Switching

As most of Australia celebrates the WWDC-eve holiday, now in its final hours, I thought it would be interesting to mention that, over the last few days, my primary computer at home has been — for the first time ever — a Mac.

And, you know what? I’m very happy with it. It’s not a very powerful machine, just a lowly Mac Mini, and I don’t have one of those fancy Apple displays, but it simply works.

Granted, there are some teething pains (or “gotchas”), especially for someone who comes from the Windows world:

  • why, why, why can’t the Home and End keys move the cursor to the beginning or the end of the line? and, on a related note, why don’t Page Up and Page Down move the cursor at all? this is very annoying when editing text (yes, I know what key combinations to use to go to the ends of the line; my fingers still go to the “obvious” place, though)
  • command-tab switches between applications, but not between different windows of the same application; confusing at times, ultimately understandable
  • but the key combination to switch between windows of the same application is usually command-` — this is convenient because ` is just above tab on the keyboard… but it doesn’t work at all if you are using an international keyboard configuration similar to Windows’ US-International, with “mute” accent keys

But enough gripes for now. What I like:

  • it is so incredibly silent! not only the computer itself, but the keyboard as well (the DVD drive, though, it’s one the noisiest I know)
  • installing and uninstalling applications is a breeze
  • boots in less than 30 seconds, shuts down even faster
  • I haven’t seen it crash yet (but neither have I seen Windows crash in a long time)
  • I can’t say enough good things about Time Machine; I wish there was something similar for Windows (and Ubuntu)
  • iPhoto — lovely
  • Spaces — I can’t believe Windows still does not ship with something like this out of the box

That’s it for now. I am sure I will have many more things to comment on in the future… maybe even about Snow Leopard, hopefully coming out tomorrow (the WWDC keynote is at 3am on Tuesday, Melbourne time).

iRead

We still can’t have Kindles in Australia, and the price Dymocks is charging for their e-paper based reader is outrageous… so lately I’ve been reading a lot on my iPod.

I didn’t expect it at first, but ebooks are very convenient. You can have a wide selection in a small and light device (real books are heavy), you get the ability to search, you never lose your page because the bookmark fell off… one downside, of course, is that battery life is not that great.

Another is the screen size. The iPod Touch has a relatively small screen (which, of course, can be a good thing — it makes it very easy to carry it everywhere), but I found that you get used to that. Granted, you’re turning pages every few seconds, but that is not that much of a problem. What is a problem is that you do need books that are stored in a way that can be reformatted for your device, and that rules PDF out, as that file format was not made with reformatting in mind. There are PDF readers for the iPod, but you can’t realistically read a PDF file formatted for A4 on that screen; it’s ok for a quick glance on a reference manual, for example, but not for continuous reading. And that has some implications for content availability: lots of free content is distributed in PDF format (ebooks, scientific papers, e-magazines etc.), but that is not an usable format for the iPod.

I have been using two different applications: eReader and Stanza (see screenshots below; click to enlarge). They are both very similar, and they both offer the ability to easily download books straight into the iPod from a variety of sources, with both paid and free content; Stanza does seem to offer a much larger selection of sources, including technical books from O’Reilly, while eReader is more tightly connected to their own bookstore, ereader.com (which includes the mostly SF-oriented fictionwise.com; both are owned by Barnes and Noble).

The free content, which makes up the bulk of what I’ve been reading, include mostly out-of-copyright classics and Creative Commons-licensed books, but you do get the occasional surprise, such as Random House giving away free copies of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”. As an aside, Stanza offers a desktop companion application that supposedly can convert PDF files into something readable on the small screen; my tests show that this definitely does not work well for most PDF files, even those that are text-only.

Both applications are very comfortable to use, and as a whole the experience is very good (although I have to say that I like eReader’s interface better, and I really like the little “progress indicator” for each book in the main window). Without a doubt, what I like the most about reading in this way is the portability, even if that means that the screen is significantly smaller than a typical book page; unless the book has relevant illustrations, that is not a problem at all. Battery usage does worry me a bit, though, since the backlight needs to be on at all times while reading (that is the main difference with electronic paper devices; in those, you only use power while changing pages); this is not a problem in normal day-to-day usage, but it may be if I try to read during a long flight (does any airline offer USB power on their seats?).

