Friday, February 29, 2008

Vote Tory or we'll shoot the puppy

Allegations are swirling in Ottawa that when he was Leader of the Opposition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have been aware of attempts to bribe an MP to vote against the government of the day and cause it to fall, and furthermore, to have approved them. The MP in question was Chuck Cadman, an MP who had left the Tories to sit as an independent. Cadman was dying of skin cancer at the time, and allegations suggest he was offered a $1 million life insurance policy (among other things) in return for his vote to topple Paul Martin's minority government in a budget vote in 2005. Cadman apparently did not take the bait, and voted with the government. He passed away within months of that vote.

I'm not a fan of the Tories, but up until now I'd have had to rate their performance as a government as tolerable, particularly economically... though I strongly oppose their plans with regard to our military involvement in Afghanistan. But if this is true, it's one of the slimiest things I've heard come out of Ottawa in... well, ever. Bribing a dying man by appealing to his worries over his family's future, in order to get him to aid in toppling a duly-elected government against his own better judgement? If it doesn't quite qualify as treason or blackmail, it certain would qualify as attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament under the Criminal Code. If it turns out to be true, and Stephen Harper is implicated, then he must resign, immediately — as must the two shadowy, as-yet-unnamed figures who supposedly made Cadman the offer. If not, Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, acting on behalf of the Queen, must exercise one of the few remain royal prerogatives and dissolve the Harper government, call an election, and let the people decide.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sell Canada Post

Okay, I'm now prepared to make it official. Canada Post is the shits.

I ordered a book from a used bookstore in Winnipeg that the shop swears they invoiced and mailed on the 15th. They charged me a good six bucks to mail it, too. A three-ounce paperback. Well, it is now the 26th, with no hint of the book in sight.

On the 8th, I ordered a camera part from Austria. It arrived on the 14th, less than a week later. That's across the ocean from a foreign country on another continent, through customs, to me. Six days. Meanwhile, left to their own devices, Canada Post alone can't manage to match that between two major cities in adjacent provinces in adjacent time zones. For six bucks, that thing should have been in my hands no later than the 19th. Shit, I could have flown to Winnipeg, picked it up, and fucking walked it back to Toronto by now. And these people have got the gall to charge us fifty cents-plus just to lick their cheapest stamp? This is utterly ridiculous.

My support for public ownership ends where the bullshit reaches eye-level. Enough is enough. Sell Canada Post.

Update: March 3, 2008

The book in question arrived in the afternoon last Friday. That means that it took two full weeks to get a magazine with nearly $3 in postage on it from Winnipeg to Toronto. I'll be they could have beaten that in 1885 when the CPR opened. I think that's completely unacceptable service.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Night and Day

This is the first time-lapse movie (well, technically the second) I've made using the TC-80N3 remote timer and the adapter cable that attaches it to the Rebel XT. The first part was shot from about 9 last night till just after midnight. The second part was shot from 5:45 to 9:45 in the morning. In both cases, the images were taken at 30-second intervals, and in both cases, the camera continued shooting till it exhausted the battery.

I didn't think it would amount to much, but once it was assembled, I was actually struck by how much fun it is to watch. I hope you'll agree. :)

Iranian oil bourse finally opens...

From the Asia Times Online...

Slouching towards Petroeurostan
By Pepe Escobar

It was a discreet, almost hush-hush affair, but after almost three years of stalling and endless delays it finally happened. Now more than ever, it may also signal a geoeconomic earthquake, a potentially shattering blow to US dollar hegemony.

The Iranian oil bourse - the first oil, gas and petrochemical exchange in the Islamic Republic, and the first within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) - was launched on Sunday by Iran’s Oil Minister Gholam-Hossein Nozari, flanked by Minister of Economy and Financial Affairs Davoud Danesh Ja’fari, the man who will head the exchange.

Officially called the Iranian International Petroleum Exchange (IIPE), it is widely known in Iran and the Persian Gulf as the Kish bourse, named after Kish island, a free zone (declared by the shah) in an ideal laissez faire setting: lots of condos and duty-free malls, no Khomeini mega-portraits and hordes of young honeymooners shopping for made-in-Europe home appliances.

Transactions at this early stage will be in Iran’s currency, the rial, according to Nozari, ending worldwide speculation that the bourse would start trading in euros. The Iranian ambassador to Russia, Gholam-Reza Ansari, has said that "in the future, we'll be able to use the ruble, Russia’s national currency, in our operations". He added that "Russia and Iran, two major producers of the world’s energy, should encourage oil and gas transactions in various non-dollar currencies, releasing the world from being a slave of the dollar."

Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week that "the ruble will de facto become one of the regional reserve currencies".

The opening of the exchange is just what the Iranians are calling the first phase. Ultimately, it is intended that it will compete directly against London’s International Petroleum Exchange (IPE) and the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), both owned by US corporations (since 2001, NYMEX has been owned by a consortium that includes BP, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley). What Iran plans to do in the long run is quite daring: to confront head-on Anglo-American energy/corporate banking domination of the international oil trade.

A lot is already required to assure the success of the bourse in this first phase. Other OPEC members, and especially Iran’s neighbors, the Persian Gulf petro-monarchies, must be supportive, or at least "catch the drift".

It makes sense for OPEC members to support an alternative to both NYMEX and the IPE, which exercise a de facto monopoly of the oil and gas market. Their interests do not always align with those of producer countries. Numerous contracts related to Iranian or Saudi oil, for instance, are still indexed to the price of the UK’s North Sea Brent oil, the production of which is in terminal declining.

The proposed direction of the bourse was indicated by Mohammad Javed Asemipour, then the executive in charge of establishing the Kish bourse, in 2005. The outline that Asemipour stressed remains unchanged: the exchange would start dealing with petrochemical products, and then with what everybody really craves - light-sulfur Caspian Sea crude. This was not going to be an Iranian-style exchange, but "an international exchange, fully integrated in the world economy". The ultimate goal was very ambitious: the creation of a Persian Gulf benchmark oil price.

Today, Minister Nozari concedes that Iran’s share of the global oil trade is still very low. Enter the bourse, which is the solution to eliminate the middlemen. Everyone in the oil business knows that high oil prices are not really due to OPEC - which supplies 40% of the world’s crude - or "al-Qaeda threats". The main profiteers are middlemen - "traders" to put it nicely, "speculators" to put it bluntly.

The Petroleum Ministry’s immediate priorities are to attract much-needed foreign investment to Iran's energy sector and to expand its address book of oil buyers. Iran - like so many developing countries - does not want to depend on Western oil trading firms such as Philip Brothers (owned by Citicorp), Cargill or Taurus. Enron - until its debacle - used to be one of the most profitable. Some oil companies - such as Total and Exxon - trade under their own names.

The empire will strike back
The opening of the Iran oil bourse comes at a time when the future of the US dollar as the world's dominant currency is in doubt as seldom before.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, mega-speculator George Soros stressed that the world was at the end of the dollar era and a "systemic failure" may be upon us. On February 8 in Dubai, OPEC Secretary-General Abdullah al-Badri told the London-based Middle East Economic Digest that OPEC may switch to the euro within a decade. Iran and Venezuela - supported by Ecuador - are campaigning inside OPEC for oil to be priced at least in a basket of currencies and according to OPEC’s current president, Chakib Khelil, the organization's finance ministers will soon meet to discuss the possibility in depth. A committee will "submit to OPEC its recommendation on a basket of currencies that OPEC members will deal with", according to Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani.

To be sure, there’s no evidence yet that ultra-cautious US ally Saudi Arabia would incur Washington’s wrath by supporting such a move. But as for Iran, OPEC's second-largest exporter, it no longer trades a single barrel of oil in dollars. That is no small amount of non-dollars. The country's oil revenue will reach US$63 billion by the end of the current Iranian year on March 20, according to Nozari.

Iran converted all its oil export payments to other currencies in December 2007. It now sells oil to Japan in yen - the Far East country, the world's second biggest economy, is the top importer of Iranian oil and Iran is Japan’s third-largest supplier. Worryingly for the dollar, other oil producers are preparing to follow Iran's lead. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani has already announced that the tiny oil-rich emirate would abandon the dollar for the Qatari riyal before summer. There’s a strong possibility the United Arab Emirates may also switch to its own currency.

As the Kish bourse picks up momentum, increasing amounts of oil and gas trading will happen in a basket of currencies - and increasingly the US dollar will lose its paramount status. Some Middle East analysts expect the Persian Gulf petro-monarchies to end their dollar currency peg sooner rather than later - some say as early as next summer, as their black gold will increasingly not be traded in dollars. Iranian economist Hamid Varzi stresses that the "psychological effect" of Iran’s move away from the US dollar is "encouraging others to follow suit".

