Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Antarctic Peninsula Trip Photos, December 2015

In the second half of December 2015, Olga and I went on a trip of a lifetime* to Antarctica. It was an adventure cruise on board of "Akademik Ioffe" research ship, operated by "OneOcean Expeditions". The trip lasted 9 full days, or 11 days if one counts departure and arrival days. Both the ship crew and the expedition crew were at their topmost level of professionalism and dedication, and we can't thank them enough for making this trip incomparable to anything we've experienced before.

Quick Links

My Favorite Antartica Shots
Favorite pictures from the entire trip
YouTube playlist with trip videos
Day-by-day, outing-by-outing pictures

There are no superlatives that could even start to capture our complete and uninterrupted feeling of amazement we had during the visit. Although we did a fair amount or regular tourism in the years past, the beauty of Antarctic Peninsula during austral summer is nothing short of overwhelming. Huge rocky peaks covered in glaciers rise up to two miles all around you from the water, the surface of which is sometimes lake-like smooth, reflecting everything around you. The sun does not set in the end of December, instead making long sunsets turning into sunrises, creating colors that cannot be described. Wildlife in Antarctica has virtually no predators on the surface, except, of course, humans, and therefore is indifferent to proximity to people and most of other creatures. All of this, together with the very good weather and smooth crossing of the Drake Passage, amounted to an absolutely incredible experience.

It's hard to do anything in Antarctica, other than watch, watch, watch and then watch some more. Each day we spent up to seven hours away from the ship, either making landings on the islands or the continent itself and exploring on feet, or cruising among icebergs on inflatable "zodiac" motorboats. Even when on the ship, we spent every minute we could spare outside. Eating, sleeping, resting and anything else feels like an unforgivable waste of time, because whenever you look out of the window, there is either an absolutely breathtaking view outside, or whales blowing, or penguins purposing, or iceberg shining cyan blue all over, or an albatross soaring, or something else out of the million of wonders from what Antarctica has in store every second of every day.

Thinking of this insane beauty rapidly changing due to the global warming adds a ton of heartache. Humanity with all our achievements in art, architecture, literature and technology, would still amount to a total joke if we let this wonder get destroyed on our watch.

We made thousand of photos and took hours of 4K UHD video footage. I spent weeks culling and developing them, bringing the number of posted ones to something resembling manageable. Links to videos and photos are organized in three buckets: first, the single photo album where we put all our favorites pictures; second, a link to the YouTube playlist where we posted first couple of videos and where we'll keep adding them - yes, editing videos is just starting; and third, photos organized by each trip day and each landing or "zodiac" cruise.

Day-by-Day, Outing-by-Outing Trip Pictures

I start with pictures taken after our arrival to the Antarctic Peninsula area. Pictures from Drake Passage, going to and from, as well as Ushuaia pictures, are at the end.

Gerlache Strait
Gerlache Strait cruising pictures is also a separate album comprising shots from multiple days. I find myself looking pictures in this album most frequently. These pictures are taken from the ship, mostly while being out on the deck, but sometimes just out of the window. Glaciers, peaks, icebergs, whales, as well as penguins and seals on ice and in the water.

December 23, 2015

Orne Harbor
Orne Harbor, our first landing on the Antarctic continent. First penguins, first blizzard, first real taste of Antarctica.

Cuverville Island

Cuverville Island and "Zodiac" Cruise Among Icebergs. Close encounters with penguins and whimsically-shaped and surreal-colored icebergs.

Lemaire Channel

Lemaire Channel Cruise. Arguably the crown-jewel of the trip sightseeing. We were lucky that Lemaire got free of ice just one day before our arrival. This place is simply magical.
You may also watch the 4K UHD time-lapse video of our passage through Lemare.

December 24, 2015

Waterboat Point & Gonzalez Videla Station
Waterboat Point & Gonzalez Videla Station. An Emperor penguin, a female Elephant seal, leucistic Gentoo penguin, and hundreds of regular Gentoos producing incredible amount of guano.

Useful Island and Short "Zodiac" Iceberg Cruise
Useful Island and Short "Zodiac" Iceberg Cruise. There you'll see an Adeli penguin - an extra-cute, melancholic and pretty rare in such high latitude, no less cute and funny Chinstrap penguin close-ups, petty-crime-minded White Sheathbill, and other wonders.

Danco Island Camping Night
Danco Island Camping Night. Yep, we spent our night before Christmas 2015 sleeping on the snow in Antarctica. The video of us going to "bed" is no less fun.

December 25, 2015

George's Point
George's Point. Nothing special really, just a regular insane and incomprehensible beauty. Besides funny critters, some lichens can be seen, dominating the plant life at the place where there is no grass, shrubs or trees.

