25 December 2004

Santa's new transport

Santa's finally upgraded his transport, but perhaps he should have chosen something a little bigger! Merry Christmas from eebahgum!

small SantaGo to eebahgum!

18 December 2004

eebahgum's recent overhaul

No DHTML menu at left? Click here to open eebahgum! in a new window.

Over the last two days eebahgum! has undergone a major overhaul. I was very keen to implement categories as a way to arrange my various rants, but such functionality is not native to Blogger as it is to, say, Movable Type. To replicate that concept I've created a number of category pages in a separate blog with similar formatting, and done a lot of linking back to individual post pages. Now when I sit at the keyboard I find myself typing "a href=" without even thinking.

The only immediately obvious change is the floating DHTML menu that you should see to the left of the page which links to each of the category pages, and also gives you a global way of returning 'home'. This is all a bit of a work in progress, but I'm quite happy with the result so far and welcome your feedback.

I've also added a fair amount of new content, especially in the Weird Words archive. Some of you might recognise my weird words as being adaptations of the Word for the Week email series which I wrote a little while back. What the heck, I still like them, and will be posting more of them, as well as new words, regularly.

Now I think it's time for a little lie down.Go to eebahgum!

Review: A feather on the breath of God

bingenHildegard von Bingen was one of the greatest women of history. Born at the end of the 11th century and living into her 80s, Hildegard became Abbess of the nunnery at Bingen, but she was a person of many talents. Theology, music and poetry were amongst them, but she also became a famous woman of medecine and science, and as her fame grew she became advisor to kings and popes. She was also a talented brewer, and apparently the first person ever to add hops to beer. Then, perhaps because of the sexism of her society, and most of those since, she was largely forgotten until about 25 years ago, when her mystical writings started once again to become popular, followed by her music.

This is the CD that in 1982 started the Hildegard of Bingen musical revival, and still ranks amongst the finest early music CDs ever recorded. It's the perfect blend of superb music, performance and recording. It is apparently still the best-selling CD in the Hyperion catalogue, and one listen will tell you why.

I was entranced the first moment I put this on the CD player, and have remained so for the more than 20 years it has been in my collection. As my beloved Emma Kirkby's voice floats gently over the opening 'Columba Aspexit' I am transported to a better place. Okay, give me some literary license here--I really love this.

There seem to be two basic approaches to Hildegard's music. One is to sing it like a performance work, to increase the drama by emphasising the speech rhythm and exploring the dynamic range. The other is to deliver it in a more liturgical manner, with the emphasis on serenity and looking inward. The Gothic Voices in this CD favour the latter approach, and the other major Hildegard interpretors, Sequentia, seem to favour the former.

Which approach works best rather depends on the material, and Hildegard's corpus is vast. The material on this CD is very much liturgical, and the Gothic voices understated readings, focusing on phrase and melisma, work beautifully. Whilst Emma will always be the highlight for me, her associated artists are also of the highest calibre, in particular Emily van Evera (sop) and Margaret Philpott (alto).

I think Sequentia's more dramatic approach works well when they are recording Hildegard's more declamatory music, such as passion plays and so on.

'Feather on the breath of God' is a lovely sounding disk. There's a delicious ambience and space around instruments and voices, the stereo image is rock solid, and the voices are clear and articulate.

But ultimately what really makes this disk stand out is the music. Here is early music which sticks in your head, which you'll be humming and trying to remember in the shower. Astonishing stuff.Go to eebahgum!

[This article first appeared on epinions]

17 December 2004

Review: SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash cards

Sandisk Extreme CF cardsIt's pushing 100°F in the Adelaide shade today. In nine days I'll be on a plane heading for Poland and I'm likely to see sub-zero temperatures. Those sort of temperature extremes take a toll on digital devices, and memory cards can be particularly vulnerable.

SanDisk have responded to this challenge with their 'Extreme' range of memory cards. Not only are they tested in temperatures ranging from -13 to +185°F, they are all shock and vibration resistant. This is achieved by coating all the innards with a layer of silicone which SanDisk call 'industrial strength RTV'. That stands for Room Temperature Vulcanised, by the way, and is the only significant difference between the Extreme Cards and the slightly less pricey SanDisk Ultra II range.

So are they any good? Based on the evidence of my 512 Mb Compact Flash (CF) card, the answer is a resounding 'yes'. This is the fastest CF card I have used and has performed without a hiccup so far. The silicone coating and temperature rating certainly give me a nice warm feeling, although I have to admit I've never seen a CF card fail except by rank carelessness during insertion (not by me, I hasten to add).

