Sunday, August 19, 2018

Gemini at three months

Three months is long enough for the excitement of a new gadget to wear off and the reality of life with the Gemini to make itself known. The first month of Gemini ownership was not all plain sailing; after all, this was a version one, crowd-funded device. However, my expectations were suitably calibrated and, with that in mind, I can honestly say that the Gemini has exceeded those expectations. Now that the initial problems have been resolved, the device has become my day-to-day phone and mini-laptop and I see no reason why that shouldn’t continue well into the future.
Gemini alongside old Psion stylus (doesn't work with Gemini!)
Let me say upfront, that I use the stock Android firmware as delivered (and subsequently updated) by Planet Computers. I have not attempted to root, dual boot or install Linux, Sailfish et al. My days of playing with Linux are long gone – life is too short. Others who have been down the Linux route have reported various degrees of success and failure – one or two with apparently ‘bricked’ devices. Planet Computers have indeed delivered a dual-booting device, but what the user chooses to dual boot into is largely up to them and, as it used to say on ancient maps, "here be dragons".

So, leaving Linux out of the equation, let’s deal with the two biggest issues that people raise in relation to the Gemini as a phone replacement – there’s no external screen and only an optional low-quality external camera.

If you are someone who walks around with your phone in hand watching the screen and occasionally thumb typing on the move, then the Gemini is probably not going to work for you. It works for me because I like to keep my phone in a pocket and take it out only when needed. To stop having to get my phone out at every beep, ding or chime, I wear a smartwatch and have done so ever since Pebble. In effect, my watch is an external screen and so I don’t miss not having one on the Gemini - in fact, I prefer it this way.
Gemini and external screen (Amazfit Bip smartwatch)
When it comes to the poor camera options, I am similarly unconcerned. At the end of the day, no phone is able to do what a good camera can, and I have always carried a camera even when my phone did have one. Perhaps what I do miss (a bit) is the ability to scan receipts and other paperwork with a phone camera and a smart Android app like Scanbot (I don’t have the Gemini’s optional camera). So, how much the lack of a camera (or the low quality of the add-on camera) affects you will depend upon your use

So, parking those two issues; what’s the Gemini like to use on a daily basis? I use the Gemini both as a phone and as a mini laptop. Because of the excellent keyboard, I find myself doing things on the Gemini that I would never have attempted on my previous phones (Samsung Notes). So, I am composing longer emails on the go, drafting reports and longer articles when the ideas come and researching things on the go that would otherwise have required a laptop. This means that I make far greater demands of the Gemini than I used to of my previous phones. This has implications for the battery – although the Gemini battery is larger than most phone batteries, I find that it lasts a similar amount of time and I charge it a bit almost every day.

Receiving a phone call is as easy as checking my watch (to see who is calling) and then pressing the silver button on the side to take the call (without opening the Gemini). Making a call can either be done open and on speakerphone or closed using the silver button and speaking; "call {name} on their mobile". Whichever way works for you.

Durability has been fine. As I say, when not in use, it lives in my pocket all day, every day, for three months and is not showing any signs of distress from its intimate liaisons with keys and coins. The finish is still pristine and, despite many open and close movements every day, the hinge mechanism is not showing any signs of fatigue. I removed the manufacturer’s screen protector after the first week and, once cleaned, the screen is still free of any marks or blemishes. The keyboard has been equally robust, feeling the same today as it did on day one. There is no apparent wear on the keycaps or cap markings. My only complaint of the hardware is that, when open, the edges of the hinge cover are exposed and they are sharp enough to draw blood if I am not careful around them.

On the software front, I don't use the Gemini's "Notes" app nor the "Agenda" app. While they are modelled after the old Psion apps with the same names, the world has moved on since last century and there are apps that are more polished and suit the Gemini much better - JotterPad for notes and Google Calendar for appointments, tasks and reminders. Gmail, serves well as an email client, and Google's docs and sheets do duty for heavier document lifting. Some other apps only work properly in portrait mode and, rather than force them into landscape mode, I find it much easier to simply rotate the Gemini and hold it like a book.
Gemini with full-sized keyboard and library card for size comparison.
There are a couple of minor irritants that remain:
• Bluetooth shuts down at least once every day for no apparent reason. My watch tells me and I turn it back on again.
• The supplied fast charger overheats the battery (I now use a normal 2 Amp charger instead).