Aquarium

Yesterday I went to visit the Melbourne Aquarium for the first time. It was probably not the best day for this — at the end of a long weekend, and in the middle of the school holidays. And, yes, it was full of children (and parents with trolleys). It was still fun, although I expected it to be larger. Pictures follow:

One thing I did not like: they do their best to force you to follow one specific path and not turn back. There are places with escalators going only one way, and narrow corridors that make it awkward to go against the flow. That makes it very inconvenient to try to come back to something you couldn’t see (or photograph) very well on your first pass; it also makes it hard to try to be at specific places at specific times for scheduled events, such as the “snow storm” in the penguin enclosure. Sure, you can go all the way to the end and re-enter, but they don’t make that clear and you have to get a guard to let you in.

Randomicity

I surely have neglected this blog for a while… to make up for it, and to try to kick things back in movement again, here is a list of random stuff from the last few months:

  • I have recently started playing with development of native applications for the iPhone (and/or iPod Touch); other than having to learn a slightly different flavour of C than what I’m used to, it’s not particularly hard, and it’s in fact fun (but, come on, the SDK is 1.8GB! that took forever to download)
  • but, and I have to say this, Objective C has some weird syntax constructs
  • I do realise that it’s been over six months since I wrote part 2 of the stories from my last holidays, and that at this rate I’ll go on holidays again before I’m done; I’ll try to rectify this
  • speaking of which, I’ll be in the US for about a week in early July (in Las Vegas and its vicinity)
  • I’m not sure whether I like the way Battlestar Galactica ended (no spoilers follow); my first reaction was that I liked it a lot, but then I started noticing “loose ends” or weird events, and I started liking it a bit less. A colleague and I even attempted to draw a timeline of the events of the universe of the series (from Kobol onwards), with some success, but that didn’t dispel many of my problems with the ending. I eventually decided to stop thinking about it, and re-watch the whole series in three or four years
  • now, the ending of Life on Mars (American edition) was cool
  • seriously, is the FIA trying to kill Formula One? who thought it would be a good idea to schedule a race for late afternoon in a place that gets monsoonal rains every day? I know it’s all about money and the European viewers, but one would think they would prefer to wake up a bit earlier and watch a full race instead of the half-race we had on Sunday
  • I watched Monsters vs Aliens in 3D; while it had some cool moments, I’m not sure it adds that much to the experience; most of the time I kept thinking “this would be much better on an IMAX screen”… (you see, the narrower screen limits the extension of the 3D elements); anyway, fun movie, in 2 or 3D

Let’s see if I can keep this alive…

Dancing Wozniak

I voted for Steve Wozniak! Have you?

(no, I didn’t see him dancing; does it matter? It’s Woz!)

Canon EOS1000D – final thoughts

As I mentioned a few months ago, I was contacted by Canon Australia and offered the chance to “play” with their new DSLR camera, the EOS1000D, for a while as part of Canon’s Blogger Product Review Program. This is probably a good time to repeat my disclaimer that I’m not being paid anything by Canon; my agreement with them states that I have to disclose the fact that I’ve been approached by them and that I’m using a camera they provided me with, but it does not dictate what, if anything, I should write about it.

Well, now it’s been almost three months since I’ve started using that camera, and it’s time both to return it to Canon and to post my thoughts about the experience. In short, I like it — but not as much as I like the Sony A200. Do read on.

My first impressions of the EOS1000D, it turns out, were quite accurate: one of the most striking features of this camera is how light it is. It makes a lot of difference when you are carrying it around the whole day (hanging from your neck or in a shoulder bag), and it makes it very comfortable to use. The impression of fragility goes away after you get used to the camera, and it doesn’t seem to be any more fragile than any other model (I managed not to break it, at least, which is always a good sign).

I have changed my mind about the user interface, though: with a bit of practice, it becomes very easy to use, to the point where I was a bit confused when going back to my own camera. For many functions, you need to push fewer buttons in the Canon than in the Sony, and the sequence of steps makes sense for more complex operations.

