Photography & Computers

Seracs above the Fox Glacier, Westland

Back at my desk after touring the South Island with friends from London. Mt Cook, Queenstown, the glaciers on the West Coast, Punakaiki, the Abel Tasman (on Jamarh again) and dolphins at Kaikoura. A great time was had by all... Now I have to remember what I was doing before we left. At my age, that's not trivial.

Mark Bernstein called in on the farm on Monday night. We ate, drank, and talked. A lot of each. And if I am to believe the message he and Linda left in our cottage visitors book, they enjoyed themselves enough to come back. We're looking forward to it.

I'm in the process of moving On The Farm over to a new Tinderbox blog, produced using the new web log "assistant" Flint. It's got lots of nice gadgets, like the Google search box, and a nice way of organising the posts under "topics", and it looks more contemporary - being done with css. It's going to take me a while to move the whole of the old site over to the format, but it will be done. And the photo quality will improve. Watch this space.

Whariwharangi Beach, Abel Tasman National Park

Just back after five days in Golden Bay, staying with a friend in Wainui at the northern end of the Abel Tasman. We did the top of the Abel Tasman walk on Friday afternoon: from Totaranui to Wainui via Separation Point (300k map here). The beach pictured is right at the top of the park. Weather perfect.

We saw only one stingray at Wainui. As we were having the last swim of the day in the warm water of the incoming tide, one swam to have a look at us. We left the water rather promptly.

It seems "our" orca are still hanging around in Tasman Bay. From the Nelson Mail today:

"A pod of orca has turned on a special welcome for walkers heading into Abel Tasman National Park, and for sightseers at Mapua. "

They like eating stingray, apparently, and there are lots in the bay. NZ orca are the only ones in the world known to fancy a snack of ray. I hope they're still around when I get back to the Abel Tasman in late February. I should be able to see stingrays, but the orca will almost certainly have moved on.

Sometimes fate conspires to present the perfect photographic opportunity, and when that happens, fate usually conspires to make me blow it. And sometimes it doesn't...

An orca on my tail...

We were crossing Tasman Bay on Jamarh, a sailing catamaran operating out of Nelson, when three orca passed in the opposite direction. Rush to camera, snap a couple of shots of tall black fins, and then suddenly a young one is steaming up into our wake, and breaches. I would have liked to have got the shot a fraction of a second earlier, but hey - this one's good enough for me. Jamarh's skipper, Martin, has seen plenty of orca, but never had one do that before.

We were on the boat for an overnight trip into the Abel Tasman National Park. This is where we spent the night...

Pukatea Bay, Abel Tasman National Park

We swam, sunbathed, saw penguins and seals, swam some more, ate fresh scallops and fish, swam again, kayaked up a creek to a spectacular freshwater pool (no camera, sorry) and walked a small section of the Abel Tasman path. Perfection. I want to do it again, but it's back to the farm and selling books. The Nelson Mail gave me a good write up... Thanks, Jude.

Google is a wonderful thing, not least because if you search it for information about "ontological transformation", On The Farm is the top ranking web site. A while ago I blogged an article about diets. And I therefore rank above the article in the London Review Of Books that I originally linked to. Digital voodoo. Luckily, I know what ontological transformation means.

It's been raining for two days - not heavily, but enough to get things nice and wet. I doubt we'll be irrigating any more this season. But Monday - Easter Monday - was an absolute cracker of a day. We had a couple of people staying in the farm cottage, and we took them up to Kaikoura to go swimming with the dolphins. While they did that, we walked round the point and admired the seals.

Rather begs for a caption, doesn't it? [EOS 300D with 90-300mm zoom on full extension, roughly equivalent to 480mm on 35mm]

Sometimes I can sit down after dinner, open my book and then glance out of the window and see something amazing...

That's what I saw from our veranda last night, rapidly snapped with my Canon EOS 300D and then crudely stitched together in Photoshop. I'd have needed a w-i-d-e angle lens to get the whole thing in one shot, and they cost several small fortunes that I don't have or can't justify spending.

So what was happening? There was a moderate Nor'wester blowing, setting up a big wave cloud overhead. Out of that wave was falling some light rain, and the sun was setting behind me. Cue perfect double arch rainbow from horizon (or hill) to horizon.

No pot at the end of the rainbow, just the Deans...

You can see the end of the rainbow, and the wave cloud - the famous Nor'west arch - with rain falling out of it. Textbook stuff.