Neko Harbor
Neko Harbor. The most photographed place in the Antarctic Peninsula, we were told, and deservedly so. A massive glacier descends into the water very close to the landing point. A short hike up, and the entire harbor and surroundings open up in one of the most magnificent views one can experience. A few shots of an avalanche, and panting penguins on the nests experiencing 60°F, 16°C heat. It's our second continent landing.

December 26, 2015

Cierva Cove "Zodiac" Iceberg Cruise
Cierva Cove "Zodiac" Iceberg Cruise. Icebergs so complicated as almost artificial, like movie set props. And tiny islands where a handful of birds of various species get together, as if a few dudes who got away from family responsibilities gathered to play poker.

Mikkelsen Harbor & D'Hainaut Island
Mikkelsen Harbor & D'Hainaut Island. Lounging Weddell seals, solemn remnants of whaling boat right next to whale bones, contrasted with the optimism and cuteness of brand new Gentoo chicks.

December 27, 2015

Deception Island & Whaler's Bay
Deception Island & Whaler's Bay. As if drawn in pencil or chalk, the views from the deck of ship slowly cruising inside the crater of "dormant" volcano, were so unreal, that getting up before 5AM to see this was absolutely worth it.

Half Moon Island
Half Moon Island. Birds: shags, skuas, Antarctic terns, penguins, with the requisite high drama of skuas trying to steal penguins' eggs, and penguins circling their wagons and yell at the top of their lungs. Blue-eyed shags, looking as if they were born after a duck fulled around with a penguin. And skuas are essentially falcons with webbed feet. A dense snowfall at the end to refresh the scenery.

Barrientos Island
Barrientos Island. Another hike to a vantage point overlooking a bay with a large iceberg that ran aground resembling flat iron. There was rapidly changing weather, largely disregarded by seals and penguins. Skua flying through the snow while looking you straight in the eye, is quite a memorable moment.

Leaving South Shetland Islands
Leaving South Shetland Islands. Final hours of the last day in Antarctica: last whales, last islands, last icebergs, and a lifetime to remember.

Getting There and Back

Beagle Channel and Drake Passage
Beagle Channel and Drake Passage. Crossing Drake Channel takes two days, each way. If weather cooperates, as it did in our case, spending time outside watching and photographing albatrosses, petrels and occasional whales is all one can ask for.

Ushuaia, the Town at The End of The World
Ushuaia, the Town at The End of The World. A charming a slightly neglected town where spent a little bit of time before the trip.

Monday, February 22, 2016

PCIe (NVME) SSD drives add manifold performance benefit compared to SATA SSDs

I got my first SSD drive back in 2009. It was in fact a pair of 60 GB OCZ Agility drives, which I ran in RAID-0 (striping) configuration. Each OCZ Agility drive delivered about 200 MB/s writes and 300 MB/s reads, which amounted to about 4-5 times(!) the performance of a regular consumer spindle hard drive. In RAID-0 the performance boost was insane. Two drives back then cost me $360, but I never looked back and never bought a spindle drive since, except for NAS to store media.

Now it's time for another similarly-unbelievable permanent storage performance increase. Long past the time it should've happened, the outdated SATA storage interface is giving way to PCIe 3.0 x4 with NVME protocol, in the form of the M.2 physical connector. As you'll see below, that's again, a 4-5 times performance gain compared to the SATA SSDs of yesterday. And for M.2/PCIe it is only a beginning. Storage capacity and performance increases based on Moore's law promise truly incredible gains in performance of computers and other devices, while shrinking in size and getting much less power-hungry.

Here's what it meant for me in practice. A few days ago I got an inexpensive and somewhat old AsRock Z97 Extreme6 1150 motherboard to carry over my aging but plentiful 24GB of DDR3 memory. This $120 Z97 board has one little nugget: a PCIe 3.0 4-lane M.2 (NVME) interface, allowing connecting the first consumer NVME drive that hit retail shelves: Samsung Pro 950 512 GB SSD drive.

Here's the Samsung Pro 950 512 GB installed in AsRock Z97 Extreme6 1150 motherboard.