However, I did not change my mind about some limitations of this camera. I still find it a bit odd that it won’t shoot RAW images (or even JPEGs at the highest available resolution) in any of its more automatic modes (the so-called “basic modes”), including full auto. Granted, this forces you to think a bit more about what you’re doing, but it seems very much an artificial limitation; is there a technical reason for this behaviour?

Another of its distinctive features (for an entry-level DSLR) is the “live view” mode, which allows you to use the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder to frame images when shooting. I may not be the best person to talk about this feature, as I found out that I don’t actually like doing that — it seemed to me to make things harder rather than easier. It might be more useful if the LCD screen could be tilted, but that’s not the case (the screen is also not bright enough to be used in direct sun light, but that’s the case with any camera I’ve ever used). In the end, it’s probably a matter of habit — I tend to use the viewfinder even in point-and-shoot cameras.

The easy-to-use interface makes it very easy to play with the settings until you get your desired result, as shown in the series below: this is the same water feature taken with different exposure times in the “shutter priority” (Tv) mode (click images to enlarge).

1/8s, F/32, ISO 640

1/8s, F/32, ISO 200

1/40s, F/14, ISO 200

1/40s, F/14, ISO 200

1/1000s, F/5, ISO 640

1/1000s, F/5, ISO 640

 

The automatic white balance did not like some types of lighting, though, as the pictures below show. The first one is the picture as recorded by the camera, and the second shows the result after I adjusted the white balance manually using the desktop utilities that come with the camera (which, I might say, are very good); the picture was taken under regular residential halogen lights, with automatic white balance turned on (RAW, exposure of 1/8s, f/5.7, ISO 800), and the images below were cropped and resized.

Original picture

Original picture

After adjusting WB

After adjusting WB

To sum things up: in general, I’ve been very happy with this camera and it will be a pity to send it away. Image quality is consistently good, automatic exposure levels work well and the automatic focus is very fast. Or, I should say, the camera is remarkably fast as a whole; it turns itself on very quickly, and the shutter is instantaneous. Also, the image stabilisation deals very well with long(ish) exposures without a tripod (in low light and no flash; say, up to half a second or so). It has an excellent performance at high ISO levels, by the way, and the battery seems to last forever (I used the flash very sparingly).

Why do I still like the A200 better, then? Well, that issue with the image quality limitations annoys me quite a bit, to be honest. I also like (very much) the finer-grained information on battery charge provided by the Sony (even if that does mean that batteries for it cost a bit more), and it is much easier to transfer photos to a PC with the Sony than the Canon — if I were to keep the Canon, I’d consider getting a card reader ASAP. By the way, with the introduction of the A300, you can find the A200 around for very good prices — cheaper than the EOS1000D, probably.

Speaking of which… despite this being marketed as an entry-level DSLR camera, when it first came out a few months ago it was a bit too expensive, hovering around $1200. This price has gone down significantly since then, and it is in a much more competitive range now: you can find the standard kit (the one I was using, with the Canon EFS 18-55mm Zoom lens) for less than $850, and in the lead up to Christmas you can probably get an even better deal with a twin-lens kit — I’ve seen it for under $900. At this price, it is a very good camera for someone being introduced to DSLRs, and will give good results even to beginners. Also, it is a Canon, and that is something that should not be overlooked; you will find the enormous array of accessories (made both by Canon and third parties), software, literature, discussion boards etc. etc. that should be expected from a leading brand.

Bushwalking – Dandenong Ranges’ Western Trail

Last weekend I decided to “go for a walk” in the Dandenong Ranges; after studying the map for a while I decided to follow the Western Trail, which connects the Mount Dandenong Observatory to the Upper Ferntree Gully picnic grounds. This decision was based mostly on the fact that there is public transport within easy reach from both ends of the trail…

The Western Trail is a “notional” trail… you won’t actually find any signs using this name anywhere in the park. It is just a series of connecting tracks and roads that, properly followed, will take you from one end to the other (there are a few signposts with large “W” signs and arrows, but not enough that one would be able to use them as a guide) through a scenic and enjoyable path — not necessarily the most direct one.

