Thursday, February 28, 2013

Spring Is In The Air ?

Yesterday was a lovely day weatherwise and I've not been able to say that for many months.  It probably wasn't quite a harbinger of Spring but it was good enough for me to dust off the car, charge up the GPS and go for a spin into the countryside.

Now I realise that the days of 'going for a spin' died out when petrol here started being sold by the litre.  This came in on 1st October 1995 although the switch over had been taking place since the late 1970's.

That's when prices seemed to go up overnight and have been going up ever since so that these days, we need to almost save our precious and very expensive petrol for essential trips, like to the shops or to work or to pick up the Chinese takeaway when they don't deliver !

I remember when I got my first car and I'd just go out for a drive for the pure enjoyment of it all. Yes I know I should've been at work but those were the good old days when you could take a sickie and not risk losing your job.

I'd drive to the coast, have seaside fish and chips and be back home in the late evening all for 3 florins. If I did need a fill up along the way, I'd stop at a petrol station where a young fella would fill up the car, clean my windscreen, check my tyre pressures, valet the inside and leave a mint on my seat.  Not sure why he spent so long taking my girlfriend to the rest room but she seemed happy enough when she returned.

Despite petrol now costing 500 squillion times more, we have lost out on all that service.  We have to fill up the tank ourselves, clean our own windscreens and drive around in rubbish filled cars.  As for tyre pressures, who checks those anymore ?  Oh I know we're advised to do so weekly but come on, who like me goes from one annual service to another without ever checking our tyres ?  I'm not even sure where they are on my car !  I'm told I have 5....who knew !!

And the inside of my car has more computing power than took Armstrong et al to the moon and back, allegedly. Added to what came as standard, like many young and tech savvy drivers (shut it !) I've added the smartphone in its cradle, the GPS on its mounting, the mp3 and FM transmitter on the dashboard and since last week, the Nexus 7 on the passenger seat. It's no wonder the lights dim when I start the car !

Actually of all those gadgets, it's the FM transmitter I love the far as in car entertainment is concerned.  Being a basic car, it came with a standard radio/cd player with no input for an mp3 player.  I tried one type of FM transmitter so that it would play via the car speakers but it was a bit of a failure.  I got a new one a couple of years ago and it's brill. It's smaller than a classic zippo lighter and rests in a spare cup holder and means I can listen to MY music and not the (mostly) drivel on the radio.

So yesterday, with a tankful of petrol bought when it was 10p a litre cheaper (2 days ago), I tootled along the A65 at a typically retired person speed and enjoyed the clear blue skies above me and the open road before me.  Well I say open road but we all know those also passed away in the pre litre days. These days if you can get into 5th gear at any point during a trip you've most likely strayed onto a motorway.  On A roads, the best you can hope for is forward motion.

I set off with the idea of going to Skipton (25 miles but 50 mins) as I knew a walk around the canal area would be both good for a bit of exercise and for taking photos.  There are always loads of canal boats moored there and with several companies offering 30 minute trips, there is always action on the water too.

The drive there was lovely and I enjoyed every minute.  Despite my previous comments, slightly tongue in cheek, the A65 was almost empty except when passing through Ilkley, always a bit of a bottleneck.  As well as the open road, there were sheep (if not lambs) in the fields and the Yorkshire countryside was at its most glorious. Low stone built walls, neat farmhouses, hillside villages and numerous streams were all visible through my newly cleaned windscreen - as I'd cleaned it myself before setting off !

20 miles from home, the A65 climbs up into the Dales between Ilkley and Skipton and passes Chelker Reservoir built in 1866 to serve the Bradford area.  God this blog is educational.

There are 4 wind turbines along the far edge of the reservoir as at this height, there is nothing much to stop the strong wind blowing across the waters.  For some reason only 2 have blades so really there are 2 turbines.....and 2 tall white towers !!

I pulled off the road to get some (very) fresh air and take a pic.............

 Then it was on to Skipton and being market day, it was quite busy.

Actually as Skipton has no less than 4 market days a week (Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat) and it's a popular Dales town, it's always busy.  I parked near the canal, had a walk around and enjoyed the afternoon sunshine, if not the freezing temps.

