Friday, 31 January 2020

Riches and influence

So here we are. In about an hour and a half, at 11.00pm tonight, the UK will no longer be part of the European Union. At least not as a legal matter. Now that the ropes are about to be cast off, and we (metaphorically) sail forth into a new era, it all seems something of an anti-climax.

A moment in history, nevertheless. I am looking forward to waking up tomorrow morning as independently British. It doesn't matter to me that the future looks anything but settled and secure. I sense big changes in the national attitude, a rebalancing of status between the various regions of the UK, and a new spirit of cooperation as we rise to challenges we have not had to face for almost fifty years.

It can only do us good; we have got used to having an uncomplicated life, with EU handouts to feather the bed, and EU law to use as a loophole. It was maddening to see some persons misuse wise and humane EU machinery for bad ends. They won't be able to now. And I don't believe that the present government, nor any future government, will take back legal advances in human rights and the protection of minorities. These things are vote-winners anyway. Why fear their loss? There is now a chance to demonstrate to the world that Britain can be excellent in all things. We will need to be, to attract investment and to encourage other nations who may be tempted to backslide.

We can't be a superpower in the economic or military sense; but we can still show leadership in so many ways - climate change included. Indeed, I rather think that 'climate change' will be the chief driver of events in the next fifty years, spurring invention, altering traditional priorities, and enforcing unprecedented global co-operation. In the face of all that is likely to be in store, grand alliances will have to be forged, otherwise we will all just perish in a heat death, after sundry Land Wars and Water Wars. I don't think that will necessarily happen, but I do think 2020 is the tipping-point year for many things, and to my mind it's a prudent thing to be free and able to pursue an independent course.

So in fact Brexit is more important than it might seem. The 2016 vote, now finally made real, will have very profound consequences, and future historians will trace much back to it.

To conclude this post, let me dip into a 1969 Opinion column in the Daily Express, the daily paper my parents read. I wasn't an Express fan. It was always self-consciously on some crusade or other, which the youthful me thought tiresome. It didn't at all reflect my seventeen-year-old point of view - much as the Daily Mail nowadays most certainly does not. But it was the only paper in the house.

I'd kept the centre four pages of the Express from Tuesday October 14th 1969, mainly because of this ad from the Decimal Currency Board:

I doubt if I noticed what the Opinion column had to say at the time, but in view of Brexit it makes interesting reading, giving an insight into right-of centre attitudes a few years before we joined the EU - or the 'Common Market' as it was then:

It says:


Sir Alexander Downer, the Australian High Commissioner, delivers a timely warning on Britain's future. His words should bring a sense of shame to our political leaders of all parties, to commercial and industrial leaders. And to those in the Foreign Office responsible for Britain's long-term strategy.

Sir Alexander says: 'Where I begin to differ from some of my friends and from some London publicists is in their insistence that primarily in Europe lies Britain's future basic prosperity.' Rightly the High Commissioner sees this as 'part of the disease of Little England.' The lesson Sir Alexander rams home is that Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in the world of tomorrow, will be richer and more influential than most of our neighbours across the Channel. The recent Tory and Labour Party Conferences at Brighton showed that the leaders of our main political parties seek to blur the issues involved in Britain's entry into Europe. There were warnings against looking back to the glories of the Imperial past. But to look across the oceans to the countries settled by Britons is to look to the glittering future. Sir Alexander tells the people of Britain: 'You hold better cards in your hand than any nation on Earth.' 

His stirring idea is that there should be a revival of interest in the Commonwealth and 'a renewed resolution to make it work and realise its enormous possibilities.' That should be Britain's firm resolve.

Gung-ho! Put out more flags!

Ah, the world has changed. So has the Commonwealth. And our fifty-year adventure in Europe hurt our friends across the ocean - they won't be so glad to have us back, although no doubt some kind of 'special relationship' will eventually be re-established with them. In so far as 'special relationships' are ever all that special. 

Was Sir Alexander right about Canada, Australia and New Zealand becoming 'richer and more influential' places than 'most of our neighbours across the Channel'? I'm not sure. 

Will we now become 'richer and more influential' because of Brexit? Again, I'm not sure. And even if we do, who exactly in this country will have those riches, and that influence? I don't want it to be the Old Guard. 

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Shopping online - waiting for delivery - what a timewaster!

I've decided to invest a little money in my eleven year old Leica camera. After nearly seven hundred experimental shots since 11th January, I'm smitten again. But I've discovered that the batteries I bought for the little Leica in 2015, when it went into well-deserved semi-retirement after six years' hard work, are not performing well.

That's no good at all. My shooting rate with the phone has been 14,000 shots a year, and if the Leica is now going to handle that instead, or most of it, then I need batteries that will hold their charge for more than 200 to 300 shots per charge. That's all I'm currently getting from the El Cheapo set I bought online in 2015, to replace the original pukka Leica batteries.