And here's the ATTO benchbark of two SSD drives connected to it: old SATA Samsung Evo 512 GB on the left, and Samsung Pro 950 512 GB attached as M.2 PCIe x4, running on Windows 10:

Behold the difference: 3 times gain in write and 5x gain in read speed for the new vs the old SSD, on 2-year old motherboard! It looks like it's time to stop buying SATA drives, everyone, and move on to Ultra M.2.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Android Lollipop is Incredibly, Unbelievably Bad

Those who know me will attest that it takes a vary serious effort to rattle me to the point where I'd start saying things like "I hate X". I am even more tolerant to the shortcomings of software products. For example, I never shared majority's outspokenly negative view of Windows ME or Windows Vista (Starting with Vista "Start" menu has become moot as search was the quickest way to find and start a program or a document). I could easily deal with problems of those operating systems. In fact, I considered them rather minor, and the reaction of the public overblown. And, I started using computers when MS DOS was the main OS, then I switched to Windows 3.1 and used every version of Windows since then. I spent a few so-so years in the iOS ecosystem and about as much in the Android universe. I have never complained. So now that we've established the baseline of my pain threshold, let me get to the point.

Android Lollipop, you did it. I hate you. My wife does too. In my view, Lollipop is the worst OS, bar none. We used to have Google Nexus 4 phones running Kit Kat smoothly and dutifully. No complaints at all. One day they were "upgraded" to Lollipop, which made our handsets unusable. Not just very slow, but Lollipop terminating and unloading our apps was simply incredible. Podcasts that stop in the middle while running in the background? Check. Phone app that takes 45 seconds to show up while you need to make a call rather urgently? Check. Camera app that shows up a minute after the moment of interest has passed, and then holding your phone hostage for another 30-40 seconds? Oh yeah, all the time! Keyboard that draws letters in the virtual keyboard "button" squares at the rate of one per second? I saw that too.

After tolerating that disaster for a couple of months, we sold Nexus 4 sets on eBay and got LG G2s. It was a great hardware for a value phone, running Kit Kat simply beautifully: not a hitch, very snappy - just a joy to use. Then the terrible day has come - the day of forcible upgrade by LG or whoever is the overlord pushing "upgrades" to our phones. Now our LG G2s are almost as slow and unbearable as Nexus 4s were, except we can't justify buying another hardware less than a year after previous phone purchase. We are stuck in the Lollipop inferno for now.

I understand that this could have been phone manufacturer's fault, but eventually the buck stops with Google. Brief internet search shows that even most recent and expensive hardware is susceptible to the Lollipop slowness curse just as well. Sadly, our exit from Apple ecosystem few years before was precipitated by their very similar software update approach that made the experience of keeping up with hardware miserable.

There is simply no excuse for the Android Lollipop being so incredibly bad. It's really hard to fathom why and how thies disaster of an OS has passed the mesh of Google quality control. I will give Google one more chance with Marshmallow, but if it turns out anything like the experience with the Lollipop, the dreaded switch of the ecosystems might be the only way forward..

For shame, Google.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The End of Profit

Finally I get to write my own "The End of..." piece, albeit just in my own blog. To not bore anyone with the requisite amount of text appropriate for the title, here's just the executive summary.

The never-ending quest of the business world to increase efficiency means increased commoditization of every product, with which margins become really thin, making it very difficult to turn any profit at smaller scale, which in turn would disincentivise new business formatiuon, which will depresses the economy and wages. Where did I make an error here?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Amazon Fire TV 4K is Alright, Not Mind-Blowing

Amazon has pulled ahead from Google by releasing the 4K-capable version of the Fire TV mini-STB. Google's Chromecast does not yet have a 4K game. Until recently it was only $200 Nvidia Shield console ($225 with the remote you want) that supported 4K.

So the question for 4K folks is: Amazon Fire TV or Nvidia Shield? Or, even, why bother with dongles and set-top boxes instead of just using Smart TV capabilities of your 4K TV set?

(Again, I am not a gamer, I am interested in high-quality media streaming, so my take on this reflects only media part of the equation.)

Here's the things: YouTube, as of now, holds advantage of the 4K content available. In order to play YouTube 4K content, your system needs to have hardware support of VP9 codec - 4K format used by YouTube. No all 4K TV sets support it. For example, Vizio, which combines excellent features with affordability, can't play YouTube at 4K - a major drawback, IMO. However, a TV set that does run YouTube at 4K with comparable feature set, will cost you about $800 more. Now, to me this $800 gap for just a couple of features I miss, main of which is 4K YouTube, is the space where 4K STBs come in.