One of the nice things about using Statcounter to log all site activity is that it can tell me how people find On The Farm. The referring link is most often a web search, and what you're searching for is often interesting, sometimes bizarre. I get a few hits for the techy stuff - the wireless network or broadband modem model numbers seem to be surprisingly effective at finding me - but some search results are definitely strange.

One recent visitor had searched Google NZ for "sex with my wife". Somehow that got him here. Given that my wife is currently in London, and has been overseas for a month, that topic is not something that I'm likely to be addressing here - even if I was so inclined. Which I'm not. And what on earth was he searching for? Aah, the dimly understood perversions that pass for social intercourse... and that little sentence will no doubt get me lots more strange referrals.

Welcome to the new On The Farm. The old iBlog site has been archived, and all the entries copied over into a new Tinderbox site (apart from a few pictures - they'll follow). I've even played around with the blog templates and customised things a bit. There's a fairly steep learning curve with Tinderbox, but that goes with the extra power that I wanted, and apart from maintaining this blog, it may also be useful a tool for organising the research for my books.

One consequence of this change is that I'm about to kiss goodbye to many of my page hits. I changed to the wonderful Statcounter a week or two ago (thanks to a tip on the Freeway discussion list), and I'm revelling in the information it lets me see about all my visitors. Not that I'm overwhelmed by the volume of hits or anything, but it is interesting to see how many referrals I get from search engines, and what searches lead you to me.

The Tinderbox On The Farm has a different page structure to the iBlog site, and so a lot of those referrals are going to bounce - or at least they will until the search engines catch up.

In the meantime, I hope you like the new look and structure. Let me know what you think of the changes (if you know what the old site looked like).

Fast internet arrives at the farm, as does a wireless network. But nothing's ever easy, is it?

To be fair, when the engineer switched on the ADSL connection, my modem picked it up without a hitch, the wireless router connected sweetly and began serving internet all round the house: to my Pismo with its new card sticking out of the side, and to my daughter’s iBook plugged in to an Airport Express. We were surfing within a couple of minutes, and I’m now writing this entry listening to Mory Kante on BBC Radio Three. It’s good to have broadband.

If that sounds smooth, then let me tell you about the background. It goes back a year or more. ADSL (asynchronous digital subscriber line) technology is a means of squashing broadband internet into an existing copper phone line, while allowing normal phone calls. Very clever, but it only works if you’re within a certain distance of an ADSL-equipped exchange. The variety of ADSL used by Telecom in NZ (marketed as Jetstream) has a range of about 5 to 7km. Our main exchange is about 15km away, and until last year I thought our only broadband options would involve 3G mobile phones (reception at the farm is patchy, to say the least) or wireless (small problem: we have Mt Brown (450m) between us and the transmitter). Then a chance remark by a neighbour suggested that our little sub-exchange - a box on the roadside by Waipara West - might be upgradeable to handle Jetstream. I started phoning around, and eventually tracked down someone in Telecom who could tell me what was what. An upgrade was certainly possible, and there was a programme to do most of the rural boxes in NZ, but we weren’t yet on the list, and wouldn’t be for the foreseeable future. To do ours, they’d need to be sure that at least 10 of the 48 people served by the box would sign up for Jetstream. My neighbour at Claremont Country Estate was also feeling the need for broadband, so we started a little campaign. The rural postie, bribed with a bottle of wine, stuck a leaflet in the relevant boxes (the ones within 5km of the box), and we started our pitch.

It took months - and months - but we ended up with about five or six probables and five or six possibles. I thought we hadn’t done enough, but a couple of months ago I learned (thanks to a very helpful lady at Telecom - take a bow Joanne), that our box was scheduled to go live for ADSL on Nov 7th. Our little campaign had done enough to push us up the queue, if nothing else. Much celebration. My wife’s VPN connection to her client in the US was about to become significantly more usable. No more hours waiting for files to arrive.

This gave free rein to my wireless network plans. Instead of wiring an ethernet network round the house, I decided to get an ADSL modem/wireless base station, an Airport card for the iBook, and a suitable card for my PowerBook. The modem base station was easy: my dealer recommended a Netgear model. For the old Pismo, I learned that a Linksys WPC54GS shared the same chipset as Apple’s own cards, and so would work with their wireless software. But Apple had discontinued sales of Airport cards for G3 iBooks. They are still available, if expensive, but use the older, slower 802.11b wireless standard. On the other hand, the iBook is seldom moved off her desk, so an Airport Express would do the job nicely. Or so I thought.