200 to 300 shots per charge is low, and most inconvenient. I should explain that only one battery goes in the camera (it's a BP-DC4), but I always carry a spare so that I can swap in the spare and carry on shooting. Then, once home (or back at the caravan) I can recharge the exhausted battery, and I'm good to go next day. I've never yet used up both batteries in one day. It could hardly happen with the original Leica batteries, which at their best averaged 530 shots per charge (that was after four years' intensive use, during November 2013), and on one occasion (on 25th April 2010) gave me a stunning 653 shots from one charge - all from a rather small 1150 mAh lithium-ion battery.

Even when dying, those venerable Leica batteries did significantly better than the current set from some Chinese outfit called DotPhoto. To be fair, the DotPhoto batteries spent almost five years in the boot of my car, with the Leica, which had become my 'spare' camera (although in practice hardly ever used). They'd been idle most of the time, and would have suffered from cold in the winter. Perhaps I shouldn't really have expected them to give me much performance now.

Anyway, I'd now ordered two fresh BP-DC4 batteries from Duracell. I didn't care about the cost, which certainly wasn't the cheapest around (£25.51, including next-day delivery). But I wanted high-performance batteries that would last. I did it online yesterday. And they are arriving, courtesy of DHL, sometime today.

And there's the rub. I don't know when today - only that it will be (according to the latest tracking information) 'By End of Day'.

Grrr. That means I can't go out, because DHL want a signature. I'll have to stay in, and maybe waste an entire day, just to receive a package that could have been popped through my front door.

And this is the problem with online shopping. (Well, one of the problems! The thing ordered may, for instance, turn out to be unsuitable, or not exactly what was asked for) If you want the item next day, then you must sign for it personally, and that means waiting in until it comes. If it's a large item that won't go through your front door, then you still have to wait in to open the door for it, even if you didn't specify 'next day delivery'.

The 'convenience of the Internet'. Ha.

Online shopping is supposed to avoid the effort of going to a shop, which could at least have put the item in one's hands straight away, the same day, within hours of deciding to buy it - if they have it in stock. And that's the major benefit of online shopping: someone, somewhere, will have it in stock. It'll be in a huge warehouse. And it may be the only way to get hold of a battery for an outmoded camera from yesteryear!

Well, another email has just come through, from DHL. My Duracell package, having reached their Gatwick depot at 8.06am this morning, and placed in the hands of a courier at 9.36am, is now 'out for delivery', although they still can't tell me what time my doorbell will ring. I suppose that's up to the courier's whim - or at least how efficiently he orders his calls for the day, and when he takes a break for a sandwich, or a pitstop for coffee, and when he reads his paper, and when and for how long he makes time for the lady he has on the go.


Better hit the bathroom, before the courier catches me in my nightie and dressing gown!

The DHL courier arrived in his yellow-and-red van at 1.22pm - so I had to hang around all morning. However, that much was expected, and I used the time well, so I can't say it annoyed me one bit. Actually, the call had its humorous side. I'd just finished a long session photographing coins and stamps - there may be a post or two on that; look in Flickr anyway - and was ready for some lunch. 'Let's just see, before I start to cook, whether the chappie is outside and about to ring my doorbell,' I said to myself.

I opened the front door, and as I did so the DHL van pulled up.

Well! What a coincidence! The courier glimpsed me on the doorstep, apparently waiting patiently - although in truth I'd been there for only a moment. As he approached, I explained to him how I'd peeked out, to find him arriving. We laughed heartily. He really was very jovial. I gave the usual electronic signature, and he was away for his next call, no doubt very cheerful about not having to waste time getting me to the front door.

The two Duracell batteries were very well packaged, and were the ones I'd ordered. One is now charging up as I write this; the other will get charged up after a late lunch.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Banking fraud

I have to say, it is quite worrying. You hear a lot nowadays about people being defrauded out of large sums by cunning gangs. Typically these people get in touch by phone, claim to be the bank (or the police), and persuade their victims to transfer money into another account that the fraudsters control. The victim is, by a mixture of clever psychology and very clever tech, led to think that it's their bank on the line, that there has been a 'security breach', and that their usual bank account has been compromised.

To keep their money 'safe' they are instructed to move it into the fraudsters' account - but of course the victim thinks it's a freshly-opened account in his or her own name. It doesn't matter that the victim is super-intelligent, or has heard all about this type of fraud; in the urgency of the moment they are duped into believing exactly what the fraudsters intend them to believe - to the extent of ignoring genuine pop-up messages from the bank when the money transfer is imminent. They are told these warning messages are 'automatic' and can be ignored on this occasion. And so they go ahead in good faith, and make the transfer - and the money is taken.

Quite often, once the deed is done, the victims realise that they may have been defrauded, and immediately speak to their bank, hoping that the money can be retrieved. But it's gone; probably for good. And despite a new voluntary code coming into operation, all the High Street banks remain likely to accuse the victim of 'gross negligence' and unworthy of any redress from the bank. That can be overcome if the victim is willing to fight, on the grounds that the banks have wanted everyone to bank online, and should therefore shield their customers from fraud. Further, they should be prepared to recompense any customer who innocently falls for these sophisticated frauds. But many a victim just feels devastated and ashamed at their 'stupidity', and their financial loss, and feels bound to accept the bank's view.

