Leisure bliki

AndamanIslands leisure 6 January 2011 Reactions

While we were in India we took a week's vacation in the Andaman Islands, primarily to indulge in some diving. We spent most of our time on Havelock Island, which is a couple of hours by ferry from the main centre at Port Blair. Here's some scattered things to share from our experience.

  • The diving was good, but not as good as we've had in Saba. Visibility was rather low and the coral had been bleached by warm waters a couple of years ago. That said it was still a fine diving experience with lots of life to see. (Other divers who had been there before had had better visibility, so we were just unlucky on that front.)
  • We did our diving with Dive India, one of the operators on Havelock Island. They were one of the best dive operations we've been with - both friendly and well-organized. Firmly recommended should you be looking for some diving in this part of the world.
  • Dive India is attached to a small resort, which was booked up long before we made our last-minute plans. It's backpacker-style and fellow divers were happy with it. We made heavy use of the restaurant, Full Moon, which gave us a good range of food during our dive days.
  • Since getting around India can be a bit of a hassle, we worked with a tour operator - Welcome Andaman Travels - to sort out hotels and getting around. We were not happy with their service and do not recommend them. (Yet another reason to continue with our usual preference for independent travel.)
  • On Havelock Island we stayed at the Silver Springs Resort. It was ok - clean and simple. It's on the other side of the island from the main block of resorts. As a result it didn't have a beach (not a problem for us) and was in the middle of Indian farms rather than diver-land resorts. While that was nice, it was a 20 minute bicycle ride from those resorts, which made getting around a bit tougher - particularly at night. As a result, if we were to do this again, we'd prefer one of the resorts in the main resort area.
  • We spent a day or so in Port Blair, which doesn't have much to recommend it. However a high spot was the trip out to Ross Island, which used to be the main government centre in colonial days, but the colonial buildings are now ruins being spectacularly reclaimed by epiphytic plants. Well worth a couple of hours.

CanonS90 leisure 5 May 2010 Reactions

Like many obsessive snappers, I've recently got hold of the Canon S90 camera. It's small enough to fit in your pocket, but has the kind of things that people with pretensions to seriousness like: full manual controls, RAW file support, a good sensor, and an f2 lens.

I've had it for a few months now, and I'm really liking it. It's really small, fitting well into my pocket. Although I like using my DigitalSLR, there are plenty of times when I don't fancy the bulk and a good pocket camera is very handy. I did have a Panasonic Lumix TZ3 for that purpose, but the Canon offers significantly better features for me.

I'm very happy with the image quality, particularly in low light. The combination of reasonable high ISO performance and a stabilized f2 lens, is very potent. Even my DSLR can't give me stabilization and an f2 lens. True, I only get f2 at 28mm, f2.5 at 35mm, and then it falls off. But I can get some nice shots at 28 and 35mm that I wouldn't otherwise get.

The handling works well too. The S90 has got a lot of praise for its front control ring, that goes around the lens, as well as having a rear control ring. Although I confess that most of the time I leave it in program mode, I do like the ability to get the extra control when I need it.

The S90 has salved my micro 4/3 angst. I like small cameras, but I bought into the Canon DSLR range before the micro 4/3 were announced. That made me a bit sad, as I think the micro 4/3 would have been a good choice for me. But with the S90, I feel happy about the combo of DSLR and S90, which gives me a good choice between capability and bulk.

I don't see much in downsides. I agree with others that the rear control ring is a bit too easy to turn by accident. But on the whole it's a great camera, one that I carry with me a lot.

AmalfiCoast leisure 15 April 2010 Reactions

We've just returned from a week's vacation on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. For those contemplating a similar trip, here are a few scattered impressions.

It's a lovely part of the world. For a start it's in Italy, one of our favorite places to be on vacation: hiking, scenery, buildings, food, gardens, weather - all sorts of things we like. The Amalfi Coast also has that dramatic combination of mountains and sea that marks so many of my favorite places (Acadia, Côte d'Azur, Big Sur, Western Cape, West Coast of Scotland). Couple that with villages and farms clinging to the mountainside and it's all impossibly lovely.

On the way down from Rome we stopped at Caserta, which has a palace built to rival Versailles. We only took a look at the garden, which was a great example of formal French garden design. Well worth a couple of hours walking around.

