Brands Hatch · 24 days ago

When I was around five or six my Dad took us a couple of times to the Formula One, both at Brands Hatch and at Silverstone. My only real memories of the event now are the traffic jams and my being sick so Dad had to bring us home early, something I feel most guilty about now I’m an adult and understand the pain in getting to such events, sorry Dad. But these memories, as vague as they may be, still made it all the more special when this week I got to drive the circuit at Brands Hatch for a day: I’d one been here as a kid besotted with F1, and now I was going to be challenging myself on the twists and turns of that famous circuit. Something my 35 year ago self would never have believed would happen.

Driving a Caterham onto the Brands Hatch start/finish straight

Brands Hatch is a track I’ve become quite familiar of in the last year, thanks to its inclusion in Forza Motorsport 6. Some friends and I would run a weekly fastest lap challenge, and we used both circuit configurations on Brands Hatch, so I put a lot of hours into it, and learned to love it for its technical challenges, particularly the the longer GP circuit configuration. This configuration is actually not used much these days due to noise restrictions, so when I spotted a track day open up on the GP circuit, that same circuit I’d’ve watched as a kid, I leapt at the opportunity to go.

Having long ago read Jonathan Gitlin’s piece in Ars Technica about whether you can learn to race a real track using video games, I was curious to see how well the countless virtual hours I’d spent lapping Brands Hatch in Forza would help or hinder me in real life. Would it just be too different that it’d not help, would I have learned some bad habits in the virtual game that I’d need to unlearn? I was already aware from doing track time previously that virtual driving, as fun as it is, really doesn’t come close to the physical experience of real driving. Track driving is not like regular driving – you’re having to constantly pay attention to every detail, you’re accelerating hard, you’re breaking even harder, it’s both physically and mentally quite a workout, something impossible to recreate properly in your living room.

Waiting to get on track

When I got to Brands Hatch for the first time in over three decades, the first thing that became immediately obvious to me was that the virtual video game experience just does not convey properly the elevation changes in the track. I know from Forza that Brands was hilly, but the two dimensional projection on your TV that is free from really world effects like gravity and momentum acting on your body just do not get across to you how steep a lot of the track is. This meant a lot of my assumptions about the track were out of the window immediately. I’ve no idea what Forza can do to get this across – whether it is just the lighting in the game, or they need to make it slightly more caricatured to get it across better, but it was quite an eye opened that after the steep dip down as you turn right off the start/finish straight, what in Forza feels like a gentle climb up to the hairpin is in fact an immediate steep climb, like a sharp drop and climb in a roller-coaster. Quite sensational to drive and master. Similarly, the slightly less aggressive dip and climb on the back section of the track is visually conveyed in Forza, but I was unprepared for the G-force shift on my body, as you’re going quite quick at that point, and as the road takes your car up your body takes a moment or two to realise it’s not still going down.

About to head from hill to dale

And these differences made me love Brands Hatch as a track all the more. What I like about track driving, over regular driving, is it’s a challenge to master, at the same time as being quite exhilarating. Anyone with a right foot (and, given technological advances, those without too) can make a car go fast in a straight line: just press the accelerator hard. There’s no challenge to that. What I love about track driving is being able to string corners together whilst keeping speed up to get a fast lap, better than the one I did previously. That takes planning, experience, judgement; the fastest line through a corner does not mean having the most velocity, it means balancing speed and position perfectly, something that is hard to get right, but feels great when you nail it. And then there’s trying to nail it consistently, which is another challenge too.

Thankfully, given that my learning on Forza was out the window due to the elevation changes, I had some one on one tuition booked (included as part of hiring a car with book-a-track, I assume to make sure you hand the car back in one piece). After twenty minutes adjusting to the elevation changes and learning the lines, Brands Hatch came back to me. Thus by the time I had my afternoon tutorial session, I was actually on top of where the racing line was, so rather than continue to learn the track, we worked on my technique, which was wonderfully educational (many thanks to Richard, my tutor, for that). So although I had to relearn the track, my time in Forza did make that settle in much more quickly, allowing me to get more consistent earlier in the day than for my friend attending who hadn’t experienced the track before.

Hitting the apex on a corner

In the afternoon there was light rain, forcing us to slow down, but that was actually quite good from a learning perspective, as it forced you to slow your pace, and you could work on your lines, an opinion I found shared amongst fellow drivers in the paddock at Brands Hatch for the first time. There’s one particularly hard corner on the back section, called Sheene Curve, which is a medium tightness right hander at the top of a climb; what makes it really quite tricky is you need to commit to turning into it before you’ve crested the hill if you want to get the best line through it. In the dry, I was carrying sufficient speed my nerve wouldn’t let me, forcing me to ironically go slower through the corner. But the damp afternoon conditions gave me more space to place and anticipate and work on my position, so by the end of the day I had the line nailed, and I was taking that section quicker despite the damp.

