Monday, 31 December 2007

Books 2007

I don't read as much these days as I used to, but in 2007 I read at least 42 books for the first time, and reread at least 47 books.

Books read for the first time included three autobiographies (Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Fry, C.S. Forester), fifteen novels by Elizabeth Peters, five by Terry Pratchett, two by Poul Anderson, two by Peter Tremayne, and further books by Rudyard Kipling, Michael Kurland, Alexander McCall Smith, Lindsey Davis, Thorne Smith, Christopher Anvil, Frank Muir, J.K. Rowling, L. Sprague de Camp, C.S. Forester, Margery Allingham, and Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner.

Reread books included eighteen by Terry Pratchett, three by Colin Kapp, three by Larry Niven, two by Douglas Adams, two by Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon, two by C.S. Forester, two by Elizabeth Peters, two by Clifford Simak, two by J.R.R. Tolkien, and further books by Jasper Fforde, S.M. Stirling, Michael Kurland, Randall Garrett, J.K. Rowling, Rick Cook, Poul Anderson, H. Beam Piper, Jack Vance, and Keith Laumer.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Ballet Shoes?

My mother's response to the recent TV version of Ballet Shoes, the 1936 book by Noel Streatfeild:

They'd crammed the whole book into less than 90 minutes and so the opening events, although reasonably authentic, were whizzed through bewilderingly quickly. From then on it got silly. For some reason they hadn't seen fit to engage a double cast of the 3 heroines, so we saw them arriving one by one as orphan babies and the next minute they're strapping teenagers, attending for the first time the theatrical academy which, in the book, was when they were small children. A ballet class was briefly shown, with a load of girls in ridiculous net skirts jumping up and down in the most unballetic fashion. The youngest heroine, Posy, who goes on to be a famous ballerina (ergo the book's title) had obviously never had a ballet lesson in her life and in this drama school there wasn't a single boy to be seen. I lasted till a non-heroine was giving a professional audition, with her teacher saying proudly in the background that she was the most talented girl in the school, and there she was singing excruciatingly and staggering about en pointe like a lame heron. I switched off and went to bed. Incidentally the comedienne Victoria Wood played the girls' nanny, rather well, but they'd given her an enveloping grey wig and one reviewer, who'd seen a preview, commented that she looked like Worzel Gummidge.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Teddy Muhammad

As you probably know, an English teacher was recently arrested and imprisoned in the Sudan for allowing her schoolchildren to name a teddy bear Muhammad (it was the children's choice). Some Sudanese protesters called for her execution.

This sort of thing illustrates a simple fact that all travellers should bear in mind: some countries are relatively safe to live in and some are not. Considering the dismal history of the Sudan ever since independence, and how things are there now, why would any sane person decide to go and live there?

If you go and sit in a lion's cage, it may be horrific when you get eaten by the lion, but it shouldn't be surprising.

In this case the lady was allowed to escape without being eaten by the lion. She was lucky. Some reckless travellers have worse experiences.


John Lennon's song Imagine seems to have lasting popularity, and I heard it lovingly performed by someone else on Spanish television just recently. It has a nice tune. But, considering the lyrics, its popularity has always puzzled me.

He imagined a world without religions, without countries, and without possessions, and invited us to admire it. This is a highly revolutionary manifesto that I'd expect virtually everyone in the world to disagree with in one respect or another; and yet large numbers of people seem attracted by it. Are they actually listening to the words, I wonder?

Myself, I'd welcome a world without religions, but it obviously isn't going to happen any time soon. A world without countries is vaguely attractive in principle, though perhaps unworkable in practice. A world without possessions doesn't strike me as attractive even in principle; I'm a libertarian, not a communist.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Amazon's best music of the decade

Amazon in the USA is offering its own choice of the best music of the decade so far: a top ten in each of 18 categories. This comes to fewer than 180 records, because some records are listed in more than one category.

I see that I own four of its chosen records:

  • Charlie Haden's Nocturne (jazz): excellent
  • Orchestra Baobab's Specialist in all styles (international): not bad, but I think their old albums are better
  • Bebel Gilberto's Tanto tempo (international, Latin, and dance): overrated, but a few pleasant tracks
  • Enya's A day without rain (new age): mediocre, but a few pleasant tracks

Thursday, 18 October 2007

A place in the sun

Today I drove the short distance to Sitges to look for birthday presents for my wife. As I often do, I parked at the far end of Sitges by the Terramar Hotel, and walked the full length of the promenade into town, to get some exercise and some sun.

It's a lovely day in mid-October: under the blue sky the waves wash gently over the golden sands, the palm branches move only slightly in the breeze, and the beaches are dotted here and there with little clusters of sunbathers — the summer crowds are no longer with us. All is bathed in sun and the shade temperature is 23°C. An idyllic scene. A few people are swimming; on a beach near the church, some people are playing volleyball.

Sadly, winter is almost upon us, and we can't really expect this temperature again until May; but there are fine days even in winter, albeit normally somewhat cooler. It's not a bad place to live.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Old boy

I recently started a separate blog for ex-pupils of Stouts Hill School, which I attended between the ages of 9 and 13. Probably of interest only if you were there, or if you have a general interest in boarding schools.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

HDR photography

I feel a bit silly because I've had Adobe's Creative Suite 2 for more than two years, but I've only just discovered the HDR capabilities built into Photoshop CS2.

Most digital photos that we see use three bytes to store each pixel: one byte each for Red, Green, Blue. This is known as 8-bit colour because each colour is represented by 8 bits (one byte).

