Saturday, September 06, 2014

British Isles trip, part 8: Oxford

Link to photo dump.

Our main stop in Oxford was Christ Church. Lovely place, obviously. That afternoon, however, I just wasn't feeling the photography thing, so I took only a few shots.

After our time there, we had a couple of hours to roam the city. But it was raining, so we ducked into a museum around the corner from where our buses were going to pick us up. It was the Ashmolean Museum, which I had never heard of before. It had an impressive array of ancient Egyptian artifacts. But since I'm still a 12-year-old at heart, I only took a picture of the two statues of the guy fondling himself.

And you thought that only started with Major League Baseball.

By the way, if you thought YOU had a name that people tend to spell wrong, consider the plight of this chap:

"No, no. It's D. J. E. D. D. J...."

Friday, September 05, 2014

British Isles trip, part 7: Stonehenge

Link to photo dump.

It has become very difficult to take good photographs of Stonehenge unless you (A) get a special permit and can go sometime it's closed to the general public, or (B) are willing to violate their rules.

A couple of years ago, because of growing numbers of tourists, they built a new visitors' center about a mile away. You can get to Stonehenge only on one of their shuttle buses, which bring limited numbers of people at set intervals. You buy a ticket with a specific shuttle departure time. They're still in the process of tearing down the old visitors' center, in an attempt to restore the area surrounding the stones to something more like its natural state. Worst of all, there is now a path around the stone, partly paved and partly not, which defines the closest one is allowed to approach--and it's not very close.

I think the day is not far away when your camera will interact with you in this manner:

"I see that you're trying to take pictures of Stonehenge. Would you like to choose from a menu of stock photos, all of which are superior to the crappy ones you have managed so far?"


*makes selection*

"Excellent choice. Would you like me to digitally place pictures of your family members in front of the stone?"


"Please select which of your ugly children you would like in the photo."


Thursday, September 04, 2014

British Isles trip, part 6: Ceramic poppies

Link to photo dump.

The photos here are of the most beautiful thing I saw on this trip. It's a large-scale art installation at the Tower of London, titled "Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red," by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. It commemorates the start of World War I a century ago. When finished, it will consist of 888,246 ceramic poppies in the space that used to be the moat around the Tower of London--one for every British military fatality during the war. The Tower of London is a fitting space for this installation, as it was a staging and training facility for the troops of that era.

The "flow" of poppies originates from a window near the northwest corner of the wall:

To the left as you face it (east), it continues down the length of the north wall...

...and around the next corner (note the location of the blue tarp for orientation).

To the right, the poppies flow around the northwest corner, and southward along the west wall.

Finally they spill over the south wall.

Even in its unfinished state, the installation is simply breathtaking. It is incredibly beautiful, yet terribly sad. It is simultaneously symbolic and horrifically literal. Nearly a million deaths just among the British troops--never mind all the other nations' losses, and all the civilian deaths, and all the wounded, and all the ones rendered homeless, displaced, impoverished, and psychologically devastated. And for what? For one of the stupidest, most pointless wars in history, the only important lasting effect of which was to set the stage for the even more ghastly World War II. You still hear it called the "great" war. I think the word in that phrase should always be rendered with quotation marks.

We humans aren't wired well to really grasp large numbers, like those in the hundreds of thousands or millions. That is, I think, part of what makes this installation so effective. The viewer--or, at least, this viewer--is overwhelmed by what that number means when translated into enumerably separate objects. Your focus can shift from the vast "sea of red"

down to a small, more comprehensible section,

and then even down to a single flower, and wonder who it might represent. Who died, and where, and how, and why, and who was left behind to mourn the loss?

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--John McCrae, May, 1915 

Addendum, October 3, 2014 

The installation is nearing completion, and you can see updated photos of it here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

British Isles trip, part 5: Tower of London

Link to photo dump.

I've been really chatty with previous posts in this series, so I think today I'll just put up these pictures without further comment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

British Isles trip, part 4: London

Link to photo dump.

London is one of the biggest, oldest, and most interesting cities in the world--and we saw about 0.0000001% of it.

I'm saving shots of the Tower of London for tomorrow. This is a sampling of the rest of what we saw.

The first two pictures are the gorgeous Natural History Museum. That these photos convey anything at all of its beauty is miraculous, considering that they were shot through the window of our tour bus--which is, sadly, the only way we saw the place.

One of the best things that the tour company did was hire local tour guides at our major stops. They were all absolutely first-rate. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of this chap in London, but he was a fount of knowledge and a sheer delight, too. [EDIT: My wonderful sister-in-law reminds me that his name was Patrick.]

That last shot is technically pure crapola. But it serves me well as an aide-memoir, to use a phrase my girlfriend taught me just the other day.

It had been a rough day. Dad woke up too sick to go sightseeing with us, and just stayed at the hotel to recover. I cut my touring short at noon, after the Tower of London, to go back to the hotel and check on him.

That afternoon, having convinced myself that Dad was safe to leave alone for a while, I looked around on Google Maps to see what interesting things might be within walking distance of our hotel that I could go out and see on my own. I was greatly surprised to discover that we were just one block away from the north perimeter road around Heathrow Airport, and that one of the two main runways was just a bit over 200 yards from a fence that looked like one might be able to get at on foot.