By the end of the day, despite being hugely tired, I was very happy. I’d got the privilege of driving a classic racing circuit from my childhood, and managed to unlock some of its secrets at the same time as improving my overall technique.

I went back to Forza the following day just to check how it compared, and elevation issues aside, it’s pretty damned spot on. All the breaking markers were in the right place, even the painted line on the track in one section that I used to judge an apex was there. As true testament though, I was able to disable all driver hints, and just drive the line I drove on the real track and nail the corners fine, including the blind apex.

Forza has a limited selection of UK tracks, making it hard to repeat this education before going on tracks that I’d like to tackle next (at least until I realise my dream and get on track at Laguna Seca). Thankfully there’s another racing simulator, Project Cars, that includes tracks like Cadwell Park, Donnington, and Snetterton, so now I can get to planning my next track day.

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Optimistic · 46 days ago

In my continuing quest to improve at guitar by posting a new song (roughly) each week:

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Practice makes less bad, guitar edition · 73 days ago

A good few years ago I did a 365 photography thing, where I posted a picture to Flickr, taken that day, for a full year. This was a great discipline for becoming a much better photographer. By December it wasn’t that I was loving every photo I took, but the frequency at which I was pleased with the results was much higher, and therein lies the point of such a challenge.

In a slightly less formal vein, having picked up the guitar recently, I’ve been trying to get into the habit to post a little snippet of something I’ve been practicing on guitar every week or so to YouTube. Originally it was just to share things with my brother (who’s an absolutely amazing guitarist and drummer), but having got into the habit I’m trying to keep it going. Here’s the most recent one, a brief take on R.E.M.‘s Be Mine:

If you suffer through the playlist you’ll quickly become aware that it’s rank amateur material – I’m really not that good. However, to become better one mostly just needs to practice, and having a little structure by which to do that helps, so work travel allowing I’ll try to keep that going.

One thing I am trying to do is do some actual learning. Back when I first picked up guitar twenty odd years ago I just went to the Internet, found songs I had on CD, and tried to play along (I wonder how many other guitarists of my generation got started thanks to Chris Bray?). It was enough that I could strum along to some R.E.M. and Radiohead (I was in my R phase at the time), but means I don’t really know why I play what I play, and can’t go off the rails.

This time, whilst still hunting the Internet for tunes I like (which ironically is harder these days, as someone has tried to make money off it all, rather than it being somewhat community spirited back in the Internet’s heyday), I’ve also been trying to learn theory behind playing thanks to YouTube channels like Justin Sander Coe’s. Justin’s channel is great for beginners like me, and I only wish YouTube had been around twenty years ago when I started, rather than waiting another decade before even existing. I dived in at intermediate level on Justin’s videos, thinking I knew a thing or two already, before downgrading myself to beginner when I realised I really needed to go back to square one to undo some of my bad habits. Even things like just practicing my scales every day have helped train my fingers to behave more. I really recommend Justin’s videos.

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The iPad vs Photography · 134 days ago

I’m mostly writing this so that someone can tell me I’m wrong and I can then be happy.

When the iPad Pro came out last year, there was much made of its abilities as a content creation platform, something I was reminded of when Quentin shared the link to the nicely done review by Serenity Caldwell of the Apple Pencil. Unfortunately, as a photographer who’s been trying to embrace the iPad as a workflow piece for a while now, I’m still finding the whole thing hugely unsatisfying. I’m not quite sure whether it’s Apple or Adobe who are to blame here, or (as one must always consider) perhaps it’s both.

I upgraded my iPad about 12 months or so ago on the hope that a modern iPad would now have enough power to do interesting things (Apple at the time hyping it’s 64 bit processor IIRC). I was also at the time trying to get back into photography, partly by slimming down my workflow that had made photography such a time consuming task. I thought if my X-E2 can talk straight to the iPad (which it can) then I can do simple edits there and upload, and life would be good. It wasn’t. But it’s no longer the hardware’s fault, that appears to be plenty fast. It’s the software that’s holding it back.

I am a bit of an archivist in nature, so like to have my photos stored somewhere I know I’ll be able to get them later. I used Apple’s Aperture software for this until Apple discontinued it (sigh), at which point I moved to Adobe’s Lightroom, the only real competitor. For the record, I dislike Lightroom, which I find much more clunky than Aperture, and doesn’t seem to integrate any better with Photoshop, which I thought might be the one big advantage. But I digress, as there’s no real competition here, I’m stuck with Lightroom.

