Friday, June 30, 2006

Fire near Cavaillon!

What is up with us and fires on our last night of vacation? So we're having a nice glass of wine in the yard and we start to hear large airplanes flying very low. I look to the northeast and there are great plumes of smoke billowing only a couple of miles away. Since then, about 7 airplanes have been attacking what looks like a big brush fire towards Robion from here. Good thing the wind is blowing away from us.

A fireplane making his drop

It's a matter of priorities, I guess

When we were in Cannes, we would return to our room at night, prepare our dinner and that was when the photo editing and blogging would usually take place. Since we've arrived at Cavaillon, though, there have been other things that have taken priority. Like kicking back in the pool and cooling off from the heat or sitting out in the yard and watching the plane tree and cypress trees sway gently in the breeze (or the wind if the Mistral starts kicking up). Heck, I've even been writing some code to play around with GPS locations. The net is, that I haven't had much of a chance to keep up with the blogging or the posting of pictures.

Now posting pictures should be easy. Copy them off of the camera, weed out the blurry or incredibly boring ones figure out the few that you want to post and and upload them. But not me. I've been spending some time playing around with a bunch of different RAW photo workflow applications during the trip and that has slowed things down as I've tried to figure out how each one works and how to best use it. I've been using Capture One for Windows for several months now so that one was out. For this trip, I've been working with Aperture, Lightroom beta 3, iView Media Pro v 3.1 (which became a Microsoft product while we were here).

I've been using a MacBook Pro for my editing, going back and forth between Windows and MacOS. I really like this laptop though it does have the downsides of getting extraordinarily hot and, when plugged in, of having an electrical current flowing through the metal case since the AC adapter is not grounded. It has the advantage of being one of the fastest Macs out today, though, and quite a nice PC to boot (burns notwithstanding).

So here are my thoughts on each of these applications and what I've liked and disliked about each.

Apple Aperture

Aperture is certainly the best looking application of the three. It is full of convenient tools like the loupe, full screen mode, the "heads up" editing pane. I particularly like the organization aspects, being able to rate pictures and do smart lists based on these properties. The thumbnail views are very nice and have some cool animations which feel natural but make it feel polished. It is really nice to be able to easily switch between "modes" like project management vs editing vs applying ratings and keywords.

Aperture bases all of its edits on versions which means that for any original photo, you can have multiple versions of it and edit each one separately. I like this concept though I haven't used it much since I'm really just trying to clean up the pictures some. The editing tools are nice, though pretty basic still. It doesn't have the color fixing options that Lightroom has and it has a tendency to over do it and ending up with over-saturated photos. One of the things that is frustrating moving between tools is that each tool has its own sensitivity to the controls - sometimes moving a slider just a little bit will make a huge change and sometimes they really use the full gamut of the slider and keep the result pretty useful. The straighten tool in Aperture is a great example of this. The slightest move of the mouse rotates the image a huge amount and, because it is also a very slow operation, I almost always go way too far. Doing the fine adjustments needed to straighten a picture is very frustrating.

There were a bunch of places where Aperture really fell down, though. First, it requires that each of my RAW photos is sucked into their proprietary hidden folder hierarchy which pretty much locks out any multi-tool workflow (with the exception of supporting Photoshop). I understand why they do this but I hate it and it will keep me from using Aperture for the long term. These are my pictures and I don't want them locked away from me. It prevents me, for example, from using another application to straighten an image while maintaining Aperture for the rest of the workflow.

While I'm sure it must be there somewhere, I can't find an easy way to compare before/after versions of edits in a photo. I suppose I can create a new version before making a change and then compare those but then I'm responsible for cleaning up each of those versions and that's pretty lame. Lightroom does this much better. I also can't figure out how the Spot and Patch tool works. Maybe it is useful, but it isn't intuitive.

Aperture has a publish to web gallery feature which is surprisingly bad. The default templates are very boring and while the publish to .mac works nicely, I can't see really publishing my pictures with any of their templates. This should be easy for them to fix but I was surprised that a company that puts so much emphasis on design would blow this one.

The bottom line - Aperture shows a lot of promise but it feels like Apple put more emphasis on looking cool and adding innovative though not as useful features like auto stacks and not enough into a great touchup toolset.

