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Archive for December, 2008

Ready for New Year

December 31st, 2008
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Absence of any plans for New Year’s Eve suddenly gelled into a small celebration at our house, with two couples of our best friends. They are leaving their young children at home with either nannies or visiting parents, which probably means that Kimmy will be slightly bored in the company of adults, but we’ll try to incorporate her into the celebration until she goes off to bed immediately after midnight.

Becky is not going to be in attendance, electing to join a bunch of her schoolmates for a party at one willing family’s house. Because we open gifts on the morning of the 1st, and Becky will surely not be back home until some time in the afternoon, Kimmy is a bit cross with that plan. She’ll have to cope.

Whether you plan to celebrate the arrival of the new year or not, I hope you have a good one!

Chronicles

December and 2008 movie round-up

December 30th, 2008
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There is a slight outside chance that I will reduce my PVR queue tonight, but more likely my movie-watching program for the year is closed. Because I am unsure of whether to continue with this series in the next year at all, I’ve decided to depart from my standard M.O. and have the monthly overview posted now.

December’s list of watched movies that I’ve never seen before contained several of last year’s releases in American Gangster, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Michael Clayton and The Kingdom, slightly older Eragon and School of Rock, and one entry from the previous century, The Avengers.

Brief impressions, as always, are below the fold. As an additional bonus, I am also listing all of my 47 first-seen movies for the year 2008, with my ratings and briefest of notes.
Read more…

Movies

Random Illustrations: Pay-by-Phone parking

December 29th, 2008

I first mentioned the phone-enabled parking charge payments in this article several months ago. Recently, while visiting friends in northwest London, I came across an entire area where all of the parking meters have been converted into the pay-by-phone operation.

  

I suppose in this day and age everyone – and their grandmother – has a mobile phone on them. And if someone who needs to park on that street does not, I’m sure that getting a parking ticket will provide enough of an incentive to get a mobile, if only for parking convenience. Mobile operators benefit too, to say nothing of drivers with no spare change in their pockets.

Photography, That's England

Photo-book creation: MyPublisher vs Picaboo vs Blurb

December 28th, 2008

[Update Apr 16, 2010] If you are here because you’re looking for comparisons of various photo-books software – and why else would you be on this page, anyway? – I also invite you to also read my most recent follow-up at this link
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Having finished with Travelog, I spent some free time in the last couple of days test-driving two services for photo-book-making that I first mentioned in this article: MyPublisher and Picaboo. For those interested, the first-time user comparison is below the cut.

[Update Jan 2nd]: I also now played for a couple of hours with another similar service that only recently came to my attention, Blurb. The article has been updated to include that in the comparison.
Read more…

Software

Christmas week 2008

December 27th, 2008

We did not expect this holiday week to be markedly busy, given our general lack of any plans. Still, we ended up with a number of diversions over its second half.

On Christmas Eve, Natasha and I went to central London for a dinner with Kimmy’s figure skating coach and his wife. Sergey is Russian, but have lived in various places in Europe for many years; Helen is British. They are both accomplished competition judges who journey all over the world for various skating events. We had plenty of travel topics to sustain the conversation, aided in big part by the excellent “French-Indian” cuisine of the restaurant that we were at.

Christmas Day was spent idly at home, but on Boxing Day, we had an outing with our friends Valera and Zhanna and their daughter and Kimmy’s schoolmate Gabriela. We went to the “gastro-pub” at the end of our block, where the food was quite nice and the company was very pleasant.

Today, we made a long trek to Wokingham, in the Reading area, to visit another family of friends, Andrey, Mila, Alex and Nick, for a semi-celebratory dinner. Since we don’t see each other too often, there are always plenty of topics to catch upon. Mila put together a wonderful table, which was very hard to get up from. I even dented my reputation of being a cheese-lover because I could not eat any that was offered for dessert, I was so full.

And to cap it all tomorrow, Kimmy, two of her friends, Becky, three of her friends, and Natasha with two of her friends (they are also mothers of Kimmy’s friends) is going for that VIP screening of Tales of Despereaux.

The next week shapes to be less exciting. We don’t even have any plans for New Year’s Eve, for probably the first time in fifteen or so years.

Chronicles

On Travelog

December 26th, 2008

As I have mentioned elsewhere, for the last few weeks I have been chipping away at our old travel diaries, transcribing the observations about sights, museums, restaurants and hotels into Travelog entries. To my own surprise, I’m actually finished with that now. While I have what I think is a pretty nifty idea of what to do next with the Travelog, for the moment I do not have any outstanding material that needs to be converted into an online post.