When I saw Lightroom was available on the iPad, I thought my switch to a iPad only workflow would be achievable. But no, I was mistaken; Lightroom on iPad is not really Lightroom as anything other than as a branding exercise. Yes, it’ll sync with the bits of your desktop Lightroom library that you have already synced to Adobe’s cloud storage, but it’s no good for general library work (you can’t edit metadata for instance) and its editing tools are very limited compared to the desktop version too. It’s basically a something that lets me see my Lightroom photos I’ve remembered to sync on my iPad, but not really much else. Thus, I abandoned my dreams of camera to iPad to web, and accepted I was going to need a laptop again for photography.

When the iPad Pro launched Adobe was certainly on stage with Apple showing off their latest round of photo apps, including Photoshop Fix, all working nicely with the Apple Pencil, so I thought that here was time to re-evaluate. But, as improved as these things are, they still offer a much more limited experience than on the desktop, and still require that you use the desktop for storage management. It’s still amateur hour on the iPad basically.

What does it take to fix this? There’re two missing bits in my mind that either Adobe need to fix or Apple need to provide for Adobe to use (ignoring any business side worries Adobe might have about the iOS side eating into their cash cows).

Firstly, there’s a UX problem. As I said before, the Lightroom UI on the desktop is very clunky, and although more minimal, so is Photoshop (albeit much less so than Lightroom). These UIs rely on panels popping in and out, lots of sliders places close together; it’s all very fiddly. Making something that has the same number of dials on the iPad is going to require a rethink. What they’ve done to date is not even try, which is better than failing, but as a photography nerd, I want the ability to make the photo how I want it to look, and not to be restricted to the tiny subset of tools that can be made to work with how the current way of thinking about touch UIs for photography dictates (basically, it’s like Instagram wrote the book how we should do touch photography, which is a very depressing). This is a very hard problem, but someone needs to solve this if the iPad is going to replace the desktop for editing photos at above the casual consumer level.

Secondly, there’s a storage problem. I shoot raw format so I have the best image possible saved should I need it later, but raw photos are big: 40 photos to a gigabyte is my rule of thumb for that. The iPad is going to fill up very quickly at that rate. Even my X-E2 camera won’t let me off load photos to the iPad in that format, only sending the JPEG preview. What we need is a way to do the Adobe cloud sync thing with my raw images so the iPad is a conduit to the cloud, and then I can pull down the ones I want to edit and sync them back up once I’m done. That won’t be cheap for Adobe to run, but as a prosumer type I’d be happy to pay for that, as I need to back up my photos some how, and this service can double as that.

Ultimately, the iPad hardware got good enough with the iPad Air, but it’s just the software that’s holding it back here. I’d love to move to an iPad workflow one day, but it’s going to take a chunk of hard work to make it at all viable. Perhaps some plucky startup can show them the way.

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Kashmir and wood · 135 days ago

I spent the day refurbring my old Mexican Telecaster, which I bought roughly 20 years ago when I was in a band with some friends (we were terrible, but it was a lot of fun). At the time brit hop was at it’s height, and the telecaster was a very popular guitar with that scene (most notably by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead who at the time I idolised as the guitarist to be).

For the last ten years or so I’ve hardly picked up my guitars. My old acoustic had a warped neck from having too light strings one it for too long, and when you’re out of practice playing electric is a somewhat anti-social thing. Ultimately, I’m not really that good anyway. The main reason I stopped though is music is more fun when you have others to play with.

Recently I received some wonderful wooden plectrums as a gift, which was meant to inspire me to pick up my guitars again (thanks Vi & Arthur :). Both my guitars being in a slightly dilapidated state, I took this as inspiration to actually go and replace my aged Fender Acoustic with a wonderful Lâg T200ACE electro acoustic.

Part the motivation for getting an electro-acoustic is it lets me record things much more easily, and I can share them say with my brother, who is actually musically talented, which means I can try and get that slightly social aspect to music back. Not sure what Tristan gets out of this deal, other than perhaps a constant reminder that he really can play guitar.

Then, to pass the time on the commute to the Cupertino office recently, I watched the absolutely wonderful It Might Get Loud, a documentary bringing together Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White, and looking at their playing styles and histories. One message from the film really struck a chord with me (did you see what I did there…) was how they had their own styles, and it wasn’t about the sheet of music. Let me try to explain.

