Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

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All told, we drove about 4000 Km in three weeks, in Germany, Switzerland (just for a couple of hours), Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The latter three countries require a “vignette”, or special sticker, for vehicles that wish to use the highways.

Here they are; Czech, Hungarian and Austrian stickers (from the left). They’re available for different periods from a few days to a year; the short-term ones we bought cost between 6 and 9 Euros each. Fines are supposed to be stiff, and they’re available at every border location, and most gas stations near the borders, so there’s no excuse not to have one.

Fuel prices were a surprise. In Germany we found prices ranging from 1.02 to 1.08 Euros/liter (around US$4/gallon at the current exchange rates)! Here in Brazil I’m paying around R$1.90/liter, which works out to about US$2.30 per gallon. In contrast, Austrian gasoline was a little less expensive at 0.85 Euros/liter (US$3.35/gallon); as we drove quite a bit in Austria and along the Austrian border, I made sure to never leave Austria with less than a full tank. Czech gasoline was slightly less expensive than in Austria; I didn’t need to fill up in Hungary, but seem to remember prices as being around the Austrian level.

Anyway, the fuel was of much higher quality than we get here – Brazilian gasoline has 10 to 20% of ethanol mixed in to keep the price down, but you get worse mileage. Both cars we drove averaged about 6.5 liters/100 Km – this works out to 15.4 Km/liter or 34.8 miles/gallon, so fuel costs were lower than I had expected. Nevertheless, it usually pays to ask the rental company for a diesel car; they get even better mileage, and diesel costs less than gasoline in most countries (Germany is an exception here). Not all brands offer diesel models, though.

To drive into Eastern Europe, you’ll need some extra equipment not usually necessary in Germany: a red warning triangle and a first-aid kit. Some countries also require a fire extinguisher and a set of replacement bulbs. So if you rent a car in Germany, be sure to ask for those items.

Usually, on a trip to the US or Canada, I prefer to choose a rental company and car right at the airport counter. The sole exception, a couple of years ago, resulted in quite a hassle. When we rented a car from Hertz Canada with a prepaid voucher, at the end it turned out that, contrary to all reassurances from our travel agency, taxes were not covered by the voucher. Had I known that previously, I would have chosen another company. To compound the problem, after my complaints, Hertz decided to charge my credit card with the complete amount – again! – completely disregarding the voucher! It took half a year of calls and e-mails to get a refund, and we ended up losing about US$50 because of credit card fees and fluctuation exchange rates.

This time we checked all major rental companies both from their German websites and through their local representatives, and it turned out that Hertz Deutschland had an unbeatable promotion for foreign renters; all things considered, it was less than half the price I would have paid at the airport counter. And taxes were included, so I closed the deal (with the precaution of getting a letter from Hertz Brasil stating that I had prepaid the full price).

There were a couple of minor snags, though. As we intended to drive into Eastern Europe, only small Ford and Opel (GM) cars were available; other brands supposedly run a high risk of being stolen. And none of these had air conditioning, something it turned out we should have had, as it was Europe’s hottest summer in a decade.

In Germany, you pay a 17% surcharge over the full rental price if you pick up or return the car at an airport or train station, so I carefully chose in-city locations for both. It turns out that such locations have a very small selection of cars to choose from; as I also had to pick the car up on a Saturday (and they close at noon!), there was only a single car available with my requirements: the brown Ford Ka shown below, on the right.

However, the previous owner had neglected to turn in the car’s registration papers – and as I said, no other cars were available. We had to drive by another Hertz location later in the week and tell the whole story; with some persuasion, they gave us an upgrade to the next larger car (the black Ford Fiesta shown above, on the left).

My advice, nevertheless, is to avoid Saturdays and pick up the car early in the morning, so you’ll have more options in case something goes wrong.

Well, it’s taken longer than I expected, but I’m slowly coming to the end of my piled-up e-mail. (Excepting the developer mailing lists, of course.) So if you e-mailed me sometime over the last 40 days and I promised to reply “later”, you may get a response “real soon now” icon_wink.gif.

I’m also catching up with news and weblogs, NetNewsWire 1.0.3 now has a combined view that shows all news from a source at a glance. And CPU and and memory usage seem to be getting progressively lighter, too. Thanks, Brent!

Regarding the recent Europe trip, I’m still grappling with the 933 photos I brought back. It turned out that importing everything into iPhoto caused it to slow down much more, so it’s become quite useless for organizing stuff; I’m still investigating what I should do to speed it up.

The photos themselves could be better. It turns out that hand-holding such a small, light camera (it’s a 110g Pentax Optio S) isn’t easy; also it’s too easy to mistake the focusing system’s “ready” beep for a sign that the photo was taken, so we missed quite a number of photos. I’ll take a number of practice shots every day until I get used to it – the problem during the trip was that I couldn’t check them out on-screen. Viewing them on TV usually isn’t satisfactory, resolution-wise.

