Foto Friday LXXX

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The beginning of last week coincided with the peak for the annual Perseid meteor shower.  Luckily for me, the sky here in the UK was without a cloud on Monday night and provided some great views of the stars.  I sought out a spot a few miles outside of town hoping to get away from the lights, and found a good one near Hinksey hill.  Naturally I brought my camera and tripod along to try and catch a meteor with a photograph but this proved to be much more difficult than I had expected.  I couldn’t quite get the settings right to keep the stars from becoming lines, but also to maximize the amount of light coming in.  It was a trial and error way to learn, and after about an hour I mostly made errors.  I did get to see a ton of meteors across the sky though, it was about one per minute.  I have three or four pictures with what could be a meteor streaking across them, but upon closer inspection I think they were just satellites.  And the image above is neither, this is a plane that was coming in to land at Oxford’s airport.  The plane happened to come in just as I was in between shots so watched it come into frame and took the picture.  It turned out to be pretty cool.

30s f/3.5 18mm ISO 1600.  Contrast adjusted and cropped.  Au revoir until next week.

Foto Friday LXXVIII

 

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I like this week’s edition of Foto Friday for several reasons.  Can you tell what you are looking at?  In focus is the pollen producing reproductive organ of a flower.  The brown part is the anther and the light green stalk it is connected to at the top is the filament, and together they form the stamen, or the male part of the flower.  One of my favorite tech blogs has a weekly photography challenge and last week they asked for macro shots of plants – right up my alley.  With a little help and encouragement I took about 100 photos one afternoon, but this was my favorite because it is so close up, and because it is a different perspective for looking at flowers.  I submitted this picture to the contest, and although I didn’t win I’m still happy.  (click here for the post about the winners).  I am happy because one of my goals for 2013 was to submit my photography for a contest, but also because my picture was chosen to feature in their online gallery.  There are some amazing pictures in that gallery, and I recommend taking a look if you like macro shots of flowers.  I’m also happy because the winners did a lot of processing to get their images just right, and I didn’t do very much at all which encourages me to learn more about photography and post-processing to make my stuff even better.

1/80s f/6.3 60mm ISO 500.  Brightness adjusted.  Au revoir until next week

Foto Friday LVI

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Sometimes the best sales pitch is very simple.  For example take the following exchange I had last weekend:

Clerk at flower counter in Paddington: “You alright?”

Me: “yes thank you.  well actually, I’m trying to decide if I want to buy one of these or not”

Clerk: “a single rose?  what do you have to decide?”

Me: “we are going out on the town and I’m not sure what she’ll do with it”

Clerk: “she’ll know what to do with it.  *wink”

Me: SOLD.

1/60s f/4.0 60mm ISO 3200. Color selection and HDR toning adjustments.  Au revior until next week.

Goals for 2013

Each January right around the New Year celebrations I make a list of goals for the upcoming calendar year, and also have a look back at how well I managed to do on my list from the past year. I choose goals instead of resolutions, because I don’t need to change my life – rather I have some things I would like to achieve. Let’s start with my list for 2012, and my analysis of if I met these goals.

1. Visit five new countries. Not quite. I did manage to get to two new countries (Czech Republic and Germany) but also visited some old favorites again (France (x2) and Spain).  Although this doesn’t count as five new countries, I’m still happy with my travels.

2. Compete in an organized race. Success.  If you have read my site for a while, you may have seen the recap of my Tough Mudder.  It was tough, but a lot of fun and a turning point in my year.  I might even do another one this summer if I can get my friends to join me.

3. Gain 10 pounds.  Success.  I just hit the scale this morning and am definitely 10 pounds heavier than I was at this time last year.  In fact, I’m going to try and gain 10 pounds again this year.  It will be easier now that I have a good routine and training buddy, as well as the opportunity to take my bike out for long rides again once the weather warms up.

4. Try as many new things as possible.  Success?  I’m not really sure how to quantify this one.  I definitely pushed myself this year to say “yes” more often than “no”, and I enjoyed doing so.  I took more risks, spent more money, and slept a lot less relative to previous years – but all in the spirit of having fun.  So yes, success.

Not a bad year, all things considered.  So how about the year to come?  After some quick reflection on the goals I put forward for 2012, I would like to carry those over into this next year as well, but that isn’t all.

1.  Play a new sport.  Or at least new to me again.  This could be something that requires a holiday environment like skiing or scuba diving, but could also be picking up something like ultimate frisbee or golf again.  Sports are an important part of life, I need to get back to it.