I bought the gear, and decided to get the wireless side of things up and running before the 7th came round. A rainy day provided a perfect opportunity. The Netgear worked perfectly. The Linksys card was recognised by Apple’s software and configured automatically. 20 minutes gone. Then I set about getting the Airport Express (AX) to work. Being used to plug and play, I plugged and played. It didn’t work. The network could see the AX, but the iBook couldn’t see the AX over its ethernet cable connection. I checked a few websites. I followed suggestions found at the excellent Apple Discussions board, but it was the best part of a day before I stumbled across the root of my problem. The Netgear chipset didn’t support wireless “bridging” - a mode where the AX acts as a sort of extender for the wireless network, the only mode where the AX ethernet connection would do what I wanted.

I had two options. Get rid of the AX and get an Airport card for the iBook. More expensive, and a mixed 11b and 11g network runs more slowly than a “pure” 11g set up. Or I could trade the Netgear for something with a chipset known to work. Thanks to this thread at Apple Discussions, I discovered a Belkin base station that would do the job - but it’s not a modem. In the end, I got a simple little modem packaged up by Telecom (D-Link DSL-302G), and the two work together really well. With the right gear, setting up the network took about ten minutes. Everything was ready for the Jetstream installation. I booked one for Nov 9th.

Nothing happened on the 9th. After hanging on to a phone for what seemed like hours, I was told the box hadn’t been upgraded yet. An email to Joanne at Telecom elicited an apology and the news of a two week delay. The box would be commissioned on Nov 21st. I rang to book another installation. It was promised for the 24th, which came and went with no ADSL connection light on the modem. More hours on the phone. It was the ISP’s fault apparently. The earliest they could do a connection would be Dec 1st. I went politely ballistic, and after more phone time secured a commitment to the 26th. And it happened. And it works, and the world is at my fingertips.

The only remaining challenge: working out how to make my wife’s IBM Stinkpad, running a specially secure version of Windows 2000, do a VPN over internet connection. It should be easy. When she gets back from her current gig in the Middle East I shall delve into the world of Microsoft, big US banks, VPN and firewalls. Will that be easy? I live in hope, but not in expectation.

My good lady wife does an enormous amount of travelling. She is addicted to Kiri Te Kanawa and exceptional tenors (this does not include Bocelli). Put the two things together and you have a prime candidate for an iPod. Much better than travelling with a Walkman and a bagful of tapes or CDs. Her 2002 Christmas present was one of the first generation 10GB models, and when she got her head round what it was for, and that it was easy to use, she fell in love with it. It became her constant companion.

Within a year the battery was showing signs of not holding a full charge. I tried a number of tricks to freshen the thing up - like always keeping the software up-to-date, and on several occasions following a sort of digital voodoo ceremony that involved running the thing down to flat, then doing to a complete reformat and re-install. It worked to some extent, but a couple of months ago it became obvious I was going to have to do something to sort the ’Pod out.

Apple have recognised that the batteries they use have a limited lifespan, and offer a sort of solution. Give them your iPod and a chunk of money, and you get a similar iPod back with a battery that works. The cost in NZ is somewhere north of $300 - or nearly half the cost of a new iPod. So I looked for another solution. There are plenty of places on the web that will sell you a replacement battery and a little tool which is supposed to make opening the iPod case possible without damage. Finding a company that will send one to NZ is a lot harder. Many of the companies I tried didn’t have the financial systems to take an NZ credit card (or wanted to charge a huge transaction fee), others wouldn’t ship overseas. An Australian site had exactly what I wanted, but didn't send stuff over the Tasman. In the end, I got a friend in Florida to buy the battery I wanted and then stick it an a courier bag to NZ. Worked perfectly, and he got a US$50 note in a cheeky card to cover his expenses.