I started by taking the train from the city to Croydon, then a bus to Mount Dandenong (line 688, Croydon to Olinda via Ridge Road). The bus dropped me by the track that leads up to the observatory; it’s a 1.5km walk, heading mostly up, through the Kyeema Track (named after the DC-2 “Kyeema” plane that crashed there almost exactly 70 years ago, on 25/10/1938). I stayed on the top for some 15 minutes, then headed back the way I came, following the same track back to the starting point and continuing south following the signs to Burke’s Lookout, then continuing on the same track after the lookout. That connects to Zig-Zag Track (so named for reasons that will be obvious to anyone following it) near a TV transmitter, and then to Channel 10 Track, which soon after becomes Dandenong Creek Track. This will take you through a very “ferny” area, humid and dark in places, a bit slippery in others and heading very steeply down in many others. If it has rained recently, use shoes with a good grip.

Track junctions and connections are not usually signed, nor is it always all that obvious which way to go; a map is required, a compass helps a lot and a GPS receiver helps even more… I suggest picking up the “Walking and Driving Tracks” map at the Observatory, although if you’re planning on doing this walk you should have it already by the time you get there.

Dandenong Creek Track ends in a T-junction with Basin-Olinda Road, and at this point it’s not clear what is the right way to go; the map indicates that one should simply cross the road and continue straight ahead, but there is no obvious track there. There is a narrow track starting to the right of one of those “W” signposts, and that is what I followed, but I’m not sure it was the right thing to do: the map shows the correct track connecting to School Track at Range Road, and the one I took did not. I ended up diverging from the map indication at this point by following Range Road west to Bradley Track (there is no sign there; it’s the last track on the left before you hit a gate), following it to the end (careful at the junction with Basin-Olinda Road, you need to stay on the track and not take the road) and rejoining the Trail further south at Old Coach Road, a bit to the west from what is shown on the map. Old Coach Road is identified as Horse Trail on signs at this point; they change to Old Coach Road further down, where it widens and is open to traffic (not that you’re likely to see any cars, mind you).

From this point on the track is a bit simpler: from Old Coach Road you turn left at Ferndale Road (ignore the sign saying “Road Closed”), which ends at the Mountain Highway; follow the highway to the east for about 100m as it turns south, then cross it (carefully!) to follow Alpine Road to the south; it’s the first junction on that side of the road and it’s not open to cars. Follow Alpine Road all the way to Janesdell Ave. (no sign there either; it’s a sharp turn to the right in a place where you can’t continue ahead; it doesn’t look like an avenue at all, it’s just a track), then follow that all the way to Mt Erin Road and that will lead you naturally to the One Tree Hill picnic grounds, which is a good place for a long rest considering that in the last few kilometres you climbed almost two hundred metres. After that you will head down Kokoda Memorial Trail (follow the signs, it’s easy to find) and simply follow the track to the train station.

A full map of the trail I followed is here; you will notice a few places where I went back the way I came, or even did a full circle back to an earlier location, and all that was caused by the lack of signs on the tracks. It seems to me that this trail may be a bit easier to follow if you start from the south, as the signs are better if you’re going that way and you’re less likely to get lost. However, that involves starting with the Thousand Steps up to One Tree Hill, which will get you tired right away, and ending with a very steep ascent up Mount Dandenong at a time when you will definitely be tired…

To Read Later

A few weeks ago I found out about a very nice Firefox extension called Read It Later. It allows one to easily save links in a list to be read later: you get a “check mark” on the address bar that you can simply click on to save the page you’re looking at (much like the star used to bookmark a page). You can also right-click on a link to save it directly from the context menu. More importantly, you can sync the list between different browser installations (say, home and work) and you can also access the list from anywhere by going directly to the website (they even have an iPhone interface) or via an RSS feed.

As I said, I liked it straight away and started using it; it’s very convenient. There’s only one problem: it assumes that, even though you don’t have time to read something now, you will have time later. I’ve been finding out that this is not necessarily the case, as the size of my list has been growing almost monotonically since. I guess I need to cut down on my reading ambitions.

