Saturday, December 31, 2011
After loading these onto the computer, I was surprised to see that the camera hadn't used a higher ISO than 800. Then I realized that I still had the camera fixed at 800 from using it diving. Oops! Pretty slow shutter speeds (.6 seconds), but I could rest the camera on the railing. (And take advantage of the articulated display.)
Monday, December 26, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
After writing yesterdays blog post on my new solar system, I realized I had completely forgotten to credit the company that did a great job on the system - Rock Paper Sun.
I actually contacted another company first, Solar Outpost, but they took a long time to get back to me, and then after an initial call (where I stressed I was serious) they never called me back. I think they're a good company, but they dropped the ball this time.
I had seen Rock Paper Sun in connection with the VerEco home, and then ran into Brent (one of the owners) at Green Drinks. We met and Brent explained the issues and choices. (I took it as a good sign when he arrived in his Prius.) Brent and his partner Phil then did a great job of installing the system. The work is neat and well done. There were no surprises or mishaps. It took a while to get everything done, but they had warned me that it would, so it was expected. And they've also been helping with applying for the various rebates that are available. (See Solar Energy for Your Home)
If you're looking for a solar system in Saskatoon, I would definitely recommend Rock Paper Sun.
PS. If you're a techie (which you probably are if you are installing a solar system at this point) then you probably want to also get something to monitor how much energy you are using. The solar electric system does a great job of telling you about what it's generating, but to make that meaningful you want to compare it to what you're using. So I'm planning to install a TED 5000.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
I finally got my solar electric panels inspected and turned on. It's taken several months to get everything ordered and installed and approved. The solar thermal (hot water) was a much quicker, easier process to get installed and turned on. It still had to be inspected, but that was after it was already turned on. (The solar thermal panels are the two on the right, white because of frost.)
Of course, this is the worst time of the year for a solar system - the days are short and the sun is low. And the cold temperatures slow down the solar hot water. On the positive side, I'll now be able to watch the output increase as the days get longer and the sun higher.
Amazingly, the solar hot water system did come on the other day, partly because it was an unusually warm day (for winter), and partly because the temperature of the water in the holding tank is low, so the panels don't have to be as hot to get the required 10c temperature difference.
In case you're wondering - the economic story for solar panels is not great (yet). They are expensive and our electricity and gas are cheap. At current rates it'll take a long time for the system to pay for itself. Of course, the reason electricity and gas are cheap is because we're not accounting for the true costs, like climate change and environmental damage. And we're not taking into account the fact that we're using up a finite resource that will eventually run out.
There's also the question of embodied energy. Although the solar panels are generating (capturing) energy, they also took a lot of energy to create - mining the materials, manufacturing, transportation, etc. This embodied energy unfortunately negates much of the benefits.
So if it doesn't pay, and they take almost as much energy to manufacture as they produce, why do it? I guess for me it came down to wanting to lead and to be an example. If enough people install solar systems, the costs will come down, and the manufacturing will get more energy efficient. If no one installs them because they're not good enough yet, then there's little incentive to improve them. They also serve to make people think about energy and alternatives. We've already had a lot of interest from neighbors and friends.
Check out the live monitoring from the solar electric system
See also: EcoFriendlySask - Solar Energy for Your Home
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Saturday, December 17, 2011
I managed to borrow a bolt and some pieces of metal but the bolt was too long and the pieces of metal were large so it was quite awkward, but it was better than nothing.
When we got to Providenciales (in Turks and Caicos) we found a hardware store and I bought a bolt closer to the right length, and a bunch of washers for weights. I needed the extra nut because the bolt was a bit too long.
In case you want to try something similar, camera tripod mounts take a 1/4" bolt with 20 threads per inch (tpi).
This arrangement worked pretty well. With 15 washers the camera was almost perfectly neutral (not sinking and not floating).
I didn't bring my homebrew weight kit home because we were overweight on our luggage as it was. I'll probably order the Canon DC-1 weight kit for next time (although it's $55 as opposed to a couple of bucks for the bolt and washers).
Overall, I was pretty happy with the G12 and housing. A couple of times I had a few drops of water get inside the housing, not enough to cause any problems, but still troubling. I'll order a new o-ring and see if that solves it. If I didn't like having the G12 for other purposes, I'd be tempted to go with the Canon S-95 (or the upcoming S-100) which has virtually identical specs, but in a much smaller size. It doesn't have all the manual controls or the articulated screen of the G12, but those aren't important for underwater.
Check out the photos. Related posts: Diving Photography
Monday, December 12, 2011
However, it did have a nice little zoo that we ended up visiting twice. (The second time because the botanical gardens next door were closed.)
So for a change from underwater pictures here is a batch from the zoo.
|click to view photos|
Sunday, December 11, 2011
This is the last of the diving photos - there were a lot, but then we did a lot of diving - roughly 40 dives in 20 days (up to 5 a day on the live-aboard).
|2011-11 Nassau Diving|
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Travel can teach you a lot, if you let it.
When you're sitting on a plane or train that's late and you're going to miss your connection, there's no point getting all worked up, you might as well learn to stay calm. When your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere in Tibet, you might as well break out the snacks and enjoy the scenery.