Iranian officials have always maintained that Washington has threatened to disrupt the country's oil exchange - via an online virus, attempted regime change or even through a unilateral pre-emptive nuclear strike. Certainly some analysts argue that the strength of the US dollar, like the strength of the British pound before that, is a reflection of, and is maintained by, those countries' military strength (see Why Iran's oil bourse can't break the buck, Asia Times Online, March 10, 2006).

On the other hand, the possible success of the exchange may be crucial to signal the US’s waning power in a world evolving towards multipolarity. The Saudis and the Persian Gulf petro-monarchies have already decided to reduce their US dollar holdings. Washington, sooner or later, may have to pay for its oil and gas imports in euros.

No wonder Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is so demonized by Washington as he repeats that the empire of the dollar is falling. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal conceded during the latest OPEC summit in Riyadh that the dollar would collapse if OPEC decided to switch to euros or a basket of currencies. During a closed meeting - with the microphones on, by mistake - Prince Saud said: "My feeling is that the mere mention that OPEC countries are studying the issue of the dollar is itself going to have an impact that endangers the interests of the countries. There will be journalists who will seize on this point and we don't want the dollar to collapse instead of doing something good for OPEC."

The trillion-dollar question is if, and when, most European and Asian oil importers may stampede towards the Iranian oil bourse. OPEC members as well as oil producers from the Caspian may be inevitably seduced by the advantages of selling at Kish - with no dreaded middlemen. Europeans, Chinese and Japanese will also see benefits if they can buy oil with euros, yen or even yuan - they won’t need US dollars – and the same applies to their central banks.

It would take only a few major oil exporters to switch from the dollar to the euro - or the yen - to fatally bomb the petrodollar mothership. Venezuela, Norway and Russia are all ready to say goodbye to the petrodollar. France officially supports a stronger role for the euro in international oil trade.

It may be a long way away, but ultimately the emergence of a new oil marker in euros in Kish will lead the way to the petroeuro global oil trade. The European Union imports much more oil from OPEC than the US, and 45% of Middle East imports also come from the EU.

The symbolism of the Iranian oil bourse is stark; it shows that the flight from the US dollar is irreversible - and so, sooner rather than later, is diminution of Washington's capacity to launch wars on credit. But at this early stage in the game, only one thing is certain: the empire will strike back.

Adapting to the time(r)s...

When Canon designed a multi-use intervalometer for their DSLRs, they decided not to make it available to people in the prosumer end of the pool. They created the TC-80N3 for use with D-series cameras, but not the Rebel series. Users of the Rebel XT, possibly the most popular DSLR in the world (certainly the current champ on Flickr) had to make do with a simple shutter release remote. The timing was up to you and your wristwatch.

People who wanted to use the TC-80N3 with their 'lesser' Canon DSLRs were relegated to risky 'surgery' on the intervalometer, cutting off the connector and splicing on a stereo plug to make it compatible with the Rebel, XT, XTi (and thus, useless if one were ever to upgrade to a D-series camera).

Well, folks, thanks to Gerald Wechselberger of Austria, that's no longer true. Mr. Wechselberger offers a cable specifically designed to adapt the TC-80N3 to our cameras, and for a very reasonable €25, which included delivery to me here in Canada. It also greatly extends the reach of the cable, which is less than a yard on the TC-80N3 itself.

My TC-80N3 intervalometer arrived last Thursday. Yesterday, the Rebel-series adapter arrived from Austria. I plugged the intervalometer into the cable and the cable into the XT, and the TC-80N3 took over the XT just fine. I've been running experiments to see how long the battery in the XT will last, taking an exposure every 30 seconds for hours on end. I'm really looking forward to using it this spring and summer for astrophotography and time-lapse movie-making. So thanks to Gerald Wechselberger! He's made it possible for the Rebel-series crowd!

The beam in thine own eye

Wasn't it refreshing yesterday to hear the President of the United States — a man who holds that office in part thanks to his brother being governor of a crucial state, his father's appointees on the Supreme Court, and his cousin calling the shots at the FOXNews election desk — lecturing Cuba on the importance of "free" and "fair" elections? Yeah, God forbid Castro should simply hand off power to a relative.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lone and P’s Bogus Journey (especially Lone’s)

Oh, man, did I sort of catch a break last night. I mean, it was bad, but it could have been way worse.