When walking back to the car, I noticed this sign on a van window parked outside a cafe which was a funny take on the usual "No Tools In This Van" which is supposed to stop thieves from breaking into commercial vehicles.  As if !

Then I had to return to Leeds to 'run an errand' and got back before the onset of the rush hour madness that makes driving on the A65 a misery.

So is Spring in the air ?  Well today's weather is the same as yesterday with clear blue skies and 8F and with no rain forecast for the next few days, it's certainly looking promising weatherwise.

But whether I can save enough to afford the petrol for more days out is another matter.

Ahhh for the good old days when petrol was relatively cheap, the roads weren't filled with cars and petrol station restrooms were only used for one thing !

Once again nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

Friday, February 22, 2013

When Buying A Laptop, Take One Tablet And........

Well I've gone a full week without a laptop and nothing bad happened.  I survived.....just.

Survival was helped by Daphne loaning me her iPad and by also having a smartphone !  Good backup, eh ?!

Of course neither of these could fully replace an actual computer so I spent the week looking at many models and reading reviews till I was about ready to scream and get an abacus !

Customer reviews on sites like Amazon can give a very slanted view on a laptop.  People give 3 stars out of 5 because the delivery was a day late, the box was damaged, it came with hard to understand Windows 8 or the company's help desk was based in India.  As none of these 'complaints' relate to the product as such, it's best not to ignore a laptop choice just because it gets several low scores.

So I read and read and after several days, I was just about ready to go for a desktop pc and have it built to my specs.  But I really wanted a laptop despite using it mostly in the house - in fact for the last 2 years, my old laptop didn't even have a working battery so HAD to be used indoors.

In the end I decided to make a list of 'must have' specs and look for a laptop with them installed.  There weren't many !  I guess my sights were set high.

On Wednesday I went to a PCWorld in Leeds and looked at their selection and made my choice.  A Samsung NP550P7C.

Before this week, I wasn't even aware Samsung made computers so I wanted to check out a few reviews before making the purchase.  It wasn't easy as it's not a common model and of course as I knew already, there are many differing specs depending on the country and even the store.  As far as I could see, the specs on Samsung's own site was pretty close to the one I saw in the store except it came with 8Gb of memory which was one of my spec criteria.

Based on the few reviews I could find, I decided to buy it and returned to the store yesterday to do so.  It cost more than I'd initially wanted to spend but there is a mini story behind that too.

I never had any wish to get a tablet before my laptop 'broke' last week but for some reason having Daphne's iPad changed my mind.  I didn't NEED one, but I wanted one.  Go figure.  My idea was to get a medium powered laptop plus a Nexus 10 tablet for mobility.  As Nexus 10's had been out of stock for weeks with no sign of any coming in (they can only be bought from the Google Store in the UK), I was just checking the site daily but was resigned to not having one for many weeks.

Whilst in PCWorld I looked at all the tablets and liked the Nexus 7. I knew all about it from reading numerous reviews but to have it in my hand made all the difference.  I wanted one.  At £200 less than the Nexus 10, I couldn't resist and decided to put that money towards a more powerful laptop.  Hence the Samsung.

I got the Nexus 7 there and then and the Samsung 24 hrs later so right now I'm in geek heaven setting them up. Getting to grips with Windows 8 has been an issue but like breaking a wild horse, I'm slowing getting it tamed and it's not quite the beast it was on first power up.

One point came up pretty quickly; it's all very well getting Facebook and email notifications on the smartphone, tablet and laptop but after a cacophony of sound for a few hours, I had to mute the sound on two of them !  Syncing isn't always a good thing.  Just ask Jack Dawson !

Titanic joke there.

It'll take weeks to get the Samsung to the point where it has most of the programs that were on the old one.  That's always the case and a bit of redundancy will be a good thing as I had a lot of rubbish on the old one.  Time for some downsizing I guess.

But at least I can blog using a full keyboard and of course that's the main thing !!

Finally, mention of a d'oh moment from last Wednesday.  Having bought the Nexus 7, I came home and as the loaner iPad browser was still on the Google Store site from earlier on, I hit reload and couldn't believe my eyes when it showed the Nexus 10 was now in stock with a delivery of 3-5 days.  Arrrrggggggggg.