When the way things are done in a new place annoy you, you need to be tolerant. It seldom gets you anywhere to yell or get upset. No matter how homogenized the world becomes, or how much you think the way they do things at home is the "right" way, the fact is other people do things differently.
An area where I struggle is with my overdeveloped sense of fairness. (Research indicates this is hard-wired into our brains.) When someone does something like cut in line in front of me, it really pisses me off. But things aren't always fair, and there's often nothing you can do about it. Might as well get over it.
One of the most important things travel can teach you is simply to see, to look at what is around us. At home, we don't really pay attention, everything is familiar, and we're too busy anyway. Traveling, especially long trips by train or bus, supplies plenty of time when there's nothing to do but look around.
Last, but not least, travel gives you time to think. Time we often don't have in our hectic home lives. And it supplies plenty of material to think about. Sometimes I think we unconsciously get afraid to listen to our own thoughts, afraid of what they might tell us. So we pack our lives with distractions - cell phones, music, chatter. But how can you ever be at peace if you're afraid of your own thoughts? Travel can be a form of meditation if you are open to it.
You can learn all these things at home, but travel tends to present a lot more learning opportunities. And because things are new and different, we may be more willing and likely to think we need to learn. Travel can bump us out of the ruts of our comfort zones. That can be stressful, but it can also open you to learning new things.
But all travel is not equal. You won't get much of this kind of learning on a tour of umpteen countries in 7 days, with a guide organizing everything so you don't need to think, rushing you from place to place and yammering in your ear the whole time. Nor will you learn much by lying in the sun in some homogenized resort. If you want to grow, it helps to get off the beaten path.
Of course, like any kind of teaching you have to be willing to learn. You can refuse to learn during travel just like you can refuse to learn in school.
Thursday, December 08, 2011
When it's hot outside you freeze on the train or bus.
When it's cold outside you roast.
Do air conditioning and heating really have to be full blast or nothing?
What happened to the idea of a thermostat?
I don't mind putting on or taking off a sweater. But I don't carry long underwear when it's hot, or shorts when it's snowing.
At first I thought I just had bad luck, but it happens so consistently and so many times that there's got to be some underlying design flaw.
The Auberge du Vieux-Port is where I've stayed in Montreal, four times now (only two trips, but I've stayed on the way out and on the way back each time.)
I chose the hotel from the Internet. It looked like it was in an interesting area (old part of the city) and it was within walking distance of the train station. (But don't try to walk it with a suitcase, it's not that close.)
It's a nice hotel - small, not a chain, nice old building. It's a little pricey, but this is the big city, few hotels are cheap, and the ones that are, you probably don't want to stay at.
The restaurant is also nice. It's not too fancy, no white table cloths, but it's a comfortable place and the food and service are excellent. There are lots of great restaurants in Montreal, but when you arrive late and too tired to go out, it's nice to have a good restaurant right in the hotel. They also have a nice roof top terrace lounge for the summer time.
But what has really made me enjoy coming here is the staff, especially the restaurant manager, Zach Suhl. The first time I stayed here I was sitting at the bar having my free welcome drink (a good way to get people into the restaurant) and he came over and introduced himself and chatted for a few minutes. Every time he's seen me since then he has made a point of saying hello. And amazingly, he remembers who I am and makes a point of mentioning something personal. For example, one time he mentioned they had some new vegetarian menu options, and another time mentioned that he had recently had some other guests from Saskatchewan.
I don't like it when staff force an artificial friendliness, pretending to be your buddy even though you can tell they really couldn't care less. But at the same time I don't like being treated totally impersonally, like a cog in a machine. To me, Zach strikes a perfect balance - he remembers me, chats briefly, but doesn't pretend to be my "buddy". This last time he sent over a free drink because I'm a regular customer.
He also acts like I think a restaurant manager should act - he's actually in the restaurant rather than just the back office. And he doesn't just observe or greet people. He'll seat people, take a drink order, even help clear a table. And while he talks to people, he doesn't get carried away at it, he keeps it brief and returns to watching the restaurant.
The hotel staff are also good - for example, as I was checking in this time, the concierge said "You are in the same room as last time. Are you happy with that room?" (Each of the rooms is different.) I don't think he remembered me like the restaurant manager. He probably had a list of arriving guests and heard me give my name as I was checking in. But it's still impressive that his paperwork showed that I'd been there before and which room, and that he made good use of that information.
Of course, nothing is perfect. At the same time the concierge was impressing me, the woman checking me in was just going through the motions. She either didn't pay attention to my having been there before, or she didn't care. She just gave the standard spiel for new guests - where the restaurant was, where the elevator was, etc. She probably thought she was doing her job well, but unfortunately, she was doing it without thinking.
Once more, I find myself wondering how I and my staff at Axon measure up. Are we doing as good a job as Zach and the concierge? Or are we just going through the motions like the woman who checked me in?
If you're looking for a place to stay in Montreal, I'd definitely recommend Auberge du Vieux-Port. And say hi to Zach for me!
Monday, December 05, 2011
I was sitting in the cafe car on the train in the section where the staff hangs out. (The presence of the staff tends to keep the drunks and other obnoxious types away.)
A lady brought a bag to the staff, saying it had been "left unattended". (Someone had been listening to the airport security announcements.)
The response from the staff was: "Don't you be bringing that to me, honey, it might be a bomb, it might explode on me."