One of the things that I think always I got caught up on when trying to learn songs on guitar was trying to recreate them perfectly, rather than just playing them in a way that suited me; I wanted to sound just like Johnny Greenwood or Peter Buck or whoever, and pretty much always fell short, making guitar as frustrating an experience as a fun one. I first realised my mistake just as my early guitar days were about to end. The only really talented band member, Adam, gave me a song he’d written for me to try play. Because I had no reference for it, I just played it as I would play it, which was a liberating experience. Unfortunately this was just as we were all finishing Uni and cast our separate ways, thus ending our band, and so the lesson never really took hold.

But watching It Might Get Loud reminded me of that, and inspired me not only to pick up the acoustic again, but also to dust of my Telecaster, take it apart and put it back together as close to new as I can, and have some fun playing it without fretting too much (do you see what I did there…) about being pitch perfect.

As great as the film is, some of the best clips from fell on the cutting room floor, and are thankfully on youtube (see here and here) – in these the three are teaching each other how to play some of their more notable riffs from their careers (which I imagine can be dull for non-guitarists, so I see why they might cut them). Thus I’ve been trying the same, having just got my guitar back into working order:

Yes, the timing is a bit wonky, and I fluff the ending, but it’s just a huge amount of fun to play, because it’s within my range (unlike most of Radiohead); same for my attempt to learn slide and play Seven Nation Army. These riffs can withstand interpretation and just so much fun to play as I can play.

Not sure this makes a huge amount of sense, but it’s great fun to just be fiddling with the guitar and trying out new things and finding things that I can play that entertain me rather than trying to achieve things outwith my grasp. Just apologies to Tristan who ends up having to listen to it all ;)

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Floating · 185 days ago

1.8 London by Janet Echelman, part of the Lumiere London festival. I have a colour version of this also, but the monochrome version more vividly captures the contrast between the vector mesh and the flowing net which I loved. It’s almost a physical manifestation of the early 90s demo scene was trying to make.

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Starman · 190 days ago

The Bowie mural in Brixton, taken a week after he’d passed away.

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Discovering things too late: Quartz Composer edition · 206 days ago

Like most techies I have a todo list of things I’d like to hack on as long as my arm, and xmas is one of the few times I get to act on them. However, I don’t want to spend all xmas doing my day job in another form, which is what a lot of the list would look like.

One of the things I wanted to get going again was the screen in our kitchen. We have a nice framed monitor on the wall that we used to use with our CODA screen back in the day to display photos, weather, social media feeds, etc. One of the reasons I was particularly sad when Camvine and CODA went away was not just because of the effort myself and others had poured into the company, it’s because it was a genuinely useful product, and I’ve not since found something that would let me manage content on my wall so easily and our kitchen display has sat unused since.

I often want to get something up and running to replace it, but the amount of boilerplate to get to the position of doing the fun part (displaying pictures and feeds with any sense of style) just puts me off. But then I happened across a tutorial for Apple’s Quartz Composer, which let me do all the fun bits right away without any tedious code, and has a path to making it into an app when I’m done.

Quartz Composer is a lot of fun – it’s a node based system where you wire up operations to make a simple flow that results in nice things appearing on screen, and allows many interaction modes. I imagine all my design friends are laughing at me for taking this long to find such a tool – I’ve always had my head down in the nuts and bolts, which is why I imagine I skipped over this originally. Within half an hour I had something up and running displaying my photo feed from 500px, and a day or two later something slightly more polished.

I looked forward to pouring more time into this project over the coming months, but unfortunately, I’ve also discovered Quartz Composer has been abandoned by Apple. Whilst you can still use it, it’s got some serious issues on El Capitan, initially I was going to post links to tutorials I followed here, but I can’t really recommend anyone give it a try. Which is sad, as it delivers both a simplicity to prototype up visual and interactive interfaces very quickly, but then also turn them into production quite simply too.

Still, for my own uses here, it continues to function for now, so I have a working screen in my kitchen again.

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Switching bodies · 218 days ago

A little while ago I wrote about how I was trying to re-invigorate my photography life by switching from my trusted but bulky Canon 7D to a smaller mirrorless Compact System Camera, Fujifilm’s X-E2, and I thought I’d follow up with some results of the experiment. Not only have I used the X-E2 way more than I’d used my 7D for the preceding years, but I’ve probably also ended up using the 7D more than I otherwise would have as well.

To start with, the X-E2, particularly when wedded with Fujifilm’s 35mm f/1.4 lens, is such a small and easy to carry camera, I just have it on me more, which instantly increases the likelihood I’ll use the thing. As technically better as the 7D is, it’s not able to demonstrate that if I just leave it at home all the time. I got a lovely small bag from Case Logic that’ll fit this camera, one or two lenses, and my iPad (and, at a push, my tiny MacBook), meaning I’m generally set up for most trips with a camera and a couple of lenses (essential if you’re a prime lens snob like myself).