2. See the Aurora Borealis.  This one will be a double whammy becaues it will likely take me to a new country as well.  I can’t be guaranteed to see anything, but at least I’ll try.

3. Submit one of my pictures to a competition or gallery. I have been encouraged by friends to think about submitting my work somewhere.  Regular readers of this site get to see my best shots featured in a weekly gimmick called Foto Friday.  I have also put them all up in a picasa gallery so you don’t have to click through all of my posts, but sometimes the stories that go along with them are the best part.

4. Learn a new language.  Or at least try to learn one.  I failed miserably at this one in 2011, but I want to give it another shot.  Part of what I like about being over here is traveling, and all the different languages you hear, so why not try and be like EVERYONE ELSE in the world and learn a second language?

I have a feeling that this next year is going to be a good one.  Not only will it bring a lot of change in my life, but also a lot of happiness and fun.  I look forward to what 2013 has in store.

Mud, Wet, and Fears

Some of you may know that I recently participated in an extreme endurance race called Tough Mudder.  In short, it is a 10-12mile run littered with 20+ military style obstacles designed to test both your physical and mental stamina. TM is the largest and most commercial name in the quickly expanding market of adventure racing (Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, Savage Race etc) and is certainly a spectacle of athleticism, teamwork, and fun.  Often referred to as “Ironman meets Burning Man,” the race definitely targets my demographic, but the participants weren’t all frat boys and gym rats.  There were men and women of various athletic abilities, from former Olympic medalists to guys that seem to curl a lot more 500mL glasses than weights.  And the attire ranged from normal running clothes, to full body costumes, to just Speedos and sombreros.

My race was the first Tough Mudder to occur here in the UK, and was located at the magnificent Boughton Estate in Northamptonshire.  You can see the course and the “official” obstacles on the map above (click to expand), but the designers definitely used the terrain to their advantage putting us through several natural obstacles as well.  Along the 12 mile route we jumped in and out of fresh water, crawled under barbed wire, climbed over walls of wood and hay, slid through drain pipes, battled electric shocks, and got really really muddy. I felt like a kid again, it was so much fun.

I’ll walk you through all of the obstacles and my experience after the jump, but in the meantime this video is worth a watch to get a first-hand account of my course.  This is a nice 12 min summary of the course as seen from a head cam, these guys were a couple heats after me.

Follow the link below to find out much more detail of my race, from training to recovery (warning: long read).

Continue reading Mud, Wet, and Fears

A Gentleman’s Game

I played a new sport yesterday, see if you can guess which one based on the following description:

  • You have two sides, one out in the field and one in.
  • Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out.
  • When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out.
  • Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
  • When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in.
  • There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.
  • When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

If you guessed cricket, the national sport of England, you would be correct.  A few weeks ago an email went around my department asking for people that might be interested in playing in an inter-departmental competition.  This seemed like my best opportunity to try playing, so following one of my New Years goals, I said yes to something new.

I spent one of the first weeks on the sideline getting a play by play the entire time of what was going on in order to learn the rules.  Once I was sure that I had a solid grounding of how the game was played, I signed up for a couple of practice sessions to make sure that I could actually play.  Well, the first practice session morphed into a friendly with one of the college teams, so I was forced to learn on the fly.

Cricket is a bat-and-ball game, similar to baseball, and I’ll be comparing the two sports throughout this post.  A cricket ball is slightly smaller and slightly heavier than a baseball, but the two are very similar.  The cricket ball is cork and wound string inside and also covered in leather, but as you can see there is one large seam down the middle instead of twin stitch seams on a baseball.  Another difference is the way the two are thrown.  Baseball has a “pitcher” that starts from a stationary point and winds up to throw to the catcher.  Cricket has a “bowler” who often takes a running start to a specific release point and the arm must be straight and wound in a circular fashion while the ball heads toward three wickets at the other end.  All this really means is that during our pre-match warmups although I could throw it hard on target, I couldn’t manage the correct technique and therefore would not be called on during the match for fear of penalty.

The equivalent to the infield is a 22 yard long ten foot patch of grass/dirt seen in the center of the picture above.  One team bats, trying to score as many runs as possible while the other team bowls and fields, trying to dismiss the batsmen and thus limit the runs scored by the batting team. A run is scored by the striking batsman hitting the ball with his bat, running to the opposite end of the pitch and touching the crease there without being dismissed. The teams switch between batting and fielding at the end of an inning.  We were playing a shortened game (20 overs for each team) so I considered this switch to be halftime.