She was joking, of course, but it was a little shocking to those of us that have been repeatedly told that you never ever make jokes about bombs.
Another example of how train travel differs. Or conversely, how anal air travel has become.
I tend to agree with minimalism and simplicity. And in some respects I manage it - I'm traveling for six weeks with a relatively small backpack. (Admittedly, only because Shelley hauled our dive gear.) But I fail miserably when it comes to gadgets. Here's what I'm traveling with:
- 13" MacBook Air
- external USB hard drive
- Pentax K7 SLR camera
- Canon G12 camera
I need the MacBook to download and process my photographs. I guess I could wait to process the photos till I got home, but I enjoy posting them as I go. And I'd still want some way to back them up - I like to have two copies. On previous trips that was on the MacBook and on the external hard drive. But I have enough memory cards now that I don't need to reuse them, so I didn't end up using the external hard drive.
This is the first trip I've had the iPad. I debated bringing it since it definitely seemed like overkill to have MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. But partly I wanted to see how it worked out for traveling. I ended up using it a lot. It's lighter and easier to carry than the MacBook, but nicer for browsing and writing than the iPhone. In some ways I like it better than the MacBook because of all the apps I have - Go game, bird guide, offline Wikipedia, star gazing, and offline maps. It's easier to find apps that work offline for the iPhone/iPad than for the MacBook.
I could probably do without the iPhone, but in Canada it's great to have 3G Internet access so I can look up places and use maps while I'm out wandering around. I wish I could do this outside Canada, but roaming data charges are ridiculous. I do use the iPhone as a phone occasionally, but usually with Skype (if I have wifi). But I could probably use Skype on the iPad with earphones/mike.
Although I could read my Kindle books on the iPad, there are two main drawbacks - battery life and reading in bright light. If you're going to go somewhere warm, you want to sit outside, but it's hard to read on a regular LCD display in bright light. The Kindle's eInk display works great. (Although you have the opposite problem at night, where you need light to read the Kindle, whereas a backlit LCD provides its own light.) The battery life is a big factor - the Kindle will go a week or more without recharging. Power is usually available on most trips, but if you're not careful you end up running out somewhere where there's no power. (Or you don't have your charger with you.)
If I didn't need to process photos I would skip the MacBook and just bring the iPad. But I think I'd still bring the Kindle as well. If I had a data plan on my iPad I'd probably skip the iPhone.
Two cameras is mostly due to wanting the G12 for underwater, and the Pentax for the rest of the time. I have done trips with just the G12 which is much smaller and lighter to carry, and still good quality. But I miss the longer zoom on the Pentax (a Tamron 18 to 250, equivalent to 27 to 375) especially for wildlife like birds or lizards.
One concern when traveling with so much gadgetry is the risk of theft. I don't like to put expensive stuff in my checked baggage due to the risk of it getting lost, so my carry-on bag ends up pretty heavy. And then I have to keep a close watch on it, because of all the expensive stuff in it. One factor that helps is that I don't think I look particularly rich. Of course, it's hard not to look like a tourist when you're walking around with a camera and a backpack and your skin is nothing like the local color. Another drawback to so many gadgets is that I seldom carry them all at any one time, which means leaving some in the hotel room, not always the safest, depending where you are.
Maybe I should try a trip with no gadgets. Nah, that's too crazy :-)
Sunday, December 04, 2011
I don't mean all the crap that surrounds flying - queuing up, security, waiting, crappy food, cramped seats.
I mean the actual flying. The acceleration of takeoff, watching the ground dwindle, seeing the landscape go by, flying through and over the clouds.
For a kid raised on Apollo moon landings and science fiction, it's the closest thing to spaceflight I'll likely experience.
Not having flown for two years, the experience seems fresh again. Sadly, I still don't think our current profligate use of fossil fueled air travel is sustainable. And biofuels are unlikely to be the solution. Unless we come up with a cheap abundant source of power like fusion we may have to change our ways at some point.
Thursday, December 01, 2011
Scuba diving is an interesting activity. There is the initial thrill of overcoming your fears of being underwater. And some people continue to push the thrill and fear by diving deep or in caves etc. But most people dive to see the amazing life underwater. That surprises me. In this age where the most common activities seem to be talking on your cell phone and shopping, it surprises me that so many people will spend hours underwater not speaking and just observing nature. Maybe there's hope for us yet.
When you start diving you're fully occupied with yourself and your gear, trying not to suck your air too fast, trying to control your buoyancy, trying not to lose your companions. You have to remind yourself that you are supposed to be looking around.
Once you get more comfortable (an ongoing process) you start to see more. A coral reef is an amazing place. There's really nothing like it on land. A rain forest might have as much diversity, but it's much harder to see and nowhere near as colorful. The backdrop of coral and sponges is an amazing array of shapes and vibrant colors - bright reds, greens, yellows, purples, blues, etc. And the fish are everywhere. Imagine if you were bird watching and you could glance around and see 20 different kinds of brilliantly colored birds all around you in large numbers.
The more you dive, the more you see. Partly that's a result of getting better at the skills. At first it's like you're blundering and crashing noisily through the forest. Not surprisingly, things tend to run away when you do that! But as you get better at moving more smoothly, you don't scare everything away. And once you get better control of your buoyancy you can swim closer to the coral without worrying about crashing into it. Being closer lets you start to see smaller stuff.