As it was still in the box in the bag, I knew I could take the Nexus 7 back for a refund but after thinking about it for a short time, I decided I liked the 7 better as it was almost as good a product and its handy size was just what I wanted.

Time will tell if I've made 2 good choices but so far, so good, although the Samsung hard drive is quite slow and undermines the awesome power of the processor and speed of the graphics chip. A new drive may be needed but that's for the future.

It'll all be documented in my Amazon review ;-)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lappy's Demise

Last Thursday I felt my laptop was slowing down a bit so as it had been powered on for over a week, I decided to power it off for a few minutes.

When I powered it up, or tried to, it gave out a long beep almost straight away followed by 2 shorter beeps. I'm not sure what that would be in morse code terms but in laptop terms, I knew it wasn't good. The screen remained black with not a flicker of life. Rats.

Actually I said something much ruder but 'rats' will do here.

So it came up into Windows, I think, as I HEARD it go through the process. I'd no choice but to power it off and try again, ever the optimist. Same result.

It was either the screen or the graphics chip on the motherboard and both of those on a laptop mean death.

Thankfully I keep all my photos, music and tv/movies on an external drive so there is little data I NEED from the laptop but it's still a pain in the butt and in the wallet and I could do with neither. The hard drive is fine so when I get a new laptop, whatever I need can be copied across.

But now I have decisions to make; for a short time I thought about getting a tablet and forgetting about a replacement laptop altogether. Sadly it soon dawned on me that tablets are no substitutes for computers as for one thing, they don't have USB ports so I couldn't access all my external drive files. That alone would be a show stopper.

Then I thought about getting a laptop AND a tablet and that's still my plan today. I was thinking of getting a cheap basic laptop and a top of the range non Apple tablet to have the best of both worlds so as I had no experience of tablets at all, I asked Daphne if I could borrow her iPad for a few days and she said of course.

That's why I'm typing this on it right now and it's also why I know I don't want one for myself !!!

My smartphone experience has been with Android based phones and I've been more that happy with that system. I don't like Apple products and the iPad is no exception. Each to their own and that is just my opinion as always.

At the moment I'm leaning towards a Nexus 10 as I want a screen big enough for watching movies when I'm travelling as I'd take the tablet and leave the laptop at home. As for the choice of laptop, I just can't bring myself to think in terms of 'cheap' and as I do a lot of photo and video editing, cheap just won't cut it. For that reason I've even thought about getting a desktop instead but no, I want the portability of a laptop so will stick with that.

So that's the situation right now. I'll do my usual time consuming searches and review checks before making my choices but that will be in conflict with my 'want them now' attitude when it comes to buying new electronic devices.

I'd like to thank Daphne for the loan of her iPad and although I don't want one, it is a nice piece of kit. Being an iPad2, I think many of the 'cons' will have been sorted with later incarnations but as with all Apple products, the price alone puts me off.

Until I get the new kit, my blogs may be short and sweet as typing on a smartphone doesn't lend itself to long blog posts !!!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Duchess Of Cambridge Bikini Photos

Last Wednesday I drove Daphne to Hull for her work and as I knew she'd never been to Beverley Minster, we stopped there on the way home.

I've always loved Beverley Minster and the town of Beverley is pretty neat too.  It's very much like York but smaller and.....well....neater.  So is its Minster which I find more welcoming;  York Minster might be much more impressive in size, but that makes it very cold and impersonal in my opinion.

Unfortunately Beverley Minster was having renovations done inside and so parts were roped off from the general public.  The storage of construction bits and pieces had overflowed into other areas as well so all in all, the poor old Minster wasn't showing itself at its best for our visit.

Still, I think Daphne liked it and as usual, we both took our fair share of photos, despite a Minster man constantly watching us in the forlorn hope that we'd cough up some money for a photo permit.  He'd made the mistake of telling us that under the circumstance (the work going on), he'd waive the need to buy a permit as long as we only took a few photos.

I probably took about 50 as did Daphne so MAYBE we abused his generosity a bit !