And at halftime we got to head into one of the college buildings for tea and sandwiches and cakes.  I’m not kidding.  One of my teammates asked me if I was coming in for tea and I laughed, then I realized he was serious and followed him inside.  Biochemistry (my team) was fielding first, and I was actually pretty good in the field.  I can track the balls once they are hit easily, run relatively quickly to one if it comes in my direction, and throw darts in to the wicket keeper (catcher).  This is one area that playing baseball helped me.  In fact, one of the guys said that some of the top cricket teams are bringing in fielding coaches from Major League Baseball to teach their guys how to field better.

The batting part wasn’t nearly as easy for me to pick up as the fielding.  A cricket bat is shorter, heavier and wider than a baseball bat.  It is also more awkward to swing if you are used to playing golf and baseball.  To use baseball terms, my swings were basically vertical bunts with a follow through.  Once learned I’m sure that a cricket bat is more versatile than a baseball bat actually, because you can use it for blocking and defense, or for offense with an all out swing.

First and foremost though, the job of the batsman is to protect the wickets. Wickets  are three wooden poles situated directly behind the batsman and the bowler on the other end is trying to throw the ball at these poles for a direct hit.  If this happens the batter is bowled out.  There are several ways batters can also get out including being caught out (like a fly ball) or run out (like being thrown out at the plate).  Batters can stay in for many bowls as long as they don’t make any mistakes and the runs sort of accumulate depending on how they actually hit it.  A short hit past some of the defenders may be 1 run (like a single) or a hit deeper into the field can go for more if you run back and forth enough (like doubles and triples).  The circular outfield also has a boundary, and if the ball goes past the boundary on the ground it is four points (kind of like a ground rule double) and if the ball clears the boundary in the air it is six points (homerun).

I was really hoping for a couple of singles and maybe a double.  The first few bowls to me were wide outside so even if I swung and missed, there was no penalty except a loss of scoring opportunity on the bowl.  Once I got settled a little bit the next few resulted in solid connections but went right to the fielder so essentially another loss of a scoring opportunity.  Every 6 bowls is considered an “over” and after each over the bowlers switch directions and a new bowler pitches to the batsman on the other side of the pitch.  I made it through one over fine, no offense but solid defending my wickets.  After scoring a few runs on my fellow batsman’s hits the over was again finished and it was my turn to face a new bowler.

This is where my experience in baseball failed me.  This one threw heat.  In baseball if you are standing near the plate and a ball comes a little too close to you inside, many batters will let it go by hoping for a “ball” call.  In cricket the batsman is almost blocking the wickets with his body, but actually doing so is illegal and will result in an out.  So there I was, essentially standing over the wickets waiting for the bowler.  After a big run-up and huge wind-up the ball came flying at me at a speed that I had not seen before.  All my newly learned blocking and hitting techniques went out the window and I resorted to do what I would have done for an inside pitch in baseball, watched it go by.  Unfortunately for me, the ball went right past me and right into the wicket.  I was bowled out.  Crap.

Picture above is the scoreboard, with our team’s score being the dismal one.  We were pleased that we were able to hold the opposition to 89 runs, but unfortunately our big hitters all got caught out and our final hopes came down to me , and, well, you just read how that went.

In summary I had a great time learning to play a new sport.  I was pleased how my fielding went, think that I can figure out bowling with some practice, and am not surprised that I can’t hit.  I can knock the dimples off of a golf ball but for some reason could never really hit a baseball.  Maybe batting will get easier with practice.  I hope look forward to the opportunity.

Foto Friday XXV

Let’s just gloss over the fact that insects and flowers are my only shooting subjects so far, and pay more attention to how crazy this bug looks.  I was minding my own business and learning how the aperture settings on my macro lens affect pictures when this thing flew into the flower patch I was photographing.  It is about the same size as what I call the B-52 bumble bees, yet it only has one set of wings and a long slender proboscis, more like a fly. It hovered above the flowers to clean itself and look at me, but perched on the flower to feed, again more like a fly.  Well, a quick Google search shows that this is called Bombylius major, otherwise known as the large bee-fly.  It is a fly that has evolved to mimic a bee, but without the stinging.  And now you know what it is, besides creepy looking.

1/250s f/5.0 60mm ISO 100.  Cropped. Au revior until next week.

Is Tiger back? Does anyone care?

It isn’t very easy for me to keep up with American sports, mostly because all the best games are played in prime time back home and this is WAY past my bedtime during the week.  I have made an effort to watch the NCAA tournament because it is very entertaining and I enjoy the madness.  So last night around 11:30pm I was probably watching UNC-Kansas right?  Wrong.  I was watching golf.