I consider issues like these to be part of the ‘crowdfunding experience’ and neither of them is a ‘show stopper’. As an early adopter, I paid about US$200 less than the current retail price of the Gemini and feel well pleased with the deal. Planet Computers seem to have done a remarkably good job of delivering the first version Gemini and, unless something far superior comes along, I expect to be carrying the Gemini in my pocket for a few years yet.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Go on, surprise me if you can ...

I'm sure that every photographer has experienced coming home with what you think should be a really nice shot, working on it for an hour or two, then leaving it while you go and do something else for a while. When you return to the computer, it just hits you - "Nah, that's not it." The picture might be ok but it just isn't as impactful as you had thought.

It's hard to self-critique and walking away allows me to see the work afresh when I return. Having it displayed on a large 43" TV screen, allows it to surprise me (or not) with its presence in the room. This has been part of my workflow for several years and many most shots get culled at this second look.

Today the opposite happened. I had been out shooting around the 'hood because I had an idea I wanted to play around with. No high expectations, just some regular frames that I could experiment with. Came home and processed them and then went out to tea with Annette and Bethany, leaving one frame on the screen. When we got home, it almost lept off the screen at me (it may not leap at you, we are all different)!

Perhaps part of the attraction for me is that they are 'my' hills. They have been the backdrop to a large part of my life, they are what I see when I lift up my eyes and what I have come home to for the last 24 years. Personal aspects aside, the picture also ticks a bunch of photographic boxes that will mean it gets added to my short list of 'keepers'.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Completing the circle

Victoria Park - winter in Rangiora (visible spectrum)
When I first started on the photographic journey, some sixty years ago, it was all black and white. Colour photography was in its infancy and was not suitable for processing at home. By my twenties, that had all changed and colour photography seemed to be pushing black and white into the history books.

Holy Innocents, Amberley (Infrared)
For some photographers though, black and white was still 'proper' photography and for others, like myself who worked mainly in colour, black and white lurked quietly in the background biding its time.

Annette @ Cafe 51 (visible spectrum)
As I look back to the beginning of this year, I can see black and white beginning to make a reappearance and, in the last couple of months, colour seems to have taken a leave of absence. Of course, I am talking about finished pictures; my cameras have not lost the ability to shoot in colour and every shot starts out life as a colour photograph. But once processed, whether it is a normal spectrum or an infrared spectrum photograph, it seems to gravitate to black and white.

Roof-lines, Oxford (Infrared)
Perhaps it's because we are in winter and black and white suits the starkness of the season, but I think there is more to it than that. I think it has something to do with returning to the beginning, bearing all the things learned on the larger journey. It's not so much about leaving colour behind, as it is about allowing all the things learned with colour to speak in black and white.

St Andrew's, Oxford (Infrared)
Who knows, perhaps next month it will be colour again. Or perhaps not.

Amberley Beach (visible spectrum)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Ice and Fire

Fractals produced with JWildfire and processed as 3D images in Pano2VR and Insta360 Studio. Image enhancements using Affinity Photo and Topaz Studio with final video production in ProShow Gold. It's been an interesting journey to get this far and this is the first output that's been worth posting.

I hope you enjoy this journey through a fractal sphere.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Gemini and Bip. A marriage made in ... China.

I bought an Amazfit Bip to go with my new Gemini PDA. The Amazfit displays all the notifications from the Gemini (including who's calling) without having to open the Gemini or take it out of a pocket or bag. Other reasons for choosing the Amazfit include its exceptional battery life, easy to read display and very low cost (about US$60). After a couple of months (it arrived before the Gemini) the Amazfit Bip isn't disappointing.

As a reference, my last watch was a Samsung Gear S2. Before that, a Ticwatch and before that a Pebble Steel 2 and an original Pebble. Functionally, the Amazfit Bip is most like a Pebble 2 watch though, from a few feet, it looks like an Apple watch until you notice that the crown (button) is in the middle of the right side rather than displaced toward the top.

