This blog is run using WordPress, a very powerful piece of open source software that now claims to be used on about 25% of the web. I had been using the previous theme since early 2012, and since then I have come to believe that a good website should work well, and load quickly, on a greater variety of screen sizes as well as the need to optimise for higher latency and less reliable mobile networks. The new theme is a customised version of WordPress’s latest, Twenty Sixteen, which I hope brings a modern feel to all platforms while remaining an evolution of this site’s own identity. Using Safari’s “responsive design mode” was very useful for understanding how a page would look on a variety of device screen sizes, including different orientations.
While updating the theme I also spent some time looking at how to optimise the site’s Web Page Test score. The most significant gain seems to have been made by switching the caching from WP Super Cache to W3 Total Cache. Both plugins were configured using the default/recommended settings but W3 Total Cache seems to be able to significantly reduce the First Byte Time, taking the score from an “F” to an “A”. The high number of photo posts, plus the embedded youtube videos, means that the front page is currently just under 10MB.
Either the new theme, the new cache plugin, or a combination of both, did not work with the SyntaxHighlighter Evolved plugin. It has been disabled and may or may not be replaced at a future date.
I have been a very happy user of Apple’s Aperture since 2011. I remember spending a few months using trial versions of both Lightroom and Aperture, before deciding Aperture suited me a little bit better—I think its integrated editing tools were slightly more powerful at the time and it seemed likely that Adobe would be keen not to make the built-in tools so powerful as to compete with their premier product. I was not overly worried when Apple first announced that Aperture would be discontinued because they have a track record of introducing revolutionary new products without every advanced feature in the initial version but then iterating consistently year-on-year until the gap is closed. With that in mind there was much anticipation around this Autumn’s release of OS X El Capitan, and consequently considerable disappointment that support for external editing extensions was the only addition. However it is important to remember that Photos.app was only released six months prior to El Capitan and so this was not a full year of iteration.
Although I had dismissed the initial version of Photos, with the availability of external editors to replace any missing editing tools, perhaps it is time to start thinking about the transition. Photos already has a few features in its favour, for instance it feels faster at navigating between photos, and does not spin for 30 seconds whenever it encounters a video. The advanced tools are comprehensive once you drill down enough to find them, and kudos to Apple for building a textbook example of how to make an interface that provides such a progressive user learning experience. In a taste of what new functionality is being denied Aperture hold outs, the noise reduction in Photos appears much improved over the equivalent in Aperture.
Perhaps the most significant omission is that there is no mechanism to apply an edit to only part of a photo, an equivalent of Aperture’s brushes. This may be a gap that Apple expects editing extensions to fill although I find Apertures’s non-destructive edits much quicker and simpler to use than the layer-mask approach of Photoshop and Pixelmator. There is also no way to display hot/cold regions to see under- and over-exposed areas.
Photos.app also has greatly simplified camera-data and EXIF display. These are useful when trying to improve one’s photography “post-mortem” by looking at how the camera was setup for a particular (usually unsuccessful) photograph so their removal is disappointing.
Star ratings are also no longer available. In Aperture each photograph could be assigned a colour and a flag as well as a star rating, so it is easy to see that there were probably too many options for the majority of users who will be much happier with a simple “favourite” function. But when dealing with a large library having different ways to annotate a photograph is useful, a flag can signify a photograph that needs more attention before it is “finished” while star ratings can be used when dealing with many similar photographs of a single subject to distinguish the great from the merely good, and then the 1-star, “bad but captures some unique moment so worth keeping.” Another problem when dealing with multiple exposures of the same subject is that inability to do a side-by-side comparison of two-or-more photos. In Aperture it is possible to bring up all the photographs of a particular subject in a single view and eliminate them one-by-one. This seems to be completely impossible in Photos.app and therefore a complete showstopper for me because I use this feature a great deal when deciding which images from a set to discard and which to publish here.
Which of these missing features Apple will eventually bring to Photos.app is difficult to guess. Star ratings seem the most unlikely to return since only obsessive-compulsive types rate their possessions on a five-point scale, plus Apple already expended the effort to convert the ratings to keywords/tags. I sincerely hope side-by-side comparison returns since that is the raison d’être of both photograph management software and large screens. Brushes require a significantly more complex user interface, especially on an iOS, but are also an ideal use case for Apple’s new iPad Pro Pencil. Or Apple may decide that such advanced editing functionality has no place in a management app, and cede the space to third party developers via the extensions API.
I recently read an article in The Atlantic which argues that the iterative process of software development commonly used for, and particularly suited to, Internet based distribution, are not compatible with the rigour and discipline required for its practitioners to be considered “engineers”.