Adobe Lightroom Beta 3

Maybe it is unfair to compare a beta 3 of a product with a version 1.1 but I figure both are the second public release of the product and Adobe has such a head start in technology and expertise, it should be a fair comparison. My first ding against Adobe is that there is no Windows version yet, though I'm sure they'll correct that soon. Beta 3 feels like a halfway point between the Elements applications and Photoshop. It's modal, big text main window feels very consumer-y and is much less elegant looking than Aperture. It is kind of strange that when I am in Library mode, it keeps the filmstrip pane open that I used in edit mode so now I have 2 listviews of my photos open concurrently and as I choose a picture in one, the other one jumps to select the same item. The fact that the filmstrip view animates and the thumbnail view jumps shows some lack of polish that is not unexpected in a beta but icky nonetheless. Aperture's modes work much more nicely.

One big plus for Lightroom is that it gives me the option to keep my RAW files in their original location. Yay! It does have the option to copy them to a secret store but it seems to work just as fine when they are where I want them to be which is great. On the downside, it doesn't do a very good job of dealing with pictures getting deleted by a different application. It does recognize that the picture is gone, but it makes me go through, select each one, and delete it from the database.

Lightroom's best feature is, not surprisingly, in the editing mode (or develop as they call it). The toolset is very nice, though incomplete and I particularly like the flexibility in adjusting color in the photos. The tone curve, split toning and HSL color tuning are quite nice though it can get very confusing in figuring out how they interact with one another. I really appreciate the flexibility these tools provide though they require a Photoshop mindset to really get the most from them -- and I don't have that yet so it is a bit of a stretch.

The biggest problem, though, is that it is SLOW! Painfully slow. Like I'm waiting five to fifteen seconds for things to happen or for pictures to load and these delays happen all the time. I'll make a change of some sort and when it tries to apply it, I'll need to wait several seconds. Each little tweak is tracked separately in the undo chain so if I am just playing around with exposure, for example, and want to get rid of any changes I may need to hit undo 6 times. At least it is very clear what is being undone but it would be nice for some of those changes to get collapsed.

Their web templates are pretty nice, giving options that include a flash gallery though, again, there need to be more options. Hopefully those will come in the final version.

I'm going to keep playing with Lightroom some more, but it feels like it is going to need to have a bunch of books written about it before users will be able to take full advantage of the editing features.

iView Media Pro 3.1

iView Media Pro is not an editor. Sure, it has some editing features but I don't expect it to be an editor so I didn't even try to use them. It is a digital asset management application, though, and it does a very good job at it. It has been the first step in my work flow where I first triage the pictures that are coming in and delete the clearly bad ones. It has also been my solution for posting web galleries since I really liked one of the templates they have. It is fast at indexing the photos and does an OK job at letting me step through them. My biggest complaint is that when I zoom landscape pictures to take the full screen, it uses that same zoom percentage to apply to portrait pictures so they are cropped on the top and bottom. If I set it up so the portraits are fully visible then the landscape pictures take up a small space in the middle of the window leaving lots of wasted screen space around them. Ugh! Lightroom does this very nicely, not only showing me as much of a picture as possible, but also zooming to 100% when I click in the picture (and returning to normal when I click again).

As an organizer, though, it is fast and it is easy to have different sets of photos to work with since it uses a document model for each collection. I would like it better if there was better support for organization by hierarchical tags though I must admit that I haven't spent as much time tagging photos with anything more than labels and ratings.

Well I could go on and on with more data and to be completely fair to all of the applications I probably should. But now I need to go next door and have a drink and watch the trees sway in the breeze and that sounds much more fun. I'll post more pictures of our adventures soon.

Monday, June 26, 2006

From the Riviera to Cavaillon

It has been a couple of very busy (yet very relaxing) days since my last post. We left Cannes on Saturday, rented a car and drove to Cavaillon where we are staying for the second half of our trip. The farmhouse we're staying in is fantastic -- it has a pool, views of the mountains and a wonderful hostess and is in a great location to go to any number of great sites during the day.

Leslie did a great write-up of today's events so I won't repeat it here but I will add that we went to a farmer's market in Coustellet and picked up more yummy cheese and wine. Man it is easy to get good, inexpensive wine here!


We did pop from lavender field to lavender field today, both at the Abbaye de Sénanque and at the Lavender Museum. I particularly liked the rogue poppies.

It isn't even peak lavender season yet!

Gordes is quite remarkable (besides the waitress that Leslie mentioned). The toughest part of visiting is finding a place to park along the tight winding roads up to the village to go get pictures. I had to hang out over the edge of a very high cliff to get this shot.

Gordes is very impressive!

The full album of the last few days pictures is available here.