You may recall that I dropped the camera half-way through the trip. Yesterday I took off the dented front cover and, while I didn’t manage to remove the corner dent, I bent the front face back into complete flatness. This seems to have fixed it; the battery now holds its charge overnight and it hasn’t turned itself off anymore.

I had originally planned to open a separate weblog topic and write down a day-by-day trip report, with the appropriate photos. However, it seems that it’ll be more effective to publish short notes about specific aspects of the trip, together with a few selected pictures. So I’ll start later today…

By the way, one of my favorite cartoonists, Bill Holbrook of Kevin & Kell fame, has a very appropriate cartoon out for digital camera enthusiasts. I really need to get used to the idea that I can take several pictures of the same subject and later select the best one.

Posted by Rainer Brockerhoff (away):

Rafael Fischmann wrote:

Rainer Brockerhoff (away) wrote:

At one point I caught my camera strap on a bit of Velcro and dropped the camera with some force on the pavement…

…Anyway, it’s good that nothing happened and I hope you can fix it. By the way, do you have a warranty for the camera?

I e-mailed Pentax in Hamburg (Germany) and they said gravity effects don’t fall under the warranty. Anyway, everything else works perfectly… if the lens got misaligned I’ll notice some lack of focus when viewing the photos back home, but my impression is that’s not the case. So it’s just the case itself.

Posted by Rafael Fischmann:

Rainer Brockerhoff (away) wrote:

At one point I caught my camera strap on a bit of Velcro and dropped the camera with some force on the pavement. The battery flew out and I had the awful impression of other expensive innards strewn about, but after replacing everything it still works flawlessly. A corner is rather dented, but looking closely I may be able to undent it after removing the outer shell – after I get back, that is.

Oh my God! That’s my biggest concern with this kind of equipment, I’m actually the champion in making this kind of stuff. Anyway, it’s good that nothing happened and I hope you can fix it. By the way, do you have a warranty for the camera?

We’re off…

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The Europe trip begins in a few hours. Everything’s packed, I’ve collected a number of old and new photos to show to our relatives, and I’m loading them into the Pentax as I’m writing this.

It took some time to figure out. The camera’s SD card contains a main folder called “DCIM”, inside that there are folders called “nnnPENTX” (where nnn is a 3-digit number from 100 to 999 – I didn’t try smaller numbers). Inside each folder there may be .jpg, .avi or .wav files whose name must be “IMGPnnnn.xyz”, where nnnn is any 4-digit number and xyz the proper extension. The card is formatted in MSDOS format. JPG files can be saved as “optimized” to be played back by the camera, but “progressive” isn’t supported – oddly enough, the Finder’s preview function fails for these files! Some larger images also gave an error, so I scaled them down. I didn’t try to test compatibility for the .wav and .avi files. Files which don’t obey these conventions seem to be ignored, although once I managed to lock the camera with a “card error” message… reformatting took care of that.

We’ll leave for the airport at 16:00 local (16:00 UTC) – it’s 45km away. The plane takes off at 19:08 to São Paulo, then at 22:35 we’ll fly KLM to Amsterdam, where we’ll arrive at 14:50 local (12:50 UTC). Then the final connection to Frankfurt will leave at 17:55 and arrive at 19:10 local (17:10 UTC). My cousin Jürgen, who coincidentally works at Frankfurt Airport, will pick us up and take us to nearby Ingelheim, where we should arrive around 20:00 local (18:00). This means 26 hours from door to door icon_eek.gif!

Remarkably few of my relatives seem to have e-mail; on my last trip in 1995 very few had even heard of the Internet. Anyway, I’ll try to locate an Internet Café every few days to post updates here.Posting photos will probably be impossible until our return on July 3rd.

Just a few updates. LetsGoDigital has some very nice pictures of the camera.

Taking pictures at the party yesterday mostly worked fine. I did confuse the power button with the shutter button twice, and sometimes the flash-precharge time seemed overly long; also, the LCD display blanks out for a second while the flash fires. One image was very blurry – I think inadvertently turned the flash off, so the camera shifted to a longer exposure time. The rest were mostly fine, if not too sharp, and a little darker than I normally like. I tried out the movie clip feature but the room was too dark for that. I took some pictures under incandescent lights but the auto white balance didn’t work too well.

Afterwards, downloading the pictures to our host’s Windows XP laptop worked fine with no additional installation. Coincidentally, he’d just gotten a Olympus C-4000; it was striking to compare them side-by-side, the Olympus looks big and clunky. At maximum resolution, the Olympus takes a 2288×1712-pixel picture compared to the Optio’s 2048×1536. Other features are roughly equivalent, but the Olympus weighs 400g compared to the Optio’s 115g!

Reading the manual I discovered other goodies. The movie clip mode takes a maximum of about 370 frames (30 secs at 12.33 fps). However, one can divide the frame rate by 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 or 100 to make time-lapse movies; at the last rate, this means 50 minutes are compressed into 30 seconds. This should be fun; I’ll have to find my old pocket tripod for testing this. Images can be cropped to a smaller size inside the camera, copied between the internal memory and the SD card, and b&w, sepia, and colored filters can be applied.