Cards in the Extreme range will set you back about twice the price of equivalent 'ordinary' cards and are available in sizes up to 4 Gig. If you work in strange environments or are simply concerned about having the most reliable cards available, then they're a no-brainer. I'd still recommend buying two cards half the size you need rather than one huge one. That way you can keep shooting if one fails or disappears. And although these cards are fast, SanDisk have just released the Extreme III range which are faster still for only a few more dollars.

QUALITY: 5 blackpuddings VALUE: 3 blackpuddings
VERDICT: Pricey, but fast, and the only choice if data integrity is important to you or you work in extreme conditions. Get an Extreme III if you really need speed.Go to eebahgum!

12 December 2004

Hey, digicam manufacturers, give us some security!

beagleboysAlong with laptop computers and cellphones, digital cameras are surely one of the most stolen 'personal accessories'. Cellphones have IMEI numbers, SIM card locks and passwords. Computers have operating system passwords and BIOS level protection, and biometric security devices such as fingerprint scanners are currently coming onto the market. Laptops and cellphones are still stolen in vast numbers, probably because thieves know that most owners don't use the security features available, but at least owners are being offered options.

But what are digital camera manufacturers offering by way of security features? Absolutely nothing, it would seem. How hard would it be, as a bare minimum, to password protect the memory card? This would allow the camera to be used without interruption, but require a password when the camera is connected to a PC to download images or when the card is placed in a card reader. On more advanced cameras, biometric devices could surely be incorporated into the hand grips or shutter release buttons. Canon already has technology to automatically focus on your desired subject by monitoring your retina. Could this not easily be used as a security device?

I don't know the perfect answer here, but I have yet to hear anyone even asking the question. I'd be interested in your views, and I encourage you to contact your favourite digicam manufacturers and get them working on some solutions.

Of course, the best security is some sort of visual deterrent, so that thieves can tell from afar that stealing your equipment is more hassle than it's worth. You can already use such devices as Tracer Tags, which are very effective against loss, and probably somewhat effective against theft. In Australia you can also buy Data Dots which are virtually invisible microdots you put all over your equipment and register with the manufacturer. Stickers then warn would be thieves that the equipment is protected. But any such system is heavily dependent upon a third party staying in business and doing its job properly, which is an unknown.

So it's over to you manufacturers. Give us simple effective security, and a nice big non-removable sticker to tell the world and I won't have to hang on to my camera quite as hard each night.Go to eebahgum!

10 December 2004

Ho hum...obligatory BlogExplosion blog

be_logoSeems like every second blog is talking about BlogExplosion. You know the kind of thing——"Hey, you should check out BE. It's really cool. I'm getting hundreds of hits a week. You should sign up. You really should. Blah-de-blah-de-blah".

And of course, that's all basically true. BlogExplosion drives half a person to eebahgum for every blog I visit. That half a person has to hang around for at least 30 seconds before moving on, but of course, he or she doesn't have to read a single word, especially if using a nifty tabbed browser like Firefox.

So when is a hit not a hit? Ultimately the acid test of whether anyone's reading is still the number of people who leave comments, subscribe or blogroll me. BlogEx has helped with all those a little, which is good, and worthy of recommendation, but I'd be surprised if more than 10% of BlogExers actually read as far as my banner. That's not a criticism of BlogEx users, just an observation of the way the system works.

I admit it, I'm a traffic whore. I like to go and check my stats 37,000 times a second, and when I see some hits I get a little welling of excitement. But then when I see that they're mostly from BlogEx, it's always a little deflating.

If there's a moral to this blog, it's this: by all means sign up for BlogExplosion, and browse with whatever enthusiasm takes your fancy, but if you really want to support the Blogosphere (and therefore your own blog) then you can do that best by scattering your erudite comments about with abandon. Anything else is ultimately a 'get hits quick scheme'.Go to eebahgum!

8 December 2004

What's so great about PictBridge?

pictbridge_logoDigicam manufacturers all rave about how their latest cameras are 'PictBridge' enabled. Yup, you can print directly from your camera to your PB enabled printer without turning on your computer for a single solitary moment, not even a little bit. Sure my computer's on all the time anyway. Sure, I am completely opposed to plugging cables into my expensive digicam because once you stuff up the weedy little connectors your entire camera becomes a paperweight. PictBridge is really exciting technology, right?