We pretty much had the place to ourselves so it wasn't hard to get a shot of Daphne with no one else in the picture.  It wasn't a particularly sunny day but enough light was available to show off the stained glass windows and with so many of them, the coloured light hitting the stone columns added to the overall beauty of the Minster.

By the time we left, it was a bit too dark to take decent photos of the outside and actually it's not the easiest building to photograph, given its location right in the centre of the town. Everytime you try and back up to get it all in, you come up against a house or shop.

I did take one photo in town on our way back to the car as it was of an interesting butcher's shop. I particularly like "pigeon's breasts" for sale although as with the beef and venison on offer, I'm not sure why they decided to make the shop name so inaccurately specialised.

Fast forward to this Wednesday, today in fact, and the weather has taken a nose dive.  The snow came back but seemingly just for today.

This was how I saw it from my bedroom window.............

It continued to fall all day and as it was particularly 'wet' snow, it stuck to every surface, even my front door window.

Here are a few more shots of it but it wasn't a lot and should be mostly gone by tomorrow.

I'm glad it didn't come yesterday as we had some drama here with a burst water main around the corner at a busy road junction.  I first noticed it when I looked out to see what the weather was like as I wanted to go for a walk.  I saw water flowing down past my drive and yet the drive itself was bone dry !?!

I went out to investigate and went round the corner and there was quite a torrent of water pouring down the next road so I tried to follow the flow back to its source.  This was strangely difficult as in places, the water was actually flowing in several directions !

I finally tracked it to a couple of areas at the junction of two roads where water was bubbling up through the tarmac.  I came home and phoned the water company who said it would be treated as an emergency given my description.  About 15 minutes later 3 vans, a digger and several workmen turned up and went about trying to find just where the burst pipe was under the large area of tarmac.

In this day and age of sophisticated equipment that can locate a 500 year old king's body under a car park, I loved seeing one of these workers 'listening' for the flow of underground water using a 5ft long thin metal rod with what looked like a small eat trumpet at one end.

It seemed to work as they managed to locate the burst pipe and worked through the night to repair it.  I got a call from the water company this morning to let me know what was happening (as I'd reported it) and that the junction would be fully repaired with new tarmac by the end of Friday.

I was very impressed.

So there you have it - Beverley, snow and lots of water.  Nothing at all to tie these 3 topics together but they were all part of the rich tapestry of my life over the last week here in rarely sunny England.

It's no wonder I watch a lot of tv !!

P.S. What about those Kate photos I hear you ask ?  Sorry, I just need to get my readership numbers back up after my blogging break !  Hey it could've been worse.....I could've mentioned Susan Boyle in the title !!

Thursday, February 07, 2013

David Attenborough's Africa

Last night the BBC broadcast the final show in Sir David Attenborough's "Africa" series and what a stunning series it has been.

I've followed the BBC's natural history shows from the earliest black and white series, through colour, widescreen, HD and even 3D and the technological developments have served to bring many hours of incredible images to my television sets, which have also changed over time !

Over the years, mega series like Life On Earth, The Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet have held me fascinated with the world we inhabit and smaller specialised series like Madagascar and now Africa have shown me that I know very little about places I thought I knew a lot about !

I may be biased by having just watched "Africa" on the biggest and best television set I've ever owned, but in my opinion it's the best series of the lot.  The footage of the animals, birds and insects has been stunning enough, but the images of the scenery will live with me forever.  The sheer size of the continent took my breath away from the first episode and Attenborough's team did a spectacular job in presenting the diversity of this great land to we, the viewers.

From fertile grasslands to barren deserts, towering mountain ranges to flat plains and the savannah to the rainforests, Africa was spread out before us over these 6 shows.

I have to admit at this point that although technically 'created' by me, all these photos come from the BBC footage of "Africa" and so I guess I've been a bit naughty.

Hopefully the BBC won't sue me for copyright infringement !

I went through the 6 shows and edited out stills that I both liked and that summed up everything that I felt was best about the diversity of the continent.

As such, the photos are very small in size (average 50kb each) but as the footage was HD, they stand up quite well to full screen enlargement.  Do try it.

As wonderful as the scenery footage was, it was naturally eclipsed by that of the animals.  So many scenes were filmed for the first time and I watched with jaw dropping incredulity at sights of births and deaths and fights and frolics.