Like the Pebble, the screen is a low-resolution reflective colour display covered with Corning Gorilla Glass. The screen is the main reason the Bip has such a good battery life. Expect to use about 3% of battery a day, without GPS tracking or heartrate monitoring. Be aware though that loading any of the custom watch faces from the phone app will severely increase battery consumption; even when that face isn't active on the watch (don't ask me why; I don't know). Unlike a lot of expensive watches, the display is perfectly readable in bright sunlight and has a good back-light for darker situations.

If you are more of an active type, the watch supports activity tracking for running, walking, cycling and treadmill. Activity tracking will use the GPS (except treadmill) and will monitor your heart rate. Stats will be synchronised with the phone app. I am not a sporty person, but I am getting older and trying to avoid 'death by rocking chair' - the Bip is ideal for measuring and prompting for this basic fitness level and beyond.

As well as activity tracking and notifications, the Bip shows weather, alarm, timer, and stopwatch. It is also exceptionally light at only 32g. If you are worried about the light, polycarbonate, construction then consider that you can get more than five Amazfit Bips for the price of one Apple watch. My Bip is two month's old now and there isn't a mark on it but, at US$60, it's very replaceable.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Gemini has landed

After months of waiting, my Gemini finally left the production-line and landed on my desk.
I think that, like many others, when I first heard about the Gemini my thoughts ran along the lines of, "great, now I can write on a phone without losing half the screen, wrestling with swipe input, and having autocorrect get me into trouble." Well, after forty-eight hours with the Gemini, that is exactly what I have found, but also that there is something more significant going on - a sort of paradigm shift in how I think about and use my new 'phone'.

I thought that the Gemini was a phone with a keyboard. I was wrong; it is a mini-laptop that also acts as a phone and message centre. That might sound like semantics, but it actually points to a paradigm shift in thinking and use. The Gemini is not just a phone replacement; it can replace both phone and laptop when away from home base. The operative word is 'can' because It depends on how you work and what your work entails.

For a few years, I have attempted to use mainly 'cloud' based tools so that I could pretty much work anywhere, on any device that was available. Typically I would use a desktop, one of two laptops (small and large) and a phone. The Gemini is managing to replace both of my laptops and my phone. Which means that I  use a desktop (mainly photography and graphic design) and the Gemini - nothing else is necessary; the Gemini and the desktop cover all the bases.

This is big. It reduces my reliance on so many separate devices and the Gemini is sufficiently capable that I have even found myself using it to write when sitting in front of the desktop - simply because I am doing something else on the desktop screen - the Gemini and its keyboard are that good. Yes, I am only forty-eight hours in and the Gemini still has to prove its reliability but, once that is confirmed, I'll probably be moving a couple of laptops along to a new home.

Read about the Gemini here and here.

Monday, April 2, 2018

360 - A walk in the park?

So, I bought a 360 camera. Not top of the range but good enough to produce more than acceptable results at an affordable price. The “MiSphere” arrived a couple of weeks ago and, with fifty plus years of conventional photography behind me, I hadn’t realised how steep the learning curve was going to be. Old dogs and new tricks is a phrase that immediately came to mind.

It’s not so much the age of the dog (though that’s undeniable) but the number of new tricks involved. Starting from the most basic - how do you hold a camera that can see ‘everything’? Without taking evasive action, every shot can be a ‘selfie’ (I’ve always hated selfies). If the sun is out, it’s in your picture - with all the attendant issues that sun-strike produces - especially for fisheye lenses.

And those things are just for starters, wait until you get your photos into the digital darkroom; that’s when the fun really begins. If you thought that Lightroom and Photoshop were more than enough, then think again - you’ll need to master spherical stitching, tools heavily reliant on the JPG format and EXIF injection so that your 360s show up properly on the web.

And don’t get me started on 360 video …

For an old photographer, 360 photography is fun; if only because it’s like starting out on the photographic journey all over again. Yes, you still need the old photography knowledge but applied in ways that hadn’t previously been relevant. Going digital (back in the 2000s) was a big change, but going 360 is a much larger conceptual leap.