If you scroll down a little, you should see a video presentation called Unsquare Toronto. I’ve been working on that for about a month. Time-lapse, it’s mostly made up of serial still images taken with my Rebel XT. A few segments are courtesy of my G9 (notably the ferry crossing to the downtown from the Islands, but also the colourful lights spinning and pulsing). I needed one thing to finish it… a sunset.

I’ve been planning this for ages. I picked the site, picked the angle, waited for a clear evening on a weekend. Last week’s forecast suggested it would all come together yesterday, Saturday night. P-Doug was good enough to agree to accompany me on this Quixotic quest and be my stop-watch wielding Panza. The idea was that every minute, we would take one frame. I wound up with about 43 frames I could use. Do the math; we were out there roughly an hour; longer if you count the time walking to and from.

I knew that sunset was at 5:48. After spending a long, enjoyable afternoon at The Bishop and Belcher, we took off about 4:30 to find a place to park and then set up. My intention was to set up on the sidewalk of one of the Richmond-Adelaide bridges over the DVP and shoot into the downtown core as the sun set behind the buildings.

Nothing much went right, I’m afraid. I got something ultimately passable, but not really as dramatic as I’d hoped or imagined. To be honest, we got there too late. We were plenty on time if you were just thinking about the sunset… the problem is, I wanted the sun setting into tall buildings, and that was going on around the time we were deciding to pull up stakes at the pub, not when we got to where we were setting up the tripod. So I had to be content with what I got.

Secondly, it turns out those bridges have no sidewalks, which would explain why they’re so bloody hard to get to in the first place. It took us about ten minutes of wandering around just to find our way to them. Then we were walking in the gutter as DVP-bound traffic soared past us at forty miles an hour. I didn’t say anything at the time but I was deeply grateful to P-Doug for coming along and putting up with the discomfort and the risk, and he never once bitched or acted like he was being put out. Later on I kidded him by suggesting that I imagined he’d had worse assignments (his background includes extensive work in photography in the darkroom and in the field), but not many.

We stood in a snowbank between the two streets in the fading light. By the time I set up, I could barely feel my fingers. The shoots I took were lopsided (I made a movie out of them as such, then rotated that, just the once, for the finished piece, rather than manually straightening 43 frames…). We were facing traffic, and one of our few amusements was to observe cars slowing down as they approached the two dark-coated figures on the hill with the tripod setup. Dozens of people must have assumed we were a speed trap. Who knows; maybe we inadvertently saved a life or two last night.

By the time I got set up, the sun had just dipped behind one of the tall buildings. I knew we’d see it on the other side, but not for long. I think I got about 8 frames with the sun actually in it. In truth, looking at the previews as the shots came up, I didn’t think we’d get anything usable, but as it usually turns out, the images you see on the computer screen tend to be more detailed and nuanced than the camera itself would have you believe. The few frames with the sun were actually pretty nice.

And so there we stood for nearly an hour as the sun set; P-Doug resetting the timer over and over, and me clicking the remote release in my pocket. Once the sun had set, a chill definitely settled on the hill; you could almost feel it change moment by moment. We packed up just about on the dot at six, and that’s where I made The Big Mistake.

P-Doug says, “three good runs between lights should have us on the other side”. We would run, the light would change and we would stand aside while the traffic flowed, then run, wait, then cross. This was the plan, and it worked pretty well. Except…

Earlier that day I had actually noticed that the plastic clasp on my fanny pack was getting bent in and no longer closed really securely. Why that didn’t immediately set off warning bells, I don’t know. What it amounted to at the time was, “better shop for a new one soon”. Yeah.

Somewhere on that first or second run, the goddamn thing gave way. And I didn’t notice. Can you believe that? Well, it’s true.

We got back to my car (P-Doug came to the B&B on the subway), packed up my gear in the trunk, and I drove P-Doug back to East York. The DVP was jammed, so I decided to head home up Don Mills Road.

Somewhere around the time I was crossing Eglinton Avenue, I reached down to my belt level for something. I’m not sure what. But I suddenly noticed I was skinnier than usual. Then I realized I wasn’t wearing the fanny pack.