As the article explains, software engineering was invented as an aspirational and not descriptive title. Programming is one activity in the creation and production of software, but even this one small aspect of the activities that may be undertaken by someone with the job title of software developer or engineer can range from largely mechanical to highly creative. The article attempts to address this creative side of software by comparing it to a more colloquial definition of to engineer, meaning “skilfully, artfully, or even deviously contriving an outcome.” and then dismisses it as something no reasonable person would want when building software. Yet the best code if often sincerely described as a work of art, and this is why many people would rather have one good programmer on their team than even three or four mediocre ones.
However a beautiful building must also be functional and not fall down. It is the engineering that ensures that. Similarly while software development can be incredibly creative and fun, it also requires a large number of less exciting activities such as checking the functionality matches what the customer requested or expected and ensuring the product is free of bugs and security flaws. When working on larger projects which require multiple teams it is also necessary to have processes to detect and prevent unwanted functionality, for example malicious back doors and inappropriate hidden “easter eggs” containing adult material. This latter aspect of the job is something that demands the professionalism of a true engineer.
Whether many self-described software engineers are worthy of the title is debatable but what the author fails to realise is that the iterative software methodology he describes as a move away from software engineering is in fact the opposite—it intrinsically requires a high degree of discipline and rigour to execute well—the very thing that he says is lacking. Perhaps as an industry we are on the right path to realise our aspirations after all.
My most recent photoblog posts here have been hosted using flickr. The upload experience is slick and efficient, and the 1TB of online storage means I can freely upload my files at full resolution and let flickr figure out the best way to serve it to a given client, whether a bandwidth constrained smartphone or a 30 inch display with a “fat pipe”.
flickr can also take care of other optimisations. Two of the key findings when I analysed my website was to use the progressive jpeg format and a content-distribution network. I could do the former myself by adding a manual step1 to my export-and-upload workflow, but the latter requires a considerable amount of effort to setup and maintain. Another unexpected but welcome benefit has been flickr’s social aspect: my photographs are seen by more people than when I host them solely here on my own site.
Hosting on flickr does have some disadvantages. flickr has no supported way to embed a gallery of images in a webpage. The photographs are being displayed here using the very good Flickr Justified Gallery plugin, although the full size image display is not quite as nice as the one used for native WordPress galleries. Entrusting my content to a third party service also carries risks for the long term longevity—will flickr still be serving my photographs in 2025? That risk is somewhat present even using the open source software that hosts this blog should it stopped being maintained, although the size of the WordPress user community means there is a good chance of an export path. While not quite the same, flickr also has a large community and good API support, so for the moment the benefits I listed above seem to outweigh this risk.
One of the more tedious parts of uploading a batch of photographs is captioning. Most websites, flickr and WordPress included, will take the filename as the primary title. The problem with this is that since filenames must be unique within a directory, multiple files with the same title end up with a extraneous number that must be removed.2 Any text in Aperture’s “caption” field becomes the description in flickr. On a album-orientated website such as this, the title does not need to include any context since that is provided by the album itself, for example an image entitled San Telmo in an album about Buenos Aires is unambiguous even if there are multiple cities in the world with a district of the same name. However flickr’s stream-orientated approach to images means that at least some visitors may arrive at the photograph without the context provided by an album. To complicate matters, only the title is shown on this website when displaying a gallery. I include this information here purely for reference since if a few months go by between uploads then I struggle to remember the exact mappings and have to spend time fixing up the titles manually!
$ jpegtran -copy all -progressive -outfile $x.new $x [back]
flickr makes this very quick and easy, which is why I described its upload process as efficient above. [back]
Our final day in the Atacama desert was a trip to experience dawn at the El Tatio Geyser field. The trip is timed like this because the hot steam from the boiling water erupting from the ground looks particularly impressive when it condenses in the 5ºC high altitude dawn air and the rising sun makes it even more majestic. The chill air was a bit of a shock to the system after the day time roasting we had received up until now, but it was a very impressive display of nature.
On the way home we made a pitstop at the remote Andean community of Machuca, and we were lucky enough to spot some indigenous wildlife.
Photographs from our second day trip in the beautiful Atacama Desert. This time we were saw flamingos, and learned that they get their distinctive pink colour from the algae they eat from foraging on the waterbed. After that our bus took us to 4120m above sea level to see a volcanic lake, spectacularly framed by snow and volcanoes. Our final two stops were in the pretty Andean villages of Socaire and Toconao, to sample some traditional local food.
The Atacama Desert had some out of this world scenery so this is the first of several albums of photographs. The name “Moon Valley” comes from the salt glaze left behind by evaporating water, but we were also treated to an almost-full moon hanging majestically above the surrounding volcanoes.
Our name came out of the tennis club ballot for Wimbledon this year—Court 1 tickets on the final day. With the Centre Court roof protecting the schedule from rain delays, it is no longer likely to see any main draw matches on Court 1 on the final Sunday but the atmosphere in the ground was fantastic and we saw potential future stars in the boys’ singles and doubles finals, plus some very entertaining invitation doubles.