After dinner, I convinced my brother to go explore with me. We found our way between fences and buildings and got right up to that perimeter fence without being arrested, and watched a bunch of planes land. The very first one that came, as shown above, was one of the new Airbus A380 double-deckers, the largest passenger jet in the world, which I had never before seen in person.

One of the most-touted features of my new camera is its supposed superiority in low-light situations, so I was eager to try it here, and delighted that my very first shot was actually usable, even if a little blurred. (That plane was still moving really fast, and it was hard to frame it--especially shooting through a chain-link fence.)

Everything about the situation--having a little unauthorized fun adventure after a tiring and worrying day, having it with my big brother, seeing that model of plane for the first time, having my camera be reasonably successful in a technically challenging situation--it all just made me glowy and happy. That's why I like this picture far out of proportion to its aesthetic merits.

For the photo geeks among my readers, the camera chose ISO 1600, f3.5, and 1/160 second here.

Monday, September 01, 2014

PokerNews article #29

This one is about the problem of two players agreeing to "check it down" against a third, who is already all-in--a form of illegal collusion.

British Isles trip, part 3: Windsor Castle

Link to photo dump.

Just about everything that could go wrong, in terms of interfering with good picture-taking, did go wrong at Windsor Castle. It was cold, windy, and intermittently rainy. The crowds of people were impossible. We had flown all night and then gone straight from the airport to the castle, with no stop at the hotel for either sleep or freshening up, so I was cranky and sleep-deprived. Worst, you're not allowed to take any photos inside, where all the goodies are.

Not surprisingly, then, I have no photos that I'm proud of. Still, here's a sample of...

What We Saw 

N.B.: I won't keep reminding you of this, but you can see much bigger versions of any photo by right-clicking on it and opening in new tab or window.

Windsor Castle is stunning in just about every possible way. It's simply enormous--far bigger than you would ever think by looking at pictures. It's gorgeous. It's impeccably maintained. It's stuffed to the gills with the most obscenely ornate and expensive art and antiques. Its centuries of history ooze from every stone and furnishing. I would love to be set loose on its ground for about a week--with nobody else around--to take it all in and make some nice photos. Alas, that's not the circumstances I had. Not even close.

The only reason I have even one interior picture is that I snapped it before hearing the announcement that no inside photos were permitted.

Before I forget, let me mention that the staff here, and just about everywhere else we went, were absolutely first-rate about going out of their way to be helpful to our situation, which was usually one of us three kids (we're all in our 50s, but I still think of us that way collectively) pushing Dad in a wheelchair. He doesn't usually need it, but he was only three weeks out from major surgery when we flew to London. Frankly, it was a minor miracle that he was recovered enough to go at all. He needed the chair less and less as more days passed and he visibly regained some strength. But when we showed up anywhere with the wheelchair, the staff didn't wait for us to ask for help; they would assertively approach and escort us behind cordons to the lifts. (I actually got to see some cool stuff that's off-limits to the general public as a result of this, but obviously I couldn't whip out the camera at those spots.) Much gratitude to the employees at all the places we went who were so courteous. Windsor Castle was our first exposure to this kind of special treatment, and though the staff at the other sites came close, nobody else quite rose to the exceptionally high bar the people at Windsor set in this regard. Centuries-old buildings are intrinsically nightmarish for accessibility, but they did everything in their power to get us everywhere they could, without us even asking for the assistance.

I leave you with what I think is an amusing video clip of part of the changing of the guard. As you'll see, I unexpectedly found myself in the way of the regiment and had to scramble a bit to get to where I was just barely out of their marching line. In fact, that's really the only reason this video is worth sharing.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

British Isles trip, part 2: The selfies

No sooner do I tell you how I'm going to do posts in this series than I violate the protocol.

This is just a quick assembly of the selfies I took for posting on Twitter day by day, along with whatever I wrote about them when posted. They were taken with my cell phone, not the good camera. They were just silly shots to remind my friends that I was going places and seeing things.

August 18: I haven't mastered the "destination selfie" like @BJNemeth, but here I am at the Tower of London this morning.

August 19: For today's selfie, you have to guess where I am. NO HINTS!

August 20: Selfie-upon-Avon. (Today's tweet sponsored by Wm. Shakespeare.)  

August 21: Liverpool selfie. Like Paul, I'm the cute one.

August 22: The city of York formally expelled me for violating this ordinance. 

August 22: The City Council of Leeds commands you to litter. 

August 23: Today's selfie comes from the shore of Lake Windermere in NW England. I call it "Duckface with duck." 

August 24: Today's selfie comes to you from the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. 

August 24: Bonus selfie to induce envy in golfers. 

August 25: Today's selfie is from the top of Edinburgh Castle. 

August 26: Today's selfie is from the ferry from Scotland to Northern Ireland. It guest-stars my 91-year-old father. 

August 27: Today's selfie comes from Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland. It's one of the most amazing natural sights I've seen. 

August 28: Selfie with sister on tour bus in Dublin. Flying home tomorrow. 

August 28: Selfie with sister, s-in-law, brother, and father, last dinner of our big trip. (B-in-law sick, stayed at hotel.) 

OK, that's all of them. I'm really not as narcissistic as that series makes me seem, taken in all at once. They were just for funsies. After this post, I disappear behind the camera.