Do you remember that scene in Pulp Fiction when Vincent realizes Mia’s dying from the heroin overdose and his panic ramps right up? Well, that was me. I pulled into the plaza where Swiss Chalet is and felt around for the fanny pack. Then I dove out, praying it was in the trunk with the rest of the stuff. No dice. And suddenly I’ve lost it all; someone else is the big winner. Yes, contestant, you’ve won:

  • An Ericsson stainless steel Swiss Army knife
  • A 256 MB CF card
  • A 2 GB SD card
  • A 1 GB data pen
  • A geoposition-logging PhotoTrackr
  • A cellphone
  • A Canon G9 with a new 4 GB Sandisk Extreme III SDHC card

Fuck!! Months of my life earning the money, stuff I’ve come to depend on, lost! Gone! I thought I was going to puke right in the trunk.

And then, Mr. Logic, so rarely a friend to me, took pity on me. Putting his powerful hand lightly on my shoulder, he took me through it step by step.

Why isn’t the fanny pack on me?

Because it fell off.

Why did it fall off?

Remember you noticed the clasp was weak?

What would cause it break?

Well, just about anything, but a lot of serious movement would probably cause it.

When have I been in serious motion lately?

Running along Adelaide Street. That’s probably where it fell off. And here’s a bonus: there are no sidewalks on Adelaide Street there, remember? Therefore, it’s unlikely anyone will have just come along, seen it, and scooped up the big prize. So if you hustle your ass back there, you just might get everything back.

In the car. Right onto Don Mills. Left onto Eglinton. Down the DVP. Off at Richmond. Park on Sumach again. Scan the lot under the bridge. No. Watch the sidewalk on Eastern Avenue. No. Cross up to Adelaide. Cross the traffic. Is that a black lump a the side of the road? Run… run!! An SUV passes me and I’m just sure it’s going to crush the lump but it doesn’t. I get there, and yeah, it’s my fanny pack. It’s not squashed flat. I open up the compartment and pull out the G9 and turn it on and it comes to life. Jesus. Take a couple of shots; it still works. Cell phone… it comes up, finds a signal. PhotoTrackr… it comes on; that toffee-nosed Englishwoman’s voice tells me it’s looking for the satellites. It all works. I stand there in the snow with Mia saying “something” after she’s been injected in the heart with adrenaline (to completely my Pulp Fiction metaphor).

I’ve only had the G9 a little over a month but it’s already a battle-scarred vet. It got a small scratch on the display when I dropped it at a basketball game. Now it has a big scrape in the metal right beside the display, and some slight yellowish discolouration of the LED pixels at the bottom right, from the pressure of the impact… either my dropping it, or some tire kicking it aside. The fly-wheel was locked solid last night but will at least turn now, though not easily. It will function, but it will be a real pain in the ass to use. Fortunately, almost none of the features requires its use. I’m not happy it happened, but it sure could have been a lot worse if it had happened on nearly any other street in town, or if I hadn’t acted as decisively as I did.

As for the other things… the 256 MB card is slightly broken open at one corner, but amazingly it still works just fine (some of the photos you’re about to see come from it, in fact). I didn’t notice till I got home but it was actually sticking right through the leather of the pouch it was in like a bone from a compound fracture or something. The 1 GB USB memory pen must have been hit by something; it was bent and there’s a distinctive dent in it. But, it too still works. Most of the stuff is a little worse for wear, but they all still seem to be functional. Oh, man.

Looks okay from the front, at least...

Here's where it landed... or was scraped along the road by something passing by.

The scape, a practice photo, and a hint of the discolouration now in the LED at the bottom right of the display.

Damage to the USB pen memory. Incredibly, it seems to work just fine. The above photos were taken with my Nikon Coolpix 4300.

First image taken with the G9 after the incident. This is looking east up Adelaide towards the DVP overpass. The blur isn't due to a problem with the camera; it's just that it was very low light and I couldn't hold the camera absolutely steady.

Better light this morning. I didn't spend time getting the colour just right; this was shot RAW and the intention is just to show that the camera seems to be working fine, in spite of everything.


I should point out that P-Doug's participation in this escapade was undertaken with him in some discomfort. He was experiencing sciatica at the time, and might well have begged off. I was aware that he had had some back problems lately, but when he seemed all-go to help me out, I put it out of my mind. I feel badly that I didn't clue in when I noticed he was having trouble keeping up on the rise to the bridges (though in his favour I'll say he impressed me on the run back... y'know, where I lost my camera and all trying to catch up!). I can only imagine the pain he might have been going through standing there for an hour, but he never said a word about it. I guess he paid for it over the next several days. I don't want to play mama bird; I think it's condescending... but still, I ought to have been more empathetic, and I'm embarrassed that I didn't get it at all at the time.