Canon EOS1000D

A few months ago, I wrote that I was looking for a new camera and that I was reading about several DSLR models. I eventually chose one of them, and during a recent trip to the USA I bought a Sony A200. It’s a 10.1 MP camera, based on the old Minolta line that was acquired by Sony a few years back, and it came with a 18-70mm zoom lens. It has a number of very good features (image stabilisation, dynamic range optimisation etc.), and I have to say that I’m very happy with it so far.

More recently — two weeks ago — I received an e-mail from Canon Australia asking me whether I’d like to give their new camera a shot; they’re apparently reaching out to Australian bloggers and they saw my article about my search for the perfect camera. I thought their offer sounded interesting, and last week I received a box containing a shiny (well, black) new Canon EOS1000D for me to play with for three months (tip to Canon: next time you might want to send a memory card with the camera). This model is known in the USA as the Rebel XS.

So, for the next few months I will be using this new camera and writing about my experiences. Keep in mind that I am not a professional photographer, nor do I have a lot of experience with digital SLR cameras – therefore, I’ll be mostly offering “consumer” opinions and comparing it to my A200 (and I guess that is ok, since neither of these cameras actually targets professionals and — I think — they are more or less in the same range). The EOS1000D is also a 10.1 MP camera, and the one I received came with the standard lens kit it is sold with — that is, an 18-55mm lens with auto-focus and image stabilisation.

Also, for the record, I’m not being paid anything by Canon; my agreement with them states that I have to disclose the fact that I’ve been approached by them and that I’m using a camera they sent me (which I’m doing right now), but it does not dictate what, if anything, I should write about it.

First impressions:

  • it’s light; very light, compared with A200, and that does make a difference after a few hours carrying a camera around (the EOS1000D weighs 500g with the battery and no lens, against 636g for the A200). However, that also gives an impression of fragility (and that is exacerbated a bit by the texture of the camera body, in fact)
  • the manual is much better than the one that came with the Sony, but the user interface in the camera is a bit less intuitive for the first-time user
  • there are several options for image quality, but you can’t use the highest (finest) JPEG setting or record RAW images if you’re using the camera in full-auto mode or any of what Canon calls “basic modes” (macro, landscape, portrait etc.); this is a bit annoying
  • this model includes “live view”, the ability to use the LCD screen to frame pictures before shooting (that is not a common feature for SLRs), but I haven’t tried using it seriously yet
  • the PC software that came with the camera and starts up when it is connected, CameraWindow, claims that the EOS1000D is not a supported model, which is a bit strange; also, the drivers don’t quite expose the camera to Windows as a simple disk device, and that makes it a bit harder to operate than it should be, in my opinion (another piece of software that was included, EOS Utility, did work properly)

I will definitely have more to write about after I go out with the camera a few times and play a bit more with it, so expect more posts in the near future…

Holiday stories 2

Still on the road – Alice to Kings Canyon

On the roadWhen we last saw our intrepid traveller, he was taking the northern fork of the road, following Namatjira Drive to the west, on the way to Kings Canyon via Glen Helen Gorge.

Namatjira Drive “hugs” the McDonnell Ranges, which means that it goes through a slightly less dry area of the red centre; the rain that falls on the Ranges flows onto the adjacent terrain and provides enough water for a fairly decent vegetation cover. One side effect of this is that almost everything that is built around that area has to take into account the possibility of rain and the consequent flash floods. This is very visible on the road, in fact: every few kilometres, one will see a sign saying “DIP” and the road will, well, dip. That’s where the water will go through when it rains. (One will occasionally see signs such as “So-and-so Creek” followed by a dip on the road — not a bridge, as one might expect, as the so-called creek will be dry most of the time)

The section of the road before the fork was reasonably deserted; I saw cars going the other way, but not very often — say, once every 5 to 10 minutes. Every single person who drove by me waved; I guess that’s what one does when there is limited human contact. The following section was even more deserted, if that’s possible (and, yes, people would still wave).

On the roadAnd this is a good thing: the view is so beautiful that one can’t help but look away from the road with an alarming frequency. The colours, the mountains, even the vegetation, everything was different from what I’m used to, and very beautiful. I stopped several times on the side of the road to take pictures, and every single time I saw many, many animal tracks on the dust. Not many tire tracks (but a disturbing number of beer cans and cartons), and almost no roadkill — I guess not many people drive through there at night (the insurance on my rental car specifically forbade driving from sunset to sunrise outside urban areas).

