remember that my first thought was “not again!” — despite the 17 years that had passed since the previous accident. After that, I turned the TV on and just kept watching for however long they were talking about it. It was another sad day.

On the 21st of July, 2011, I will be nearly 40 years old. It will be 42 years and one day since the first Moon landing, and more than 30 years since that first Columbia flight. That is the scheduled date for the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis, completing mission STS-135 — the final Space Shuttle mission, ever. It’s going to be, again, a sad day. I planned on writing more about it, but I don’t think I can do better than what astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I had the opportunity to meet twice, and who is a great person to talk to) said on Twitter: “Many lament the shuttle era’s end. But that’s misplaced sentiment. Lament instead the absence of an era to replace it.”

He’s talking, of course, about the lack of a manned space program on the part of NASA for the immediate future (and, with the difficulties it’s been having to get its budget approved, perhaps the not-so-immediate future as well).

Still, NASA goes on, as does space exploration. Just this week, on July 16th, the spacecraft Dawn will go on orbit around asteroid Vesta — it’s the first probe ever to orbit an asteroid, and in the next few years it will become the first probe ever to orbit two different bodies, when it leaves Vesta to go after dwarf planet Ceres. New Horizons is still on the way to Pluto, which it will reach in July 2015. And many other missions are still flying around the solar system – and, with the two Voyagers, even outside it.

Here’s hoping for continued progress, and hoping that in the future we’ll be able to celebrate the Shuttles as a stepping stone, and not as the end of the road.

Random airport notes #2

I was interrupted by the boarding call while writing the last post, and ended up never coming back to it… but there was more I wanted to add:

– still on Virgin America: after we’d been stuck on the tarmac for over an hour (bad weather around JFK, lots of delays) waiting for permission to taxi away from the gate, the captain started an announcement with “good news, everyone” — but it was actually good news

– in the last month, I went through security in large US airports four times; in none of these I was required to go through one of the “nude scanners”, nor was I touched by anyone at any time (but I don’t get why is it that I’m not allowed to go through the metal detector wearing a jacket — jackets, like shoes, need to go through the x-ray)

– Qantas premium economy in their 747s is… good, but not brilliant; however, if you manage to get an exit row seat, you’ll have an amazing amount of leg room (seriously; I’m tall, and I couldn’t touch the seat in front even if I wanted to)

Anyway, I’ll be glad not to see the inside of an airplane again for a while…

Random airport notes

Waiting to board to Sydney in Los Angeles…

– for security screening purposes, an iPad is a laptop at JFK, SFO, LAX domestic, SYD; not a laptop at LAX international, MEL

– Virgin America is probably the only airline where the pre-flight video ask passengers not to have sex in the restrooms (this is in their “we’re all in this together” video, which they don’t seem to show in all flights)

E-readers

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about reading ebooks on my iPod Touch. At the time, the only two practical apps for this were Stanza and eReader Pro, with the latter being my preferred reader then. Interestingly, just a few weeks after that post there was a software update that rendered eReader useless on the iPod (it would crash on startup), and it took a few weeks for a fix to show up – I used this period to switch to Stanza, and I haven’t looked back (but it was only a few weeks ago that I finally uninstalled eReader).

In any case, there are a few more options nowadays, both for apps and for devices, and I thought I would write a bit about what I’ve been doing.

I have three devices I’ve been regularly using as ebook readers, none of which is a dedicated reader: my old iPod Touch (1st gen), an iPad (also 1st gen) and an Android phone (a Nexus S, which has recently replaced a Nexus One). I have (unfortunately) different readers in all three, and more than one on each, for the simple reason that not all readers will let me read all books, not all are available on all devices and, even when they are, not all features are on all devices. Also, the fact that my iPod is too old to run iOS 4 doesn’t help (fragmentation? what fragmentation?). Let’s look at them…

Kindle: the Amazon Kindle app is one of only two I have on all three devices (plus my desktop computer, in fact), and it is by far my preferred reader: the reading experience is great, the integration with a dictionary works flawlessly, annotations are very useful and the synchronisation between devices is very, very nice. But it could be better. Part of the problem is that it does not offer the same features on all devices: for example, you can use it to read books not bought from Amazon as long as they are in the MOBI format — but only on the iPad (and it won’t sync your reading position on those across devices); the integrated dictionary is only in the iOS devices; and, curiously, only the Android version supports reading periodicals (newspapers and magazines). I’m not a great fan of the DRM in the ebooks brought from Amazon, either, but that is more of a philosophical position than a practical consideration right now.

Stanza: this app now also belongs to Amazon, and I wonder whether it will ever merge with the Kindle app. It allows reading ePub books (and a few other formats, I believe) and it has some integration with a few books stores (including O’Reilly and Fictionwise, but this last one has been broken for several months now). This app is iOS only, but it works quite well on both the iPad and the iPod; loading external books is easier on the iPad, but that’s because of iOS 4 features (it would work equally well on a more recent iPod or iPhone). A big problem is the lack of synchronisation between devices, and (despite users asking repeatedly for it) I don’t think it’s coming any time soon. The reading experience itself is very nice, and the appearance is very configurable, so it is a very good app, and I use it for almost anything not in MOBI format.

iBooks: this is iOS 4 only, so I only have it in my iPad; I have never used the iBooks store, but this app doubles as a very good PDF reader, and that’s how I’ve been using it. Loading books is very easy (if you don’t mind iTunes) and the reading experience is reasonably good, but the app seems quite simple – there’s no progress indicator, for example, and I have no idea whether it syncs your position if you use it in multiple devices (I would be honestly surprised if it does so for non-Apple books).

Google Books: this is the other app I have on all devices (and the desktop computer, as a Chrome web app); one of the biggest advantages of this app is that allows one to see both the text of the books and the original scanned pages (where available), which then include all the original illustrations (but may be less readable for some older books). The biggest problem, though, is that for anyone outside the US this app can only be used to read public domain books. I haven’t used it long enough to form an opinion about it, but it seems aesthetically very nice. Another drawback: no way to load books other than from Google.

Kobo: I originally installed this app as a possible replacement for Stanza, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations — at least not enough to make me ditch Stanza on the iOS devices. The iPad app is very flashy, with social network integration, reading statistics, “badges” etc. However, just as with the Kindle app, on my iPod there’s no way to load books I already have other than buying them again (so I don’t bother running the app there); the non-tablet versions are also much less on the flashy side, but that’s not really a bad thing. No cross-device syncing of books not bought with the app, either. Still, it’s my app of choice for non-Kindle books on my Android phone.

And that’s it. I have to say that using the iPad to read has “spoiled” me and I don’t use the the iPod that much anymore (or the phone, but that one ends up getting more use simply because it’s always with me…). In any case, if I could have one wish it would be to be able to use a single app on all devices, with a reasonably similar experience on all of them (and syncing everything across them would be a bonus).