Personally - speaking as a bank customer - I think that:

(a) It does fall to me, as a customer, to take great care over how I react to a plausible story being thrust at me out of the blue. As an adult, I have a responsibility to keep a cool head, and think. So if I'm contacted like this, then I'm going to insist on not being rushed. I will end the call, trek over to my nearest branch, and speak to somebody there - in front of witnesses - and enquire what the status on my account really is. That's a rational thing to do, and absolutely not what any fraudster would want. 

(b) It is entirely reasonable to expect banks to look after my money with extreme care. They can afford to set up the best possible systems to thwart fraud, internal and external. It's their fault if they haven't. Their systems ought to be sufficient to keep customer accounts protected no matter what. And if that impenetrability fails, then the bank must reimburse all customers affected.

(c) So a customer should never need to move money around, if told about a 'security breach'. He or she should just stand pat, on the basis that - breach or no breach - they won't suffer a loss, and that any counter-measures are to be the bank's own responsibility. This again would stymie a fraudster.

As you can see, I have it all worked out! But please don't bet on my sticking to plan. I am no different from anybody else, and I'm quite sure that I would be very likely to fall for a well-laid attempt at fraud. I'm not immune from psychological coercion.

Recognising that, I have two defences:

1. A lot of fraudsters seem to make their initial approach over the domestic landline. Well, I don't use mine for telephone calls, and haven't done for some eight years. So I can't be got at that way.

2. I keep only the bare minimum in my bank account. So the balance, after direct debits and standing orders have been paid, is always low. For much of the month, there's nothing worth taking. It's all somewhere else. And not in linked accounts either.

Nevertheless, I mention a lot about my lifestyle on this blog. And much might be deduced from the pictures on Flickr. A careful analysis might allow a fraudster to make good guesses about what I can afford - and therefore how much income goes into my bank account. They can't be sure how much money might be kept in my bank account, but even so, it seems likely to me that an analysis would mark me out as a potential target for fraud. More than likely.

But of course I'm not going to quit blogging, or publishing photos. I therefore do have to accept a definite level of risk.

Is it a big risk, though? It's hard to say. Maybe the two defences mentioned above are working. I haven't been contacted with the classic 'compromised account' story yet. But it could happen in five minutes' time. I must stay on my guard.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Let's keep on using miles - but spare me from rods, poles and perches!

One of the many consequences of Brexit will be freedom from regulations that might enforce metric units of measurement.

Thankfully, the mile, the yard, the foot and the inch are still with us. Not in every context, but most people use or talk about these ancient units of length on an everyday basis. And a lot of us are familiar with nautical miles, leagues, fathoms and furlongs.

The same with area. We all know (roughly) what an acre is.

The same with volume. We still speak of gallons, quarts, pints, and teaspoonfuls.

The same with weight. Many of us still think in tons, stones, pounds and ounces. (The hundredweight has fallen out of use, although it was commonplace when I was very young in the 1950s, as coal for houses was delivered in hundredweights)

I say 'we' but in fact if I speak entirely for myself then I have to admit that I've 'gone metric' in many respects. I still find it natural to speak of miles and yards, but I measure short lengths in centimetres and millimetres. It just seems more precise. I know that a league is three miles, but confess to being all at sea with nautical miles and fathoms, and flummoxed by furlongs.

An acre is surely the size of the average churchyard ('God's acre') or the average traditional field, but since I'm not a vicar nor a farmer I'd be embarrassed if you asked me to pace out an acre.

I still work out my car's diesel consumption in terms of 'miles per gallon' (though not for much longer - I will probably revise my very long-running spreadsheet on fuel consumption and fuel prices sometime in 2020). But otherwise I think in terms of litres and millilitres. A 'teaspoonful' still has meaning for me though.

As regards weight, I'm happier with a tonne than a ton, and kilograms and grams will do for the rest. When I joined Slimming World in November 2016, everything was done in stones and pounds, and to me this seemed distinctly old-fashioned and awkward. I'd never been comfortable with stones and pounds and ounces. If I thought about it, I did know that there were fourteen pounds in a stone, not sixteen (there are however sixteen ounces in a pound) but it was an effort to remember. By 2016 I had become far too well-accustomed to measuring my weight in kilograms to feel at home with stones and pounds. And since quitting SW in early 2018, I've reverted to kilograms. Again, it just seems more precise, even if the kilogram and gram have a clinical air.

The truth is, my mental arithmetic is unreliable and I need to work with units that are spreadsheet-friendly. At the end of the day, I will use the unit of measurement that's convenient and easy to work with. Sometimes it's an old-style unit (notably the mile); more often than not nowadays, it's a metric measurement (notably the kilogram).