The lenses for the X-E2 follow the camera in being generally smaller and lighter than the equivalents for the Canon, which makes it easier to cart a few around. I was very fortunate that my friend Quentin generously let me play with some of his lenses to get a feel for what they can do, and I’ve ended up both getting a very wide angle Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 prime lens, and a 55-200mm Fujifilm zoom. The quality of the glass in both is wonderful, and they’ve all been put to use in anger over the last half year at events like Goodwood Revival, and more recently when Laura and I did a 10 day trip around California (from which I’m still processing slowly the 1000 photos I took!). Having that flexibly to carry a few lenses without breaking your back with the weight really opens up opportunities that would otherwise be missed.

Whilst the Zeiss 12mm did exactly what I expected, and has done so exceptionally well, it’s been the zoom that’s surprised me the most, taking some outstanding shots like the one below, where before I’d have assumed I’d need a prime to get such a clear and crisp image (click through to see a larger version).

Whilst I’ve been really pleased with the X-E2, there’s a couple of instances where it isn’t suitable, which is why despite my love of the wee Fuji I still cart around the Canon on occasion. Firstly, the autofocus on the X-E2 is very slow compared to the 7D, and as such, it just isn’t good for wildlife or sports events – though to be fair, I also lack a suitable zoom lens for the Canon currently, which is why I’ve been trying to get by with X-E2 for such things, but it really does struggle in that area. The other reason is just kit – I started playing with long exposure shots recently, and I happen to have filters for the 7D, but not yet the X-E2.

Still, I can attribute my renewed photographic output (no matter what camera I have to hand) to the X-E2, and that means the experiment of swallowing my DSLR snobbery and getting a CSC camera has certainly been a resounding success.

(For those curious, the photo above was also taken with a Zeiss lens – the one in my Lumia 930 :)

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Goodwood Revival · 219 days ago

(Dear me, found this in my drafts folder. Let’s pretend it’s late September still…)

Last weekend (ahem) Laura and I attended Goodwood Revival. For those not familiar with it, Revival is a weekend long automotive equivalent of a historic reenactment event, set across the 30s to 60s, all hosted by Lord March at Goodwood, a mecca for motorsport and automative enthusiasts. It’s not the sort of thing either Laura or I would have attended had we not been invited along by one of Laura’s work colleagues, who happened to be racing in one of the events, but I’m rather glad we did.

Goodwood Revival starts with the carpark. Normally you’d despair at parking in a field with a mile or so to walk to the event; not so at Goodwood, where the car park is essentially a free entry motorshow that would rival many other events around the world. There’s a specific set of fields set aside for show cars that fit the theme (yes, multiple fields), and then there’s just the general car par which is studded with random exotica. You could easily just lose hours walking around here, and I suspect quite a few people do.

The next thing that hits you as walk around (in which Laura and I partook too) is the degree of LARPing at Revival. I’d estimate at least three quarters of people attending had taken the opportunity to dress up, some with minimal effort (I wore as much tweed as I could find) but a good percentage going the full hog, and dressing up as mods, or WWII RAF folk (in theme – Spitfires and Mustangs were buzzing the show taking people for a ride all weekend) or many other wonderful themes. It meant that the event had a wonderful surreal quality to the weekend, with so many people in the spirit of the theme; you feel like you’ve really stepped out of the normal world for a day, which makes it much easier to switch off the real world and relax at the event.

Once inside the event there’s a lot of vintage race cars and motorbikes on display, but unusually most of the time are not static museum pieces, they’re here to race. All weekend long the fortunate owners are here to race these cars against others from the same era. And they don’t pull punches either despite the incalculable worth of all that old metal hurtling around – you can see them taking corners on the ragged edge of what the car will cope with, and there were several offs that no doubt would cost what I paid for my house to repair. But these are cars still living the life they ere built for originally, which is a wonderful sight to see and hear.

Laura and I weren’t that fussed about any given race, which meant we could take a relaxed time, watching just a few laps of a race to see the cars from whatever period was on track, and then returning to looking at the other stands showing off cars, the various stores of memorabilia, or just watching all the people in fancy dress. A very chilled day spent with people doing exactly the same.

It was totally not what I expected from such an event, which I thought would be stuffy and a bit dull; whilst I like cars, I don’t like them as display objects, I like them as working bits of engineering. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Revival likes too – this isn’t a nod back to a postcard view of the past – it was literally a revival of these wonderful classics. I guess the clue should have been in the name.

You can see some more pictures here, and if you’ve been convinced this is worth a look, perhaps we’ll see you there next year – we’ve already booked our tickets for 2016.

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