Friday, February 15, 2008

One thing leads to another

For a couple of months now I've gotten into time-lapse photography... taking a series of still images a second or so apart and then stringing them into a movie. Alternately, filming something with my G9's time-lapse movie facility. That works well enough, but my preferred method is to take a series of stills with the Rebel XT.

I bought the Rebel XT about two and a half years ago, not to long after I started this blog. It's never really been my "main" camera, because it's impractical to carry around. But on the other hand, it is a DSLR, and can manage a lot of things the PowerShots I've been using since I got the G1 in early 2006 really can't quite. One of those is to take a series of precisely-timed, interval-driven series of photos over a period of time.

Canon makes an intervalometer — a remote timer controller — for its higher-end EOS DSLRs. This, unfortunately, leaves the Rebel, the XT, and the XTi in the dust. However, a guy in Austria actually makes and sells an adapter cable that will allow you to plug the TC-80N3 into the plug for the RS-60E3 remote shutter release. When it arrives, this will enable me to shoot time-lapse in a manner I haven't be able to so far. Up till now, it's involved setting up the XT, plugging in the RS-60E3, and then letting the camera shoot exposures basically as fast as it can. There's no subtlety to it; you get it as fast as the camera can go, and that's that. With the TC, which arrived yesterday (the cable should be here sometime next week), I'd be able to go out to the light sanctuaries this summer, set up the camera, point it at the sky and set it to ISO 200 and F/5.6 and have the intervalometer take 15-second exposures (four a minute) for, say, six hours. Come home, throw the still images in sequence into the movie software, and voila... a movie of the sky slowly rotating. I know it's been done a million times, but the point is, not by me. Not yet.

I had some interesting trouble with the guys in London (London, Ontario, not England) trying to order it. For some reason I can't fathom, they pretty much insisted that I call up my card issuer and inform them of the delivery address I'd given them. To me, this was utterly absurd. Putting aside the point that my credit card isn't actually a credit card – it's a pay-positive card (in other words, the only money on it is money I've already earned and put on it) that facilitates use of the MasterCard system – what possible business is it of the card issuer where I have a purchase delivered? What, every time I chose to send something to an address other than my billing address, I'm supposed to phone up the card issuer and register the delivery address? I don't think so. I politely but firmly informed them that I had never been asked to do so by any retailer in the nearly 20 years I've held credit cards, and I had no intention of starting; that if the card number, expiry date, billing address, and shipping destination didn't suffice for them to close the deal, I would simply buy it downtown. The only reason I was working with them in the first place was they had the best price on the web ($30 cheaper than the best quote I got here in Toronto). Of course, there was also $15 in shipping that I wouldn't have buying it in town, so really I was only saving about the cost of a modest lunch ordering from them. It wasn't worth it if they were going to start making life hard for me... not for fifteen bucks. Fortunately, the grudgingly $aw the light and li$tened to rea$on and $hipped the thing a couple of days ago, and it arrived yesterday. So I now have the camera, the timer, and no means yet to successfully mate them. Ah, but the aphrodisiac is on its way from Europe, even now. :)

Not quite soon enough, though. I've been working for a month now on a new project; time-lapse of night scenes in the city. It's going well, but I need a sunset (and possibly a moonrise) to complete the project. A lot of calculation and waiting for a sunny weekend has given me this Saturday downtown to catch the sun ducking into the buildings of the downtown core, from the bridge that carries Richmond and Adelaide Streets over the DVP. It'll be cold, but hopefully not a lonely vigil. P-Doug has kindly agreed to aid me, and aside from the company, he's pretty much indispensable. He has a timer that will chime every minute, telling me when to open the shutter. I think we need to be set up by about 5 PM, as sunset is at 5:48, but it'll be settling into the buildings slightly earlier than that, I think. Hopefully I'll get some good results. We'll soon see.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Yep, I'm nuts

You're Ulysses!

by James Joyce

Most people are convinced that you don't make any sense, but compared to what else you could say, what you're saying now makes tons of sense. What people do understand about you is your vulgarity, which has convinced people that you are at once brilliant and repugnant. Meanwhile you are content to wander around aimlessly, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. What you see is vast, almost limitless, and brings you additional fame. When no one is looking, you dream of being a Greek folk hero.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

P-Doug and the new tech

Saturday amounted to my first real opportunity to go on a geotagged hike. Now that P-Doug has the S-80, I thought he might be interested in putting it through its paces. I suggested the closed part of Humberline Drive in Rexdale, but he was anxious to go further afield, and suggested hiking Dominion Road (the closed part of what's now Dominion Street in the little hamlet of Brimstone) up into the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park.

