Saturday, September 20, 2014

British Isles trip, part 22: Northern Irish coast

Link to photo dump.

The coast of Northern Ireland from Belfast to Giant's Causeway (which will be the subject of tomorrow's post) is some of the most spectacularly beautiful land I've ever had the pleasure to see. Between the rocky coastline, the cliffs, the emerald farms, the stone walls, the random ruins, the quaint little towns--it's all just stunning.

As if that weren't enough, the day we made this drive gave us maybe the most photographically interesting weather, rapidly shifting back and forth between sunny bright and darkly overcast, making for what I think is a really lovely range of lighting--plus a bunch of dramatic clouds being all dramatic--in the final shots I captured.

Now for a few specifics:

These roads were made a long time before anybody thought of using them for large tour buses. I was in the front seat, so was in a position to grab this quick shot of one of the tunnels we had to squeeze through, complete with the reflection in the windshield of Roger, our great driver (who was probably a bit white-knuckled at this exact moment).

Also on board was our excellent local tour guide, who was fascinating in every way. He's a native speaker of Gaellic, with English as a second language, which gives him an accent unlike any I've heard before. He also has a history of having spent several years in prison in his youth for his separatist, anti-British political activities. As you might imagine, he had some impassioned views and intriguing insights about the whole history of "the troubles." We got to listen to him all day, and it still wasn't enough for me. (And, of course, I remember everything about him except his name, to my great shame. EDIT: Eugene! See comments.) Standing on the coach with him is Hannah, one of our tour leaders.

This is the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. If you open it in a new tab and look at it full size, you can probably see a few brave souls walking across it. I was not one of them, and never will be. I trust that it is now structurally sound and won't plunge me to my death in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, but I would not enjoy the fear the journey would induce. I'm already sufficiently aware of my own mortality, thankyouverymuch.

I have mentioned before that my girlfriend has this thing for rust as a photographic subject, so when I see an especially lovely-looking patch of it and have a few minutes, I try to compose a shot just for her. When the coaches stopped for a restroom break in a little town, and I noticed a boat on a trailer across the road, I saw just such an opportunity: 

When I was finally home and could view that image at full size on my computer, I wasn't really sure if it the picture worked, because of the shallow depth of field the camera had given me rendering everything except the end of the chain blurry--an effect more pronounced than I had in my mind's eye. So I thinks, "Well, if the camera is giving me only a small bit in focus, maybe I should try making that the whole picture." Which led me to experimenting with this extreme crop: 

But maybe that's a little too much crop, so I tried this halfway version:

Which one do you like best?

Oh, and there's another little visual quiz hidden in today's post. The first 11 pictures (i.e., all of the ones before I started chatting about separate shots) share an unusual photographic feature or technique. Did I take them with my cell phone camera instead of my good camera? Did I steal them from web sites without attribution? Did I actually take them in South America, and lie about them being on the Irish coast? OK, it's not any of those, but it is something. Can you guess what the secret is? I'll put the answer in the first comment.

If you want another hint, go to the "photo dump" link above and look at the same pictures there, clicking on the "photo details" button. The data the camera embeds when it takes the photo provides another hint, though it's kind of subtle.

Friday, September 19, 2014

British Isles trip, part 21: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Link to photo dump.

It was just a coincidence that we arrived in Edinburgh at the tail end of the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Wikipedia says that it is "the world's largest arts festival, with the 2012 event spanning 25 days totalling over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues."

I didn't go to any of the shows. I just wandered around looking at the rides and vendors and street performers along the main drag, called the Royal Mile. (That Ferris wheel looked fun, but I distrust rides set up temporarily for fairs.)

I liked the framing of this next shot as soon as I noticed it, for exactly one reason: the odd (and only temporary, because of the festival) juxtaposition would allow me to title it "Castle and Bouncy Castle."

