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.

The Championships, Wimbledon

Fortune smiled on me in the tennis club ballot this year and despite life being quite busy around the beginning of July, I was able to spend a very enjoyable day at The All-England Club watching some tremendous tennis.

Sunset at Treyarnon Bay, Cornwall

Despite being an overcast day, the clouds cleared late afternoon and treated us to a spectacular Cornish sunset. The rest of the week featured plenty of different weathers, from glorious sunshine to driving rain.

Configuring SPF for toobusyto.org.uk

As of last week, the toobusyto.org.uk domain is now configured with a Sender Policy Framework (SPF) DNS record. This is a special type of DNS record which identifies which mail servers are allowed to send mail on behalf of toobusyto.org.uk users.

The aim of SPF is to prevent the unauthorised impersonation of users, a tactic frequently used by spammers. In practice it is not reliable because it can cause problems for a number of legitimate use cases related to mail forwarding, including mailing lists. In fact, Google explicitly recommends configuring an SPF record for “soft” failure rather than hard failure because of these issues.

The record was easy to setup once I realised which servers I needed to include. I send mail from toobusyto.org.uk directly via mail.toobusyto.org.uk, which is a CNAME to another system, and occasionally from Gmail’s web interface. Google have clear instructions on how to permission the latter but use of CNAMEs in SPF is discouraged to prevent receiving servers needing to perform an excessive number of DNS lookups so it is necessary to hardcode the name of the target of the CNAME. There is a risk the two can become out of sync but hopefully this is mitigated by the proximity of the two records in the BIND file. You can query the current record using your favourite DNS client but for the record the initial setup is:

; SPF record
toobusyto.org.uk.  IN TXT "v=spf1 a:saturn.retrosnub.co.uk mx include:_spf.google.com ~all"

The result is that Gmail can now successfully authenticate me as a sender and for many users no longer shows a red question mark next to my name. Some experimentation has shown that the red question mark can still be present where I have emailed someone@their.domain.com and he or she forwards to a Gmail account because their.domain.com is not authorised to send mail on behalf of toobusyto.org.uk. This is actually the no worse than those users experienced prior to the configuration of the SPF record and some quick research turned up some forum posts that indicate there are potentially steps email forwarding services can do to mitigate this, although it was not clear whether the mitigation was feasible and/or effective.

RAW Power for MacOS

One of the power features lacking in Apple’s Photos application is the ability to tweak the built-in conversion from RAW to JPEG. The now-discontinued Aperture application allowed manual control of these RAW conversion settings giving the photographer the ability work with more of the captured data to unlock hidden detail without needing a separate specialist application.

RAW Power is a Photos extension that enables this fine-tuning from within Photos. I learned from a YouTube interview with the Developer that he is the former dev lead for Aperture, having left Apple over a year ago, which suggests to me that Apple will likely cede advanced editing functionality to third party developers as I previously speculated.

As a tool with a very specific purpose, its focus makes it simple and effective to use. The interface is clearly laid out and performance nimble, and if it becomes apparent that RAW modifications are not able to improve the photo then you can cancel your edits and return to Photos with one-click.

RAW Power currently costs £9.99, and although this is labelled as promotional pricing, it is my opinion this represents very good value.

Skiing in Cervinia and Zermatt

The first four days there were constant blue skies ensuring fantastic views of the beautiful Alpine scenery, including the iconic Matterhorn. This was my second ski holiday in the Italian Alps and once again the pistes were quiet, the lift queues non-existent, the food delicious and the coffee excellent. The connection to Zermatt also provided a huge ski area and diversity of slopes.

When the weather was slightly less good, we also enjoyed warm and friendly mountain hospitality.

Photographs from Wellington

It has been almost six months since our visit to Wellington. After travelling through the beautiful vistas of the South Island it was great to finish our holiday with some hip cocktail bars and late night espresso.