Pigeon Point, the elephant seal, and beer with buses

This morning we drove across to the old lighthouse at Pigeon Point, south of Half Moon Bay. It was foggy going over the mountains, and when we reached the coast we were unimpressed by the NWS forecast of sunshine. It was high tide, the waves were pounding, spray was flying, and the clouds were low and threatening. In the bay just south of the lighthouse we spotted an elephant seal playing in the surf; occasionally he would swim out around Prisoner’s Rocks, before returning to the beach. I managed to get some nice shots of him. After a while, the sun came out and the seas moderated. We saw a pair of Harbor Seals just offshore, but I couldn’t get a clear photo.
For lunch we scooted up to Half Moon Bay and went to Cameron’s Pub: the one with two “London buses” parked outside. Of course neither of them ever saw service in London: they are a couple of Bristol FLF Lodekkas. Both are in pretty shabby condition, and neither will ever run again. As to their actual provenance, one seems to be ex-Thames Valley, based on an annual inspection checklist in the cab.
Photos from both Pigeon Point and Cameron’s can be found here. Herewith a few samples:

Film & TV

"Logorama" is brilliant

This weekend the Aquarius cinema in Palo Alto is showing the Oscar-nominated short subject films for 2010, along with some “honorable mentions”. We decided to checkout the animated films, and were blown away by the brilliant contenders. The longest film, and the one I expected to enjoy most, is “A Matter of Loaf and Death”, the latest Wallace & Gromit creation from Nick Park. Beautifully made, as funny as ever, but perhaps a bit predictable. It was followed by Nicky Phelan’s “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, a much shorter but hysterically funny piece, which was distinguished by the interleaving of two quite different animation styles. Two other films caught my eye – Javier Recio Gracia’s “The Lady and the Reaper”, and Frabrice Joubert’s “French Roast” – but neither achieved the heights of Nick Park and Nicky Phelan.
Then came the last film – and before it was shown, there was a warning that it contained strong language and violence. A few parents shooed their children out of the theatre. And then it started:

We’re talking about “Logorama” by the H5 Group from France. Energetic, subversive, startling, cynical, politically savvy… It’s just brilliant. Quite apart from anything else, I hope it sets the bar for “fair use” of copyrighted visual material from now on. Every familiar logo in our advertisement-drenched world seems to be skewered.
One reviewer of the 2010 Oscar contenders concluded that:

“Logorama” stands out among this year’s nominees, but a likely winner is a usual suspect, this year’s Nick Park concoction.

I hope she’s wrong. I think that it would be a healthy sign if the Oscar went to the most subversive candidate. It’s happened before…
In the meantime, if you get the chance to see these films, carpe diem! (The whole of “Logorama” seems to be online here, but things change….)


Rockford Fosgate "Punch Plugs" Headphones

What follows is the review I posted to as part of the “Vine” program. Disclaimer: I received the item in question for free, but those who follow my reviews will know that this doesn’t affect the objectivity of my assessments.

Over the years I’ve tried (and reviewed) many headphones. I travel a lot, and so I need headphones that will work well in planes, when I’m listening to the movie or simply playing soothing stuff to help me sleep. I also find myself walking through strange cities, with the soundtrack provided by my portable music device du jour. (These days, that’s my iPhone, of course.) And when I’m trying to crank out a document, or some code, I’ll often block out the world with the right kind of music.
None of the headphones that come for free – with devices, or from airlines – seem any good at all, so naturally the after-market is vibrant. I’ve swung back and forth between in-ear and over-the-ear phones: from the Bose QC2 to the Philips HN060/37. Those are both noise-cancelling units, but I’ve also tried passive devices like the Rivet phones. On my last trip to China, my cheap Skullcandy Earbuds died and I picked up a pair of overpriced Sennheiser CX300-B’s. Frustrating.
But then Amazon sent me a pair of the Rockford Fosgate Punch earbuds. And I’m in heaven. Superb fit, glorious full sound, crunching bass where appropriate. The flat “ribbon” cable is really different: obviously it doesn’t tangle like regular wires, but I also expect that it will be less likely to fray under repeated flexing. We’ll see.
No, there isn’t a microphone, so I can’t use this to make or take calls on my iPhone. But that’s a small price to pay for such wonderful sound and comfort.


Camera test: Panasonic DMC-TZ4 v. JVC Everio GZ-HM200 v. Nikon Coolpix P90

After weighing up the alternatives (literally and figuratively) I’ve picked up a Nikon Coolpix P90. It definitely falls into the “ultrazoom” category, at 12.1MP and 24x zoom. This morning I headed out to Charleston Slough and Shoreside Lake to compare the Nikon with my existing compact camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4. While I was about it, I decided to toss my digicam (the JVC Everio that I blogged about last year) into the bag. It has a “photo” mode, auto-stabilization, and a fairly impressive 20x zoom; the downside is the small (2MP) image size.
The forecast was for sun, but the NWS lied: it was ten-tenths cloud. Nevertheless there were a lot of birds – and bird-watchers! – out this morning.
You can see a collection of more-or-less comparable shots in the MobileMe gallery here. Most were taken at 1x followed by maximum zoom. After taking these, I wandered around the margin of the slough, having fun with the Nikon. There are some pictures of waders, ducks, and a hummingbird in this gallery here. The zoom is simply amazing, although at full stretch you can see that many subjects are less crisp than one would like, even with optical stabilization in effect. I think it’s time to (1) pick up a monopod or tripod, and (2) experiment with camera features like “BSS”, which takes a series of shots, analyzes the results, and keeps only the crispest.
This is the first new camera I’ve got since July 2008, when I blogged about the Panasonic here. Overall, I think I’m going to have fun with the Nikon. I particularly like this pair of shots of exactly the same scene:
Wetlands with egret (1x) Wetlands with egret (24x)