We stayed for a couple of days at the Agristurismo Serafina. An agriturismo is a farm that provides accommodation. We were out of the way in the countryside and fed good local food. Some other Italian guests told us that Serafina was one of the earliest agriturismos and that many other agriturismos aren't farms, but really just hotels that have a few chickens or something to make them qualify. Here it was obvious that it was a working farm. The hosts didn't speak much English but were very friendly and helpful.

Were we to come back (which I certainly hope we shall) I'd consider not hiring a car. The local buses provide a good service, saving the hassle of driving and parking - the latter particularly awkward in the pretty coastal towns. The buses also make it easy to do one-way hikes.

The hiking was excellent. The trails we did were well marked, and the hosts at Serafina lent us some good maps. We also used the sunflower book that gave a good description of suitable walks.

The twisty, narrow roads, precipitous drops, and infamous Italian drivers make a very intimidating combination for driving. However I quickly got used to it as long as I got more laid-back, started to enjoy the antics of my fellow drivers, and lost my inhibitions about being on the wrong side of the road.

Ravello is a gem of a town with two lovely gardens. However I'm convinced that I'm neither rich enough nor beautiful enough to fit in there.

We spent a few days in Sorrento staying at the Hotel Mignon. It's the kind of hotel we like for vacation: simple, clean, friendly and right in the middle of town so we could stroll around the old town easily. Sorrento isn't as cute as places like Ravello or Amalfi, but makes a good base.

The boat trip around Capri is touristy but fun, the Blue Grotto extravagantly so. But once you get away from the boutiquey center there's some nice hikes.

DigitalSLR leisure 7 August 2009 Reactions

Like many geeks I'm into photography. We geeks like photography because it provides the veneer of an artistic endeavor while allowing us to indulge in lots of technical details and spend money on expensive toys. A friend recently asked about my camera buying decisions, a question that prompted me to write them down.

I got my first digital SLR a year ago. Before that I had owned a film SLR for many years, but started using digital cameras around 2000. I found the convenience of digital to be compelling and stopped using the film camera. I toyed with getting a digital SLR in 2004, but instead decided on a high end fixed lens camera - the Minolta A1. I enjoyed using it, but it conked out late in 2007. I considered a similar kind of camera, something like a Canon S5, but decided to bite the SLR bullet.

My first decision, and a critical one, was which system to buy. This is the critical decision as it's difficult (ie expensive) to reverse. Once you pick your system, you'll then commit money to it by buying lenses and the cost of switching is more than a dabbler like me can go with. I felt that the best choice was to go with the big two - Canon or Nikon. The choice between them was pretty much arbitrary, I ended up choosing Canon because a friend we occasionally vacation with has a Canon. A trifling distinction, but really the choice between the two wasn't a big one.

I'm still reasonably happy with it. One misgiving is that the technological advantage seems to have tipped in Nikon's favor over the last year, at least according to the blogs I read, but it's a tight race and Canon could well come back. I've also been recently intrigued by the new Micro Four Thirds format. Early days (and not around last year) but the small size and weight are very important to me.

With Canon as the choice, the next step was the initial choice of body and lenses. My approach was to get pretty much the cheapest body I could (the Digital Rebel XTI) because I'd rather spend more money on lenses than on the body. The whole point of SLRs is to have good lenses, so I'd rather concentrate my limited dollars there. Cameras also get upgraded much more frequently, so I'm likely to upgrade the camera in a few years while lenses stay current for much longer.

So which lenses? I forgoed the kit lens and got the camera body-only. As my main lens I went with a mega-zoom, the Sigma 18-200. Serious photographers will, probably rightly, turn their noses up at this lens. But I'm a dabbler. Most of my photos will only be seen on my screensaver or on a web page. A few get printed for a wall of our house, but only on a regular letter size printer. So I doubt that I'd appreciate the difference of a higher quality lens. Furthermore I can shoot within its limits. Reviews suggest that if you stick to f9, the quality stays pretty good. Since I'm mostly using it outside during the day, that limitation is easy to live with. As a result I tend to set my camera to aperture priority with f9, and that covers most of my shots.