Tomorrow we should he heading to Aix-en-Provence. Home of the University of Michigan year abroad program. Go Blue!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Monaco and Monte Carlo

One of the places I was really excited to see on our trip was Monaco. Part Las Vegas, part Miami Beach and part something entirely different. The entire principality is only a couple of miles long so once we were there, it was really easy to get around. Built on the steep hills around a bay, the tough part is all of the climbing but they have built public escalators into most of the hills so even that part is easy.

Monaco is absolutely gorgeous. The architecture, the views, the immense yachts and the museums are all outstanding. Space is really at a premium here so you find interesting things like an aquatic stadium right between the marina and the International Horse Jumping championship which is going on this week. It makes for some interesting juxtapositions. Leslie and I were amazed by the yachts we saw in Cannes but the ones in Monaco blow them away. It left me wondering why I don't have a yacht with a helicopter on it.

My new boat

We went to two museums, the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium (where Jacques Cousteau was the director for many years) and the National Museum both had lots to see though I think my favorite part was the aquarium. It is the first aquarium I've been at that not only allowed photography but also did a great job of lighting the different tanks so that you could get pretty good results. The Canon 5D's low noise at 1600 ISO helped out some too :)

The Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium

There is a Japanese Garden right near the National Museum which should not be missed. It is very nicely done and really neat with the views of the mediterranean through some of the trees and the hills of Monaco on the other side.

The Casino at Monte Carlo

Much of Monaco's income comes from the casinos which, given my experience there, is easy to understand. Our last stop of the day was at the main casino in Monte Carlo (which is more of a neighborhood than a city). It is a beautiful building overlooking the waterfront but nobody really looks out the windows. Compared with the Las Vegas casinos I'm used to, it was subdued and tiny. There were only 2 blackjack tables open, one with a 25 Euros minimum and the other with 100. I sat down with 95 Euros and lost the first three hands with 16, 17, 16. I tried a bit of roulette but lost the rest there (I've never liked that game) Well, that was that. Leslie had slightly better luck at video blackjack, losing only 10 Euros. It wasn't that we were losing, though, it was that there was no excitement in the whole place. While I was watching roulette, people were winning a bunch of money but you wouldn't know it from their laissez-faire attitude. OK chalk one up for Vegas but with all of the other unique advantages of Monaco, it is high on my list of places to return to.

You can check out the full photo album here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A quick trip to the islands

Just across from Cannes are two islands known as the Iles de Lérins. The first is Ile St-Honorat named for a monk who founded a monastery on the island and the second is Ile Ste-Marguerite, named for his sister. There are quick water shuttles to each of these islands but since we didn't want to rush in trying to get both islands in, we just went to Ile Ste-Marguerite.

The boat ride across offered a number of great views of Cannes and the island as well as all of the boats out and about (including, apparently, the USS Bulkeley which was anchored offshore). There seem to be a lot of sailing schools operating in Cannes because we saw several groups of sailboats toodling around between the mainland and the islands in loose formations.

Now the big attraction on Ile-Ste Marguerite is the fort that dominates the north side of the island and served as a prison for many years whose most famous prisoner was the man in the iron mask but since you can read the history anywhere (er, anywhere) and this is, after all, France I'm just going to talk about lunch. We hiked around the fort to find a little restaurant called La Guerite which, we had been told, had great bouillabaisse. We sat down at a nice shady table and the waiter came up to take our order. It went something like this.

Us: We would like the bouillabaisse for two please

Waiter: No. <very fast French happened> You will like the bourride. (he provided no web link)

Us: Um. Ok sounds great.

He was right. It was not quite the same as bouillabaisse in that it had no shellfish and instead had some big hunks of potatoes in it but it was really tasty and came with some little bread crisps, spicy aioli, and some shredded cheese. Accompanied by a local rosé wine and we were in Provençal heaven.

La Guerite

After lunch, we toured the fort which in addition the the prison cells also included some pretty cool Roman ruins and an interesting display on all of the shipwrecks around the island including the contents of one ancient greek ship that sank nearby.

The museum at Fort Ste-Marguerite

While we waited for the boat back to Cannes, a man was throwing a soccer ball into the water for his German Shepherd to swim after and retrieve. On the far dock was a group of about 30 young French kids who were cheering on the dog. Sometimes both the man and the dog would jump into the water and swim for the ball and the kids started singing "Allez le chien! Allez le chien!" It was very cute and the dog pretty much always won :)

You can check out pictures of the trip here and if you're wondering about the last 3, once we got back to Cannes we took a walk around the pier. The Windows Live flag was flying above one of the giant sailboats docked at the harbor and the sand castle is something we've been watching progress over the past few days. Perhaps I'll get a few more pictures of it before we leave.