The huge range of scale of underwater life was brought home when I was listening to people talk about a fish they had seen. They were describing its shape and color and behavior. Then they mentioned that it was the size of a grain of rice!
Of course, there's also a large factor of luck. On one of the few dives we skipped they saw a manta ray, a rare and exciting sighting. But you also have to notice what's around you. At one point the group was playing paparazzi to a turtle and missed seeing the eagle ray that glided silently by right behind them. That turned out to be the only eagle ray seen during the week.
Another example - I swam over to look at a sponge, then noticed that there were some brittle stars on it, and then noticed there was a scorpion fish right beside it. It would have been easy to swim right by thinking it was just another sponge.
Other times you notice something exotic looking and get excited about it, only to subsequently realize that it's everywhere.
This is the first trip where I got good looks and even some photos of the "cleaning stations" where bigger fish go to get "cleaned" by shrimp or smaller fish. It's funny to see a grouper sitting still on the coral with its mouth wide open, and then as you get closer see that there are a bunch of spindly little shrimp scurrying in and out of its mouth and gills. It's a good deal for both of them - the big fish gets its parasites removed, and the shrimp or little fish get to feed (without getting eaten!). Other divers always used to talk about the cleaning stations but I never saw them, no doubt because they swam away when I blundered by.
In the past it was always the dive masters pointing out stuff to us. That still happens (they obviously have way more experience than us) but at least now we also spot stuff on our own. One of the challenges is pointing stuff out to each other or to other people. First you have to get their attention, which isn't easy when you can't just call to them. If you have to swim over to them to grab them, half the time you lose what you were looking at. Things either swim away or simply disappear via their camouflage. And even if you can still find it, it's often hard for the other person to figure out what you're pointing it.
A lot of people get most excited about the sharks. Sharks are amazing creatures, and even when you know they're safe, there's still that undercurrent of fear. But there's so much more to see that's just as interesting and often more colorful and exotic.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Taking decent underwater photographs is a challenge. This post is about my experience this trip. Warning: it gets technical.
I was surprised on our diving live-aboard boat trip how many people had elaborate underwater camera setups. I'm used to being the keen photographer in a group, but I was definitely outgunned this time.
I have a much better camera now than I used to - a Canon G12 instead of the little Powershot. It has much better low light abilities and can shoot raw which allows a lot more adjustment afterwards.
The big difference with the more sophisticated setups was the lights. It's dark underwater and the colors get washed out. I don't use the built-in flash on my camera because flash on camera like that is harsh unnatural lighting, and the little built-in flash isn't very powerful anyway. A better setup is to have multiple (two or more) separate strobes (powerful flashes). But this kind of setup is heavy and bulky and awkward (not to mention, expensive).
You can get underwater cases for SLR's but if the case leaks that's a lot of money down the drain. One of the people on our trip had borrowed a fancy underwater camera and it flooded on the very first dive - ouch!
Because I don't have lights I prefer to take photos fairly shallow where there is still light and color. But most of our dives on this trip were around 20m (70ft). For this, shooting raw and using software like Lightroom is key to getting some color back.
I started the trip shooting fully automatic, but the G12 tries hard to use a low ISO (light sensitivity) because that gives a better quality photo (less noise or "grain"). The problem is, that means a slow shutter speed. But underwater, everything is moving - you're moving and the fish are moving and the only way to "freeze" that movement is with a fast shutter speed. (Another reason why flash is better - it also helps freeze the movement.)
Next I tried shooting at the G12's maximum ISO of 3200. That resulted in faster shutter speeds and less motion blur, but a lot of noise. Next day I tried 1600, and then the next 800, where I left it for the rest of the trip. It seemed the best compromise between sensitivity and noise. Part of it is diving skill - how well you can "hover" in one spot and hold steady while taking a shot. I'm gradually getting better at that but I still find it a challenge. Sometimes you can find a spot to put a finger against which helps a lot.
At shallower depths, like 10m, when the light is relatively bright, I was finding the highlights were often burning out. You can recover some of this, especially if you're shooting raw, but not if it's totally white. In these conditions I found it worked better to override the exposure to be darker by one stop. This is where the G12 is nice because it has a separate dial for exposure adjustment, rather than having to poke around in the menus (especially underwater!) There's also a separate dial for ISO. The downside of forcing the images to be darker is that it increases the noise. But I'd rather have more noise than have totally burnt out areas.
Although other people on the live-aboard had better cameras, or at least better lights, they didn't seem to be as familiar with adjusting the photos on the computer afterwards. Using software like Lightroom or Aperture is the modern day equivalent of having and using your own darkroom. Just accepting the default processing that the camera does is like accepting drugstore prints in the days of film. (And if you're going to adjust them you really need to shoot raw, assuming your camera is able.)
In Lightroom my normal adjustments would be: Clarity +50 (sometimes all the way to 100, although that can look unnatural), Luminance Noise 50 (depending on ISO), Strong Contrast Tone Curve, sometimes increased Vibrance, sometimes Recovery. If one side or corner is too bright I'll use an exposure gradient to adjust it. Other than parts that get too bright, the images almost always look murky and washed out and I'll increase the Black and Exposure settings to improve the contrast. (I should probably directly adjust the tone curve more, but I haven't got to that point yet.)
