Saturday, May 11, 2019

Walk in the Gorge

I love this time of year, and I love this place; just before the Ashely completes it's dash through the hills and starts to spill out on to the plains.

It's ten-thirty when I start my walk and the sun still hasn't crested the sides of the gorge. A muted light filters through the Autumn leaves and a carpet of orange covers the path - still wet from last night's rain. The bell-birds chime heralding the coming sun and I head on up, hoping to meet the sun coming down.

Those extraverted poplars have already stripped off. While others, more bashful, are still slowly undressing. Across the river the modest evergreens watch on; shocked perhaps by this display of deciduous daring.


Further up I find the sun shamelessly playing among the leaves like a five-year-old in gumboots. I busy myself looking and composing, carefully capturing the light before it moves on. Only later wondering why I didn't pause to let my boots kick through the pile of leaves; to wind back the clock sixty-five years ...

... But I think I know why; alone here with only the sun, the birds, the half-naked trees, there's a quiet magic in the air, crackling like static, demanding that the spell not be broken. There is nothing I can add to this. It is gift.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Gemini turns one

So, a whole year of daily Gemini PDA usage; time for an update.

Planet Computers'  Gemini PDA has been my sole phone, communications and portable computing solution for a whole year. In that time, it has met my expectations and more - I am well pleased with my purchase. But there are some qualifications, largely in software, support and Linux. But first, the hardware:


Hardware
There is one overriding reason to buy the Gemini - the clamshell design with a 'proper' mechanical keyboard. I am writing this review on the Gemini. The keyboard is a solid performer, if rather too small for ten-finger touch typing. I have found that the best and fastest input is from the use of only three or four fingers and thumbs. It's not touch typing but it achieves the best balance between speed and accuracy and makes the Gemini keyboard a joy to use.

The clamshell design has stood up well to many openings and closings every day and seems to perform just as well as when it came out of the box. My only criticism being the sharpness of the metal edges around the closure points (once bitten, twice shy). The case has worn well and, although it is obviously not new, it is free from any major scratches and blemishes, despite sharing my pocket daily with sundry other metal objects.

Other users, however, have reported issues with cracked hinges and less than optimal keyboards. It is hard to pin down the reasons for this - perhaps there is manufacturing variability and perhaps differences in how the device is handled. I can only report on my own experience, which is very good.

Software
Planet Computers software is another matter. Notes, Data, Agenda, Airmail as well as a number of utilities come with the Gemini. Personally, I don't think that Planet Computers have the resources necessary to develop good software. The applications tend to be clunky clones of old Psion software and in my view are, quite frankly, best avoided. Fortunately, there are many Android apps to choose from which perform very well on the Gemini, and much better than the Planet versions.

Many people bought into the Gemini on the promise of Linux compatibility. They have been mostly disappointed. Linux is available on the Gemini, but it is reported as awkward and incomplete (I don't use it myself). Having previously spent a lot of time with Linux, my feeling was, and still is, that Linux is largely for hobbyists,  hackers, servers and black-box systems. If companies like Canonical struggle to produce an open-ended, consumer-grade Linux OS, then there is no hope for a little company like Planet Computers. Try Linux if you like tinkering, otherwise just stick with Android.

Mostly, Android runs well on the Gemini. But Planet seems to contract out their Android integration to a less than wonderful company. Android updates are best avoided on first release. Expect to wait a couple of weeks after release, until other (braver) users are reporting that it updates and runs ok. While my Gemini runs well on Android, in the last year I have also experienced loss of functionality on the silver button for several weeks and Google Maps ceasing to operate for a while. These were addressed eventually, but I won't be rushing to update to Android Oreo until I hear that the road is clear.

Support
Planet Computers suffer from poor communications and patchy support. They let issues fester before making any public statements about them (Apple do this too). They over promise on dates and regularly under deliver. Support seems spotty; some users report being very happy, while others can't get any response at all from suppport. All this could be put down to Planet Computers being a startup. But, two years down the track, things should be getting better and there is no evidence that it is.

If you are likely to need hand-holding or have high expectations of any company you do business with then you may want to avoid Planet Computers - at least based on current evidence.

Conclusion
I like my Gemini. It fits my style of working perfectly and is the natural successor to the Psion PDAs and Nokia Communicators of the early 2000s. I have the next version (the Cosmo Communicator) on order so that should tell you how pleased I have been with the hardware. Would I suggest it for my non-technical family members? Probably not; it does occasionally require some basic troubleshooting to deal with, or work around, a software issue. If you aren't comfortable with that then the Gemini might be best avoided.

To keep things in context; there are some downsides (mainly software reliability) but for me, they are outweighed by the considerable upsides - it fits my lifestyle and, quite frankly, there is nothing else available that can come close to replacing it. I hope that the Cosmo Communicator is at least as good as my Gemini.

