Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Modern Christmas Newsletter

This year we have decided to move with the times and replace the newsletter with a blog piece.  Maybe I'll get around to Twitter, Linked-in and Facebook next year, maybe not.  (But Second Life is definitely a miss)!  Instead of saving up my thoughts for Christmas, I have been writing about everything and anything since March, so here are a few links (in blue) to some of the stories of this year.

Apart from my bouts of gout, and Christiane's back, we are in good shape, but I had reason to remember the chemotherapy treatment I had nearly twenty years ago when I had a skin cancer diagnosed in June, fortunately it was not a serious one!  Staying with medical matters for the moment, my old Dad has had a pacemaker fitted at 104!  It is quite remarkable that the doctor decided to go ahead with it but it has meant that my sister can continue to look after him at home.  He is still quite good physically but, as you would expect, he is not as alert as he was, even five years ago.

We went to Brittany for a holiday in June and I took 487 photos, mostly of pink and grey rocks!  We then went straight to the UK and this story for Georgia, about a pink rabbit, was inspired by our visit.  Oscar's story, about a sweet corn monster, was written following a family meal at Celia and Julian's, where we were staying whilst we were replacing the kitchen in the Richmond flat in July.

Our garden, has a heavy, highly alkaline, clay soil over limestone rock, and is at times a constant source of frustration and hard work!  But when things turn out well it's a delight.  Here are some pictures of the Irises and the Grasses which are the most successful features so far.  Everything else is going to get a dose of fertiliser and more water next summer!  There is a lot of wildlife in our garden. We keep the lower part as a meadow, cutting it only once a year, and we love the insects that are abundant there in late summer.  Unfortunately Nora the bat, who appeared one night in our porch has not returned!  Some friends of ours, Don and Jenny, have a house a few kilometres away on very different soil and they grow amazing roses. They sell them as cut flowers to support the charity they run, which funds a Kenyan orphanage and is called New Dawn.  It's named after one of Don's roses. 

In May we really enjoyed making Raku ceramics with Annick. I can easily imagine taking it up as a hobby.

The Story Telling Festival is in May. It was the tenth anniversary this year and so the organizers attempted to outdo their usual excellent efforts. Every year they organize a walk with stories at strategic points. The pictures from the walk are panoramas. Follow the links to the flash presentations and say yes if Internet Explorer gets a bit shirty! This text is from France Léa, who was one of the best participants this year. Persevere, it’s worth it! It was an absolute nightmare to translate!

Jean- Marc Derouen en pleine campagne

Ever since my father gave me his Practika SLR camera in 1969 I have been interested in photography. Recently, since photography has become digital, I have been able to combine it with my interest in computing.  High Dynamic Range photography, enables you to produce spectacular, sometimes unreal, results by combining images with different exposures.

This image was assembled from three pictures of a sunset taken in Brittany 

A few weeks ago we went to see Of Gods and Men (Des Hommes et des Dieux), which is an excellent film about the seven monks who were murdered in Algeria in 1996. You don't need to be religious to appreciate this film.  Don't miss it!
When writing about it, several connections with this tragic event manifested themselves, leading me to wonder whether someone is trying to tell me something.

I am very interested in politics and I should probably separate the political subjects from the others.  Meanwhile take your pick! If you only read one, then choose this one about a Freudian slip. It contains essential things you should know if you are thinking of coming to France!

Harry and Ginny
This is my favourite!  I re-read "The Deathly Hallows" and I just couldn't put it back on the shelf without thinking about what happened to Harry and his friends afterwards, so I wrote this piece. Harry Potter – What Happened Next?  If you haven't read "the Deathly Hallows" yet don't read this! If you have, and you are a fan, please leave a comment.

(Try putting "charter of rights for house elves" (with the inverted commas), into Google!  There must be a word for a phrase that gives a single result in Google!  It's not quite a GoogleWhack but close!)

And finally is this really a tame crocodile ?

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.
John and Christiane


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

High Dynamic Range Photography - HDR

When we went to Brittany in June I took 487 images. This large number was mostly because I was doing multiple sequential images of rocky coastal scenes, for converting into panoramas later, but we were staying next to the sea looking westwards and so I also took several sunsets. With the idea of HDR at the back of my mind I did some bracketed shots as well. At least, I would have done if I had ever read the manual on my camera, so I set the camera to aperture priority and pointed it at the area which I wanted correctly exposed. I then held the setting while I recomposed the shot. The camera was handheld at a shutter speed of 1/60th second.
Later, after reading some articles in the photographic press, I wanted to try HDR digital technology for myself. The Amateur Photographer recommended Photomatix Pro, so I downloaded it here and then looked for some pictures to process. The Brittany seascapes looked promising. Here are the three images that I chose.

They are then loaded from within Photomatix Pro which aligns them, crops them and creates a 32bit image, for you to adjust if you want to, before moving on to tone mapping and creation of the actual output image. The three original images were jpegs with a file size of about 12Mb each. The tone mapped output file is a tiff of 33Mb. (I have reduced the images here to 540 pixels wide using Photoshop Elements, in order to avoid giving Blogger indigestion when I loaded them and so that they fitted better into my adjusted blog column width). You need a minimum of three images to give the correct exposure for the darkest, the lightest and the mid tone areas of the image. Some of the pros use seven exposures but that is not really necessary.

Having never used the software before, I was very impressed with the ease with which I could create a good result, starting from not very well planned images. (Much, much easier than using Mail Merge and Excel to create labels for Christmas cards, but that is another less interesting story). The illustrations here are very compressed and a lot of detail and sharpness has been lost compared to the original files.
The unreal quality, often associated with HDR tone compressed images, is definitely present, but with some adjustments that could be reduced.  It is also possible, using Photomatix Pro, to produce a result by exposure fusion, which leads to a more natural image, but it has less immediate impact when starting from these three original jpegs.
This looks like another package that I will have to buy!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Seven Monks Murdered in Algeria

In 1996 seven French monks were murdered in Algeria by Islamic terrorists. At the time I was doing a French course in London called “Language and Current Affairs” and we were shocked that such a thing could happen. Last week Christiane and I saw the excellent film “Des Hommes et Des Dieux”, which tells the story in a graphic but peaceful way.
The film ends with a reading of the Testament of Father Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery. We have briefly met his brother Hubert who lives about half an hour north of here. From time to time he employs some of his considerable charm and politeness to persuade our friends Lisa and Geoff to help with fund raising for the restoration of the village church.  Hubert writes about his reaction to the events at Tibherine in this article.
I wanted to read the Testament again and translate it, however, a quick Google search showed that Vincent-Paul Toccoli, a priest who lives in Cannes, had already posted a translation on his blog. The translation he used was done by the Trappist monks of Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicester, England.

Christian de Chergé
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called "the grace of martyrdom," to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church.

My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!" But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.

For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this "thank you," which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!

And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this "thank you"—and this —to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.

And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
I realise now that I have met Vincent-Paul Toccoli ten years ago when he presided over the wedding of some friends of Christiane. It was the first wedding in the new church of St Paul des Nations at Sophia Antipolis. I remarked on his very good English accent and asked him where he had learnt English, “Oxford old boy” was his reply!
It's either a small world or God moves in mysterious ways!