Blue Coffee Box

Since moving to suburbia, a Saturday morning run to Monmouth Coffee’s near-by roasting house to taste their current selection has required a lot more effort and travel.  The best alternative I have found is a coffee subscription: I am unable to taste a selection of coffees before purchase but it does ensure I have a constant supply of fresh and delicious beans available at home.

The good news for me and my fellow suburban dwellers is that there are an increasing number of home delivery options available and the nice people at Blue Coffee Box have just sent me one of their signature boxes containing three 155g bags of beans to try. The box is beautifully presented with a card describing the farm where the coffee was grown, and a few words to describe the flavours you might notice.

My box contains three coffees, two roasted by the same boutique team, Gentlemen Baristas in East London, and another by a small two-person roaster in Yorkshire. The post was unable to get it through our standard-sized letterbox but he was  happy to leave it in a safe place so there was no hassle receiving it. When I tested the parcel in the letterbox I could just about get it through, but it was a tight fit and required some wiggling—your mileage may vary, as they say.

A full review of the coffees will follow when I have had chance to fully enjoy them, but if any reader would like to try a box for themselves then the company have generously provided a £5 discount code for you—enter TBTO5 at checkout to claim.

Centre Court – Saturday 14th July 2018

Play started an hour earlier than usual with the continuation of last night’s epic Djokovic versus Nadal semi-final. Suspended at 11pm with the score Djokovic leading 2 sets to 1, since the match had started with the roof closed it continued under the roof, despite the hot sunshine. The closed roof added to the intensity of the match, and while the air conditioning kept the temperature pleasant, it created a very dry atmosphere—I was glad the roof was open for the subsequent matches.

Nadal came out of the chair firing on all cylinders and raced to a 3-0 lead in the first set played today. It was a weird pattern but every set where I was away from my seat for the first 3 games featured a break of serve! In all but one case this was subsequently wiped out so I didn’t feel I had missed the crucial part of the set. Despite being broken back by Djokovic, Nadal conjured up another break and served out the set to take us to a decider. The crowd was ecstatic—never could they have imagined when they purchased their ticket for the Ladies Final that there would be an hors d’oeuvre of this quality.

The tennis in that final set was sublime. Big power shots that would normally be winners repeatedly returned, break points denied by ace after ace, and sliced backhands sliding low over the net—a masterclass in shot making and retrieving from both players. After the score passed six games-all the tension ratcheted up to 11. After two hours of sitting the body starts to yearn to stretch, but the crowd remained packed, no one wanting to leave and potentially miss the decisive game. Nadal went 15-40 down, but recovered. Then it was Djokovic’s turn to overturn break points. But you felt Djokovic had the upper hand serving first and Nadal might just be running out of steam quicker than his opponent. And then suddenly it was 0-40 to Djokovic, three match points, and a forehand into the net from Nadal brought this exquisite contest to a conclusion after five hours and fourteen minutes on court.

Serena Williams versus Angelique Kerber promised to be a very different affair. An early break of Serena’s serve was wiped out to love in the fourth game. But Serena never looked comfortable on court—measured and almost a little weary between points—in contrast to her opponent who chased every ball with a spritely energy that produced winners off well placed balls that would ordinarily been good enough to force an error. When Serena tried counteract that by upping the aggression of her shots, she pushed the ball long and Kerber’s decisive steady play made her a deserving champion.

The Men’s Doubles offered an enjoyable dessert to the day. Bryan and Sock clinching the first and third sets with a single break, and their opponents Klaasen and Venus being worthy winners of a tight second set tie break. The fourth set looked to be heading to another tie break, Bryan saving break point at 5-6 with a big serve, but then on the next break point a careless foot fault (his second of the game) lost them the set! It was 9pm so the roof was closed and we were presented another fifth set shoot out under the lights.

The fifth set followed the pattern of the previous ones with few chances for either side—this was another masterclass display of high quality doubles tennis from two evenly matched teams. Balls rifled low and at the body of the net player returned by swift and dexterous reflexes. And then, in the 11th game, at 30-30 on their serve, the fine balance of play dipped slightly against Venus and Klaasen to give the tiniest of openings for their opponents to break serve, which they took. Now, Mike Bryan—villain of the 12th game in the previous set—was presented the chance to serve for the Championship. There was no repeat of the self-inflicted errors, and the title was won!

Sea Life Sydney Aquarium

Sydney is defined by its ocean setting, so what better way to experience the ocean than to visit the Aquarium! On a weekday not in the school holidays the queue to buy tickets was long and slow, and we had to purchase our tickets via smartphone from the queue!

Sydney 2018: An Instagram #Holiday 🇦🇺

When visiting a city for a few days at a relaxed pace, hanging out with locals, and staying in a residential neighbourhood rather than a touristy one, it is possible to imagine what it would be like to live there should the opportunity arise. With so many tasty brunches, day trips to the zoo and aquarium, a couple of evening visits to trendy restaurants, and many hours on the beach, our two weeks felt more like a continuous weekend that lasted a fortnight, which is perhaps the definition of a holiday!