If there's something neutral in the image, like a black wetsuit or (relatively) white sand, I'll try using that to set the white balance. If not, or if that doesn't look right, I'll adjust it manually. Underwater photos taken with natural light are very blue. Getting rid of that and bringing back some reds often requires extreme white balance adjustments, pushing Temperature and Tint to the max. But it really is blue underwater, so sometimes it looks better to just let it be blue and not try to remove it all.
I always smile when people claim their photos are "unprocessed". There's no such thing as an unprocessed digital image. All it means is you are keeping the default processing your camera (or computer) does. That processing isn't necessarily any more "true" than when you adjust it manually. Of course, you can push the processing to extremes and end up with something unreal. The closest thing to an "unprocessed" image would be a raw image with all the settings zeroed. But that looks awful and won't be anything like what it "really" looked like. Unless I'm deliberately trying to achieve some abstract artistic result, I try to make the images look as close as I can to how it "felt" to see it in person (with, admittedly, variable results).
Of course, apart from all these technical issues, the subject and composition are still critical. No matter how technically excellent an image might be, it still needs to be interesting and pleasing to the eye. And there's still a lot of luck involved in being at the right place at the right time.
Photos from the week coming soon, as I select and process them.
PS. You can see why so many computer geeks get into photography - there's plenty of technical details to obsess over!
Friday, November 18, 2011
Since we were flying today we didn't dive yesterday. Probably could have, at least in the morning, but we're conservative and we wanted a chance to explore anyway. In the morning we rode bikes to the Androsia batik factory. Small, but interesting. It's connected to the lodge and the staff all wears their clothes, and the curtains and bed covers etc. are from there. Very colorful and great designs.
In the afternoon we biked and hiked to the Rainbow Blue Hole. Blue holes are water filled caves, often connected underground to the ocean. We had a refreshing swim to cool off. We took our mask and snorkels, but there wasn't much to see. This one was almost a perfect cylinder of rock dropping straight down into the black. Still have no desire to go cave diving!
We took the early morning flight from Andros back to Nassau and this afternoon we head to Providenciales in Turks and Caicos to start a week long live-aboard dive trip. Between flights we took a taxi into Cable Beach to hang out in Starbucks and use the wi-fi. Thankfully we found somewhere to leave our luggage at the airport. That's almost impossible in "civilized" countries now because of security issues.
More photos (click to view). These are from back in Nassau at a National Trust site called the Retreat. And yes, I like lizards :-)
A few photos Shelley took. We picked the British Colonial Hilton in Nassau because it's a historical building, and it is a neat building. But otherwise it's just a big Hilton, nothing special. Close to downtown, but that just means it's surrounded by tourists when umpteen huge cruise ships are in. (Note to self: avoid places where cruise ships visit.)
And more diving photos: (a lot, but I love all the underwater life)
And finally, some pictures from our last day of exploring. Thanks to decent wifi at Starbucks that brings us up to date on photos. I don't imagine we'll have internet on the boat so we'll no doubt have a bunch more to post when we get back to civilization.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
From our first day of diving. Still trying to figure out how to best use the G12 underwater - did a bit better later days.
More diving photos to come (probably more than you want to look at :-) when I get a chance to upload them.
See also: Shelley's blog post - Spirit and Adventure: Eyes on the Horizon
Friday, November 11, 2011
Wednesday, November 09, 2011
|click to view photos|
PS. For what it's worth, I think this is my 1000'th blog post (between this and my computer blog).
I was organizing my pack in the Savannah train station when I realized there was someone standing beside me. I had noticed him and his pack when he boarded the train and wondered if he was a backpacker and if so, what trail he was headed for. I said hi. He said "I noticed your backpack. Mine is over there", nodding towards his pack. I asked where he was headed. He said "Here. This is Savannah isn't it?" He asked "Is there an 'occupy' here? Or some other campground?" (Shelley will relate to how "occupy" is morphing from a movement to a campground.) I said I didn't know, I had a hotel. Suddenly I was no longer his bro and he wandered off.
Train stations are often conveniently downtown, but not this one. It was miles (literally) outside town. I could have taken one of the waiting taxis, but after sitting for so long I felt more like walking. I had downloaded some offline maps to my iPhone but I hadn't got a big enough area and I didn't have around the station. But I knew the river was north and downtown was east, so I headed for the rising sun. It took about an hour and a half of walking to reach downtown, but it was a beautiful sunny warm morning. (My sympathies went out to everyone at home in snowy Saskatoon!)
Almost everyone on the train with me was African-American. (Although that probably wasn't the case in first class.) As were the people I saw in the poor neighborhoods on the way into town. (Except for one white guy jogging down the street smoking a cigarette!) But once you got downtown the situation reversed and almost everyone was white. Sadly, some things take a long time to change.
I was pretty happy that the hotel (Planters Inn) had a room ready, even though it was only 9am. Refreshed after a shower and a change of clothes, I headed down the elevator. (Annoyingly, the stairs are emergencies only.) Four middle aged tourist looking women got on the elevator with me. They eyed me up and down and one of them said "We caught you!" Huh? I had no idea what they were talking about. "You were out late partying and you slept in and now you're going for breakfast." she explained. Sorry to disappoint their imaginations I said, "No, I just got in from the overnight train." I probably should have made up a good story about my wild night, I'm sure it would have made their day!