A lot of published 360 photography focuses on the weird and wacky, like ‘tiny planet’ shots (above) that can include a complete environment or table of dinner guests. But 360 photography opens up other possibilities, like the selection of multiple pictures from one 360 photo - almost an ‘after the fact’ composition tool. All three pictures on this page, for example, come from a single 360 photo. (An art filter was applied to the third image.)

If you had ever felt that your photographs were getting old and staid, 360 photography could well be the jolt that gets you thinking afresh about taking pictures.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Life laughs, and a forced smile

I don’t drink alcohol. It’s not a religious thing (anymore), I just don’t feel the need for alcohol in order to have a good time. I’m also not pedantic about it, and am able to have a drink if I want to - I think I had a glass of wine a year or two back. All this is to say that alcohol is a non-issue in my life - I can take it or leave it and usually choose to leave it.

It has, therefore, been a source of some mild amusement that my kidney condition has permanently swollen my stomach to the ‘six-month pregnant’ stage. Not that anyone would think that a seventy-year-old man was pregnant (I mention it only for the size comparison). But there is a certain irony in the fact that my body looks as if it might have spent a large part of its life supporting the bar at my local pub.

I have learned to live with the implied criticism occasioned by a distended stomach, and the unspoken disapproval of the athletically inclined. And so it was, with the sort of amusement only found on the far side of “you’re kidding, right?” that I learned that my painfully swollen foot was called “gout”. Yes, that gout - the disease of kings, and often the result of too much beer. Only in this case …

I wouldn’t mind wandering around bearing the marks of a profligate life, only I seem to have missed out on the profligate part. It’s one thing to pay the price for a misspent youth, it’s quite another to apparently pay for one you never had. Then, on the precipice of self-pity, I’m reminded that it is Easter - and that mine is such a tiny, tiny, cross.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Fractal Diaries

It's been a long time - though not unproductive. So here is a short collection of fractals. They don't score very highly for 'fractal purity' but it has been fun 'adulterating' them with other fractals and alien colouring schemes. I hope you enjoy them:
Fractal Forest
Fractal Finger
Ice Forest
Armoured Arachnid
Hot Line

Fractal Reflections
Lava Flow
Sun Totems

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

We call her "Ming" ...

.... probably because we didn’t know how to say “Xiaomi” (actually something like “sh-au-mi” but don’t quote me on that). Anyway, Ming arrived in the middle of October this year so she has been with us for two-and-a-half months now and, despite initially being a little sceptical, I am now a total convert.

Our vacuum cleaner had broken and, rather than buy yet another pushy-sucky-thingy (here’s looking at you Electrolux, Dyson, et al.) it seemed time to try a cleaning robot. Ah, a ‘Roomba’ you are thinking -  but no, I baulk at spending over a thousand dollars on a vacuum, even if it is robotic. In any case, too many reviews said that the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum did a better job and was more intelligent than the Roomba. So we got one from Gear Best at less cost than our last pushy-sucky-thingy. We also bought a cheap ‘stick-vac’ for doing the stairs and any awkward places where Ming couldn’t reach.

Ming spoke Mandarin. We didn’t. For the first few weeks, we communicated with Ming by pressing her ‘on’ button and letting her get on with it. When she spoke to us, we smiled and pretended to understand. We didn’t. But the floor was clean, so we didn’t worry. Eventually, though, it occurred to us that Ming could be saying all sorts of unpleasant things, and we would never know. Was she muttering about slave drivers and when to start the revolution? These things tend to be concerning as you get older - are robots into elder abuse?

So we connected Ming to her Chinese server (we couldn’t understand that either) and she downloaded a firmware update and an English language pack. Now we can understand what Ming says, and realise that our fears were foundless. We can now speak to her on the phone and get her to do a cleanup while we are away from home. Ming is currently claiming to have completed 48 cleanups, cleaned 1,180m2 of floor and taken 1,341 minutes. She even leaves us a little map of where she has cleaned each time, in case we might think she is slacking off and missing bits.
One of Ming's maps.

We highly recommend Ming, though if you want one you can buy your own, we keep Ming locked in the spare room and she’s not allowed out the house.