The battery I wanted to get my hands on was the Newer Technology 2100mAh high capacity battery for first and second generation iPods, and I bought it from MegaMacs. This is a “bigger” battery than the original, and so should give longer listening time. It comes complete with two little plastic tools and several pages of instructions.

iPods are not designed to be taken to bits. When Apple pushes the top onto the shiny stainless steel bottom, it’s meant to stay there. But with some gentle force and a couple of softish plastic tools, you can crack the case open, and get at the battery. I did intend to take a few pix to demonstrate the process, but in the end, getting into the thing was nerve-wracking enough without recording a possible disaster for posterity, so the battery you see in the picture above is the old Apple battery. You start at the top, attacking the join near the Firewire plug (right in the picture). You're then supposed to work your way down the side of the case and round the bottom until you can just lift the top off. In fact, the headphone plug has a plastic centre that has to be eased out of the case. Pull too soon, and it sticks. And if you twist, you can strain the screen. The only evidence that the ’Pod has been hacked is a slight colour cast on the left of the screen where I strained a bit hard. That and one end of white plastic clip that broke off as I was "easing" the top clear.

That’s the hard bit. All you have to do then is lift a couple of sticky retaining tapes, unplug the battery, plug in the new one, replace the tapes, and push the bottom back on to the top. Simple. Opening the case took about 15 minutes because I was being careful. Replacing the battery took a minute, perhaps less. I charged the new battery over night, and though I can’t give you a battery life estimate (what - listen to hours of Kiri Te Canopener screeching? No way!) I can tell you that it’s held its charge well for over a week. When my wife gets back from her current overseas trip, she'll test the thing properly. Worth the money? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Would I recommend other people do this? If your iPod is out of warranty, this is one effective way to save money. All but the terminally ham-fisted should cope well.

I have a Google News Alert set to email me whenever something truffle-like pops up on the net. Ninety percent of the time it's stuffed with restaurant reviews where ambitious chefs are overusing wholly artificial truffle oils to be trendy, or chocolate is involved, but sometimes it comes with a gem like this one from the BBC. Not only does it feature an English village straight out of Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders - Little Bedwyn - but it reports the finding of 10kg of summer truffles (Tuber aestivum) on one farm.

Not much time for musings on this - too many bills to pay - but I rather hope my T uncinatum are as prolific…

It's started again, as I said it would. The grass is growing, and we have rather a lot of it. It takes about three hours on our Stiga mower to do the garden lawns. When the olive grove, vineyard and truffière need doing, you can bank on spending a day puffing around on our little Japanese ex-rice paddy tractor with its "slasher" on the back. In spring, warming soil temperatures and plenty of soil moisture mean that you can watch the grass growing and not get bored.

Almost a man and his mower

Sitting on your lawn mower and cutting grass is like going to the gym and working out. Not because you get hot and sweaty and well-exercised, though you can get hot and sweaty when the temperature's in the 30s (Celsius), but because you get some uninterrupted time when the brain can freewheel - getting hooked on thoughts or songs or phrases. When the words come, they sometimes stay long enough to get written down. It's not like staring at a blank page, more like letting a blank page whirr around until things start to appear on it.

Irritatingly, if a song comes to mind in the first few minutes - after the critical decisions are taken; to mow down or across or diagonally - it can stick. A phrase or melody will bounce around between your ears and under your ear defenders until it becomes intensely annoying. And if it happens to be an Abba tune, or - much worse - something involving goatherds or whiskers on kittens and unsexy nuns - then if someone notices you singing along you lose any cool you may have carefully cultivated.

Last year's solution to the music problem was to borrow my son's portable CD player and sit on it, it not being belt-mountable. And as the average CD lasts less than hour, it meant stopping a few times for refreshments. Not efficient, but worthwhile. Using this method I have had mowing epiphanies with the Wondermints (better known as Brian Wilson's backing band) and Pulp. You need something fairly loud: the hammering clatter of a small petrol engine is not helpful to delicate music, even under big black plastic ear muffs.

This year's solution is an iPod. My birthday present. Currently holding a shade under 3,000 songs. It's serving music to the kitchen radio at the moment via an iTrip mini FM transmitter (Caravan, if you must know), and it is marvellous. The only thing I need to find is an iPod case that is farm proof. Apple's belt thingy doesn't inspire much confidence, and the earphone buds tend to get dislodged when you put the ear defenders on. I'd like some hi-fi quality headphones built into farm quality ear defenders, and an iPod case that will protect my little white wonder from dust and dirt and being dropped on the gravel drive. The latter is an important consideration. Last year I manged to drop the family Sony P5 digital camera out of my pocket onto the drive and then reverse over it with the mower. It survived, and works - a miracle - but has a badly cracked LCD screen that would cost more to replace than buying a new camera. Ho hum.

I can hear the grass grow. The Move, wasn't it?