Serpentine GorgeThere are several turn-outs on the road leading to local attractions, usually towards the mountains. I didn’t have time to go to all of them, but I did stop at one: Serpentine Gorge. I have to say that I almost gave up soon after I left the road, as the track leading there was unsealed and, honestly, not very good. The gorge is some 6km away from the main road, and it’s a beautiful place, with a good parking area and wide, marked walking tracks to the gorge and to a lookout located high on the hills. When I arrived, I found two tour vans already parked there, and some 20 backpacks simply lying on the ground of the parking area — with not a soul around. I did see the tour group later, coming back from the gorge while I walked in the other direction. Very trusting people, apparently.

I tried following the track up to the lookout, but had to give up because it was quite a steep and rough climb; I stopped when I reached a sign pointing straight up where I couldn’t discern anything remotely resembling a track. I had a good view from there anyway… and then I went back down and toward the gorge, which is beautiful — it’s quite a contrast, in fact, to find what amounts to a small lake in the middle of all that dryness.

Other notes from this road:

  • On the roadI didn’t see any native animals other than birds, but I did see cattle crossing the road in front of me (plenty of time to stop, though — it is a very straight road)
  • what I didn’t have time to stop for was a big piece of rubber that detached from a truck tyre and that was on the middle of the road just after a blind dip/curve; I drove over it doing about 90 (the speed limit is 110km/h), but it wasn’t a problem for the car (I did stop to drag that off the road)
  • didn’t see any police cars either
  • but I did see many signs delimiting aboriginal areas and indicating that alcohol and pornography are prohibited there (I can understand alcohol, but pornography?)
  • there’s not a single petrol station between Alice Springs and Glen Helen Gorge; that’s why everyone says that, in the Northern Territory, you should refuel your car at every opportunity…

The “good” portion of the road ends in Glen Helen Gorge, which is another gorgeous (ha, ha) place about which I’ll write in the next instalment.

Holidays stories

Isn’t it amazing how time flies? It’s been almost three months since I went on holidays, and I guess it’s time to concede that I probably won’t write much about them. Still, people have been asking for pictures and stories… well, ok then.

The short version, for those without much time (or interest): in early June I flew to Alice Springs, drove from there to Uluru and back, then flew back home; some of the pictures of this trip are here. A few days later I flew to New York, spent 10 days there just walking around and looking at cool things; a very raw set of photos is here (no descriptions, not much editing, ordered by date taken); then I flew to Las Vegas, where I spent three days having fun at the Amazing Meeting (photos here – also unedited, and frankly a bit boring), then came back home.

Now, for a bit more detail…

Alice Springs

I still find it a bit strange that this is a town of just over 20,000 people. Still, it’s the largest human settlement in central Australia, and when you’re flying there you can see why: it’s just a big desert all around. The city is in an area that is slightly less dry than average, thanks to the McDonnell Ranges just north and west of there, but it’s still very, very dry. Even though the very green lawns all around town can make you think otherwise.

Todd RiverBut, really, it’s just a regular city. It does seem to survive mostly on tourism, and mostly thanks to people stopping by on the way to Uluru: there is a very large industry dedicated to offering cheap accomodation, desert tours and other traveller needs (such as Internet access). Other than that, Alice’s strongest claim to fame is the Todd River (picture), which cuts right through the city. True, it’s dry most of the time, but they seem to like it (one week after this picture was taken it reportedly was flowing, due to heavy rain just outside of town).

I didn’t do much in Alice; I arrived there late in a Saturday afternoon, and the city seems to close down at four on Saturdays. So, I just picked the car up, walked a bit around the city centre, bought some supplies and rested a bit so I could wake up at dawn the next morning to take the road.

On the road – Alice to Kings Canyon

On the roadThere are two roads you can follow to go from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon. To take the first one, you go south on the same road that would take you to Adelaide if you drove long enough (Stuart Highway), then after some 160km you turn west on Lasseter Highway, which will take you to Uluru if you drive long enough. After some 100km you turn north on Luritja Road and drive some 150km more, and you’re there. This is a long but easy path, sealed all the way through and with (relatively) lots of traffic (so, if you car breaks down, someone will stop to help soon enough).