The advantages of a single mega-zoom are considerable to me. Most of my photographs are taken while I'm doing something else, often with others around. I don't go out much to just shoot. In that situation even changing lenses can be a significant deterrent to getting a shot. Furthermore size and weight are a big deal when I'm travelling. While the lens isn't exactly svelte, it's much more compact that the alternative ways of getting that kind of zoom range. A final bonus is that it's image stabilized, which allows me to use it for static interiors.

The mega-zoom stays on my camera most of the time, but it wasn't the only lens I got with my camera. I also picked up the f1.8 50mm. This is an easy lens to get, very cheap, very light, very small but produces great quality. Since it's the equivalent of a 80mm on 35mm film, it's ideal for portrait photos - particularly with the f1.8 aperture. I use it a lot for shooting people in low light conditions.

I toyed with other lenses, but I wanted to get used to those two before I plonked money on any more.

After a few months with the camera I turned my eyes to a tripod. There are varying views on the net about tripods, some feel you should only use them if you really have to, some that you should use them whenever you can. I do like having one around, particularly for crepuscular shooting. I had a cheap and crummy silk tripod, but Duncan's blog persuaded me that I should get something better. I didn't go for his preferred Gitzos (beyond my budget) but I did get a light Induro tripod, together with a Really Right Stuff head and fast release clamp.

I went for the lightest setup I could get, as I wanted something that I'd actually be prepared to carry around and my camera/lens combos aren't particularly heavy. The fast release clamp was important as I'm someone who like to move around when shooting and such a clamp makes a big difference. In hindsight I wish I'd paid the extra for an L clamp, as I do find it frustrating to futz with the head when switching orientations.

It was only a month or so more before I went for another lens. A trip out to Colorado and Utah was the trigger to think about something wider than the 18-200 would go. I considered the Tokina 11-16 and the Canon 10-22, going for the latter due to it being lighter. It's a fun lens to use, allowing a few different things than what my regular lens provides. In particular what's interesting to work with is the huge depth of field you can get with an ultra wide: at 10mm you can easily get everything from a foot to infinity.

This is probably a reasonable moment to talk about filters. There's a good bit of discussion on the net about whether putting on a UV filter is worthwhile. I decided to get one for the 18-200 as it's on my camera so much, but not to get ones for my other lenses as I use them much less and am prepared to be more careful when those lenses are on the camera. For the mega-zoom I also picked up a polarizing filter, which I carry around with me all the time, but frequently forget to use.

The other issue that obsesses camera people is how to carry all this stuff. All things being equal, I like weight on my waist. So I went for a waist belt (from Tamrac, due to the double belt layout) and a Think Tank holster. I like the Think Tank's ability to extend when I have the hood on my lens. The only problem is that there are plenty of occasions when a waist belt isn't an option. The holster comes with a shoulder strap, which is fine, but I usually want the 10-22 as well. Cindy came to the rescue, sewing some straps onto the side of the holster so I can attach a lens pouch.

To keep track of my photos, and to do some post-processing, I got a copy of Apple's Aperture. (It seemed a toss up between Aperture and Lightroom.) I find it works well, better than sticking with iPhoto.

The latest lens I added to my collection is the Canon f2 100mm. I got this for shooting indoors, particularly at conferences for shooting someone on stage. In those situations I need more reach than the 50mm, but I still want a really fast aperture at a price and weight that's rather less than the serious zooms. So far I've only used the 100mm a couple of times, but have been very happy with it.

That burst of buying isn't something I expect to maintain. The quartet of lenses I have is pretty suited to my needs. There are some more I'm eyeing. The Canon 100-400mm zoom would be great for wildlife shots, but frankly we're rarely in the situation where I'd use it, so it's hard to justify its high cost. A different situation that regularly tickles my mind is cases where I'm primarily at a conference (so have the 50 and 100mm) but don't want to lug the 18-200 and want to have something wider. I could take the 10-22, but that leaves a gap and is less light than I'd like. Ironically this suggests the (now updated) kit zoom which is cheap and light. The primes less than 50mm are either too heavy, too expensive, or seem to have less quality than the kit zoom.

My only addition since then is the CanonS90

If you're curious, here are the results, (because there just aren't enough holiday snaps on the web.)

DoctorWho leisure 7 September 2007 Reactions

Like most Brits my age I grew up with a sci-fi Children's program on BBC called Doctor Who. (For those who know, my doctor was Jon Pertwee, although I also saw a good bit of early Tom Baker.) It was actually the longest-running sci-fi TV series in the world, running from 1963-89.