Why was I watching golf?  Well, Tiger Woods was on his way to winning his first official tournament since his much publicized and deserved fall from grace, and I wanted to see it.  I found myself cheering for him to make good shots, and smiling at the end when it was obvious that he was going to win.  And I wasn’t the only one cheering for him, check out the crowd and listen to the announcers in this recap of the final hole:

The announcers are giddy talking about his return to winning, and the crowd goes nuts just like they used to.  At the 5 min mark you can hear the crowd start to get excited, and you can see the deep galleries running after him.  They even chant his name at the end.  I have to admit, I was equally excited to see him win.

Then I got to thinking, why am I so excited about Tiger winning a golf tournament?  The answer is plain and simple, because I am a fan and he is the best golfer I have ever seen.  There was about a ten year stretch where he won something like 65 tournaments, 13 of them majors, and was unbeatable if he had a lead on the final day.  It was fun to watch a player dominate the game of golf like he did.  Of course I am going to cheer him on, I want him to win like that again.  I am all in on Tiger Woods the golfer.

So where do I stand on Tiger Woods the person?  I’m not sure.  I never really followed him as a person, he was always a bit too boring.  His interviews left me feeling like he was a well-educated robot with the right answer pre-prepared.  He never seemed to have the connection with his fans on a human level, but that was fine because he was so damn good at golf.  His personal life falling apart in a very public way changed all that.  People that weren’t even interested in golf had an opinion of Tiger, and 99% of those opinions were negative.  And I don’t disagree, he made some terrible decisions and brought everything on himself.  But I am also of the opinion that he has paid his price, and should be allowed to learn from his mistakes and start over.

If you fast forward to 8:45 of the video above, you can see the relief and joy in his face, and as a person who has gone through some tough times recently I am happy for him.  And as a fan of golf?  I’m ecstatic.  What do you think?

Wheelin and dealin

You know how just last week I wrote a post gushing about my new bike?  Well, I’m sad to say that my new bike has already fallen apart.  Don’t worry, it hasn’t completely fallen apart, but two of the major components are in a state not normally found in a bike that is two weeks old.  Both of my wheels had buckled and and needed to be trued.

If you aren’t familiar with how bike wheels work, the tension of the spokes is what will maintain the roundness.  I could feel both of my wheels wobble, and it was really obvious when watching them spin.  This means that some of my spokes were pulling too hard or too gently in one direction or the other.  Closer inspection showed at least 4 completely loose spokes on each wheel – completely unacceptable in a new bike.

Now I could have fixed them myself, but it takes the right combination of equipment and skill and I didn’t just pay a lot of money for a new bike only to have to fix a structural problem within the first 75 miles.  So I took it back to the shop to complain, and the guys agreed this kind of thing shouldn’t happen.

Now the Brits aren’t particularly well-known for their customer service, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  They logged my complaint and said that they would get back to me on what was probably a warranty issue.  Four days after not hearing as much as an idea of when to expect a resolution, I wandered back in to the shop.  And what did I find?  My bike was fixed and had two brand new wheels.

And not just replacements of the originals, I had been upgraded.  My lovely new bike now sports a new pair of Mavic rims that even contained an upgraded hub.  These rims are much stronger and designed to take the beating of a daily commute on roads that aren’t always smooth.  Unfortunately in this case, the tradeoff to strength is weight, and these are a little heavier than the ones I used to have but I’m sure they will be just as fast and I’m much happier knowing they are built to last.  And the best part?  I got £180 worth of new wheels on someone else’s dime (Specialized).

This post fits into the category of Life Lessons because I have a good one to share: support local bike shops.  I know they can be overpriced, and I don’t often follow my own life lesson as many items are more easily found and cheaper online.  Three weeks ago when I went bike shopping I had every intention to find the bike I wanted locally and then buy it for less online.  I do this with almost everything that I buy and it has treated me well so far.  After taking my bike for a test spin I found it priced a little cheaper in a quick Google search on my phone and was sure that I’d buy it online.  I was close to telling to guy that I’d have to think about it and leaving, but something in my head said that it might be worth buying it here.  Maybe it was the two free services and the idea that I could come back in should anything go wrong, or maybe it was my need for instant gratification that I couldn’t leave the shop that day without my new bike.  I don’t really know.  Probably a mixture of both.  But I do know this, the guys over at Beeline Bicycles on Cowley road have done right by me so far and I would recommend them to anyone looking for a nice bike here in town.