TCM: Ball of Fire

I only really watch three channels on TV these days: Fox Soccer Channel, SpeedTV (for Formula 1 racing), and Turner Classic Movies. OK, I guess I spend a little time with PBS, National Geographic, and The Discovery Channel,but I’m getting really frustrated with the quality of documentaries these days. (That’s for another post, though.) And I watch streaming video from Netflix on my Roku. But that’s about it.
Turner Classics is my favourite, though. I’m having a blast discovering the great films from the 30s, 40s and 50s, and I’ve been developing a serious crush on several stars of the female persuasion. This evening we watched “Ball of Fire” with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck was simply red hot. She was clearly having an absolute ball in her role as a sexy vaudeville singer dropped into a house full of dusty academics.
Anyway, I think I’ll drop a short entry into the blog whenever I run across a film that really makes me curl my toes with delight. Odds are it will include one of my heart-throbs, like Myrna Loy and Joan Blondell. And of course there’s Jean Simmon‘s brilliant “drunk in Havana” sequence in “Guys and Dolls”, even though it would have been better opposite Gene Kelly.


Priceless. Absolutely priceless.

As Andrew Sullivan said , if this had happened to me, my head would explode. But what a way to go! Here’s the background:

MasterCard has been the proud sponsor of The BRIT Awards for 12 years and to celebrate 30 years of the BRITs and thank music fans across the country for their passion and support, MasterCard devised the ultimate Priceless experience – a once in a life time opportunity for a member of the British public to win a BRIT Award winner playing live in their very own living room.

Lorraine Sands, a Project Manager from Twickenham won the prize. “When I opened the front door and saw Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe standing on my doorstep I thought I must be hallucinating! I’ve been a massive Pet Shop Boys fan for over twenty years and to have them play a gig right in my front room, for just me and my closest friends, was too good to be true!”

Check out the performance here. Four songs, and a really impressive production in somewhat challenging circumstances. It’s wonderful – I would have been in heaven…


Bird photography on the cheap (?cheep)

Last summer I moved to Palo Alto, where I live in the middle of the urban sprawl that runs from San Francisco down to San Jose. One urgent need was to find a good place to go for walks, away from the traffic and the concrete, even if it meant a short drive. The answer was to return to an old favourite location: the Baylands Nature Preserve and the many trails that wind around Charleston Slough at the edges of San Francisco Bay. Charleston Slough“Old favourite”, because during my many years at Sun Microsystems, I would often visit the SunLabs building (MTV29), and the parking lot behind the building backed right on to Shoreline Lake. On many occasions I would wrap up a day’s work in MTV29 and then go for a walk around the Slough (often before heading up to SFO to catch the red-eye home to BOS.)
Which brings me to birds, and photography. The wetlands around Charleston Slough are a mecca for birdwatching. Egrets, pelicans, ducks of many different kinds and colours, waders, insect-eaters… every visit brings something new. New, interesting, and usually several hundred feet away! (Though there are some incredibly tame fearless egrets at Shoreline Lake.) And frankly my current camera – the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4 – doesn’t really hack it. The 10x zoom is fine for day-to-day stuff, but it’s not going to let me distinguish between the various kinds of ducks or waders out in the wetlands.
The obvious answer would be to grit my teeth and spend the money to get a DSLR with a couple of decent lenses. Obvious, but expensive: at least a kilobuck, all in. And I’m intrigued by the recent emergence of ultrazoom point-and-shoots. Things like the Olympus SP-590UZ (26x), the Nikon Coolpix P90 (24x), or the forthcoming Fujifilm FinePix HS10 (30x!). All of these look like much more affordable (and less fiddly) solutions to the problem.
Recommendations, anyone?


36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I just finished Rebecca Goldsten’s latest work, and I can’t wipe this silly grin off my face. This is the kind of book that makes my toes curl with delight: witty, arch, thought-provoking, funny, familiar, relevant, and deeply satisfying.
As in her previous novels, such as The Mind-Body Problem, Goldstein uses the stereotypical figures of academia to explore philosophical questions. A young professor escapes from the mad world of a Harold Bloom-like figure and writes a response to William James and Sigmund Freud entitled “The Varieties of Religious Illusion” (get it?). It includes an appendix listing 36 arguments for the existence of God, together with a crisp rebuttal to each. In this era of the “New Atheists”, this ensures that the book becomes a best-seller, catapulting the bewildered professor into the heights of academe, and culminating in a ferocious debate with a theist that includes all of the arguments that this reader would hope to make in a similar situation! And this narrative, with many fascinating twists and turns, is wrapped up in a novel complete with an appendix(!) on 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. With the addition of the subtitle, “A Work of Fiction”, this becomes the delightfully misleading title for the book as a whole.
Is it wrong of me to hope that some theist will read the title, assume that it’s a response to Dawkins, Dennett et al, buy it sight unseen, and be confused, angry, and – possibly – enlightened?