I’ve no pretenses of being a travel journalist or, really, of having any talent for reviewing things. While the Travelog was meant to record our personal impressions of things that we’ve seen and tried, I know I err too much on the side of de gustibus non est disputandum to forcefully advise against something that left less than a positive impression on me (except, of course, a horrible meal somewhere). And for the things that I do like, I eventually run out of synonyms to nice/beautiful/outstanding/excellent/remarkable/magnificent/majestic/splendid/striking/stunning/resplendent/lavish/opulent to lay claim to any exceptional quality of my wordsmithing.

But what I started to realize as I drew closer to the completion of that body of work is that I put this together primarily for ourselves, as ready references for our future visits to the places that we’d already been to. Which helps to explain why there are so many passages of “we did not do this, but plan to do it next time” in various articles.

On the other hand, I certainly expect to continue to refer people who come to us with questions about what we liked at such and such destination to the online Travelog. So, anyone interested is more than welcome to look. And if you see anything there that helps you plan your next trip or anything that would trigger a recommendation different from mine, please, by all means, let us know.

Thanks!

Travel, Website Bulletins

It’s Christmas

December 25th, 2008

Christmas to me is just another day off, its significance nowhere near that of the New Year’s Eve. But I do enjoy the musical component of the holidays, with all those Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow and Jingle Bells songs constantly on air. Hell, I sing along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every time I hear it.

But growing up where I did, Christmas-themed songs were not in frequent circulation. Which is why it’s a little wonder that the melody I find most often stuck in my head during the season is the following ditty by Modern Talking, definitely the very first song with the word “Christmas” in it that I became aware of in my youth.

The lyrics are so stupendously daft, it’s not even funny, but the melody is quite nice. Am I mistaken in thinking that the chorus very much resembles another well-known Christmas song?

Music

Big hearts, small victories

December 23rd, 2008

Natasha entered a Small Heroes with Big Hearts contest on the local radio station. The task was to submit a short essay celebrating admirable or otherwise heart-warming behavior by children. She thought about Kimmy and her best friend Tessa who, due to whims of Kimmy’s parents, live thousands of miles away from each other but continue to stay best friends through letters and phone calls. She went online and typed a couple of paragraphs about how true friendship can survive time and distance even at a young age.

To her surprise, she soon got a call from the radio station, informing her that her little essay had been picked as a winner. The prize? Ten tickets to the special viewing of The Tale of Despereaux, a new Universal animated movie with the “Small Hero, Big Heart” tagline. She will be taking Kimmy, Becky and an assortment of their school friends to a cinema in Leicester Square at the weekend.

I’d rather she won the lottery, of course, but we’ll take the free tickets.

Here is the photo of the two best friends taken almost exactly 4 years ago.

Chronicles, Photography

Mmm… Food!!

December 22nd, 2008

Natasha and Becky decided that they need to try making entirely new dishes at least once each week. Because of Becky’s affinity for spicy Oriental stuff, what waited for me as I came home from work today was this delicious plate of Chilies stuffed with fish paste.

Here is the recipe:

Ingredients:
225g/ 8 oz white fish, minced
4-6 fresh mild red and green chilies
1/2 tbsp black beans (from can), rinsed and lightly mashed
1 lightly beaten egg
vegetable or groundnut oil, for frying
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 tbsp light soy sauce
pinch of sugar
1 tbsp water

Marinade:
1 tsp finely chopped fresh root ginger
pinch of salt
pinch of white pepper
1/2 tsp vegetable or groundnut oil

Preparation:
Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together in a bowl. Add the fish and toss to coat the the marinade. Cover and leave to marinade in a cool place while you prepare the chilies and beans.

Cut the chilies in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and white veins. Cut into bite-size pieces.

Add the egg to the mixture and mix to a smooth paste. Spread each piece of chili with about 1/2 teaspoon of the fish paste. Heat the oil in a preheated wok or deep saucepan over a high heat. Add the chili pieces and cook on both sides until beginning to brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the paper towel.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the wok and heat over a high heat. Add garlic and stir-fry for a minute, or until fragrant. Stir in the beans and mix well (we did this part removing the wok form the heat since it was too hot and garlic had started to burn). Stir in the soy sauce and sugar, then add the chili pieces. Add the water, cover and simmer over a low heat for 5 minutes. Serve immediately. Well… we re-heated 2 hours later … still good!

We had more than needed fish paste (not enough chilies), so we just made small balls and fried it with the rest.

Who's Hungry?