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
There was the usual delay crossing the border, not a big deal when you expect it. And you get to stay in your seat on the train. The customs person asked me where I was born. I said "Arusha" and he gave me a blank look. "Sorry, Tanzania." Still the blank look. "Africa." His eyebrows elevated. "What nationality were your parents?" he asked. "British" seemed to satisfy him and he gave me my passport back. I like the quirk of being born somewhere "different" but in today's political climate I'm also very glad it wasn't somewhere like Iraq.
This train goes to New York which is where I need to switch trains to get further south. But one of the advantages of trains (in my opinion) is that they stop at more places, unlike airlines, which tend to just go from hub to hub. I'm sure there's lots of cool stuff in New York, but it's a huge city and likely a challenge to find somewhere to stay that's nice without being ridiculously expensive.
So I stopped in Schenectady, as I did on my way to Boston in the spring. Small towns are nicer stopovers - they're more walkable and hotels are cheaper. I'm staying at the Stockade Inn again - a small place in a historical building.
Having had sufficient wining and dining in Montreal I opted for the Moon and River Cafe for supper. Another funky place (but friendlier than L'Escalier) They don't serve alcohol and they don't even have an espresso machine OMG :-) Good vegetarian food though. I was tempted to hang around for the live music but I decided to read my book by the fireplace back at the inn instead.
It's fun to explore new places, but it's also nice to revisit places and know your way around. Last time I was here I had quite a search for a decent coffee. This time I knew exactly where to go - Villa Italia - only a short detour on the way to the Amtrak station :-)
I change trains in New York and travel overnight to arrive in Savannah in the morning. It's still cool here (frost on the cars this morning) I'm looking forward to putting the heavy jacket away once I get to Savannah, although I'm sure I'll need it again in on the way back.
It's nice to have wifi on the train now, and power outlets at every seat! On Via Rail from Saskatoon to Toronto there's no wifi and a single power outlet for all the passengers to share!
Too many people seem to regard travel as a necessary evil, getting stressed and irritated. Occasionally I find myself falling into the same trap, but for the most part I love the journey as much as the destination.
Penn Station was as big and busy as I expected, but it was also clean and bright and more modern than I expected. I looked for somewhere to have lunch. There was lots of fast food down in the station but it would be nice to find somewhere a little better. I made my way up to street level. At which point I was reminded that I'm really not a big city person and retreated into the known world of the station :-) I managed to get a sit down lunch at Fridays.
Next challenge was coffee. I asked the waitress if there was a Starbucks in the station. Her eyes lit up and she said "No, but there's Tim Hortons". As a Canadian, I'm happy for Tim Horton's international success, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I wandered around the fast food places looking for an espresso machine. I found one at a place called Chickpeas, not exactly where I would have looked first, but I'll take what I can get!
Unfamiliar transit terminals are always a challenge to figure out. There are never enough signs or instructions for newcomers and they all have their own unique inscrutable procedures. Penn Station was no different. Even for the long distance trains, they didn't announce the track till 15 min before, at which point there's a big scamble for everyone to get in line.
One common point on longer Amtrak trips is that the conductor assigns seats as you get on the train, according to some unknowable process. And regardless of how full the train is, they always pack people together, leaving half the car empty (or even entire empty cars), rather than letting people spread out. I hope there's at least some benefit to the staff, because it certainly wouldn't be the choice of the customers.
At least I managed the scramble well enough to get a window seat :-) Now it's just a matter of sitting back for the ride to Savannah.
(I planned to post this yesterday, but there was no wifi on the New York to Savannah train.)
Sunday, November 06, 2011
From the hotel I walked along the Lachine Canal to the Atwater Market, quite a distance, but a nice path. The market itself wasn't that impressive - more shops than a "farmer's market". Probably there's more outside in the summer.
After a coffee break at the market I took the metro downtown and went to the McCord Museum to see an exhibit of Edward Burtynsky's "Oil" photographs. Great photographs and worth seeing full size. And it happened to be the first Saturday of the month so admission was free.
I had lunch at the museum restaurant (quite nice) and then took the metro to the Biosphere. The geodesic dome was built for Expo '67 and is now a museum for the environment. They had some interesting exhibits and the sphere is cool, but overall it was a little disappointing. But I walked around the island for a while enjoying the sunny fall day.
Supper was at Barroco and it was excellent. Even booking the day before, all I could get was sitting at the bar. But that was entertaining as cocktails are a specialty and the bartender was kept busy preparing them. I left it up to the chef to come up with something vegetarian and I wasn't disappointed. I got a platter with arugala and grape salad, risotta, and wild mushrooms and roasted vegetables.Very tasty. I had the squash soup to start - served in a hollowed out pumpkin. And at the bartender's recommendation, the apple tart for dessert. I'm afraid I didn't try the cocktails and had a French Malbec instead.
Saturday, November 05, 2011
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Friday, November 04, 2011
I just finished reading Matt Ridley's recent book The Rational Optimist.
I was prompted to read it by his Long Now talk. I find it hard to be optimistic these days, but I try to read a variety of viewpoints. One of the problems with today's abundance of information is that it is all too easy to only read material that you agree with. Not a good plan if you want an open mind.