Monday, May 6, 2019

One big adventure

Since the last post, Annette and I have had a small holiday and I have turned a vase. We tend to take small holidays - just a few days at a time - long enough to see and do something different, but short enough not to miss the familiar comforts of home.

A few hours drive got us to Mosgiel, near Dunedin where we had a comfortable eco cabin in the middle of nowhere. We were last in Dunedin when Bethany was having her spine straightened (about fourteen years ago) so a visit was well overdue. While there, we took the train up the Taieri Gorge and the Queen of Hearts found her throne at Larnach Castle.


The Otago Settlers Museum was well worth a visit and is a very affordable family venue with plenty for young people to see and do as well as a remarkable zero entry fee. We also enjoyed mooching around the railway station - a remarkable witness to the affluence of Dunedin in the 1900s.


Dinner with the Dunedin Prattleys rounded off the trip and the next day had us heading North towards home where, back in the shed, the lathe awaited a fresh piece of wood. Which, eventually, gave birth to this Kwila Vase. This is my second Kwila piece and I really like this timber - it is very heavy and coarse-grained, and working it feels almost like turning soft metal rather than wood.


When it's all stripped down, life is an adventure. Whether its a road trip, turning a piece of wood, making images, or simply learning something new - it's all one big adventure. I like that. Tomorrow, of course, there is another adventure waiting at the office. (It's true, I tell you. It really is!)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Green house, blue

Eventually it had to happen; after 25 years in the green house it was way past time for a lick  (or  two) of paint. Wattyl call it "Scandinavian Grey" - I call it pale blue. Whatever it's called, it's a nice facelift for the southernmost outpost of the Ford clan. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Light in the darkness


After Friday's massacre in Christchurch, I wanted to lose myself for a while in some wood. I started a bowl but, somewhere along the way, I began to think 'candle'.

Also, along the way, I began to see something on the news that I have never seen before - I began to see reports of masses of people standing up in public and saying, in various ways, "No!" Not just in Christchurch, nor just New Zealand, but around the world people were coming out and joining together to proclaim their "No!" Human beings don't do this they said, this is not what being human is about. To be human is to care - deeply. To be human is to love and have compassion. To be human is to weep with those who experience loss - those left grieving.

In all my years I can't recall such a worldwide outpouring of humanity - this is the light of the world. This is the light that cannot be put out, this is the light that pushes back against the darkness of hate.

It took the darkness of a massacre to reveal the light, but the light is burning; may it never flicker.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Acorn box

Turning a lidded box was the next challenge. A box is like turning two small bowls and making them fit together. Depending upon the use, the lid may be loose, snug or tight. My preferred fit is when you can lift the whole box by the lid, but a slight pull will release the lid with a satisfying 'pop'. Enter box No. 2, the "acorn box" (Box No.1 was a test piece).
Acorn box
As with all the other projects, time spent on YouTube watching the way others make a box is invaluable. It's no substitute for doing it yourself, but understanding the process before you begin saves making many simple mistakes. Anyway, what was a 100mm piece of beech firewood, has become a 80mm diameter by 170mm tall, acorn box. (The acorn used as a model is inside.)

Acorn box and acorn

I'm finding that there is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of would-be firewood and working it into something that looks and feels good. Beech has an inner beauty that only comes to light when you start removing the bark, shaping it and putting a gloss on the new surface. It's like creating a random collision between the natural flow of the wood-grain and the deliberate shape of the object. At the end of the day, you might have something that looks good, but you know that your part has simply been to uncover what was there while trying hard not to spoil it.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bowl No.3

Picture to the contrary, bowl No.3 is not yet finished. I turned this one while the wood was still wet, which was nice turning, but the bowl is now in the process of drying and reshaping its self. It's lost over 10% of its weight in the three days since it came off the lathe and, when it is done, it'll be out with the sandpaper again to finish it off. I think that the final shape will be more rugby ball than football, but I do like the Black Beech figuring with the dark heartwood.
Bowl No.3
What would have been Bowl No.4, died. It was going to be a small winged bowl but a catch, during hollowing, had it escape the chuck and break one of its wings in a crash landing. Perhaps a winged bowl was just a tad ambitious for No.4. or perhaps I just need to be more careful!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Bowl No. 2

Bowl No.1 is probably worth about $2.50, which is roughly the value of the loose change it currently contains. It also has some torn grain and a nick in the rim where it hit the floor after I failed to catch it when it came off the glue-block. Bowl no.1 was a learning experience.

Bowl No.2 - 185cm
Bowl No.2, is in another class; not perfect by any means but, for something originally out of the firewood pile, it has a certain Pygmalion simplicity and charm. It was, initially, a rather gnarly piece of burr which had the lathe going walkabout, until the out of balance bits got cut away - all a bit scary really.