London Imagery: West India Quay

December 22nd, 2008
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This was among the pictures that I’ve taken recently but not yet posted. A view of Canary Wharf office buildings from West India Quay. If it looks as if I’m standing on water, the picture was taken from a pedestrian bridge the crosses the inlet.

London & Environs, Photography

On medical myths

December 22nd, 2008

Do you believe that sugar makes your kids hyperactive? Or that night eating makes you fat? Or that hangovers can be cured?

You are way off the mark there.

Via Counterknowledge.com, a recap of a BMJ article (also publicized in NYT) on the common medical myths. Counterknowledge also mentions the myths discussed in a similar BMJ article of a year ago.

Some of these notions I don’t care much about, but I was always led to believe that reading in dim light has a negative effect on one’s eyesight. Apparently not! Hmmm.

Idle Amusements

A recognition of sorts

December 20th, 2008
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Kimmy and I cuddled on the couch watching Stardust the other night, when my 8-year-old suddenly said:

“Daddy, you’re the warmest person in the world!”

After a momentary pause, she added:

“And the second funniest.”

“Second funniest? Who’s the first?” asked I with an appropriate doze of indignation.

She gave me the look which I long learned to interpret as Are you kidding me?

“Me!! Duh!!!”

Children

Twelve sentences, one month at a time

December 20th, 2008
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Almost exactly a year ago, I picked up a meme that asked the author to re-post the first sentences of the first blog entries of each month.

I wanted to see how it would turn out this year as well, whether some sort of narrative can be discerned in such limited sample or whether I’ve truly become a random blogger.

You know what!? I can see a faint common thread, something about living in England for a comparatively short period of time, still being a relative stranger in a strange land, traveling around a bit, and being frequently annoyed with the weather.

See for yourself.

January: “Happy New Year, everyone!”

February: “It would be too spooky if on the very day that I suddenly decided to count how many days we’ve lived in England, the number would come out round.”

March: “A hot-off-the-presses update to the compendium of trivia about me: Q50. Yes, although only on a brief weekend trip that did not take me much further than Dublin’s immediate surroundings.”

April: “Going through a short backlog of topics that I consider worth commenting on as far as observations of British life go, I am going to address a fairly obscure one today: The seemingly universal recoil towards wearing real fur.”

May: “It is the most basic and universal of any advice that an international traveller can get: Never forget when your passport expires.”

June: “Southernmost part of continental Europe turned out to be not warm enough for a dip in the Mediterranean Sea at the end of May.”

July: “So, Becky is now taking a bus to school on her own.”

August: “I’m told that the weather in London has been its customary gloomily rainy for the last week that I’ve been away.”

September: “One stat that I omitted in my previous post was the number of gelato flavors sampled by the family.”

October: “Two years ago I landed in Heathrow to start my life in England.”

November: “Halloween was an annual disappointment for my girls.”

December: “Leaden skies, low temperatures, long intervals of drizzling rain, intermittent gusts of cold wind.”

Blogging

I’ll have a bratwurst, but not a hot dog

December 19th, 2008

I’ve been working through my old travel diaries a bit, converting the salient bits to a digital form within Travelog. When in Germany several years ago, every lunch that we apparently had consisted of various wursts with beer. Or so the diaries state.

Which reminds me of a paradoxical thought that I had in that regard some time ago.

In New York City, which was my home and/or place of work for a decade and a half, I’d be extremely wary of buying a hot dog on the street. It’s not just that they are outrageously overpriced; I have concerns about what exactly those sausages are made from.

Yet, in Germany, I was buying what, in effect, could be called a hot dog with regularity, not having a single doubt about the quality of the product.

Your brain certainly evaluates things differently when faced with familiar activities in an unfamiliar place.

Travel

YouTube’d memories: Midnight Dancer

December 18th, 2008

Back to obscure European pop of the 70′s and the 80′s for this series.

I’ve been hearing this particular song fairly regularly over the last couple of years, as it features on the Euro collection disk that we like to play in the car on long drives. I have not seen the video of the song for at least 25 years, however, and boy, does the choreography look silly!

Arabesque was one of the German pop groups hatched in the same quarters as better known Boney M (featured on this site before) or Milli Vanilli. They had little acclaim outside of Japan and the Soviet bloc, but their popularity in the parts of USSR apparently endures, with recent “reunion” performances.

What can I say – we practically grew up on these sugary beats!

Music

Becky the busy socialite

December 17th, 2008
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I haven’t seen my teenager much this week, as her school and social activities during the last week of the term more or less took over.