The eventual winner of the boys’ singles was a tall American named Reilly Opelka with a giant serve. I had some fun capturing it using the “Slow-Mo” video mode on my camera.
I also recorded an entire point of the doubles, here it is at 6x speed.
Our flight back from Chile was through Buenos Aires giving us a perfect opportunity for a weekend stopover. Many people had waxed lyrical about the delights of the city so expectations were fairly high. We arrived early evening after a day time flight from Atacama1 and arranged to meet some friends (also en route back to the UK) for dinner. This was at 10pm, the normal dining hour for locals, but the evening was warm so it was perfectly comfortable to sit outside on a pavement table and watch the world go by, while they brought us juicy steaks that filled the plate, and the conversation flowed as freely as the excellent Malbec.
Our hotel served breakfast until 11am at the weekend which was exceptionally civilised and allowed us to recover from our late evening. We then set out to explore Buenos Aires properly. Sadly our first wanderings were less successful than the previous night’s dinner as we found ourselves walking down the equivalent of London’s Oxford Street on a Saturday, and then through another neighbourhood with some potentially impressive 19th Century architecture that had sadly gone rather shabby and gave us a rather down-at-heel impression of the city. The free guided tour of the Casa Rosa (home to the executive branch of the government) was quite interesting and featured some spectacular interiors, but we returned to our hotel room having walked quite a long way and not particularly enthused for the city’s daytime attractions. Fortunately the evening was once again excellent with a trip to a hip cocktail bar hidden in the basement of a flower shop.
The next morning a closer reading of the guide book suggested the direction we had taken the previous day had been a mistake and the highlights were in the chic neighbourhood of Recoleta and the grungy but hip San Telmo. This proved to be correct as we enjoyed a morning walking through spotless streets with lovely buildings in Recoleta, finishing up at a pleasant craft fair. The astounding architecture and flamboyance on display in La Recoleta cemetery was also fascinating, like a bizarre miniature city. To get to San Telmo we walked through the recently redeveloped Puerto Madero with its shiny skyscrapers, and also part of the bio-reserve to see pampas grass, which also made for a lovely change after pounding so many streets. Puerto Madero has a well regarded art gallery (including a room-sized Turner) in a reportedly stunning modern building but we were keen to press on to San Telmo so decided to save that for a future visit.
San Telmo was a complete change of atmosphere from the monied chic of Recoleta and the gleaming modernity of Puerto Madero. The buildings were more well-worn than old, but charming, and the narrow streets bustled with stalls and buskers. There were plenty of other tourists who added to the friendly energy that had been missing from the soul-less streets we had walked the previous day. The reason we had skipped the art gallery earlier in the day is that we knew San Telmo’s main square hosted a famous weekly neighbourhood tango event, known as a milonga, on Sundays and this would be our best chance to catch it. This was great fun to watch and meant we felt we had experienced this very Argentine activity without the hard work (and embarrassment!) of actually taking tango lessons.
Having eaten steak two nights in a row, we opted for a simple (but excellent) pizza to restore us after a long day of walking and exploring. It had taken us two attempts, but having discovered the charms of Buenos Aires, we will definitely look forward to another visit.
The Santiago to Buenos Aires part was on a Dreamliner which lived up to its impressive hype for comfort. [back]
We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after dark so did not get a sense of the place until the next morning when our first view upon leaving the hotel was of a snow capped volcano cone. The town is 2400m above sea level, and the volcanoes much higher, but it still seemed slightly incongruous to see snow so close when the sun was so fiercely hot and the landscape so dry and dusty. The town itself is tiny: a tree-lined main square boasts three cafés with outside tables and then everything else the many tourists and backpackers could want can be found along a single street leading away from the square.
Our first expedition was a sunset tour to see Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The name comes from the salt deposits left behind from evaporating water giving the surface a white glaze, and thus an other-worldly look. There was also a Mars valley of great red rock, and the guide told some good stories about why the area is supposed to be a centre of energy and other unexplained happenings. However with so many volcanoes in the vicinity a ‘rain of fire’ is an all too likely occurrence! The tour concluded with a fabulous sunset turning the white volcano cones a beautiful pink colour.
The Atacama has ideal conditions for astronomical observations with many of the world’s top research telescopes based here. This was immediately obvious to the naked eye with constellations that are hard or impossible to see at home being so clearly defined here as to practically leap out of the sky at you. Orion was a particularly good example of this. The fact that some stars are distinctly red in colour was also very obvious here. Stargazing tours are offered from the town but we read that the full moon in a few nights time meant that our first night was our only option to take one.