I would have been very resentful if we'd stayed in the EU and one day - in a spirit of pan-European tidiness or standardisation - Brussels had sent out an edict that said metric measurements MUST be used in all circumstances, everywhere, regardless of local customs or traditions. In fairness, it wouldn't have meant much change in my own life. But the high-handedness (and enforced consignment of some useful units to the dustbin) would have rankled.

Mind you, I would be just as perturbed if, after Brexit, there were a wholesale move back to the old measurements!

Whatever their quaintness and charm, I don't want a return to a wide range of old units. They were so difficult to calculate with, the bane of my young life, and they made passing exams so very hard for me. I only just scraped through my Maths O Level. Since then too many brain cells have gone south to cope with rods, poles, perches, chains, barleycorns, bushels, firkins, gills, and all the rest.

The odds are, of course, that the status quo will prevail, and that we will continue with a dual system that uses old-style units for everyday things that we do, such as how far we might walk or drive, but metric units for most other things, such as what we buy. I'm happy with that.

This country has imposed mandatory changes on itself in the past, though. There is no rule that says it can never do something else equally drastic.

If you were around in February 1971, you would have experienced 'D-Day', when the currency was decimalised. The pound had hitherto been split into twenty shillings, and each shilling into twelve pennies, with other divisions too - each with its own special coin or banknote - such as the ten-bob note (ten shillings), a crown (five shillings, legal tender but mainly a commemorative coin for special events), half-a-crown, a florin (two shillings), a shilling (or bob), a sixpence (or tanner; six pennies), a thruppenny bit (three pennies), a penny, a ha'penny (half a penny), and a farthing (quarter of a penny). Actually, I barely remember handling a farthing; it was withdrawn from circulation in the late 1950s. But all of them were in circulation while I was at school.

Anyway, in February 1971, after three years of preparation, everyone had to suddenly get used to the pound being split into one hundred pence. It threw a lot of people.

Despite all the prior publicity, most ordinary folk were not at all up to speed on the 'new' currency. What? One new penny worth 2.4 old pennies? Five new pennies worth a shilling? Nightmare!

And to begin with, it was hard to get your brain around it. I remember, when nineteen, having a perplexed discussion with another girl, not much older. This was at work in Southampton 3 tax office. We were trying to work out what the decimal equivalent of Income Tax at 8/3 in the pound ('eight and three', meaning 'eight shillings and thruppence') might be. The answer was 41.25%, but since both Ann Arnold and I were hopeless with maths, even using pen and paper, we kept our frustrated discussion going for ten minutes. Eventually our Group Leader, Jean Mantle, told us to put a sock in it and get back to work. She added, 'It beats me how two highly intelligent people can fail to grasp what 8/3 is in the new decimal currency!' Which I suppose was rather a compliment in its way.

Of course, soon enough (maybe even later that very morning) we had printed conversion tables to refer to. And within a couple of weeks we were completely at ease with the 'decimal pound'. It certainly made calculations so much easier. (This was, of course, two years before the arrival of little electronic calculators - it was still a world of ready-reckoners)

What I'm saying is that something similar could be done post-Brexit, to get rid of the last lingering 'Imperial' measurements, to symbolise how forward-looking the country is now going to be.

But there's no need. In fact, it would divert thought and energy from so many other things that require a fresh approach. So I hope we focus on those instead.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Brexit - celebrate or not?

I suppose by now most 'Remainers' are resigned to Brexit happening at 11.00pm on Friday 31st January - only days away now - but they won't be celebrating our formal departure from the EU. And if I shared their point of view, nor would I. Rationally, the whole thing is a risk, a gamble. It can't be justified on economic grounds, unless you have great faith in the new opportunities that will be created. But 'Leavers' like me have that faith. It's inspiriting to think of the dice being thrown and coming up on double-six. Personally, I think the result will be less exciting. But then I always reckoned that Brexit would mean higher costs and higher taxes, even if partly compensated for by lower EU contributions and commitments, and the chance for the country to make money elsewhere.

To be frank, the appeal of Brexit has nothing to do with money. It's about who is at the helm, who has oversight, and who controls the basic policies that will determine what we do in this country, and where the country ends up. We will once more be an independent offshore island with worldwide influence and responsibilities, and not just part of a European federal-state-in-formation.

The inescapable facts of geography insist that we cannot ignore Europe, even if we wanted to. It's obvious that we must continue to co-operate closely with Europe, and maintain easy access. How awful it would be if we became shut up inside a Fortress Britannia, with the Channel Tunnel closed off, the RAF patrolling our airspace, and the Royal Navy policing the Channel. I don't think that nightmare will come to be.

For me, Brexit was always much more to do with an emotional wish to have a recognisably 'British' version of the future, rather than a future full of EU standardisation. Emotions are important.

Also I wanted to embrace change. The country needed a shake-up. A really big event, such as a major war, has always led to new things, mostly better things, because of fresh visions and fresh thinking. Brexit is such an event. It's exciting to imagine the possibilities - and I can still live long enough to see them unfold over the next twenty or thirty years.