On Monday, she sang with her Chamber Choir at a nearby church. I am not too sure what the event was. Between school, rehearsals and the actual performance, she arrived at home only after 9pm. Natasha picked her up.

On Tuesday, she volunteered as a research assistance at the school library and later participated in some end-of-term award ceremony. Between all of that, she again needed to be picked up only after 9pm. I did that this time around, carving myself a grand total of 15 minutes for some in-transit father-daughter time.

Today, she went with her schoolmate to the O² for a performance related to some show that she likes to watch on TV and online. The Mighty Boosh. She swears it’s the greatest show out there. The performance ends around 11pm and she is not returning home, instead opting for a sleepover at the friends’ house.

If you recall her last week, which included a school theater performance and a school dance, you’ll agree that she’s been having enough fun for all of us.

I’m actually jealous.

Chronicles

London Imagery: Abbey Road

December 17th, 2008

Our friends in St Johns Wood live literally around the corner from the famous Beatles’ Abbey Road crossing. A few days ago, while visiting with them, I had the first occasion in over two years of being in the area with a camera (a customary hooray for my little new pocketcam!).

Here is the famous crossing itself. Anyone familiar with the Abbey Road album cover should be able to easily imagine John, George, Ringo and barefoot Paul on their famous walk across the street.

And this is what the studios look like from the outside. The photo was taken late in the day, and all of the revelers already left. But the entrance to the studio’s yard is often occupied by many nostalgic fans who do not neglect to leave the record of their presence on the fence posts.

London & Environs, Photography

Dealing with travel videos and photos

December 16th, 2008

We always go on holidays equipped with a camera – who doesn’t these days? – and quite often bring a camcorder as well. Coming back home with several hours of raw video footage and a few hundred photographs always seems like a good idea when you tape or shoot, but then the question of what to do with all those riches becomes key.

Realizing that this topic may not be of interest to all, I’m hiding the body of this post below the cut.

Unedited home videos, even those of kids doing cutest things, are rarely much fun to watch or to showcase to guests. I will politely commend this or that aspect of a home video shown to me at friends’ house, but I am frequently bored by the interminable wait for something exciting to happen on screen while nine and a half minutes of preceding boring footage roll on. My own attempts at video recording are hardly any better, especially when it comes to travel footage. Here is this monument from across the street. Here is the same monument from some weird angle and considerable distance (Natasha also took a picture from the same perspective – was there any point in putting that on tape as well?). Here is what the large square looks like (camera whips around in a circle). Here is the continuous view from the upper level of a tour-bus (camera shakes violently enough to induce dizziness in a viewer).

Recognizing that the boredom of watching such videos completely undermines their reminiscence value, I adopted one of my favorite hobbies several years ago: Converting raw footage into edited movies, with effects, narration and musical background. The modest results are quite watchable DVDs that contain only the highlights and the funnest bits, broken into manageable chapters so that we can show something to our guests without obliging them to stay glued to the TV for prolonged period of times.

It is not an easy endeavor to perform all functions in the movie-making process by oneself. I got progressively more efficient as I made more and more movies. The film about our trip to Italy in 2003 condensed 3+ hours of raw footage into a manageable 11-segment 50-minutes-long DVD. It took me 144 hours to accomplish that (not counting the rendering/transcoding/burning and all that other fine stuff that a PC can perform while I eat/sleep/rest/ignore it). A similar DVD about a trip to Germany a couple of years later took me “only” 80 hours. The investment of time and effort into a project of this kind is still quite considerable, but to me, it’s the only way to make sure that our recordings retain any usefulness in the future.

If anyone is interested, I started out using uLead VideoStudio software (my last version was 9, since then it apparently became Corel and is now versioned X2), which both is simple enough for use by the most artistically-challenged and offers a number of bells and whistles for creative types. After a while, I needed to move beyond the linear-editing approach and I migrated onto Adobe Premiere Pro (which, somewhat unfortunately, left me with considerably fewer ready-to-use effects for transition and title animation). I still occasionally use uLead for simpler tasks.

That’s videos. Still photography brings a different problem.

I’m not talking about our manic digital-age obsession with Photoshop-improving every single image that we plan to keep. That occasionally becomes a time-consuming chore, but we do not find it too taxing on balance.

The problem that I have is that we almost never go back to looking at the pictures we take anymore.

Yes, it is a wonderful way for us to share our pictures with the world by posting them online (heck, there are almost 1500 images in the Picture Gallery on this website!). But do we, as a family, ever huddle together in front of a computer screen to look at them? Only once, right after we upload them to the PC. Afterwards, we individually occasionally check out this or that image when fancy strikes, but it is always a solitary endeavor – a computer screen is not too conducive to group revelry.