It's an interesting book, that makes a lot of good points. There have always been people forecasting disaster and it makes good press so it tends to get amplified. And often they turn out to be wrong. By many measures the overall trend of the human race has been upward.
I would like to point out that when people raise the possibility of a disaster and then it doesn't happen, that doesn't mean there was never a danger. Take Y2K for example. Look at all the fuss there was, and look at what a non-event it turned out to be. But if no one had made a fuss, if all the preventative work had not been done, maybe there really would have been a disaster. Sometimes when you cry wolf, there really is a wolf.
My biggest complaint about the book is that it is overwhelmingly people oriented. Although the non-human environment is mentioned, it is definitely secondary. It's natural for people to be people-centric. But the history of mankind is one of expanding horizons, from family to tribe to race to all of humankind. I'd like to think that the natural continuation of that is to expand our empathy and concern and attention to our whole environment, not just the human part.
The book seems to assume that the measure of "success" is economic growth. Even within the human sphere, I have my doubts about the value, wisdom, and feasibility of unending growth. Contrary to popular belief, more is not always better. Obviously, poor people can benefit from a higher standard of living. But those of us in rich countries may already have gone too far. Depending on which study you pay attention to, more money doesn't even make us happier. Having more income to spend on more stuff to fill up our ever larger homes has little redeeming value and likely does more harm than good in the big picture. And to further complicate the story, our "growth" in the last few decades has almost entirely gone to the already rich top few percent. Do the billionaires really need more billions? I guess it gives the other 99% something to dream about. But is that much more productive than dreaming about winning the lottery?
Still, it was an interesting read, and a nice change from doom and gloom even if you don't agree with all of it.
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Right now, I'm outgoing, headed away from Saskatoon on the train again. I find my mindset is quite different at the beginning of a trip than it is at the end. The beginning is a process of letting go, of breaking free from normal life. The end means looking ahead to reentry into the regular routine, back to all the issues you temporarily left behind.
We just passed one of my favorite parts of the train trip east from Saskatoon - the section along the Qu'appelle valley near the Saskatchewan / Manitoba border. In the spring when I passed through it was green and wetly flooded. Now, the leaves are all gone, the water has retreated, and dry browns predominate. Unlike the prairies there are hills and trees. Unlike the seemingly endless boreal forest, there are still open views.
I also like the lakes, rivers, rocks, and forests of northern Ontario. They make me wish I had my kayak with me! (Although it doesn't seem right to call it "northern" Ontario when it's actually in the southern half of the province.)
Nine of us got on in Saskatoon, more than last time I rode the train. Less foreign tourists this time, they mostly travel westward through the mountains and in the summer. Quite a few people are traveling all the way from Vancouver to Toronto. A few are switching trains to continue on to Montreal or Halifax. I don't imagine too many are taking trains all the way to Florida the way I am :-)
When you fly, you jump over countries and continents. Taking the train or bus, you are, instead, immersed in the country. You cannot escape the size of the continent, or the variety of the terrain.
Another aspect of riding the train is that you are surrounded by other people that take the train. That sounds self evident, but in any other group, taking the train is an oddity. This sense of being with people that share a certain common ground doesn't really happen with flying, since flying is so common, and you have little time or circumstance to mingle with the other passengers.
When you are in "sleeper" class on Via Rail meals are included. This helps pass the time and also forces even introverts like me to meet some of the fellow travelers. On many cruise ships you have an assigned table and sit with the same few people every meal. Here, you are seated at a different table with different people at each meal. Last night I had supper with a pair of cute young girls 2 and 3 years old. My main fear was that I was going to end up wearing some of the food they were waving about! As usual, the food was excellent and there was always a good vegetarian option.
I have a few days in Montreal and a break from the train before continuing south.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
We did manage to hike up Harney Peak (the high point in South Dakota) and visit Wind Cave. I've always avoided the caves because I thought they be too touristy, but this one is a national park and was quite interesting.
We haven't been down here for a few years and never this late in the fall. We were surprised how much stuff was closed for the season. And two of our favorite places in Custer - The Songbird Cafe and the Bank Coffee House were not only closed, but up for sale. We did find a couple of good coffee shops (Common Ground and Green Bean) and a nice restaurant (Bay Leaf Cafe) in Spearfish.
The Mickelson Trail (by bike) and the Centennial Trail (on foot) looked interesting. Might have to go back and do those one day.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I navigated the usual maze-like computerized phone system (I really hate those things - I can only think they are designed to discourage people from calling.) When I finally got to talk to a human being they pointed out that I had 24 hours to cancel my booking and re-do it with the discount. I explained that (a) I wasn't aware of this, and (b) I was travelling and wasn't able to do this. They "helpfully" pointed out that if I had read my reservation email I would have seen the 24 hour cancellation. I checked, and it's there, at the bottom, buried with all the other terms and conditions that no one reads.
They said it was too late. I asked if there wasn't something they could do. They passed me over to "customer support" (which raises the question of who I was talking to initially?).
I went through my whole story again, and got pretty much the same answer - "there's nothing we can do". That may be true in terms of the powers of that individual, but in terms of Via Rail, it's patently untrue - they can do whatever they want. It's not like it's illegal to bend your own rules.