Let's Talk Cheese

A wise cartoon mouse once said:

Cheese! I just love cheese. Really I do.

Well I totally agree and France is one of the best place in the world for a cheese lover, such as myself, to partake. As we walked to our temporary home in Cannes on Sunday we walked by a Fromagier's shop and marked that location for a return trip once they opened. Did you know that many fromagier's are closed on Monday? I didn't. So it wasn't until today that we actually got to stop in and negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles.

As we approached the shop, the first thing we noticed was the smell which was incredible. Strong and cheesy (some may have described me that way, though never that I know of in reference to smell). We picked out three cheeses and high-tailed it back to our mouse house after one quick stop at the bread store to get some freshly baked bread. Our first was Les Capitelles Banon, a goat cheese from haute Provence wrapped in chestnut leaves. The second was Ceneri et Fils St. Marcellin from here in Cannes and the last one was a Brie from Mieux. At first, I thought I had had lots of brie so why do that again but this looked much fresher from the typical refrigerated type we get back home so we gave it a try.

OMG this is some good cheese! I have never tasted such subtlety in cheese before and I suspect it is related to how cheese is made and sold in the states. First, by law, all cheese must be made from pasturized milk which destroys undesirable microorganisms but it also destroys a lot of desirable ones and we are left with a much less interesting cheese. The second problem is that cheese is then wrapped in plastic and then refrigerated - both of which kill the cheese so once again we lose out on so many of the things that make cheese so interesting (and tasty!)

The Banon and Marcellin are just wonderful. We had actually been eating some Marcellin from a local grocery store while we waited for the fromagerie to open and it was great. Not much different this time given it was the same local brand. Creamy and strong but far from overpowering. I really want to talk about the brie though. This was like no brie I have ever tasted. So light and creamy and it had a nutty taste as well but the flavor that finally popped through was truffle. It was fantastic. If you think you like brie now, you should just get on a plane and come here and try some. It is worth the 27 hour flight we took. Since we can't bring cheese back into the states, that is about the only option we have but if you'd like, I'll wait and make sure we have some ready for you :)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Day in Grasse

Grasse, France is the perfume capital of the world and it is only about 15 kilometers from Cannes so today's day trip was to Grasse. Leslie is very into the process behind perfume and scents, largely from her interest in aromatherapy and I had read a bit about how they get the oils from the flowers so it promised to be an educational (and scentsational -- sorry) day.

We took a bus from the station in Cannes and stopped at Les Quatre Chemins for the Fragonard factory tour. There we saw the table where "the nose" works. He (and it's always a man) has a gift for scents and can distinguish between hundreds of different smells and figure out how to best mix them to come up with new fragrance that fit a theme. It seems to be kind of like creating music in that each scent is a different note and he composes with these notes. He even works at a table with hundreds of little bottles on it that looks like an organ. We saw where they made soap, and where they were filling tiny bottles with perfume and ultimately ended up at the factory store which had quite the collection of little gold bottles.

The scent organ

Now for a bit about transportation in Provence. This isn't Switzerland and the busses do not run on time. Our first bus was supposed to leave at 10 and it didn't leave until about 10:15 and given that they are supposed to go every 30 minutes, being off by 15 minutes from the start means that a bus could come at any time and you have no way of predicting when it will come. So as we left the factory and headed for the center of Grasse for other factories we had no idea whether it would take 2 minutes or 30 minutes for the bus to come. The woman at the factory told us that it was only 3 km to town, though, so we figured we would walk. It may have been 3 km to Grasse but it was also all uphill - way uphill - so it felt more like 6 km. About 4 busses passed us on the way so we figured we were on the right path and it seemed like it was always just around the next bend but that bend always led to another bend. Unfortunately, Grasse keeps all of their restaurants in the middle of town so there was no place to stop for a drink or for lunch until we got there so we kept trudging up the hill until we finally arrived at the center of town.

We finally arrived, exhausted and dripping and at that point, I was a way too tired to care much about perfumes but a good lunch at a cafe in the town square helped a lot and we were off to the second Fragonard factory/museum tour which was pretty similar to the first one. I did see an interesting book from the 19th century which talked about soap. It said that given roughly equal populations, you could tell which of two nations was more civilized by the amount of soap they consumed. An interesting perspective.

After that museum, we just walked around Grasse which, at its center is full of small winding streets and lots of little shops and restaurants. The colors were wonderful - bright and mediterranean blues, reds, oranges and yellows offsetting the unpainted grays. Great stuff! The tight and winding alleys full of character and scented with the perfumed bottles and soaps inside.