Even worse, when guests come over, we are not going to sit them in front of a computer screen to look at out pictures. The function of the photo album as a party conversation starter is completely lost in the absence of photo albums.

Back in the States, we always ordered prints of all of our recent shots and put them in albums. (We stopped doing that in the UK because we frankly do not have space to store photo albums in this house, but that’s beside the point.) Then, one day, I had a brilliant idea: Why not make travel photo collections into coffee-table books!?

Ok, it was not truly a brilliant idea, otherwise I’d have had it years earlier and possibly even made money on it. But as it were, it was something fun to try.

I knew only about MyPublisher back then. My brother, incidentally, at around that time produced a photo book of his family on MyPublisher. It came out quite nice.

However, when I tried them myself, I found a couple of very annoying limitations. First, MyPublisher templates had low limits of characters for caption boxes, eliminating possibility of putting together extended narrations. I tend to think that a fun fact about the place or a curious occurrence that we were part of is something worth putting down next to the picture. Makes the album into a book, you know. With a low character limit, “This is us in front of the Eiffel Tower” was about as illuminating as I could get.

Second, MyPublisher did not recognize Unicode, robbing me of an ability to narrate in Russian. There is not an overwhelming reason to insist on that, but it is something that I fancy better than doing English narration.

Faced with those limitations, I decided to look into producing a photo book entirely on my own, and then just finding a service to print and bind it. Adobe has a pretty good product called InDesign, and I tried it out. The result was neither stellar nor horrid – I did not care much for concepts of slugs and bleeds and kerning, etc, at the time, and photo resizing had to be done in Photoshop prior to importing to retain picture quality. As a proof of concept, though, I found it reasonable, even though it took time and effort on par with making a movie. (And for binding, I only went as far as printing the pdf at Kinko’s.)

We were relocating to England around that time, and I put both my movie-making and my book-making endeavors on hold.

Now, a week or so ago, we were visiting with friends in central London, and Anya showed us her latest travel photo-books by MyPublisher. Unlike me, she feels that pictures provide enough narration all by themselves, and I am willing to concede the point when the book looks gorgeous. And the ones she showed us were.

That got me intrigued again about photo-books. I checked out MyPublisher anew, and found out that they now allow for plenty of story-telling in the books. But still no Unicode recognition. Bummer!

This time, I’m also checking out similar services elsewhere. Photobookstory.com suggests a few choices, of which the top, Picaboo, looks like an interesting possibility. At a quick glance, it offers as many or more page layouts as MyPublisher, but less space for narration, although I suppose I could make it work. And Unicode does not seem to present a problem. (It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Cyrillic alphabet is going to stick upon transferring their internal digital format to print.)

Other choices involve online photo-services, such as Shutterfly or Kodak, that provide simplified options for photo-books, perceptibly not sufficient for my needs. I’m vary of getting invested in a service where a photo-book is a “fringe” product.

One other choice that I came across on the web, Shared Ink, did not look too enticing. It offers an online-based process that appears way too simplistic to satisfy my requirements.

So, for now, I’ll be trying out Picaboo, with an eye towards other possibilities. Either that or MyPublisher looks to me like the way to go for converting our digital photo libraries into albums. If anyone has any experience with any of these – or a similar kind of service – I’d be much obliged if you gave me your impressions.

And if you have any other suggestions for dealing with your digital movies or photos, feel free to sound off. Thanks!

Software

London Imagery: Canary Wharf Skating Rink

December 15th, 2008

The first picture in my smoking in Canary Wharf post was that of Canada Square little park. I neglected to photograph it from the office windows above thus far, but since mid-November the place has been converted into an outdoor skating rink. The annual attraction will stay in place until mid-February.

The tickets are a bit on the pricier side, and once school holidays start, the rink will be very crowded. Nonetheless, Becky came to skate here with a friend a couple of years ago, and will likely do the same this season.

Here is what it looks like. The sun never reaches this particular spot directly in winter, which could explain the dreadful light. But in truth, I’ve taken the picture on an overcast day. If I wait for a sunny one, I might miss the whole season.

And here is the same rink after darkness, which I find considerably more impressive.

London & Environs, Photography

Holiday Tree

December 14th, 2008
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In the end, we bought a 7-foot artificial tree this year. You may have heard loud squeals all over the place – that was Kimmy when she discovered the assembled tree ready to be decorated.

This is what it looks like now. Click to enlarge.

Chronicles