The final explanation was that even if they did allow me to cancel and rebook, I wouldn't save much money. Huh? It turns out that the 50% is off some hypothetical "regular" price that is higher than what you would normally pay. (I also hate sleazy marketing scams.)
I gave up, it isn't worth trying to fight this kind of bureaucracy. There's not much joy in trying to deal with people that are just going through the motions. Of course, by the letter of their rules, they are perfectly in the right.
(On the positive side, I had only booked one direction so I was able to get the discount on the return trip.)
I can only hope my own staff understands that there are times when it pays to bend the rules. And that rules shouldn't be an excuse not to care about and look after your customers.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
"Oh my goodness"
"I don't know if this is going to work."
"Don't worry, s**t happens."
"That's in the wrong place!"
response: "Too late now."
"Hey, I'm fixing up your f**kups, so you don't have to worry about it."
(but as far as I can tell, it all ended up fine)
Sunday, September 18, 2011
It's a "hybrid" Giant Seek 0 - Shimano Alfine 8 speed internal hub, hydraulic disk brakes, 700 x 32 tires, from the Bike Doctor.
My previous bike was a Cannondale F600 mountain bike - quite a different beast. But the fact is, I'm not riding off pavement these days so I decided I might as well get a bike that's more suited to the riding I'm actually doing - which is getting around town. I even put fenders on it - so much for my image!
Without the front shock and with skinnier tires, it's definitely a "harder" ride. You notice the bumps in the road a lot more (and avoid them more!) But it also feels fast and responsive. The internal gears shift smoothly and easily. (Although I'm still getting used to the shifting being "backwards") The range of gears seems ok. I think I would have preferred the range a little lower - I haven't found myself using the top few gears so far. But the lowest gear is still pretty low so it's ok.
I'm not sure how it'll be in the winter - that can be a lot more like "mountain" biking. I can still put studded tires on, albeit skinnier ones. And most of the time in the winter I ended up riding with my shock locked out because it had gone flat. And when it got really cold, shifting often didn't work reliably. From what I've heard the internal hub should still work ok when it's cold - we'll see.
I've been interested in the internal hubs for a while. The straight chain path and internal gears should (in theory) be nice low maintenance, especially in the slush and grit of spring and fall. Shimano has a new 11 speed version which sounds even better, but the Bike Doctor didn't have any yet. In fact, the Seek 0 was the only bike they had in stock with internal gears. Fall might be a good time for deals but not so good for selection. (and of course, this bike wasn't one of the ones on sale!) MEC has a bike with the 11 speed hub which looks pretty good, but I'd rather buy locally. Especially when you want to get good service. (And MEC was out of stock anyway, eliminating any temptation.)
It's a fairly nondescript gray which suits me. (Even the branding is subdued.) I figure it's less likely to get stolen if it doesn't look too flashy. Although the disk brakes are a bit of a give-away if you know to look for them.
I think Shelley is just going to get another mountain bike. Not because she's riding off pavement any more than I am, but more because that's what she's always ridden and is used to. (And I have to admit, the mountain biker "image" is more appealing than "commuter"!) Although I've been riding mountain bikes for quite a while, before that I rode "ten speeds" for many years, so this style of bike isn't as alien to me.
I reinforced the door of the shed so it won't be quite as easy to break into. But it's still just a flimsy metal shed so it's never going to be that hard to get into. I'm locking my bike up inside the shed as well - I would really be pissed to have the new one stolen. And I wouldn't put it past the thieves to come back in hopes of finding new bikes.
I'm happy to have a bike again. I hate to drive, so without a bike I'm reduced to walking, which is ok, but nowhere near as quick to zip around or go longer distances.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Sunday, September 11, 2011
I didn't see any moose this year, but saw a few bald eagles reasonably close. And there were ducks and the odd Canada goose, a pelican, and a few Snow geese. The loons were making their iconic cries. Not many people around.
As forecast, the weather started to turn Sunday morning. It was clear and calm all night but the clouds gathered and the wind picked up as I paddled back. I seem to get rougher water for the paddle back. The waves were getting to be about three feet high in the worst parts, leading to a bit of a roller coaster, and the occasional splash in the face. Even with the spray skirt on, water still tends to get inside resulting in a wet ride. Thankfully a few of the bays were sheltered enough to take a breather. When I got to the end I was lucky to have a cart waiting at my end of the rail portage. And the rain held off until I was just about back to the car :-)
I haven't been out paddling much this summer so my arms and shoulders was pretty stiff and sore by the end. But it was a good kind of tired. And it was great to get out and enjoy our wonderful northern lakes.
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Tuesday, September 06, 2011
Monday, September 05, 2011
It's not exactly wilderness, but it's always nice along the river. I came around a corner and four great blue herons took off from a sandbar, gangly but gracefu. An owl (long eared?) rose up out of the underbrush in front of me and perched on a branch eying me suspiciously. A hawk circled low around a coulee. Canada geese called from the river. Grasshoppers exploded up out of the grass all around me. Frogs jumped off the bank into the river. A muskrat dived in and swam away. Fish disappeared in a swirl of water. Clam shells and crayfish claws littered the shore. Ants feasted on a caterpillar. Bees and butterflies enjoyed the last flowers of the summer. I enjoyed the last of the summer!
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Photos taken with the G12 this time.