Many digital cameras and scanners are now capable of providing 16-bit colour: two bytes per colour, or six bytes per pixel.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) consists of 32-bit colour: four bytes per colour, twelve bytes per pixel. Furthermore, the four bytes are used to store a floating-point number, which means that an unlimited range of light intensities can be represented.

This is a nice idea, but cameras and scanners don't yet produce HDR, nor can monitors or printers display it adequately. However, human ingenuity has found ways to make use of it nevertheless.

An HDR image can be created by taking multiple exposures of the same scene using a range of different shutter speeds; Photoshop CS2 (or various other programs) can combine the different exposures into one HDR image.

Photoshop CS2 (or various other programs) can then take this HDR image and reduce it down to a normal 8-bit or 16-bit image, suitable for display or printing, using a clever algorithm to adjust the lighting optimally in each part of the image. This can produce pleasing and sometimes rather strange and uncanny results. To see examples, go to Flickr and search for "HDR". I suggest you then click Most interesting.

Taking multiple exposures is rather a nuisance: you need a good tripod, and if anything moves in the scene you will get blurring or ghosting. Fortunately, the clever algorithm used for HDR can also be applied (with somewhat inferior but still useful results) to a normal 16-bit image. In Photoshop CS2, just convert the image from 16-bit to 32-bit, and then convert it back to 16-bit again using the Local Adaptation option. You'll probably need to display the histogram and make some manual adjustment to get a good result.

Here's an example of a 14-bit scanned negative with Local Adaptation, which (as I understand it) tries to give all parts of the photo a similar level of brightness. I added 15% contrast afterwards to give a more natural effect.

Boats at Orta

Here, for comparison, is the scanned negative without modification:

Boats at Otra (unmodified scan)

You might think you could achieve the same effect just by fiddling with the brightness, contrast, etc., but I tried and I couldn't.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Living with Calvin

Living with our six-year-old son Marc (the same age as Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strips) gives me a better appreciation of the realism underlying Watterson's art.

Our boy is not American, he doesn't go around with a stuffed tiger, and he's not prejudiced against girls. Nevertheless, the similarity to Calvin is occasionally striking, especially at mealtimes, when he's inclined to go off into flights of fantasy and comedy routines — anything rather than eat his food.

Reading Calvin and Hobbes is a good preparation for parenthood. Though you have to wait some years for your baby to grow into the role.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Microsoft Office

Last week I received Microsoft Office Standard 2007 from Amazon UK, and installed Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. I didn't install Outlook because I don't plan to use it: I'm happy with Mozilla Thunderbird.

I have little or no personal use for Excel or PowerPoint, but Excel is needed for work and PowerPoint may be occasionally handy, if only as a viewer for incoming files.

So far I've used Word 2007 a bit and it seems OK. The user interface has changed but it's not too hard to get used to. I'll be gradually migrating my OpenOffice Writer files to Word.

Although I haven't installed Outlook, Microsoft keeps pressing me to install Outlook updates. How can a company be so successful, so rich, and so stupid?

Wednesday, 1 August 2007


I don't have Microsoft Office on my current computer, and I've been using the free OpenOffice suite in its place. I don't use it heavily, but I maintain a number of small files using mainly OpenOffice Writer (the equivalent of MS Word). Until now, it's seemed to work well enough, though it's not 100% compatible with MS Word.

Today I was adding to one of these files, which consists of a multi-column table, when I suddenly realized that the last column was missing. I haven't deleted that column; it's just inexplicably disappeared.

I'm deeply shocked. A program that can lightly throw my data away isn't a program I can trust in future. I'll have to migrate my OpenOffice files to some other program and write it out of my future plans. What a nuisance. Especially as I strongly dislike Microsoft.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007


I've been suffering occasional painful leg cramps for years, and in more recent times I've often been disturbed in the night by less painful but annoying foot cramps. Finally, four days ago, I thought of reading Wikipedia on the subject of cramp, and found that cramp can be caused by a variety of things, one of them being not enough salt.

This was interesting, because I know that an excess of salt is harmful, and so for many years I've avoided adding salt to food. What I didn't know was that a salt deficiency can also be harmful.

Wikipedia tells me that the recommended daily intake of salt is less than a teaspoonful. So, for the last four nights I've been taking a small amount of salt dissolved in water before going to bed. So far, it seems to work: I haven't had any more cramps. Magic.

Friday, 25 May 2007


In July I bought a cordless keyboard and mouse from Logitech. Not long afterwards, some of the letters on the keytops started fading out, and by now a number of the keys are completely blank. I can manage, but it's rather annoying, so I finally called Logitech in Madrid to complain about it.

I was rather surprised to encounter a nice young lady who, without any argument, promised to send me a replacement keyboard (and mouse). Of course it would have been better if the original keyboard had been faultless, but customer support like this seems worth mentioning.

Saturday, 12 May 2007


This past week I joined the photo-sharing site Flickr and began uploading a small selection of my photos to it. The site offers good facilities for organizing, displaying, and sharing photos. So far I'm rather impressed.

Monday, 7 May 2007

In search of the perfect playlist

Here's my current idea for the perfect iTunes playlist.

  1. Make a playlist of my 200 least recently played tracks.
  2. Make another playlist of my 200 least often played tracks, excluding those played in the last two weeks.
  3. Make a third playlist consisting of the above two playlists added together. This is the one I actually use.