Until today, just about the only 4K STB game in town was Nvidia Shield console. But with today's announcement of Amazon Fire TV, we've got competition. And to me decision for which one to get comes down to this:
FeaturesNvidia ShieldAmazon New Fire Tv
4K Frame Rate60fps30fps
YouTube 4K SupportYes?? No

Yep, from its specs, it's unclear whether new Fire TV supports VP9 YouTube codec. Until I can confirm it's a "yes", for me Fire TV is not a contender. If the answer is yes, then I can imagine trading extra 30fps of Shield for a $100 discount.
According to, YouTube 4K content cannot be watched due to lack of VP9 codec support by the new Fire TV. So I $100 price tag seems too high for this device.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Entering 4K Video World: Hardware Upgrades and Process Changes

4K video resolution is arriving - not really slowly, but in a somewhat weird way: 4K content is sparse, while consumer-grade hardware to produce and consume 4K content is getting affordable, from GoPro 4 Black and Sony FDR-AX33 camcorders costing under a $1000, to plenty of sub-$1,000 4K TV sets. This price point is a sweet spot where a video geek can get the hardware and not be overrun with guilt that must ruin the psyche of a real early adopter.

Watching raw 4K footage on a 4K TV is not something I can deal with - video has to be edited first, and in the 4K video case, it means your computer will have to move and process a whole lot more data. Which in turn means upgrades, and no matter how exciting it is for you and me, it means keeping costs down to make this all bearable for our dear sane family members.

Start with a monitor: your HD computer monitor will need to be upgraded to see the glory of 4K. I got Acer S277HK. It's not perfect: backlight is bleeding over at the corners pretty badly, but it's 4K, it's IPS, it has HDMI 2.0 in addition to the DisplayPort so it can be connected not only to a computer in a pinch, it has built-in speakers so I don' have to waste desk space for speakers, and it's not ridiculously expensive. I am very happy with it, running on Windows 10. Everything look massively more gorgeous on it than on a regular HD monitor.

To drive the 4K monitor, I got the least expensive video card I could find for the purpose, which is just about any GeForce 750Ti - it won't handle 4K gaming, but should be plenty for 4K video editing. I got the EVGA, which worked out quite nicely. It also has a fairy quite fan, and I really like when my system is quiet. GeForce 750 (non-Ti) might have worked, but based on reviews it looked iffy, so I went with the Ti, which seems to be very much up to the task.

Now, here's something I didn't experience in a while: after copying 100 Mbit/s 4K footage shot on Sony FDR-AX33 from an SD card on to the 2TB spindle SATA drive, I found that playing back 4K 100Mbit video from the spindle is all jittery as heck. I felt it is 90's all over again. Now, how do you fight this? The largest 4K clip I have is about 46 Gig and I definitely will have lots of these in the future. A reasonably priced large-capacity SSD that would provide adequate performance still costs about $250 on sale. At only 0.9 TB, it won't take very long to fill it up with 4K clips. So I got an idea: replace the spindle drive with the SSD, and to save the space, get Amazon Cloud Drive Unlimited. At $60 a year, and assuming the price will go down in the future, unlimited cloud storage looks very attractive for anyone planning to edit 4K videos. As an Amazon Prime user, I have been relying on complimentary Amazon Cloud to backup my pictures for a while. Using Amazon Cloud Drive by itself is not a particularly polished experience: one has to use awkward Amazon Cloud Client to upload files, which is a far cry from, say, DropBox quiet syncing. So although in theory Amazon Cloud Drive Unlimited seemed like a good option, I still wasn't sure how the whole workflow would look like, until I discovered the Odrive - the syncing client Amazon Cloud Drive sorely misses.

ODrive is the secret sauce that made this whole thing come together. Now all pieces were falling into places: upload all your raw footage to the Amazon Cloud Drive Unlimited and using Odrive, unsync folders with massive raw 4K footage to save the space on the SSD. When editing video, sync only folder(s) that hold 4K footage you are working with. Once done, unsync to free space. Rinse and repeat. This way your large-capacity SSD drive will hold only your pictures and the minimum number of big 4K video clips. That can easily be managed with probably even a 512GB SSD.

Now if initial syncing of the 4k raw footage up to the Amazon Cloud Drive won't run into the ridiculous and dreaded 300GB data cap of the blood-sucking Comcast (Update: oh yeah, I did - see update below), I should be all set for editing my 4K videos on a budget, using VideoStudio X8 Pro, and not having nervous breakdowns due to fears of running out of disk space or slow hard drive performance.

Finally, once I finish editing a few 4K videos, I will stop memorizing the content of the awesome and get an actual 4K TV to enjoy the fruits of my labors.

Update: ODrive Windows client crashes fairly regularly. If it crashes in the middle of uploading a large file, it starts over. It crashed several times trying (and never succeeding) to upload my 46GB 1hr+/100Mbit/s 4K clip, which took my Comcast data usage to 670GB, while I never reached the 300GB cap before. Comcast forgives first three months of overages under the "courtesy months" policy. I'll is that's the case when the bill shows up.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015