Jun 292007

Juno Beach tank and carousel Mont Saint-Michel Mont Saint-Michel
Photos of Normandy, France

April 2-4, 2007

If you ever rent a car from a Paris airport (CDG in my case), make sure you book it from the net first. I spent a while talking up all the counter people up to get a decent rental rate. The price started at €500, and I eventually got them down to €320 by calling bluffs. Still not exactly great for two days. I remembered much better rates online when I looked the day before, so we walked over to a terminal with internet access. Reassured by the better rates online I returned and tried to bargain some more, but I think the agents were locked out from the better prices. Back to the terminal with internet, and a few minutes later I had knocked a further €80 off the price with a reservation. Lesson learned; reserve ahead.

We piled into the rental and navigated the freeways out of sprawl-land into the lush green of Normandy. We headed to Rouen first and enjoyed the half timbered buildings and the Gros Horloge before grabbing some dinner. We spent the night in Caen and the next morning in the WWII memorial museum. Some of the exhibits were interesting, but I think the €18 ticket price soured us on it. Forty junior high kids running around didn’t help much either. After that we headed out through the back roads towards Courseulles-sur-Mer.

I really enjoyed the drive. Every few miles you drove through a quaint little stone village with a stone chapel. There are still farms here, but it is obvious that industrialization means a whole lot less people live in the countryside. Which turns out to be a bit of a mixed blessing. There is very little ugly suburban development, only old stone buildings that blend in perfectly with the landscape. But the towns can feel a bit ghostly.

We picked up a delicious lunch at a little bakery in Courseulles-sur-Mer before walking to Juno Beach. It is a bit odd to see a WWII tank beside a carousel, but I suppose it makes a point. We all really enjoyed the Juno Beach Centre, a museum dedicated to the war effort made by all Canadians that opened three years ago right near the beach. Perhaps we are a bit biased, but the €6 ticket seemed more than worth it. I was quite impressed by the amount of information they packed into exhibits.

We walked the beach for a bit and watched the kite surfers before packing up and heading west along the cost. Eventually we reached Arromanches and the remains of Mulberry Harbour. After poking around we got lost in Bayeux for a while before heading to Saint-Lô, Avranches, and eventually arriving at Le Mont-Saint-Michel for a blazing sunset. We grabbed a cheap hotel and shared a mostly empty restaurant next door with a Japanese tour group. Definitely not high season, just the way I like it.

I woke up early to walk out the spit of land towards Mont Saint-Michel with the relatives of my dinner the night before. Each morning the sheep wander around the salt marsh and trim the grasses back. They also seem to enjoy running in front of cars later in the day. The fortress, abbey, and town are beautiful and amazing. Once inside, it can be a bit of a glorious tourist trap on the main drag. But it is worth braving the commercial gauntlet to explore the town.

We chose a different rural route back to Paris, rather than the toll-ways, and I was happy we did. Once again the countryside was lush and filled with great old stone buildings and chapels. We arrived full of cider and camembert. I really enjoyed Normandy, and the slower pace of off season car travel. Definitely a spot to come back to again.

Jun 252007

While I love the photos from my Canon Rebel XT, I hate its size. The Rebel is actually one of the smallest SLR cameras out there, but it is still something you have to bring a bag for, or sling it over your shoulder. It also attracts much more attention than my old camera – either from people just eying me over with this big ass camera, or others wanting to talk shop. I’ve been longing for a camera that has 1) Good quality sensor with RAW files 2) Has at least a 28mm wide angle 3) Gives me plenty of manual controls. My old Fuji F810 came close in some ways for its time, but was only 32mm wide, and had limited shutter speeds. I’d still be using it, but it got dropped somewhere along the way and now has interlaced while lines in the photos. I’ve been watching ebay for a used one, but no luck in several months.

But there are two cameras that just might fit the bill, but in different ways. The first is the Sigma DP1. This camera has a fixed 28mm F4 lens. This might be an issue for some, but 90% of my photos have been at that angle, so I don’t see it as much of a trouble – though I’m not sure why they couldn’t make the lens faster. The big deal about this camera is that it has an APS-C sized sensor. This means the sensor is the same size as my much larger Rebel. The larger sensor should give a much better photo quality, as well as much better high ISO and low light performance. It isn’t perfect though, the camera is a little too thick, and there is no anti-shake. Both I would assume because of the large sensor. But I think the size is still manageable. I’ll have to see how the no IS goes, I’ve become used to it on my Rebel. I’d have more to go on, but no one really knows when it is coming out. When it does, I’ll be pouring over the reviews.

The other one that looks promising is the Ricoh Caplio GX100. It has a great form factor, full manual controls, anti-shake, RAW, and a 24-72mm f2.5-4.4 lens. On paper, it looks like a dream camera. Unfortunately, it also uses a small compact sensor. This means the photo quality isn’t going to be the greatest, and the ISO performance is going to be poor. The early reviews seem to suggest anything over ISO400 is pretty bad. They also say it takes several seconds to shoot RAW files, which would be a pain in the ass. I’ll have to wait for more reviews to see if the image quality and performance will meet my expectations.