Maybe not. In reality, most prints I have seen using PictBridge, frankly, SUCK! Colour accuracy is atrocious and the output is usually slower. And I seem not to be alone in this observation. The Winter 2005 edition (Hey, isn't it still 2004?) of the esteemed photo mag Popular Photography and Imaging tests 6" x 4" colour printers and finds, surprise, surprise, that PictBridge "colour accuracy was noticeably lower in comparison with prints made using a computer connection".

Consider also that most digicam owners probably have a computer, so they don't really need direct printing anyway, and we seem to be looking at a technology that's as useful as the proverbial ashtray on a motorbike, or perhaps the digital zoom!

That being the case, why are camera and printer manufacturers plugging PB so much? And why does the very same copy of Popular Photography, in its group test of 8 Megapixel cameras, list PictBridge compatibility in the list of 'hot' features for every single camera in the test? Anyone buying an 8 Megapixel camera is surely interested in quality, and PB compatibility would therefore be a low priority. Mind you, buyers of 8 MP cameras should generally be buying digital SLRs anyway, but that's another blog.Go to eebahgum!

7 December 2004

Come to a Christmas thingy!

This is a show I'm singing in tomorrow (Wednesday) night. Why not come along, particularly if you happen to live in Adelaide.

OSC flyerGo to eebahgum!

4 December 2004

Shock results with long zoom digicams from Panasonic, Minolta and Canon

Minolta Z3 Canon S1 IS Panasonic FZ20
When it comes to cameras, size does matter. I've always had a thing for big lenses, with large apertures and long zooms. So it's with great interest that I've been following the various new long zoom digicams with anti-shake mechanisms. I've already commented on how impressed I was with the Minolta Z3 in my first play, but the more I read, the more I was convinced that the new Panasonic FZ20 was the toy for me. 12x optical, 5 MP, substantial hand grip and anti-shake. Almost as good as an SLR/fantastic value, the reviewers said, and I knew they were right.

That was until I played with one in the company of Sam from Ted's Cameras in Adelaide, never known to be backward with her photographic opinion. She was clearly unconvinced by the FZ20. She felt it was too slow to focus and stabilise the image, and the images were not as shake-free as the older and cheaper 3 MP Canon S1 IS. Well, that's not what I'd read in all the reviews, so I set out to prove her wrong.

And I failed. I got clicking with the Canon, the Panasonic and the 4 MP Minolta Z3, and after photographing both internal and external subjects I came to the following conclusions:
  1. The Canon IS system consistently gave less blurred results than the other two cameras, despite the lower resolution. This was very noticeable indoors in average lighting, less so in daylight.
  2. The Canon was also very much faster to acquire focus, with little or no hunting. By contrast the Panasonic hunted up and down fairly slowly before every shot, and the Minolta seemed to flitter with indecision several times before making its mind up. The Panasonic was frankly the most annoying in this regard.
  3. The Pana won in the image noise stakes, and at its best had more detail, but so it should being a more modern 5 MP camera.
  4. Overall, each of the anti-shake systems gave better results on than off, but the benefits were smaller than I'd imagined, and quite inconsistent so you never really knew how much benefit you'd get from shot to shot.
  5. Combine the time taken to focus with the time taken to stabilise, and you end up reducing your certainty of getting the shot you imagined. That tends to offset the advantages.
Well, that was all a bit of a disappointment. The stabilisation systems were clearly not the panacea for all ills I had imagined, and each of the cameras was ultimately fatally flawed. The Canon simply didn't have enough resolution for me, and has too small a screen although it does seem a brilliant thing at the price. The Panasonic was just too slow and the image stabilisation less good, and the Minolta is a cute little package but ultimately too shiny, toy-like and average in its picture taking. Bang for the buck these are all great value, and that Leica lens on the Panasonic is impressive. Any one of them will give you a lot of camera for the money, just bear in mind the issues I have raised and decide whether they are for you.

By now I was a shattered man, and experience tells me the best cure for that is simply to spend more money——a bit of the old 'retail therapy'. So when I learned that Nikon were offering $200 cashback on their SLRs, I broke the bank and ordered a Nikon D70 with 18––70 and 70––300 lenses, duty free. I might have added 60% to my budget but I'll end up with 16.7x optical zoom (out to the equivalent of 450 mm in 35 mm speak), far better pictures, much more versatility, fewer compromises and bigger muscles from carrying the camera bag and tripod.Go to eebahgum!