At 11pm we were dropped off at an open-air observation area just outside town and introduced to our guide, Jared, who had two 1.5m long telescopes set up for us to use. He gave an excellent explanation of how stars form, why some are red, and why some (appear to) twinkle. He then had us observe some examples of common types of star, as well as a superb close up of the moon and explained how the differing rates of magma cooling caused its alternating grey and white colour palette. We concluded with a look at Jupiter and Saturn, which the telescope turned from bright white spots indistinguishable from stars to objects that were very recognisable, complete with their stripes and rings!
The popularity of Chilean wine in Britain meant no trip to Chile could be complete without a visit to a vineyard for a tasting. Santiago is wonderfully placed within the Central Valley region with easy access to many wineries. When planning the trip we knew we would be hiking in the Andes the day before so chose to have a lazy morning and then an afternoon visit to Concha y Toro in Pirque on the outskirts of Santiago—an easy 50 minute metro plus £3 taxi ride from our lodgings.
Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in South America, so we were not expecting a boutique tasting experience but Pirque is not only a magnificent setting with the Andes rising up in the distance but also where the company started in 1883. Visitors are taken on an interesting tour covering the history as well as some lovely gardens the original Señor Concha y Toro installed to appease his wife who did not want a view of vines from the house. The original 19th century cellar is also on the tour, the 15°C naturally maintained by being underground, and also the actual Casillero del Diablo (Devil’s Locker) which gives its name to one of their most iconic brands. The story behind this name is revealed on the tour but I will not spoil it here. A unique aspect of the tour I have not experienced before was the varietal garden—13 vines of the most popular grapes of each colour laid out for us to wander through and compare, and because it is harvest season there were whole bunches of grapes on the vine that we were allowed to pick and taste.
After wandering in the gardens we were invited into a shady terrace to taste (a generous) glass of Casillero del Diablo sauvignon blanc. With the mercury in the mid-twenties, a hot sun, and a backdrop of vines and mountains, this was lovely and refreshing, with just the right amount of zing. Later on we tasted a more expensive Terrunyo sauvignon blanc but that was trying a little too hard to distinguish itself from the crowd and I preferred the cheaper one. The other two wines included in the tour were the Marques de Casa Concha carménère and Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Cabernet Sauvignon which we were able to enjoy in a pretty tree-shaded courtyard.
We had arrived early for our tour with the intention of having lunch first but upon arrival they bumped us up to a earlier tour. Hunger kicked in as we finished our reds but the same courtyard has a lovely food menu so we ordered some tasty traditional Chilean food and settled in for a relaxing afternoon in the shade with our tasting glasses. Our tour had been a friendly eight people but some of the late afternoon tours seemed to be almost bus party sized so we were glad of our early slot. Overall it was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon and it was nice knowing that anything we tasted and really liked can likely be easily obtained at home instead of having to make a hard decision about which one or two standout bottles to lug about with us for the rest of the holiday.
When we told people about our forthcoming trip to Chile, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for Santiago as a destination but considerably more for the nearby coastal town of Valparaíso with its UNESCO world heritage port area. We arrived in violent rain, which confirmed our decision to pick a hotel that would be easy to find by virtue of being both on the sea front and main road, as a good one. Hungry after our drive we set off up one of Valparaíso’s many hills in search of lunch and immediately noticed the colourful murals that gave a bohemian vibe quite different to the shiny glass towers and manicured parks of the Providencia neighbourhood in which we stayed in Santiago. Having seen practically no other tourists in Santiago, we immediately spotted quite a few on the streets and heard almost as many British voices as Spanish which was quite a turnaround. There seemed to be a large number of funky cafés here too—Valparaíso is clearly a way point on the international backpacker circuit.
After a restorative Italian-style pizza lunch we headed on up the hill to La Sebastiana, former home of Nobel prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Perched high on the hill, the rooms provide a spectacular view of the entire of the city spreading out towards the sea below, and Neruda was also an avid collector of unusual, interesting and beautiful objects which were artfully arranged throughout the house. The house was lovely, but it also felt like an oasis of calm and niceness after the walk through dirty and smelly streets covered in dog mess and grafitti.
The next morning we explored the old port area which is the reason for the World Heritage listing. The area definitely has character with its brightly coloured Victorian buildings but the majority were too shabby and run down to be called picturesque and without a guide to bring the place to life we sadly failed to find anything interesting on our own. It was not all bad though as every meal we had in Valparaíso was excellent. Café Vinilo served us a delicious dinner of ceviche and a traditional ham dish followed by home-made palm oil ice cream (which tasted a bit like maple syrup mixed the caramel) washed down with an excellent Carménère. At breakfast the rumour of soya milk caused Rosie to lead us on a pre-breakfast adventure to the Melbourne Café which did a fairly Chilean ham and cheese croissant but also a proper flat white. So we left Valparaíso with mixed feelings, great moments but perhaps not a place to linger.