I did take some “proper” photographs which will be published on this blog in due course but since this holiday was more about doing and experiencing than seeing, my Instagram feed perhaps gives the best flavour of the holiday—food, drinks, and local detail. Reviewing the raw photographs I did take with my camera, I realise that I inadvertently restricted my efforts to the classic and obvious Sydney photographic gems and disappointingly failed to capture any of the local character or street photography in the more off-the-beaten track neighbourhoods we visited.

With phone cameras such high quality these days, the Instagram moments I captured deserve better than an ephemeral life in the sidebar of this blog so here they are for posterity. 😎🇦🇺

A Visit to Sydney’s Manly

If there is one neighbourhood in Sydney that encapsulates everything about this modern beach-side metropolis, it is perhaps Manly. Even getting there is something special. Conventionally you depart from the urban grubbiness of Circular Quay, a place that is, in-theory, blessed with views of the spectacular twin landmarks of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge but neither are easily visible from the wharves crowded with throngs of tourists, and groups watching the buskers and street performers who create a cacophony of competing noise.

Once your ferry departs, those aforementioned landmarks, and indeed the harbour itself, suddenly open up their beauty to you, and the brisk salty breeze feels incredible after the baking heat of the city. The sun sparkles on the blue water as sail boats and the classic green and yellow ferries cruise through your view. Long after the Opera House shrinks to the size of a postage stamp in in the distance, the silver and glass skyscrapers of the CBD rise up shimmering in the sky, and look so neatly positioned next to the majestic dark bridge marking the horizon between blue sky and blue water.

If you can tear your eyes away from the view behind there are points of interest along the way, and glimpses of other destinations. The white stone of the Edwardian Bathers’ Pavilion at Balmoral makes it easy to spot Balmoral beach and reminisce about lazy days swimming in the refreshingly calm cool water and drinking flat whites on the beach in the shade of a palm tree.

Stepping onto land at Manly feels like arriving in a different world to Circular Quay. It is still Sydney, and there are still tourists, but the business and bustle has been replaced by a relaxed vibe as local and visitor mix happily in the pedestrianised Corso that takes you down the the Ocean Beach—should you choose to go there, because of course Manly also has two harbour beaches with gentle waves for those that like the other sort of beach experience. A little walk along the ocean promenade of bars and cafés takes you to the delightful family friendly cove of Shelly Beach which also has more gentle swimming and even some snorkelling potential that even Bondi and its beautiful neighbouring beaches cannot match.

Every suburb has its share of unique offerings, and a less good side, but I think when most people conjure the idea of Sydney, it is Manly that is closest to actually fulfilling it.

Six Brunch Places in Sydney

Are lists still on trend for bloggers?

  1. Luxe Woollahra – next door to the Armani Junior boutique and a vibe to match.
  2. Belo Bronte – Brazilian themed brunch overlooking the beach.
  3. Casa Ristorante Italiano Darling Harbour – more lunch than brunch, but proper pizza on the waterfront.
  4. Homestead kiosk in Centennial Park – great coffee and banana bread for the Yummy Mummies while they watch the kids in the adventure playground.
  5. Rushcutters Bay kiosk – another trendy hangout with quality coffee conveniently located right next to a fun playground.
  6. Ruby’s Diner Waverley – locals’ hangout I happened upon via Instagram. Tasty food and dairy-free cakes (yes, plural).

Sydney: Familiar Places, New Experiences

I have to admit I was apprehensive about spending an entire two week holiday in Sydney. This is my fifth visit since 2005, and while the most recent two were quick stopovers, they had refreshed the memory of very enjoyable previous trips—would there be enough new memories made on this trip to make it stand out?

There are also advantages to returning to a familiar place. Upon waking to cool and rainy weather on our first morning, our knowledge accumulated from previous trips meant we were quickly able to adjust our plans to something more appropriate. In need of a good brunch to cure jet lag, we knew that the cafés at Bronte beach would fulfil all the criteria—fresh tasty food, good coffee and fabulous views of the ocean. The inclement weather had generated huge crashing waves that were spectacular to watch, and the beach was deserted, giving it a very different atmosphere to the busy weekend bustle of surfers and swimmers we experienced last time.

Our café choice, Bronte Belo, was based on no criteria other than it being the most well patronised on a very quiet day, but once we sat down we had some feelings of familiarity, and the food was pleasingly excellent. There was a sudden heavy rain shower while we ate which fortunately passed over quickly, and the fresh post-rain air made it ideal conditions for walking the cliff path to Bondi, with its dramatic seascape of waves crashing into the cliffs. At Bondi the weather had taken a turn for the worse, the gusts of wind blowing cold sea-spray and painful rough sand at our exposed skin so we cut short our bare-footed walk along the famous beach and made for shelter in the hipster cafés overlooking it.

There are risks when returning to somewhere—favoured old haunts closed or a shadow of former selves—but it is also lovely to really get to know a place, discover those off-the-beaten track places, and hang out with the locals.

Update: Now with a short video (9 seconds) showing just how big the surf was!

Engelberg Ski Weekend

Engelberg is a small resort, but a short train ride from Zürich which makes it an ideal place for a weekend break. We even had great weather, and a lot of fun.