Please stop the ringing

Put yourself in my shoes for this simple experiment:  Find a place that is completely quiet, devoid of any mechanical or natural noises (like a listening room, or maybe bedroom late at night) and sit in peace and quiet for a few minutes.  Do you hear anything?  I certainly do.  I get a constant high-pitched ring.  I currently suffer from a symptom called Tinnitus, which is defined as the sensation of sound in the absence of an external source.  What is the cause of this problem?  Well to get at the problem, we should first understand the complicated organ that is the human ear.

I’ll turn this over to a handy explanation from the British Tinnitis Association.

Essentially it is a very sensitive vibration sensor but is particularly designed to receive the minute longitudinal vibrations in air that make up sound waves. The human ear is broken down into 3 parts: the outer, middle and inner ears. The outer ear is in essence a funnel that ‘catches’ and focuses sound waves down onto the ear drum or tympanic membrane. The middle ear takes the relatively low intensity vibrations of the eardrum and ‘magnifies’ them through 3 little bones: the malleus, incus and stapes respectively. Finally the vibrations of the stapes are transmitted through the oval window membrane to the fluids of the inner ear (cochlea). It is here, in the inner ear, that the fluid vibrations lead to bending of the minute hair cells of the cochlea. It is this bending that causes tiny electrical signals to be passed through the auditory nerve to the brain where they are interpreted as sounds that we can then make sense of. The human ear can detect sounds from 20Hertz (very low pitch) to 20,000Hertz (very high pitch) but is particularly sensitive to sounds in the range of 500-5000Hertz. These are the so-called speech frequencies and are especially important for human social communication.

The ear is also able to deal with a huge range of sound intensity (volume) from the quietest whisper or rustle of grass, to the sound of a jumbo-jet taking off! As the range of sound intensities (volume) which the ear can hear is so great, a logarithmic scale is used to measure the sound levels. This scale is called the decibel scale. So a sound of 20dB is not twice as loud as a sound of 10dB but in fact is 10 times as loud! Unfortunately, the ear, and in particular the cochlea or inner ear, can also be damaged by exposure to too much of the energy it was designed to detect. In other words, too much noise can cause damage to the ear and even make you deaf!

So too much noise could cause the ringing I experience?  What have I done lately that involves excessive noise?

I took this picture at the Ministry of Sound, one of two live events I went to recently that had very loud music.  And although the MoS boasts a  system capable of putting out 150dB worth of sound waves, I don’t think that this is the only problem.  I wore musicians earplugs which are designed to attenuate the sound without limiting the frequency range.  It is normal to experience hearing loss or ringing in your ears after an event like a concert, this is called a Temporary Threshold Shift.  It is believed that TTS is due to metabolic exhaustion of the hair cells of the cochlea. This can recover with a period of ‘rest’ as the background noise levels fall, and most people recover within a day or two.

So if it isn’t concerts, what are some other reasons for my tinnitus?  Most of you will probably suggest that I always have music playing and that music usually funnels through my headphones.  While I acknowledge that it is possible that my ears are exhausted because of my constant music playing, I’m not convinced that this is the cause either.  The volume of music pumping through my Sennheisers is not really much higher than the background noise where I work, I just prefer to listen to The Black Keys rather than the refrigeration unit on our -80C freezer or an annoying labmate.  And actually, I would argue that I listen to music all the time because of my tinnitis.  I do not enjoy silence because I never actually get it, so instead I drown out the ringing with music.  I have thought about this one a lot, and it hits home.

In fact, the more I think about it the more I am convinced I have suffered from tinnitus for a long time.  Individuals that have experienced a Permanent Threshold Shift won’t necessarily notice a loss in hearing, but but often report difficulty understanding what people are saying, particularly in the presence of background noise.  Again this one hits home as I have a hard time hearing people in the pub or when out to dinner, which may be part of the reason I am loud (not discounting alcohol and the fact that I am American though.)  PTS is due to damage or even death of the delicate hair cells of the cochlea, and this is very likely what has happened to me.

Then again, it is also possible that the fluid in my head due to a cold that won’t go away is the cause, and the caffeine in the tea I drink all day actually stimulates the nerves in my ears, amplifying the ringing.  Perhaps this is true and my symptoms will disappear once I get healthy?  Not a lot of hope in this possibility from me, I’m sure that I’ll always suffer a little bit.

The good news is that my life has not been seriously affected by the ringing in my head.  I don’t lose sleep at night or have problems concentrating like some people, probably because my brain filters out the noise most of the time and I have learned to live with it.  I might also try to give my ears a break for a couple of weeks to see if the “rest” helps those little cochlear hairs to stop going crazy.  I’ll be sure to let you know once I don’t hear anything.