As soon as possible, I plan to buy a spare battery, the AC adapter and a case for the camera; none of these were available at the store when I ordered it, unfortunately.

My Pentax Optio S camera just arrived, after a hair-raising three weeks of worrying about the shipment coming in time for the upcoming Europe trip. Whew. Nothing like getting a new geek toy a few days before one’s birthday. Many thanks to the nice folks at B&H Photo Video for making my deadline. Here are my first impressions.

Besides the camera itself, which has 11MB built-in memory, I bought two SanDisk 256MB memory cards and a PQI FPTS-D-US TravelFlash card reader/writer with USB interface. The reader comes with an installation CD for various Windows flavors and for Classic Mac OS; no installation was necessary for Mac OS X. It’s small and light but the bulges on the side interfere (by a millimeter or so) with the neighboring USB connector on my iBook; there’s enough “give” to make it fit, though, and a 60-cm USB extension cable is included.

The SD (Secure Digital) cards are postage-stamp sized and have a write-protect switch, which seems very convenient. They come in a bulkier plastic case, probably because they’d be easy to lose otherwise. The 256MB size is the most cost-effective right now. Both came preformatted and Mac OS X could see them with no trouble. Interestingly, the packaging included both a magnetic-wire tag and a RFID tag… the latter seem to be getting very popular lately.

Going back to the camera itself, it comes in a surprisingly small box which is very tightly packed. The bulkiest items are the battery charger and the various cables – an USB cable, the charger’s power cable, and the video out cable for connecting to a TV, and a smaller bag with the camera strap. The manual is conveniently small-sized too. The battery and camera themselves are so small and discreetly packed in a size pocket of the box that I had a momentary panic attack icon_smile.gif.

The manual recommends charging the battery first, so that’s what I’m did while typing this. it’s supposed to take 100 minutes or less. The battery slides into the charger but isn’t held too tightly, so I’ll be careful not to handle the charger while it’s operating. As the charger’s power cable is long and bulky, I’ll probably travel with my iBook’s adapter plug instead. Meanwhile, I attached the camera strap first of all, as handling the camera without it was quite anxiety-provoking; it was so light I was afraid to fumble and drop it. The camera-side end of the strap itself looks very thin too. That said, the gripping surfaces, though small, are well placed and roughened by circular concentric grooves. The grooves are centered on the lens in front and on the four-way button in back, and contribute to the camera’s jewel-like appearance.

The accompanying CD has drivers for Windows and Classic Mac OS, as well as Windows and Mac versions of ACDSee, an image browser. Curiously, the version on the CD was 1.6.9, quite more recent than the one listed on VersionTracker. There’s no mention of a newer version on the ACDSee site.

On the first power-up, the camera asks for some setup information, like menu language, geographical location, and date and time. After some fumbling and belated checking of the manual, I think I’ve got the hang of the menu system. The four-way button on the back at first seems a little flaky, like the reviews warned me, but working it with a fingernail works OK. The camera has an enormous range of options, I’ve barely scratched the surface after about an hour of fiddling.

The top of the camera has the power button on the right and the shutter release next to it. Worries that they’d be too easy to confuse were unfounded, as the power button is slightly recessed and the shutter release falls naturally under the right index finger. The zoom in/out buttons are a little less convenient as they fall under the thumbtip. Zooming seems to work in discrete steps, which I’d never seen before in a camera.

So far, I’ve checked out the various flash, focusing and zooming options and some of the media formats. The sound recording feature records over 16 hours (!) of sound on a 256MB card at 8 KHz mono – this generates a .wav file. Not really useful for concert bootlegging, but it’s quite sufficient for interviews and meetings. You can also record a sound clip of up to 30 secs for each photo – useful for the “shoot first and ask later” approach.

The video recording feature records up to 30 seconds of “Motion JPEG OpenDML” video, at 320×240 pixels, around 12 fps, with 8KHz mono sound. The finished file is in .avi format and averages around 2.7MB size in my tests. Clips look reasonable on a TV, considering the low pixel size. It seems that the video output (which can be switched between PAL and NTSC) just mirrors whatever appears on the LCD; this may be interesting for teaching purposes.

I’ve figured out that, as long as I imitate Pentax’s numbering conventions, I can upload existing photos to a card and have the camera display it; of about 70 test images, 8 seemed to be in an uncompatible format, quite puzzling as they were all tweaked and saved in Photoshop. Later on I’ll try to save the same image with several options to narrow this down. This will be very useful on the trip, it beats carrying dozens of photo albums…

No time for now to fiddle around with actual test images, but here’s a slightly cropped and reduced self-portrait:

I’ll be taking the camera to a party later today as a first field-test. Hopefully I’ll be able to post some actual test images and more comments in a few days…

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