The Garret Tree
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
  Digital Photography: How about a good battery?

The photo blogs are debating a post by Edmund Ronald in Ziff-Davis's Publish site.
Pro's Appetite for Megapixels is Sated.

Ronald believes that the race for a the number of megapixels is just about over, that what the world needs is better megapixels... It appears that new 39 megapixel digital backs were announced for the medium format digital camera but the megabucks required for that many pixels is going out of range for even the top pros.

He says

Then there is the issue of noise: In fashion and architecture, pros want higher sensitivity, desperately. To capture sharp detail in several focus planes, you need to stop down a lot.

The current low sensitivity of the backs translates into a need for lots of light. This means bigger strobe generators to supply more joules.

A couple of comments

My first thought when it came to megapixels was the old statement attributed to Bill Gates about memory, something like who would ever what more thant 640K? We welcomed more memory when it came first, programs became more powerful and ran faster. Of course these days memory means money for monopolies, the more bloated the program, the more you need and leads you into the never-ending upgrade circle. So in this Ronald is somewhat correct, we want enough megapixelage(is that a word??) to give us resolution but not that puts it out of reach of our pocket books.

I bought my first digital, a Panasonic Lumix with 2 megapixels after I saw a column in the Washington Post that said the Lumix with its Leica lens was better than a 5 megapixel camera with cheap glass. That's true, I blew up landscapes from the FZ1 to 13" x 19" with no appreciable loss of quality. I now have a Lumix FZ3 as my carry-everywhere camera. (And Panasonic has just come out with a 8 megapixel Lumix but an upgrade will have to wait until my bank account is in better shape).


It is about time cameras had better sensors. Using a digital camera at night (and even some film cameras with auto focus) is like a bad episode of Star Trek, "Sensors are down captain!" There is not only the problem of noise but sensor degradation. The camera doesn't know what it's doing. I shot the Toronto Distillery Jazz Festival in 2004 with my 8 megapixel Minolta A2 and the darker it got, the more problems I had. A couple of weeks later at Toronto's Greek food festival, The Taste of the Danforth,when I wanted to shoot the nightscape, I didn't bother with the digital, and went back to film, so I could look through the good old SLR viewfinder, which is a lot clearer than a sensor that looks like the reception on my family's first black and white TV (using an aerial) on a stormy night in northern British Columbia.

What I really want is a great, long life battery

I'm going on a wilderness camping trip for the Simcoe Day long holiday weekend. So what do I take with me?

Once again I'm leaving the Minolta A2 at home. I'll take the Lumix and my Minolta film camera. Why? Well why hasn't any manufacturer bothered to do something about 1)battery life 2)recharging those batteries in the field? Neither Panasonic nor Minolta offer a direct DC attachment for their battery chargers. I am taking with me an inverter from Canadian Tire, plugs in to a car or boat's DC (lighter) outlet and converts it to ordinary AC 120 volt household current. Except it's not my car (we're car pooling), we're not always going to be close to the parking lot and the draw of the inverter will, over time, drain the battery. The camping solar chargers are made to step down the voltage and connect direct, which doesn't as far as I can find out, help charging the battery.

Again it's probably a question of cost--a four day digital battery may be like a 30 megapixel screen, (then again it may not) but why can't the manufacturers get together and 1)reduce the number of proprietary batteries to a few standards and 2)come with some digital photo industry standard solar recharger that will work anywhere? I mean one where there is a pod for the battery itself, not attaching it to the current charger. A solar panel, a pod for the battery and just leave it alone for a few hours....

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Monday, July 25, 2005
  When I waited for Rosemary Sutcliff
When I was a kid, Rosemary Sutcliff was my J. K. Rowling. In the early 1960s, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the next Sutcliff. I lived in northern British Columbia and the waiting involved finding out when the book would arrive in the public library. In Kitimat, British Columbia, a town carved out of the bush, there were no bookstores. The local variety store and the stationary store both carried popular paperbacks delivered at the same time as magazines.

For me, Rosemary Sutcliff created a world just as magic as Rowling’s. Somewhat like Hogwarts and Harry it was an alternative British universe. Many of her books followed one scattered family for a millennium or more, through the history of Britain from the ancient Celts through the Roman conquest and occupation, the collapse of the empire, the Saxon invasion and into the Middle Ages. It was both familiar (especially since my parents were British) and alien at the same time. Sutcliff’s universe was grounded in reality—she did extensive historical and archaeological research for each book.

Sutcliff’s McGuffin (to borrow the term from Alfred Hitchcock) was a ring with a carved emerald intaglio dolphin that belonged to the one of her first characters, Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman centurion posted to Britain. A thousand years and many books later it ends up on the finger of a young man descended from Vikings fighting the Norman conquest.

There were other characters who were not a direct part of that family, but are all connected in the tapestry of her ancient and medieval Britain.

A few days ago, as I emerged from writing my new epic about the Second World War, I came across a link to an article I wrote for on the movie King Arthur—and it comes from a Rosemary Sutcliff blog, “Blue Remembered “ (named for Sutcliff’s autobiography Blue Remembered Hills) at

This I think shows that great advantage to the blogsphere. The micro and the macro. Blogs give people like the fans of Rosemary Sutcliff to reach out from around the world and come together.