Photo Editing Application Round Up

The use of Adobe Photoshop® to edit photographs is so ubiquitous that to photoshop became a verb. Photoshop is an incredibly powerful image manipulation program for which the only limit is your imagination, or possibly your knowledge of how to drive it. Given then the maturity of the market, a surprising number of new applications have appeared in the last 18 months. Many of these delineate themselves from the metaphorical 800lb gorilla by providing a very different user-interface paradigm to that of Photoshop, often the “filters” approach popularised by Instagram. This has enabled them to appeal to the large and rapidly growing market of casual photographers for whom the cost of Photoshop’s monthly subscription model is unsuited.

Of the applications I have tried, each one has its strengths and are continuously improving. Consequently I now have a toolbox of different apps I use when when editing a photos but fortunately Apple’s Photos.app makes it very easy to call upon each one as the situation demands.

DxO OpticsPro for Photos: A specialist application with just three functions that earns its place for its tremendous noise reduction. The lens correction and haze removal can also be very useful, and the small number of functions make it quick and easy to use.

RAW Power: I have previously written about this application and continue to find it indispensable for adding advanced RAW editing facilities to Photos.app.

On1 Photo RAW: This is currently my primary tool for comparing and culling photos prior to loading into Photos.app, and occasionally when selecting for publication too. It has a great “Compare Mode” for comparing an arbitrary group of multiple images side-by-side full-screen—a feature that Apple removed from iPhoto in 2010 and still has not been restored in Photos.app. This is also the only tool to provide an edge-detecting brush for creating masks.1 The filter-based editing approach can produce some impressive images but knowing which filters will achieve the desired result requires considerable retained knowledge acquired through experimentation or watching On1’s excellent and extensive selection of tutorial videos.

Luminar: Similar in concept to the Effects module On1 Photo RAW this provides editing through the paradigm of tuneable filters, which can be masked and stacked to produce an output that ranges from subtle enhancement to heavy stylisation.2 Luminar wins its place in my toolbox because the filters and presets are more accessible than those in On1—it is easy to see what needs to be done to a photo to improve it and choose the appropriate filter to achieve that. Another reason to like Luminar is that while it is now available on multiple operating systems, its native Mac origin means it seems to integrate much better with the MacOS than On1.3

Polarr's approach to editing is closer to that of Photos.app: a series of sliders grouped into adjustment blocks of a technical theme. The controls are significantly more sophisticated than those in Photo.app and it also allows some adjustments to be applied to selected areas (masking). There are some interesting presets of the “highly stylised” variety. The face detection is impressive but the automatic enhancement is completely over the top to the point where it noticeably changes the features of the subject. Overall it is an impressive app, but except for the presets and face detection it requires technical skill to understand how to get the best out of it and I do not find myself reaching for it very often.

All of these apps, except RAW Power and DxO OpticsPro for Photos, are available for Windows as well as MacOS.

  1. Disappointingly the previous version, On1 Photo 10, had even more powerful masking tools. [back]
  2. Both Luminar and On1 also have an object removal tool that makes automatic what, a few years ago, would have taken hours of careful cloning and puts the repair tool in Photos.app to shame. [back]
  3. Specifically, On1 uses a Windows-style installer instead of just being copied to the Applications folder. This became tedious when they were releasing monthly updates. I also suffered a few months where the Photos.app extension just failed to work with an “Unknown Error”. [back]

Repairing broken links on this site

Whilst browsing the Google Search Console for this site I noticed that some of my older image galleries were returning errors. This gallery is run by 15 year old PHP code that I occasionally have to hack to keep running on newer versions of PHP so it was not a complete surprise that it might need some fixing. I should pay more attention to webserver upgrade notices though as the logs indicate it has been broken since 1st October.

The error was a bit puzzling at first:
PHP Parse error: syntax error, unexpected end of file
but eventually a helpful StackOverflow page made me realise that I needed to replace all instances of <? with <?php and the problem was solved.

During testing of the fix I found a more serious problem. All my links to picasaweb albums where I had hosted my photos from 2008 and 2009 were dead. This was unexpected since Picasa was run by Google and even though they replaced the service with Google Plus/Photos, I knew all my photos and albums were still online at the latest incarnation of Google’s service and I had trusted that Google, a company who place high importance on links for generating their search results, would not break links. It turns out that my trust was mis-placed as Google had broken some links but not others. Any link containing a username was broken but a userid would still work. So, if I could find my user id I could restore the links. Fortunately my Picasa user id turned out to be the same as my Google Plus user id, and because this was only a small number of posts over a 2 year period I could work through each one and replace the user name with that id to repair the link. There were a few direct links to photos that I was unable to repair because the URL did not contain my username.

These problems make me want to reconsider whether my current photo hosting solution with Flickr is the right one. While WordPress has improved since 2015, and has add-on features to make photograph-heavy websites go faster, those add-ons are still third-party integrations so these potential problems of what is known as “link rot” remain. I have recently been thinking about some of the other disadvantages of using WordPress, but I shall leave those for another post.