That gives me a proper stake in what happens. One of the things that greatly annoyed me in the Brexit debate was the accusation that older people like me voted to leave the EU because we could 'easily afford to' and particularly 'wouldn't be around to face the consequences'. Offensive tosh. It matters hugely to me how things will be in the 2040s and 2050s. I have no intention of popping off sooner. If there is a mess, I shall be around to share it with the Snowflakes. And with more true grit than they'll be able to muster.

So: back to the question. Should one celebrate?

The tone from Downing Street is not as triumphant as one might expect. And indeed, gloating and loud partying would be in bad taste, insensitive to a lot of disappointed and downhearted people, and would certainly not heal the differences that Brexit brought out into the open. I go along with that too. I have in mind merely going to bed quietly on Friday 31st January with a broad smile; and waking up on Saturday 1st February with a quiet but delicious sense of freedom.

Just as one might, once a contested and long-desired divorce comes through. Or on the day an irksome prison sentence finally ends.

Brexit proves that the future is never totally predetermined or fixed. Some are fearful of change and uncertainty, and cling to old ways and old ideas, which they claim were always 'right' and 'made sense', and that change will cast safety and comfort to the winds. But I say they are wrong. Change is natural and inevitable. And I am not afraid.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

A star has gone missing

In the last week or so the night skies where I live have been clear, brilliantly so, with a really impressive display of stars. Time to get out the tripod, I said to myself, and take some shots of the constellation of Orion, which is always on display outside my home. It's a very recognisable constellation that always comes out well.

I've been pointing the camera at the night sky for a long time, although it's not a regular thing, and photos are few and far between. This is partly (mainly, if I'm honest) because the clearest skies seem to occur only on the chilliest nights, and I'm averse to hanging around while making a time exposure.

So that's why, when spending two months in New Zealand in 2007, I took only one picture of the Southern Cross, the Southern Hemisphere's nearest equivalent to Ursa Major (the Plough, which circles high above in the Northern Hemisphere, and points you to the Pole Star).

Here's that shot, taken from Tokomaru Bay on the east side of North Island, on 14th April 2007:

It's the cross-shaped constellation in the upper centre of the shot. I didn't lug my tripod to New Zealand, so I must have somehow rested the camera on the campervan, facing upwards. Not too bad a result, considering.

Tokomaru Bay was a one-night stop. We got there from Wairoa, pulled up just shy of the dunes that backed the beach. and enjoyed a sunny late-afternoon admiring the pines and the scenery, while the waves creamed in.

It was a very solitary position, but we felt completely fine. Next morning, another very sunny day.

But we couldn't linger. We had a tight schedule, and had lost time earlier on in the holiday.

It was our impression (backed up by things said) that this entire eastern corner of North Island is regarded as 'Maori land' by many New Zealanders of European origin, and accordingly dismissed completely as a tourist destination. But we thought it had great scenery, amazing beaches, and a very good feel. It was in this part of New Zealand - at Tiki Tiki, further along State Highway 35, that we got invited to join the local people in the Marae (a kind of after-Sunday-church village get-together, half a serious discussion of village affairs with all proper ceremony and gravity, half a good-hearted communal feast. We were tempted, but didn't know any of the correct etiquette (highly important), and in any case had to press on to our next camping ground many miles off. Looking back now, I wish we'd stayed and had the experience. Before we flew back home, I bought a book on what to do at the Marae, and another on basic Maori phrases:

I got chortles in response to these purchases - I was wasting my money! I defended myself, and still do. I respected Maori culture, and wanted to take something of it home. If I ever return to New Zealand, I shall absorb the information in these books and feel more in touch with the spirit of the land, and its indigenous people.

Back to Orion!

The best previous photo I had of it was taken in March 2017, at Curlew Farm, my regular caravan destination near Lyme Regis:

That was taken with the camera that came after the little Leica, a Panasonic LX100, which had a faster lens and a larger sensor, and could produce a very good picture indeed. The lens was fast, and the usable ISO range wide, so its time exposures for stars were not long affairs. In fact this particular shot was almost too quick to be called a 'time exposure' - just one second at ISO 800 and f/1.7. Note the star at the top corner - that's Betelgeuse, a huge Red Giant star approaching the end of its lifespan. Its brightness has been fluctuating for years. Well, more recently in late 2019 it had been waxing and waning in brightness rather more than usual - a sure sign, for such a bloated star, of Something Tremendous Happening. So I wanted to take a few snaps, to see how well Betelgeuse showed up - maybe it would have become very faint. 

I had got outside in mid-December, with my phone fixed to the tripod (more on that in a moment). But the other day I did the same again, with the little Leica. 

I'd just rediscovered that the Leica, with its much-better controls, was a more suitable camera for shooting the night sky. I set it up carefully indoors, with a specially-devised custom setting for getting the best-exposed shot. Here it is, on the tripod in my lounge:

And this is what I got:

Hmm. There's Orion, and I can see Betelgeuse in the top-left corner of the constellation. Clearly, all present and correct. Slightly dimmer than normal? Maybe.