Neither part of that was really true. The "castle" is just a monument--though a huge one, to be sure--to Sir Walter Scott. (Kudos to Cyndie, who climbed the stairs all the way to the top of it.) And the "bouncy castle" is actually a water ride in which the riders don't get wet. They enter these clear plastic spheres that get carried along in the stream. But I stuck with the picture anyway, because I still thought it was funny.

What follows is a bunch of pictures of some of the hundreds upon hundreds of posters I saw advertising the festival's shows. Some impulse in me made me decide to take pictures of the ones that I would have been interested in seeing if I had been there for the festival, so that you can see what peculiar (scary?) taste I have.

If you've never been exposed to the idea of a "fringe festival" before, well, now you have a taste for how bizarre they are.

But here's the real meat of this post: the street performers.



Blues singer:

That's my voice you hear at the beginning. He saw me pull out my camera, correctly deduced that I was going to make a video of his next song, and started calling me "Mr. Video." And yes, I kept my promise. (In fact, I contributed to the collections of all the performers I taped.) I threw my last few small coins in his guitar case. Then I came back later after having bought a couple of things and breaking my bills, listened through three more songs, and bought one of his CDs for six pounds, plus an extra pound for the good street show. I liked him a lot.

(By the way, a shout-out to my awesome new camera here. I can't tell you in a number of lux how much light there was where Richard Blues was playing--but I can tell you that it wasn't much. The sun had gone down hours before, and he basically had on him just the incidental light that spilled out of a couple of nearby shops. Sony is trying to distinguish its camera from the competition by giving them far larger sensors, which, among other advantages, gives them superior low-light capability. See here and here. I'm positive that if I had tried to shoot this with my old camera, you'd have seen some vague, grainy black shapes moving against a black background, with a bit of stray light coming from the edges. With what I got--well, nobody's going to be fooled into thinking that it was high noon, but it's usable, which, in a situation like this, is all you can ask for, and more than you usually get.)

Wandering around the streets of downtown Edinburgh was the first extended block of time I had had by myself since my solitary walk along the banks of the Avon river in Stratford. Of course, it wasn't as scenic or tranquil as that; few things could be. But it was weird and energizing and delightful in its own way, and I'm immensely glad I got the chance to do it.


I fell in love with Scotland when I was there. Well, OK, maybe more like a schoolboy crush than an outright love affair. But if I had a chance to go back and spend more time in any one of the five nations that we visited (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Republic of Ireland), Scotland would easily be my first choice. It was far more gorgeous and interesting than I had ever previously given it credit for being.

Because of that experience, I was watching yesterday's independence referendum with a lot more sense of emotional investment than I otherwise would have. My first day there, I saw signs all over saying just "No," or "No, thanks," and I didn't even know what the issue was. My understanding evolved rapidly as I read more about it.

I concluded that it would be a big mistake for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom--not just because of the pang of breaking up a historically successful union, but because I believe it would have entailed much more economic malaise than most independence supporters acknowledged, with little compensatory gain, other than some vague--and ultimately useless--sense of nationalistic pride. The "no" campaign had a corny slogan, but it was true: "Better together." I was, therefore, relieved to wake up today to the news that the referendum had been defeated.

But--and I realize I'm hardly the only one to see this point--the whole process was a triumph, regardless of which way the vote went. One of the world's great powers allowed one of its constituent states to freely decide whether to stay or leave. There was a thorough, vigorous national debate, followed by a fair election, with over 85% voter turnout. They even lowered the voting age to 16 for this special occasion to maximize the input from the citizens affected.

There was no threat of military, paramilitary, guerrilla, or terrorist action in case either side lost. There was no violent intimidation of voters. As far as we know so far, there was no manipulation of the ballots or the counting. Even the presentation of the question on the ballots themselves was a model of simplicity and clarity: "Should Scotland be an independent nation?", with one giant box to mark "yes," one giant box to mark "no." (Florida, take note!)

Now that it's over, the losers are not threatening to gain their preferred outcome by violence. In fact, they won what will likely be considerable concessions toward more powerful home rule, though those details have not yet been hammered out.