Sutcliff wrote more than 50 books. Her popularity has faded over the years. Of course, in these days when publishers hestitate to promote their newest books, it will take word-of-blog in the 21st century to make sure kids and adults continue to enjoy her work (Sometimes when I want to sit and relax I pick up a Sutcliff I first read decades ago)

The story is often about a young person, usually a boy (which the market demanded when Sutcliff was writing in the 1950s and 1960s) ranging in age from about twelve to his early twenties. For Marcus Aquila in her breakthrough book, his military career is cut short by a serious wound in his first battle. That sends him into a quest beyond the frontiers of civilization--among the tribes north of the wall into what is now Scotland--to find out what happened to his father's Ninth Legion--while leaving him still wondering what his life is all about. His friend on this quest is Esca, from one of the border tribes, captured in battle, turned into a slave and gladiator, who then becomes Marcus's body slave--until he is freed.

The main theme of many of Sutcliff's books is the life of the soldier. Her father was a naval officer and she grew up in a military atmosphere. Although she was physically handicapped and spent part of her life in wheel chair, she captures the uncertain life of the intelligent human being who must become a fighter whether a member of a regular armed force or a warrior band or an individual trying to survive.

Sutlcliff had a unique viewpoint on the military, the insider who is also a somewhat removed observer, a combination of the kid sister (although she had no siblings), the know-it-all cousin or neighbor, and the chronicler (somewhat like Princess Irulan in Dune). Marcus Aquila Flavius thought he would be a career soldier, then finds the wound in his leg has changed his life....a fact of life facing many soldiers today. His descendent, Aquila, deserts his army to defend his home, becomes a slave and suffers throughout his life with what would, a millenia and half later, be called post traumatic stress disorder. Her soldiers are rounded human beings, with conflicting loyalties mixed with personal and family problems, always facing uncertainty in campaigns. An academic might say that all this was reflection of the decline of the British Empire. Sutlcliff had liked Kipling as a kid and it could be said that her books are the Kipling stories of that declining empire. But as our society has become more uncertain in the years since she wrote, the books are more relevant than ever.

The second theme is slavery. There is more than one failed gladiator in her books, and then there is a boy trying to find himself and his roots who is captured and enslaved as well as the defeated soldier.

And there is a spiritual element to all of Sutcliff. In her historical novels the spiritual is subtle, below the surface, not there casting spells as in today's high fantasy. The world is Celtic, with just the barest hints of the "other world" and the gods and fates possibly weaving the wyrd behind the scenes, while the humans are guided by their own free will.

For those parents out there who want their kids to move on from Rowling, I suggest Sutcliff should be on the list.

I'll touch on Sutcliff again the future--why not she was and is one of my favourite writers.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005
  Why I despise Microsoft Word

Almost exactly twenty years ago, the Canadian Science Writers Association held the "Great Word Processing Race" at the gym at MacMaster University in Hamilton. It was the dawn of the PC age and, yes, there were more than enough software companies competing that they flew up their reps and their computers and software and competed in the race with a set of rules set by a committee of science journalists. I remember that Microsoft was there, so was Word Perfect and MicroPro who made the venerable Wordstar and many others.

I can't remember who won that race. (I think it was Word Perfect)

We all know who won the real race. Microsoft Word and the only reason is Microsoft's monopoly power. Word has to be one of the worst word processors--because it actually interferes with the writing process, rather than enhancing it.

As I said on this blog, I have just finished the manuscript of my next book. And it was Microsoft Word and its demand that I work the way Microsoft wants that interfered with the work I was doing and slowed down a project that was already late. I'd highlight a word I wanted in italics and Word for some reason --on some occasions, not on others--then went on to change the entire file into italics. I had to undo "Autoformat" time and time and time again.

Then there was one chapter that turned into the biggest headache. I wrote that one on two different computers but both using Word 2000. When I got the file back to my home computer, the formatting was all over the place and no matter what I tried, I couldn't fix it. So I imported it into Open Office, which did not go weird on me, fixed the formatting, did the edits and then saved it as a Word file--and that worked.

I began using Wordstar 2.6 on a four inch screen on an Osborne in 1983, and I had to write the code to connect the Ozzy to the Epson dot matrix printer--but that program was a dream to use for a writer--it helped you get in the zone as you wrote. The management at MicroPro was slow to realize that the world was switching to the PC. Their catchup Wordstar never regained its market share but at least MicroPro had the right idea. When you installed Wordstar it gave you the choice of how the program was configured, either some pre-set setups or check boxes that the let you chose the features you want.
Microsoft, on the other hand, sends down the Word from Redmond and thou shalt obey (unless take hours out of your work so you can figure it out how to turn it off).

The last straw was when I was doing the final edits and print out on a chapter that had been fine the last time I opened it. Half the chapter, at seemingly random spots, had paragraph after paragraph of bold face, then it reverted to normal type.

Since I had started the project back in the academic phase when Open Office was not available, I was using Word and continued to do so.

As of now, it's Open Office all the way. And if a client wants it in Word format, I'll save it as Word from Open Office.

Every day when I go into my local subway station in Toronto, it is filled with Microsoft Office posters with office workers in rubber dinosaur masks. Microsoft wants to say that if you don't use the latest version of office you're a dinosaur. It could also mean, of course, that Microsoft Office will soon be extinct!

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Monday, July 18, 2005
  Manuscript finished, blog will resume

I FedExed the manuscript to the publisher today, just two weeks after the new deadline we had agreed on....and actually a year and two weeks later than originally scheduled. But working only part time, an hour or so a night and a few hours each weekend, it's hard to be anything than tenacious. I would have liked another month or so to make more edits, cuts, trims and polishes...but now it is up to the editor.

Coming soon on this blog....
Some more thoughts on the writing this book
Why I won't use Microsoft Word ever again on a major writing project.

The blog will resume in a few days when I have finished regeneration

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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