It snowed quite a bit on Friday and it was touch-and-go as to whether or not we'd actually go. In fact, it was well after 11 when I heard from him. I thought about phoning but given that he was one doing the driving this time, I decided that was undue pressure. I was within minutes of taking off on my own to wander Humberline when P-Doug did phone me, and about half an hour later we were on the road.

We were well up Winston Churchill Boulevard before I remembered to turn the PhotoTrackr on. Luckily I did this before I started taking photos. It did a really admirable job of keeping the trail we drove and walked for hours, with only a couple of gaps, mostly due to our being stationary indoors.

HDR And miles to go

HDR Caught a prize

HDR Define "cozy"

First thing, we drove to Erin to go to the bakery there that he and G favour. I didn't buy anything myself, though of course the temptation was thick in the air. After that, we drove up into Brimstone and parked at the end of the road. We set off up the trail, immediately noticing tracks laid down by skis. P-Doug eventually realized that they were actually two sets of skis, one wider and one narrower. We never did see the people who laid down the tracks, but they sure did make the going easier for us.

The trees were hung heavy with wet snow. It was really beautiful. The air was around freezing and almost absolutely still. My feet were a little bit cold (no, I was wearing shoes, honest; just not particularly wintery ones), but we did wander up the trail for more than half an hour. I had meant to keep an eye out for the chimney we saw standing alone last autumn, but we never did catch sight of it. What we did see was a couple of bugs on the snow who'd come out tragically too early; a midge and a spider.

HDR Compelled

HDR Snow tracks

HDR A near thing

HDR Fingers of snow

I was shooting mostly RAW in anticipation of 'finishing' the shots using Photomatix to bring out the details. My results were uneven and not wholly satisfying, though some were pleasing enough. If I had the chance to do it again, I'd shoot AEB spreads and see if they were superior in bleak, low-contrast situations. But I have the feeling there's the rub: if there's not much light and not much contrast, you're probably never going to get good HDR results anyway. P-Doug was shooting mostly AEB spreads, so it will be informative to see what kind of results he eventually gets.

I think it had been his intention to get as far into the park as we were when we came down from the rise at the east the first time we were there, about a year and a half ago, when I remember we encountered a Russian fellow trying to get his bearings and met a young couple coming in from the route we ourselves were walking Saturday. I remember testing the waters of the Credit and pronouncing them too cold for our indulgence, even if there had been sufficient cover. Well, we never got that far on Saturday. It was starting to get uncomfortably cold for me, in street shoes, and to be honest, after half an hour or so, one bend after another of snow-laden trees was starting to lose its charms, especially when the only reward was to see a big plain of snow at the risk of frostbite, or at least doubling the duration of my discomfort. I gently wet-blanketed the trek and suggested a retreat to warmer and more interesting digs, and with some small reluctance, P-Doug indulged me. But it seemed to me all our mission objectives had been met, even if we didn't land on the plain and plant the flag... I'd geotracked a hike matched to many photos, and P-Doug had had ample opportunities to both shoot AEB spreads and videotape (is there a better word for that, now that there's no tape involved?) this, that, and the other thing (mostly me, playing with tree limbs and relieving them of snow burdens). More-ambitious treks call for better weather conditions, I think. Either that or I have to go buy real winter boots!

HDR Skyward

Similarly, I had plans to do a lot of time lapse photography downtown. Those plans didn't pan out, either. When we arrived downtown, it was surprisingly foggy. Not absolutely socked-in by any means, but enough that the top of the CN Tower wasn't visible. Given that filming the light going up the Tower was a big part of what I wanted to accomplish, it seemed like I'd be better off just waiting for another weekend. We ended up passing through the downtown core and heading east to a bar we'd been to once before, in warmer weather in the summer of 2006, I think. The bar was named for the Keating Channel, alongside which it resides (apparently it used to belong to the Irish Rovers). We had a thoroughly pleasant couple of hours there. It wasn't loud or very busy; we shared a pitcher of Keith's Red, and P-Doug had potato skins while I indulged in broccoli and cheese soup in a bread bowl. Very nice! Our waitress was an attractive and attentive African-Canadian woman who chatted us up about photography, in a matter that was never intrusive. I formed a very favourable impression of the place, re-enforcing the one set previously.