Now, here's the picture I took four weeks ago, with the phone. I've lightened it up, to make the stars more visible:

Where's Betelgeuse? For a brief moment, I thought, 'Betelgeuse has gone! It's become so faint that it doesn't show up in the photograph!'

That would be an interesting event indeed. And I'd captured it.   

But I now think that it was there, very faint, but just out of shot. If I'd only tilted the phone up a tiny bit more, I'd have noticed it. Why didn't I manage to do that? Well, for some reason I didn't find it easy to 'aim' the phone accurately at Orion. I had to guess what would be included the upper part of the picture. I guessed wrong. 

Oh well. I'll have another go ASAP at getting a picture of Betelgeuse looking oddly faded. 

The Leica sits on the tripod very differently, and although its screen is smaller, it's somehow easier to work with. Well, it will be simple to repeat that first shot taken with the Leica (two photos above), and then make a direct brightness comparison.

Meanwhile, I am able to confirm that Betelgeuse is still with us. 

Monday, 20 January 2020

That new Fitbit effect

It's been just over two weeks since I collected my new Fitbit Inspire HR and began using it. Has it made a difference? It certainly has, and it hasn't been nine day wonder, nor a flash in the pan. (How I love these old clich├ęs!) I'll admit, however, that beginning the New Year with Resolutions to follow has had something to do with it. I intend to end 2020 in a fitter state than last year. My 2019 fitness level wasn't bad - surely better than many an old dear in her late sixties - but not nearly good enough.

Well, the new Fitbit got me walking! Look at the record for the first few days after strapping it to my wrist on Sunday 5th January:

Three days in a row on which I got my 10,000 steps in, getting up to 16,000 of them by the Wednesday. A cracking start.

And my resting heartbeat rate fell in response...

In subsequent days the rate rose again, as bad weather kept me indoors and I walked much less. A shame.

But in the last three days, cold dry weather and a strange luminescence in the sky (the men in the village tell me it is the Sun) have got me out and about again. Another three 10,000-step days in a row, and my resting heartbeat rate has declined to 54 beats per minute. It's fine all day tomorrow as well - I'll definitely make it four 10,000-step days in a row - and 52 or 53 beats per minute - if I possibly can! 

There is yet another reason to get 10,000 steps clocked up each day. I want to see what happens in the Fitbit's display. 

When it detects that I've done 10,000 steps, it vibrates on my wrist to let me know, and (following a recent firmware update that I installed by Bluetooth from the phone app) the display briefly comes to life without my having to do anything, such as pressing the little button. So far I've seen three different kinds of 'celebration'. All show '10,000'. But one has fireworks shooting upwards and exploding. Another has a glitter ball (as found in parties and discos) turning round. Yet another has an arrow passing underneath the '10,000' from left to right (referencing an archery target, I suppose), and a little bird that perches on the figures (referencing...what? Something I don't know about, clearly). 

What other displays might I see? The only way to find out is to do at least 10,000 steps tomorrow! And each day after that, until they start to repeat. 

The old Fitbit Alta HR (now in my friend Angie's hands - see her blog in my very short and select list on the right) had just the one display when that 10,000th step was done, not three or more. But it lasted longer. Long enough to photograph it easily. The Alta also had a 'time for bed' vibration, plus several different late-evening messages to encourage me to hit the bathroom and leap into bed for a good night's rest. 

The Inspire HR doesn't have any of that. My phone still leaps into life, and shows a message exhorting me to 'rest and recharge' but that's the only thing it ever says. There used to be several different messages, and not the same ones as on the Alta HR either. So there's not the same impact. The Alta HR made sure I knew about an achievement, and really called bedtime to my attention. The Inspire doesn't make the same fuss.

One thing the Inspire HR is definitely better at, though, is telling me the time. That new clock face is easily readable in all but the brightest daylight out of doors. In cloudy weather, or indoors, it is very clear indeed. So much so, that I can easily decipher what the time is if I wake up during the night, and don't put my glasses on. It's blurred but unmistakable. I couldn't read the time at night on the Alta HR clockface. So a real gain in usability here. 

In fact, I'm getting back in the habit of glancing at my wrist. It's surprising how often I want to know what the time is - for a long-retired person, that is. Well, if it makes me more aware of passing time, and therefore more punctual, then that's a gain for everyone.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

How phone cameras can destroy pictures

There's no argument. The camera on a modern mobile phone is easy to use, versatile, and produces excellent results. And it maxes out on sheer convenience - because if you carry a phone, you have a great camera as well in the same device. For nearly all practical purposes, it's all you need.

But...and it's a big 'but' if you care about these things...those very nice results are the result of intense electronic processing and enhancement. The aim is to make lines sharp, and tonal patches distinct - whatever it takes to get rid of blur and fuzziness, and lift dullness. Nothing wrong with that in itself - most shots need some correction or tweaking to bring out their best - but all that combining of multiple shots, and sharpening the merged image, has bad results that show up at high magnifications.