A few years ago it was revived in the UK and has become a big hit - and not just for children. Doctor Who always had themes and scripts that went beyond the children's' audience and the series developed a huge fan base that lived off books and audio series even when the TV series died. The revival follows this with shows that are written to appeal as much to adults as kids. It was really great to sit with a couple my age and their 8 and 10 year old daughters and enjoy the new series. The scripts and acting are good, the only change is that the special effects are also good now (the old special effects made classic star trek look high-tech).

At home we don't watch much telly, the last shows we watched regularly were Buffy and Angel. Cindy, being American, had never seen Doctor Who growing up, but she loves the new series. When we get a new set of DVDs there's usually several nights of "it's late, we're tired, but maybe we can do one more".

If you've never seen Doctor Who the place to start is the opening episode of the revived series: Rose. (Wikipedia has mind-bogglingly comprehensive coverage, but I won't link from here as it's naturally full of spoilers.) Rose not only introduces the set up you'll need for other episodes (who the Doctor is, what the TARDIS is) but also does a really good job of distilling the tone of Doctor Who, capturing the mix of adventure and comedy.

If you like Rose then you can either carry on with the full first season or cherry pick highlights. If you prefer the latter I'll suggest my favorites. My big favorite from the first series was the two part The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. I rate this as better than most films I've seen, certainly better than most TV. (It won a Hugo award so it's not just me.) It was written by Steven Moffat who is also known for writing the comedy series Coupling. Almost as good is Dalek. It lacks the humor but scores due to a wonderfully intense performance from Christopher Eccleston. I also really like the final two part (Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways) but you really need to see the whole series to appreciate it properly. (A tip if you do watch the whole series: don't watch the trailer for Bad Wolf (it appears at the end of Boom Town) as it gives away an important part of the plot of Bad Wolf.)

The second series has a different actor playing the Doctor (they have a nice technobabble rationalization to allow them to change actors easily). It doesn't quite hit the high spot of The Empty Child but is still really good. My suggestions for cherry pickers here would by The Girl in the Fireplace (another Moffat Hugo win) and The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit.

When I said the second series didn't quite hit the heights of The Empty Child, I'm not being very reasonable because those two episodes are far too good for any TV series to live up to. However the third series (not yet all broadcast in the US - it's good to have friends in the UK) hits those high notes twice. Human Nature / The Family of Blood is a super two-parter that threatens to take away Steven Moffat's crown of writing the best episode. Moffat's response is Blink, which is as good a 45 minutes of TV as you could ever hope for. Not just has it got a great story and some cracking humor, it also achieves Doctor Who's higher purpose. You see Doctor Who is only secondarily about entertainment, it's primary purpose was always to scare the living daylights out of small children. I may be too old now to get behind the sofa, but I do remember how much I enjoyed it.

Eurogames leisure 24 October 2006 Reactions

Eurogames (also known and German-style Board Games) are a particular variety of board game. If the phrase 'board game' conjures up Monopoly or Risk in your mind, that the wrong image. Eurogames are a relatively recent phenomena that's a whole new class of games which I really enjoy. (Sadly I don't get to play often enough as most of my gaming friends are in England which is a long way from Boston.)

Eurogames are called that because the center of activity in developing them is in Europe, more precisely Germany (hence they are often called German-style boardgames). The Eurogaming community developed a style of board games which are thoughtful, but not overly complex. Good Eurogames can be learned and played in a couple of hours. yet are interesting enough to play repeatedly.

A large part of this is a focus on good and clever mechanics. Die-roll movement (such as Monopoly) is something you don't see. Much of the interest in Eurogames is the varied mechanics people come up with to make an interesting game.

Eurogames are sometimes abstract, but usually have some kind of theme. (Settlers of Catan is settling an island, Puerto Rico is developing a colony.) However the theme is usually pretty loose, and there's no attempt to create a good simulation. In that way Eurogames are different to simulation games. The latter were usually long and complex, Eurogames don't hesitate to sacrifice realism in order to get a game that works well. Some people dislike this, arguing that the theme is "pasted on". I find the theme tends to add flavor to the game, but I also appreciate the fact that mechanics and playability are put first. Those who are bothered by imprecise simulations would find this much more off-putting.