The other option is to drive straight west out of Alice Springs on Larapinta Drive, and just keep going. The road forks after a while, and you can choose between staying on Larapinta Drive to go through Hermannsburg, a traditional German town, or taking Namatjira Drive to stay close to the mountains and drive through Glen Helen and other similarly scenic places. Whichever path you take, the roads rejoin and eventually turn south and lead you straight into Kings Canyon after a bit over 300km… some 200 of which are unsealed. It’s not exactly a comfortable drive, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a four wheel drive vehicle (or after rain), and you do need to buy a permit ($2.20) as you’ll be driving through aboriginal land, and you’re not going to see much traffic in either direction at any time. Still, when it was time to choose, “I took the one less travelled by”… but I’ll write more about it next time.

Back

I’ve been back in Melbourne since Tuesday, and by now I’m almost fully recovered from the jet lag and the very long flights. Pictures are forthcoming.

Some quick random notes about the US:

  • the last time I went there was in 1999; lots of things changed since them, and they seem to have become a bit too paranoid about security (not that this is news to anyone); going through security checkpoints in airports is hell
  • that said, going through immigration on arrival was a breeze, and everyone was very polite
  • I fully expected free wi-fi to be much more prevalent than it actually is; in NY, you can find free access points in some parks (I used the one on Bryant Park, behind the public library) and in Apple stores, but in not many other places (paid wi-fi is everywhere, though)
  • also not news, but… Las Vegas is unbelievably hot in summer; the average summer day there is about as hot as the hottest days in Melbourne
  • the number of weird people per square km is much higher in the US than in Australia; the best one I’ve seen was a guy walking down the street with a cat sitting on the top of his head (and yes, I have a picture)
  • I’ve met Adam Savage; that was very cool

More details soon.

On holidays

I’m officially on holidays; no work for the next four weeks.

And I’ll start travelling tomorrow morning; I’ll fly to Alice Springs, and from there I’ll spend the next five days driving around the red centre, to Uluru and back. I’ll be twittering my progress (mobile phone coverage allowing), and my current position will be displayed on the small map here on the right. Which is reproduced here:

for the benefit of those reading this via RSS (click the image for a larger version).

I probably won’t post much over the next few weeks, but I may have pictures in about a week or so (and certainly at the end of June, when I come back).

Too much information

So, I’m planning to buy a digital SLR camera in the near future. I currently use a film SLR which is almost 10 years old (a Minolta Maxxum 300si) and a digital point-and-shoot that is almost as old (an Olympus D200Z, I think). I’ve been doing a lot of research online to try to decide which camera to buy, and herein lies the problem.

The fact is, there is an amazing amount of information available about all models on the market. There are manufacturer brochures, specs, reviews, owners’ comments, side-by-side comparisons, “walk-throughs”, videos, audio recordings etc. etc. etc. But the problem is that there is way too much information. I have now read enough material that I would almost be able to write the user’s manual for the Canon EOS400D, the Nikon D60 or the Sony A100, and I’m nowhere near actually deciding for one of them. (At least I narrowed it down to these three models — plus the Sony A200, which is the almost identical twin to the A100, only two years younger)

The Nikon seems very good, but the auto-focus depends on the lens being able to do it, so the lenses are more expensive and the selection is a bit more limited. The Canon is, by far, the most popular of them, and it’s almost the “default” starting DSLR camera out there, but it is a 2006 model (its younger sister, the EOS450D, seems to be a bit too much for what I want) and the lenses included with the camera are universally described as crappy (yes, I can always buy the body only and get decent lenses separately, but this brings the price up). The Sony is, at its heart, an updated Minolta, and in fact it can use any Minolta lens (and I do have a Minolta); in fact, I can’t think of anything bad about the Sony models, but I’ve read much less about them than about the others, so I might have some surprises later. If no surprises show up, I am leaning towards an A200…

Don’t try this at home

In the US, before each episode of Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie ask people never to try at home what they’re going do in the show (in Australia this warning is not shown, for some reason).

This is why. (and this is the episode I’m talking about) (this one too)