Very cool!

You can see the web album of some of my pictures here.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Long day of travelling

After a mere 27 hours of traveling, we've made it to our flat in Cannes. It is a great location sitting just a couple of blocks from La Croisette and very close to the market. We're exhausted but really glad to be here.

Over the last few weeks, I read A Year in Provence and the most important thing I got from it is that time runs at a different speed here in Provence so when our ride from the airport to our flat showed up an hour late, I wasn't surprised. It was actually kind of funny - he did a good job of letting us know that he was on his way and that he would be here in a few minutes and if you doubled or tripled each of his time estimates, he was pretty accurate. When we finally got into the room, we slept for a bit.

Once we got up - and I set up a little wireless network - we headed off to dinner at Maison du Porto which was right on La Croisette. Reasonably priced and quite tasty, Leslie tried the moules and I went for some lamb. After a day of airplane and airport food, this was delicious though I suspect we will do better over the next week or two. During dinner, the world cup was on the television so we got to watch France score their first goal against South Korea and the place went crazy.

After dinner, we went for a walk along the Jetée A. Edouard and saw some amazing yachts - I mean huge and beautiful. All of them had dingys around the size of Skippy's boat. I mean - whoa! I thought about just jumping aboard one of them to say hi and maybe we would become fast friends with the owners and then we could hang out on their yacht/destroyer later in the week but in the end, we kept walking. Perhaps tomorrow - after we get some sleep.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Yardstick - Hard Drives Cost Per Megabyte

This is one of the yardsticks I use to see how prices are dropping or capability is increasing in computer hardware.

In 1986, I bought a 30 Meg hard drive for my Mac SE and it cost me $700. That comes to $23.33 per megabyte.

Today I can go buy a 500 Gig hard drive for $300. $0.00059 per megabyte. A bit over 1/17th of a cent per megabyte.

20 years ago, hard drives were 39,548 times more expensive.

Cool :)


P.S. Yes, I'm sure I could find the 500 Gig drive cheaper, but this will do for the yardstick.

An Inconvenient Truth

Leslie and I went to see An Inconvenient Truth tonight. It is a fascinating movie and you should all go see it. We can argue about whether you believe it or not later but first just go see it.

Al Gore has been giving this slideshow talk for years and he has really honed his message. In the film he makes his case that global warming is a fact, it is accelerating and it will have disasterous effects if not dealt with immediately. Personally, I think this movie is also a love story about Mr Gore and his PowerBook. He doesn't go anywhere without that computer and that bit was quite touching -- but the global warming bit is the main part.

I think there were two things that really struck me about this film. The first is the obvious one and that is the impact that global warming will have on us. Not our great-grandchildren but our immediate families. In fact, it already is impacting us. My parents live in Florida and they travel during the summer to get away from Hurricane Central. I wanted to go skiing last year in Whistler, but they didn't have enough snow. There are plenty more consequences coming which are much more dramatic, but it is real.

The second thing that struck me was what this movie says about discourse in America. Global warming is a complicated issue. There is a lot of data that needs to be presented for it to go from "yeah, it'll be a bit hotter this summer" to "San Jose, among other places, will be under water permanently if this continues." Over the 95 minutes of this film, Al Gore makes his case. He builds it carefully and leads the viewer down the path explaining each part carefully and never in the boring monotone that characterized him in the 2000 election. This is one of those issues that takes 95 minutes or more to really understand. There are lots of other issues like that as well -- the complexity of labor relations, what security really means in software, cloning but the sad thing is that we never make time for this type of discourse anymore. It's strange, too, because it is the same technology that makes it so easy for a presentation like this to be made that also oversaturates us with so much information that we feel the need to get everything cut down to a 10 second sound bite.

This may have been part of the downfall of Gore in 2000. He knew too much and wanted to give people real answers to their questions but we don't want real answers anymore we want convenient answers that fit in with what we already know. Pieces that fit neatly into our puzzle of knowledge. This person / country / issue / policy / company / restaurant is good - or bad. We thin slice everything to get to a conclusion and then move on to the next one. The problem is that these issues can't just be thin sliced. They need to be fully consumed before you can really grok it and that takes time and energy.

So here's my recommendation for this weekend. Take just 95 minutes and go see An Inconvenient Truth. Drink it in and decide to do something about it or dismiss it and do nothing. That part is up to you but just give Al Gore and his PowerBook the chance to persuade you.