I can show what I mean by comparing a shot taken this very morning with my little Leica (the 'real camera' of 2009 vintage, with a multi-element glass lens and only light assistance from electronics) - on the LEFT below - with an indentical shot taken with Tigerlily, my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone (the 'phone camera' of 2017 vintage, relying on a tiny stack of plastic lenses and amazing electronics) - on the RIGHT below.

This was the shot, of the decrepit glasshouse at the bottom of my rear garden, taken with (in both cases) a modest x2.5 zoom from my lounge window. I got them up side-by-side on my laptop screen, then took a JPEG screenprint. You're actually looking at the screenprint, as uploaded to Blogger.

Leica left, phone right.

The phone (right) throws 12 megapixels at the shot, whereas the Leica (left) can manage only 10 megapixels. So the phone shot looks as if taken slightly closer, in this and the other shots.

I'd say the phone has captured the better picture. It's warmer in tone, although this is spurious: it was a cold morning with rain in the offing, and the cool Leica result (left) was the more truthful.

Let's magnify each picture to the same extent.

The shot turned out by the phone (right) still looks better. A lot of detail is now apparent, and it seems more distinct in the phone shot.

Let's now concentrate on the glasshouse doorway. More magnification; as before, to the same extent.

In the phone shot (right) all the straight lines in the glasshouse are very clear, but some subtlety has been sacrificed. It's beginning to look like a drawing, whereas the Leica's shot (left) has retained a little photographic fuzziness. I think many people would prefer the phone's clear, sharp rendition of the glasshouse, but it isn't a natural nor completely truthful rendition.

Now the other end of the glasshouse.

Again, the phone's result (right) looks crisp, with high contrast. But that plastic jar with the green top inside the glasshouse looks two-dimensional. And I don't like the rendition of the ivy on the beech trees in the background. Whereas the Leica's result, although less distinct, makes the jar look rounded, and the ivy on the beech tree behind looks like a real plant, not just a clump of green and black shapes.

Next, some fence and foliage shots.

There's no question, the phone (right) makes everything look sharp and very distinct, but reduces it all to rather flat shapes. Whereas the Leica (left) - the 'real camera' - retains naturalness, even though the detail is not so clear to the eye. In the real world, objects at a distance are never easy to see in detail; the Leica is being faithful to reality.

Surely the Leica's picture of the beech trees beyond the glasshouse is more truthful - and more useful, if you wanted to see the ivy as it really was.

The phone's electronics have made a right royal mess of the feathery greenery of the rear hedge. It merely looks like a green and black pattern, and not a living thing at all. The Leica preserves reality, with a lightness of touch, even if it isn't such a crisp shot.

The same story with the grass of my rear lawn. The Leica (left) keeps the grass and the brown leaves recognisable and realistic. But it's all reduced to a green pattern in the phone's shot.

Here's a different comparison, from a few hours earlier, at night in my bedroom, by the shaded light at my bedside.

The Leica (left) has made everything look yellowish; the phone (right) has a much more correct white and cream rendition. Even so, the Leica has better captured the true colour of the things reflected in the mirror - the orange of the pine chest of drawers, the blue-green of my bag.

But let's concentrate on Rosie, my china cat. I've magnified each of the images above to the same extent, so that Rosie now fills the window. Leica left, phone right.

This is a tough low-light test with a medium-high ISO (both ISO 400), the widest aperture available (Leica f/2.8, phone f/1.7), and a slow shutter speed (Leica 1/8th second, phone 1/10th second). Neither picture of Rosie turns out well. The Leica's rendition (left) is the better: you can make out the pink and green of the 'cabbage rose' decoration painted on her, her head seems more distinct, and there is more detail in the woodwork behind. Although the phone (right) reveals Rosie as a white cat (correct), her 'cabbage-rose' decoration is now a dark red splodge, and her head is fuzzy. The woodwork behind is washed out and indistinct.

These shots are both poor, but I'm happier with the little Leica's result, and keenly disappointed with the phone's effort, which is unusually bad.

My conclusion? That Tigerlily - my very accomplished phone from 2017 - isn't clever enough to take good daylight pictures of natural objects at a distance. Nor do its night-time pictures stand up to scrutiny, if the subject (natural or otherwise) is too far away from the lens.

The phone is very good close up - very good at everything close up. Definitely the preferred choice for people, food and document shots, with brilliantly clear and attractive results expected. But the much-older Leica has the most natural rendition, whatever the distance.

Would a 2020 phone do as well as the Leica for distance work? It would certainly come closer than in this comparison. And I'm confident that a 2021 phone will be closer still. (I'm getting a new phone in 2021) But for now - for me - my little Leica has a clear edge where far-off subjects are concerned.

I hope you agree, and can see why I might itch to make more use of photographic equipment like the little Leica. Despite being nearly eleven years old, the Leica can still score in certain circumstances, or in certain ways. I ought to be exploiting that. I'm not at all disenchanted with my phone, but I can be realistic about which device is the better tool for a given subject.