Towards the end of our stay, P-Doug asked me if I'd be staying downtown or returning with him to go out with G. I opted for the latter. Conditions had improved but by then, I was less ambitious about photography. We all ended up at Boston Pizza in Scarborough.

Skip forward a day. I'd put P-Doug onto Google Earth because of its facilities to geotag photos, but mostly because its pseudo-3D imagery gives a real sense of what we're facing in our plans to explore a particular river valley this spring or summer. It wouldn't work for him because it barfed on his video card. Combined with the fact he has only USB 1.1 in his computer and the card reader I lent him isn't recognized by his system, it was enough to have him looking for some hardware. He called me out of the blue early Sunday afternoon with plans to go to Tiger Direct. A USB 2.0 card quickly morphed into a potential computer purchase once he saw how low the prices were. Problem was, nearly every "good" computer sported Windows Vista, and it just wasn't worth the hassle. Oh, sure, the guy told us, all you have to do is look up the serial number of your motherboard and then download the XP drivers and put them on a pen memory and scrub the new computer's hard drive and (buy and) install XP on it and install the drivers from the pen memory, oh, sure... not a problem.

Fuck that.

It wasn't my call, but that's what I was thinking. As it turned out, so was P-Doug. We got out of there and went to Factory Direct, where P-Doug snagged a sweet machine, high speed, 2 GB DDR2, 200 GB HDD, for $399. And it had XP on it! He wandered for a minute or two, talking himself into it, and then grabbed it. Even there, it was the only one we saw with the useful OS on it.

It'll be interesting to me to see what happens from here. P-Doug has the S-80, and a computer that can work much more serious mojo than his old one. I'm not sure yet what it will mean for his creative output, but it does open the door to a lot of potential. Once the warm weather's back and hiking becomes more of a joy rather than an ordeal, opportunities will really expand.

Eight weeks till April. :)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Retroactive geotagging with Picasa and Google Earth

I've discovered... wait, discovered? That makes it sound like it was my idea. Let me rephrase that. I've learned, to my utter delight, how to use Picasa and Google Earth to geotag my older photographs... that is, the vast, vast majority of the ones I took before getting my Phototrakr a few months ago.

It didn't work for me right off the bat. Google Earth didn't like something in my setup and when opening in its default setting, it gave me a blank screen where the map was supposed to be. I did a little reading the other day and realized there are three settings for how it opens by default. One is to open in DirectX mode. I tried that and it worked. When Google Earth opens, you're greeted with a globe of the Earth, as if you are approaching it from space. It rotates beneath you to a default position over North America. When you select a location... Toronto, say... it gracefully zooms you in, and from there you can start navigating.

Picasa is great at cataloguing your images. If any of them have EXIF information, which would be pretty much everything I have since I bought the Kodak DC4800 in early 2001, you can select them and then choose Tools > Geotag > Geotag with Google Earth. The pictures are then transferred to a little slider in Google Earth. You select a photo (or possibly more than one; I haven't actually tried that yet) and, dragging the map (yes, the map, not the photo!) to position the specific location under the crosshairs, you click the Geotag button and the location is recorded. When you're done, the geotag information is appended to each tagged photo's EXIF information. Any program or service that can mine that tag, like Flickr, can use it to represent the location on the map where your photo was taken.

To me, this is an important advance. For several years now, cameras have been able to tell you a lot about the circumstances of a photo's creation... the exact time and date it was taken (regardless of what the file info says of creation or modification date), what make and model of camera took it, the aperture, ISO, exposure duration, EV settings, flash, special settings, on and on and on. But there was no way to communicate (or even remember, necessarily) where in the world, the country, the city the photo was taken. Now there is, even for photos not explicitly married to tracking utilities.

I think in a few years it will be common for cameras to have geotracking facilities built right into them. In a way, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already; cell phones are everywhere, as are GPS systems and devices. But until then, we have some effective work-arounds.

My first photo geotagged this way and placed on Flickr (which picked up the geotag)...

HDR Wendy

Latitude: N 43° 39' 11.03"
Longitude: W 79° 20' 55.93"