A key element of Eurogames is that they can be quickly learned and played. A typical Eurogame will play in an hour or two and you can learn it and play effectively on your first game. There is some variation in complexity, but even the more complex games (like Puerto Rico) play in a couple of hours and can be played reasonably on your first attempt.

Balanced with quick learning is a reward for good play. Most Eurogames have a reasonable amount of randomness, but it's pitched at a level so that a less able player will win occasionally but better players win more often.

A big problem with many older board games, like Risk and Monopoly, is that players are eliminated before the end. This leaves people disengaged from events. Worse still the climax can easily be a drawn out attrition where it's clear who will win eventually, but it takes a while to finish the last opponents off (*cough* Monopoly *cough*). Eurogames avoid these problems by working hard to keep everyone engaged to end, often by increasing the tempo as the game goes on so that things move slowly at the beginning (so you can learn while playing) but finish fast to get close and exciting climax.

Eurogames tend to have indirect conflict. Rather than attacking another player's position (as in Chess or Risk), you concentrate on building up your own position while competing for resources. While there can be a little blocking of other players, it's usually a minor part of the mechanics. As a result it's no surprise that war themes are rare in Eurogames.

I'm not a serious gamer, so I find the balance between randomness and skill appealing. I like Eurogames because they are a social game that involves a lot of table talk. They act as a catalyst for interaction between people, unlike serious games like chess and bridge that are usually taken far too seriously. I'm not interested in a game getting between me and my single malt.

There are a number of good websites that discuss Eurogames in more detail. There's an excellent article on wikipedia. For more information than you can possibly digest: try boardgamesgeek; Stephan Wessels has a nice summary of several interesting games.

If you're interested in getting into Eurogames, here's a few suggestions as starting points.

For most readers of the this blog, the best game to try to see if you like this sort of thing is Settlers of Catan - the game that's paved the way for this genre around the world. You can learn how to play in ten minutes of play and be competitive in your first game. However there's lots of room for skill as you choose between multiple strategies which have to change as other people make their moves. The board represents an abstract island on which you build settlements and cities, for which you need resources that the island provides. The island is dealt out differently each time, which helps keep the game varied. You also get resources by trading with other players, which makes the game very interactive. We've played it a couple of dozen of times, often night after night, and so far it hasn't got stale at all. It's biggest fault is that it needs at least three players.

I say Settlers is the best for readers of this blog, as I assume that most readers here are pretty quick to pick things up. My more general choice as a "gateway game" is Ticket To Ride. The big advantage that Ticket To Ride has over Settlers is that the rules are a level simpler, maybe a couple of minutes to understand. This gives it an edge with less geeky people, and also with young children. We've given this game to a couple of nephews this Christmas and they were up and away immediately; yet there was enough strategy to hook their parents too. I don't think I like it as much as Settlers, but it's still streets ahead of Monopoly.

For a game of similar complexity to Settlers, but playable with two I'd suggest Carcassonne. It has a great mechanic where you build up the board as you go by laying a new tile on each turn. You score points by placing counters (referred to as "meeples") on the tile, but you only have a limited number of meeples so there's a lot of thought in both tile placement and how to best use your meeples. There's a ton of extensions and variants of this game; from our experience I'd recommend the Hunters and Gatherers variant - it's a later version which ironed out some the kinks in the original game.

If you've tried these and you want to go up a notch in thoughtfulness I'd suggest Puerto Rico, It's often considered to be one of the most serious strategy games in this style. There is a much lower level of randomness than the other games I've mentioned (which can be a problem for casual gamers). It's a harder game to learn than Settlers, you need a game or two to get the hang of it. The theme is building up a colony - you have limited resources to spend on building, producing goods and shipping them. There's a lot of things to keep track of at once, but it's still playable in a couple of hours.

A related game to Puerto Rico is San Juan. San Juan is designed by the same designer as Puerto Rico and has a similar theme and shares many mechanics. However it is really a different game. It's much lighter in feel, and has more randomness. It's also primarily a card game and I mention it on this short list because it's compact to carry around and can play in limited space, such as on an airplane. The thinking concentrates on card management, deciding which cards to keep, which to build, and which to discard to pay for the building.