But at the end of the day, which is the handier photographic device to carry around? Which can take pictures by voice control? Which is such an normal, everyday device that it goes unnoticed? Which always has access to the Internet?

Clearly, the phone.

It's horses for courses. Carry the Leica, and I'll have to sling two bags over my shoulder. But it just might be worth it. 

Monday, 13 January 2020

Deciding what the Leica is for

Hefty or awkwardly-shaped equipment can't be lugged along on a 'just in case' basis. The little Leica D-Lux 4 is a metal-and-glass machine, and heftier than it looks (though the heft is great for holding it steady). It used to inhabit my big orange bag with the wide brown strap - plenty of room in there for it! - but there isn't any room in the small blue-green Pittards bag I now use, and it has to be carried separately in its own Lowepro camera bag. So two bags. Fine for those occasions when I know I'll need the Leica. Otherwise, it's too much to carry.

So when might I really need the little Leica? What can it do that my Samsung phone can't - or at least not nearly so well? That's what it boils down to.

I've now identified these four occasions when I would definitely turn to the Leica. Three of them are entirely practical in nature: meaning that the Leica beats the phone on technical ability.

1. When I need a zoom
The Leica can give me a high-quality x2.5 zoom shot by purely optical means, by pulling on a handy lever around the shutter button. That's a very modest telephoto effect indeed (equivalent to only 60mm at the zoom end, in film-camera terms). Nevertheless, it can make a difference. I'm still bringing f/2.8 and 10 megapixels to bear on that zoomed-into scene.

Whereas applying a 'digital zoom effect' on the phone is actually just blowing up the ordinary image by cropping it around the edges. A 'x2.5 digital zoom' reduces the phone's full-sized 12 megapixel picture to only 4.8 megapixels. Much less detail-resolution to be had from that!

Arguably then, the Leica would be better for capturing scenic detail at a distance. Worth carrying on a walk in the mountains, then. Or for pictures of dolphins from a boat.

I've now delved into the Leica's settings and switched to 'Extended Zoom', where the camera uses an optical zoom up to x2.5 (60mm) but will - after a slight pause, and if I want it - zoom in further by magnifying the optical image, effectively extending the zoom range to as much as x10 (which is 240mm in film camera terms).

I've never used this facility before. Using it, there is a significant telephoto effect, although resolution and sharpness at x10 are no better than at x2.5. It doesn't in itself bring forth more detail. But skilful tweaking on the laptop afterwards might well provide the illusion of extra sharpness. In that connection, think about how those fuzzy astronomical images can be enhanced to an acceptably sharp result by working on them.

2. When I want to take a macro shot
On the Leica, I just move a small lever on the lens barrel. Then I can get as close as 1cm from the subject. So the delicate interiors of flowers are a doddle.

The phone can close-focus only down to 5cm. That's still useful, but not in the same league.

3. Special shooting conditions needing Manual Mode and a wide range of settings
Such as photographing the night sky, when you not only need a zoom, but have to set the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed independently of each other. I've worked out that to shoot the full moon (which reflects a dazzling amount of sunlight) I need these settings on the Leica:

ISO 100 (for the best quality image overall)
An f/4 aperture (for the sharpest image on this particular camera)
A shutter speed of 1/2000th second (to prevent over-exposure)

Shooting star constellations on a dark but clear night needs a much slower shutter speed, maybe 30 seconds, as the light is so feeble. One distinctive and easy-to-find constellation is Orion, always a splendid sight from my front drive. It's especially interesting just now, with the red giant star Betelgeuse (top left corner of the constellation) fluctuating in brightness, and reckoned to be approaching a supernova state. Meaning that it will explode spectacularly sometime soon - quite possibly in the next 100,000 years! I want to be set up for that.

4. Whenever I want an impression or an interpretation of the scene, not a factual record
The Leica's pictures lend themselves very well to adding mood, alternative coloration, and other enhancements or reductions to produce an imaginative result. This is where software skill on the laptop comes in - the equivalent of advanced darkroom techniques in film days. Interventions can be quick and dirty, or painstakingly subtle. 'Quick and dirty' would include using the faux-grainy black-and-white scene mode referred to below. Other treatments might be anything but quick, especially if experimenting carefully with the Curves tool on each colour channel, layer by layer. But at least these personal interventions are easy, because of the Leica's rather light in-camera processing, which doesn't get in the way.

So there you are. Four strong reasons for using the Leica, rather than relying totally on the phone.

I have already tried my hand at some black-and-white shots, just to remind myself what that simulated film-grain effect looks like. These were quickly taken yesterday, at home, to get an idea of the possibilities, and are frankly banal. But you can imagine how something more ambitious could turn out rather well.

The next shots - two pairs of the same thing - show how vastly different the black-and-white and colour versions are. The colour shot records the scene as a faithful, factual record. The monochrome shot emphasises form and texture, and changes the mood.

One way to make washing dishes and pans more interesting!

Bras went in those for washing, but the Alien popped out! Beware.