It looks like it might take some time for all the reviews and comparisons to come out. Which isn’t really an issue, as I’m content to wait. Hopefully more people will get in on the action, and drive development for this niche.

Update: DPReview.com has posted their review of the GX100 here. Unfortunately it looks like my fears are true. Great camera, crappy sensor. It looks like you can get quality out of the camera if you are willing to put in the time to work around its limitations. Four to five seconds to save a raw file would get old pretty fast though.

Still waiting on the DP1…

Jun 132007

Paris, France Paris, France Paris, France
Photos of Paris, France.

March 31 – April 2, 2007

If I were to pick a city to move to in Europe, Paris would probably be at the top of the list. The city has the same exciting energy that New York has, but doesn’t feel like it would burn me out. The buildings and parks are gorgeous, the people watching is some of the best around, and the wine is cheaper than soft drinks. Food isn’t half assed. All meals seem to take at least two hours, which is both wonderful and frustrating (when you just want to eat and run – how very unFrench of me).

The city and Seine are built for walking around, the density is nicely mixed to keep it interesting. La Tour and Jardin des Tuileries were wonderful, and held up well. The city seemed to have the same fog/smog mixture as LA – it made for wonderful sunsets. Watching the moon rise over Les Invalides is an image that will stick with me for a long time.

If you are leaving the city by rental car, make sure you have rental car reservations before you get to the airport… more on that later.

Jun 082007

Paris Catacombs Paris Catacombs Paris Catacombs
Photo album of the Catacombs of Paris

April 1, 2007

Ever since reading about the dark world beneath the city of lights in Infiltration some years ago, they have been digging away at the back of my head. The catacombs are a maze of 170 miles of Roman era tunnels – quarries, really – under one of the world’s most famous cities. Add in the bones of six million Parisians, war time occupation, artists, and illegal cinemas, and I fail to see how one cannot be fascinated.

On our trip to Paris, I knew the place I wanted to visit first. Much of the interesting bits of the system are blocked to casual visitors. You need to be ready for spelunking, avoiding getting lost in the labyrinth, and paying a fine if you get caught in the system. I wasn’t. So we did the next best thing, the walk through tour at Place Denfert-Rochereau.

The tour starts at an unassuming building where you pay your entrance fee and climb down about 100 stairs. After zipping your jacket up – it is about 14 C and wet – you walk a ways before you reach some museum style information signs on the people you are about to see. The path winds through a maze of stacked femur walls inlayed with skulls. These femur walls act as a dam wall to hold back an ocean of smaller bones. Most walls are about five feet high, with three to five feet of smaller bones piled behind them. Plaques and tablets state the year and cemetery where the bones are from. Occasionally they also dabble in the classification – good, bad, or innocent.

I walked slowly at first, soaking up all the details and straining my highschool french to decipher the old plaques. But after a kilometer of bones, one becomes a bit overwhelmed. Near the end, it was more of a stroll through a macabre park than a careful exploration. But our peek at the Paris underworld well worth it. One comes out feeling a bit more awed about the efforts that went into the city bellow ground, as well as above.

The UE folks would say we took the Disneyland tour of the Catacombs. I highly recommend checking out these other sources for a better look:

National Geographic Adventure’s Underground Paris
Guerillaphotography’s Les Catacombs
UrbanAdventure.org’s Paris Catacombs

Jun 062007

I’ve linked to the Microsoft Photosynth project before, but this tech demo of Seadragon and Photosynth at TED is worth another link. As Blaise Aguera y Arcas says, they are creating a three dimensional world of hyperlinks between images using metadata and analysis of the photos themselves. The possibilities are really very cool.

Try it out yourself – they now have a Photosynth technology preview on the web.

Jun 062007

NPR has an interesting story about trying to find the biggest greenhouse gas producer in the US. Canada makes that easy, they have a reporting system. But there is no mandatory reporting system in the US. It seems a bit silly to say the US is serious about greenhouse gas reduction, when EPA doesn’t even know who is producing it. Clearly we need a reporting system.

While the story was good, I found the goal a bit flawed. Even if you do find the biggest producers, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are the ones that need the most attention. For example, the top producer in Canada is a coal fired power plant. Probably the same in the US. But that top spot doesn’t take into account how many people are being serviced by that power plant. If the plant is huge, and a lot of people get power from it, it is going to understandably go up on the big list. But it could be that the plant is also a model of efficiency compared to other plants, and the per capita generation is much better than other power generators.

While lowering of all emissions is the goal, what we really need is some sort of public and broad measurement of gas output per work unit. The efficient businesses should get credit, and the wasteful ones a healthy heaping of scrutiny or regulation.

Jun 032007

The WP has a great story on researching human’s altruistic nature called If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural. When we give, it activates a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots — such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman’s experiment — that have been around for a very long time.

The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior.

They also have some interesting bits on how damaged brains react to tests, and how different parts of our brains clash with each other over difficult moral questions. Well worth the read.