As with them all, this series took many years and a huge crew to film and I'm glad to say that the time and effort they put in is reflected in the quality of the shows.

But the stars were the animals.  They put on quite a show by just being themselves. I watched, fascinated, whilst they searched and often fought to the death for food for survival.  I watched, equally fascinated, as they played in family groups, both during the day and at night. I watched, with less fascination, whilst they mated and bizarrely, death sometimes followed this act as well !

It's been very hard to pick out stills from 6 hours of "Africa" footage as every frame was a gem in its own right. Every technique known to modern nature film making was used to bring these animals right into my living room and if the series had been broadcast in 3D, I'd have had to view it from behind my chair as the numerous close ups were VERY close up indeed.

I think the real benefit of long range filming, mostly from helicopters, is that the animals are totally unaware of humans being near them and so go about their daily lives as nature intended, so to speak.  Back in the day, I remember most animals would simply stop what they were doing and just peer at the cameras as the crew had to get up close to film them.

Then they'd bolt !!  As did the crew sometimes !

Now we can get up close without them knowing and we can see what they get up to, often for the first time. With newly developed HD Starlight cameras, we saw activities at night previously unknown to naturalists.  For example we saw rare black rhinos coming together at a water hole simply for a social gathering. Previously it was thought they were solitary creatures and certainly not up for a par-tay by the pool !

To be able to see all this in such clarity from the comfort of my armchair, was a true delight.

Having now watched all 6 hours of the series, I have to say that the footage that will stay with me for the longest time belong to two fighting giraffes, an old bull and a young upstart. Using high speed cameras, we were able to see them fighting almost to the death by using their heads (and those two small horns) as lethal 'weapons', the ultimate winner going for the relatively fragile legs of the vanquished after several hard body blows.

After somehow getting the old bull on the ground, the young upstart went for the 'killer' blow but experience won the day.  The old bull cleverly dodged the head swipe and with the upstart open to attack, gave it an uppercut to the soft underbelly which sent the youngster fully to the ground.  After a while, so we were told, it managed to get up and stumble away with its tail literally between its legs.

And there was me thinking giraffes were graceful, peaceful creatures.  Who'd have known ?!

During this series, it definitely wasn't a case of the usual disclaimer....."no animals were hurt in the making of this film."  But at least they were hurt, killed and eaten by each other !!  And I had a ringside seat.

But the beauty far outweighed all that and most of the photography was jaw dropping..........

Now remember that all these are low size photos generated by me from the series footage.  Hopefully they will encourage anyone who has not seen the series to look for catch up broadcasts or wait for it to be shown in your country.  No doubt it'll be out on dvd in the coming months and again, I'd encourage you to buy it and see for yourselves just how stunning it is.

Certainly I could watch it again and again....and have done !

Two stills sum up the whole series for me.

The first is a dung beetle reverse pushing a ball of dung up a desert dune by using its back legs for better grip and pushing power. The downside to using this technique is that the beetle can't see where it's going and so when it does get to the top or edge of a dune, it rolls down the other side. I guess as long as this roll is 'on the way home', then it actually saves a bit of time !

But often a dune slope is so steep that the beetle and ball simply can't make it first time and so it rolls to the bottom and has to start again....and again....and again. This reminded us that in nature, when you never know when or where your next meal is coming from, simply giving up is not an option.  I couldn't get a well focused  frame as the beetle was constantly on the move but you can still see the effort involved.....and that his back legs are doing the pushing and his head is mostly buried in the sand.

The final still is of the great man himself.....Sir David Attenborough.

After telling us about the risk of extinction for the black rhino due to poaching. he introduced us to a cute baby rhino that was almost tame due to being looked after by conservationists.

Despite being 86 and not as agile as he used to be, Sir David got down to the rhino's level and engaged in a 'conversation' with it by making noises similar to those it was making.

It was a delightful end sequence to the whole series and showed us yet again that Sir David loves all animals and over the course of his 60 years of natural program making, he has lost none of his enthusiasm for his subject and just as importantly, lost none of his ability to let us share that enthusiasm.

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