I've come to the conclusion that woodturning is like playing the guitar - fairly easy to do, but very hard to do well - I'm still in the easy part; rather surprised that something recognisable has come off the lathe, but beginning to wonder how long it will be before I stop creating pieces with so many imperfections.

Yesterday, next winter's firewood got delivered. So the woodpile is restocked and I noticed several pieces of nicely coloured Black Beach. Not sure how it will turn but I think I can feel bowl No. 3 coming soon.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Firewood at 1,400rpm

Actually, it was only 750rpm when the wood was all angles and the chips were flying, but it soon got to be round and the speed went up.

Looking back, it seems rather odd that I managed to get to 70 years old without having ever turned a piece of wood on a lathe. But there you go, having given away most of my woodworking gear when I got sick and didn't think I would ever get the chance to use it again, my new lease on life has seen me get an old lathe to play with. One grotty piece of firewood, a fist full of revs and a brand new carbide cutter later, and I have a woodworking mallet (all rather meta, perhaps?)

As a first effort, I'm quite pleased with the result. It's probably the most expensive mallet in the world at the moment, and I have no idea what wood it is made from (firewood?) but it looks good and it felt good in the hand when I cut it off the lathe.

And I discovered something else, woodturning is quite a therapeutic process; almost meditative. It demands your absolute full focus - firstly to manage the tools, secondly to achieve the form you want and third to keep safe. (Not that woodturning is dangerous in the way that jumping out of an aeroplane is dangerous. But wood, turning at speed, can do a lot of damage if it comes loose, so protective headgear is a constant reminder of the risk.) Anyway, I best go and rummage in the woodpile again and see if I can find a bowl, or a platter or a lidded box.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Topaz JPEG to RAW AI

I’m a Topaz fan, but Topaz are over-hyping their latest product, “JPEG to RAW AI”. It’s a deceptive title which has a lot to do with marketing and very little to do with reality. The program does try to make the best of a file in the JPG format, but does it create a RAW file? Emphatically not. Not even close.

This is a shame because, after forcing myself to ignore the hype and stay with the testing, I did find a program which is useful, even though it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Here’s a look at what it can do.

Sometimes, all you have is a JPG file and no amount of wishful thinking or regret will get you the RAW file that you wish for. Some of us develop strategies to get the best out of these JPEG files, some just give up and go take another picture. But now, JPEG to RAW AI does bring something extra to the party. Whether it is extra enough to be worth paying nearly US$100 for is another question.

I did tests; lots of tests. Here is one test that is fairly indicative of them all. The original JPG file was well exposed and taken at a low ISO. Nevertheless, the results are not that pretty - this is a screenshot of a portion of the picture at 200% magnification. As you can see, it’s fairly ‘gritty’ with both JPEG artefacts and noise. On an arbitrary quality scale of 0-5, I’m going to score this at the bottom = ‘0’ (the best sample will score a ‘5’). (You may need to view the pictures larger to see the differences.)

In the second screen-shot, I applied just enough noise reduction to remove the ‘grit’. I used Topaz DeNoise 6 on a fairly low setting and then added a bit of sharpening. It’s better, the grit has gone, but now the grass is turning to mush. This is the typical noise reduction tradeoff and, depending on your personal preference, may raise the quality score to 1 or maybe a 2.

The third screenshot is what I usually do with JPEG files, I use Topaz AI Gigapixel to reduce the file size by 50% which removes most of the grit, and then enlarge by 200% which restores some clean detail using Topaz’s AI algorithms. Finally, a touch of DeNoise 6 deals with any small amount of remaining ‘grit’ while also taking the edge off of AI Gigapixel’s aggressive sharpening. The result is much better all around but, at 200% magnification, some ‘staircasing’ is evident and the very finest of detail has been lost - this is almost invisible at normal viewing magnification. For me, this jumps the quality score up to about a 4 and produces a usable file

Finally, I run JPEG to RAW AI and again, because this deals with JPEG artefacts but not actual noise, I have to add a touch of DeNoise 6, just as I did with the other samples. This deals with all the ‘grit’ in the original file, shows no ‘staircasing’ and retains the finest of detail. This is the best of all the four tests and therefore sets the upper bar of the score table at 5.

Topaz also claim an improvement in highlight and shadow recovery. Quite frankly, I could find no evidence of this beyond that which anyone can get from converting a JPEG file to a 16 bit TIFF before attempting the recovery - and you don’t need expensive software to do that.

All this creates a dilemma; JPEG to RAW AI does do a very good job but I already have AI Gigapixel and can get most of the way there without spending another US$100 on a new piece of software (which, by the way, takes several minutes to process a 20Mb JPEG file). If I can get ⅘ of the improvement without spending a cent more, then is JPEG to RAW AI worth its rather high price for that last little step? Probably not.

And, Topaz, please drop this JPEG to RAW nonsense - it’s just embarrassing and makes you look silly.