I liked the way that NPR's Scott Simon put it in a tweet a couple of days ago: "I don't get a vote on Scotland. But the impassioned but civil debate suggests they've created a great democracy together."

It is without even a sliver of exaggeration that I say that this was a shining example to the world for how such matters should be decided. It was a beautiful thing, befitting a beautiful nation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

PokerNews article #31

In which I try to explain the myriad of different straddle rules.

British Isles trip, part 20: Edinburgh Castle

Link to photo dump.

Edinburgh Castle is--are you ready for this?--an amazing place. It is not a single building, but a complex of buildings erected at various times over the last thousand years, like a small, walled city. I was overwhelmed by the power and majesty of the way the whole complex rises out of the cliff faces, as if when ancient geologic forces thrust the mountain up, it had the castle walls already attached. No photograph will ever do justice to that sight, I'm afraid. You'll just have to go there yourself.

The oldest surviving part of the castle is St. Margaret's Chapel, built in the early 12th century.

I made a rookie mistake with this next photo: shooting into the sun, instead of walking around to the other side of the cannon. I didn't notice the awful lens flare until I was back home, and it was a little late to go back and try again. But I wanted to show it to you anyway, because I like guns, and guns don't come much more magnificent than this beast.

The two explanatory signs for the cannon:

Here's a spot in the castle that's easy to miss: a tiny cemetery for soldiers' dogs.

I don't think there's any way for the public to get access to the dogs' cemetery for a closer look; you have to kind of lean forward over a railing and peer almost straight down on it. When I look at the full-sized photograph, most of the stones are too eroded to read, but I can make out a few of the dogs' names: Tinker, Flora, Sheena, Don, Major. The clearest one is on the flat-topped stone, two to the left of the sign, top center of the picture:

[illegible] WILSON PATERSON 
JUNE 1917 

Our wonderful guide for Edinburgh, with two of his many lady admirers from our tour group. (And yes, dammit, I've forgotten his name again!) 

This was only the second time that I tried the automatic panorama feature of my new camera. It seemed fitting, as we had a truly panoramic view of the city from the castle. I just held down the shutter release as I panned left to right, and the camera's software instantly did the digital stitching. 

OK, enough chat. Now I'll shut up and just let you enjoy the views. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

British Isles trip, part 19: Edinburgh

Link to photo dump.

I had no idea Edinburgh was so gorgeous. It may be the most beautiful city I've ever seen.

Now, if I have sufficiently impressed you with the city's overall gorgeosity, let me show you a few specific landmarks.

Edinburgh Castle (about which I'll have an entire separate post tomorrow):

The famous Firth of Forth rail bridge (or at least as much of it as I could get into the frame):

I first learned of this bridge, and the body of water it spans, from Alfred Hitchcock's great 1935 thriller, "The 39 Steps." Here's a link to the scene in which the bridge figures prominently. Let it play for 6 minutes from that point, or to about the 27:45 mark.

This is an ordinary-looking door. OK, it's not just an ordinary-looking door, it's an ordinary door. At least it is until you zoom in on the plaque beside it.

(He was born in 1850, so he lived here from age 7 to age 30--not during his novel-writing years.)

I tried to get an artsy-fartsy shot of the top of a subway entrance near our hotel (you see part of the same structure in the 6th photo above), because its ceiling is glass and supported by these cool multi-fingered posts, so that the whole thing made a visually compelling blend of patterns and transparency and reflections. At least out in the real world it did. As for the photo, I'm not sure. I've stared at it a whole bunch, and I just can't tell whether it's successful. I alternate between thinking it's interesting and thinking it's a mess. You be the judge.

Maybe it's better in black and white?

Finally, I'll leave you with a photo guessing game. I noticed that sometimes it's hard to tell whether a building in these old cities is a church, a castle, a museum, a hotel, or a government office--especially when you see only part of it. Which do you think this is?

I'll put the answer in the first comment.