mcanvasprints.co.uk review

A few weeks ago I was contacted by mcanvasprints.co.uk, who asked if I’d like a free canvas print in return for a review. I was happy to go ahead, with the obvious proviso that it would be an honest appraisal, but this meant deciding on a photo. In the end, after much agonising, I chose this:

The square after the dance

The shot has some good memories for me, and it’s a decent review image as there’s plenty of fine detail, plus a large contrast range. I had the option of a free small-ish print or a hefty discount on something larger, so I went for 107cm x 71cm (old-speak: 42″ x 28″). I’ve been after something large and dramatic for my wall, so I figured I’d take a chance.

Ordering threw up one issue that turned out not to matter: they don’t supply printing information for the geeky amongst us. Specifically, they don’t mention the printer DPIs/recommended pixel dimensions for the different print sizes, and instead simply ask for the highest quality image available. This means they’ll resize the jpeg at their end. With lossy compression like jpeg it’s always best to resize the image as few times as possible, and in my case I knew I could skip the resize at their end by exporting a correctly sized jpeg from the original RAW file (admittedly, the average consumer would have a jpeg from the camera, so this point is moot) – but I didn’t have the necessary information. That said, canvas prints in general aren’t particularly high resolution. Canvas won’t show up the the fine details, and it’s these that suffer over multiple resamplings (as long as you’re using a competent graphics program, anyway). So I sent over a full-quality RAW conversion and hoped for the best. And it turned out very well.

I requested a wrap-around print, meaning the photo is stretched around the edges of the frame, and mcanvasprints promptly sent over a diagram showing – approximately – how this would affect the photo:

mcanvasprint wrap-around results

The green shows the flat primary-image area. This turned out to be about correct – certainly within the error bars for slightly rounded edges.

The red, though, is the area that gets trimmed. This is because of ratio changes when enlarging. My canvas is 42″ x 28″1, which is a ratio of 3:2 – the same as the original photo. But a wrap-around print adds approx 2″ to each side, meaning they have to enlarge the image to 46″ x 32″ – which isn’t 3:2. So the right/left edges of the photo are trimmed to meet the new ratio. They told me this would happen, and in this particular picture it’s no big deal, but it’s worth bearing in mind when dealing with wrap-around prints.

The alterations were all fine with me, so I put in an order. A few days later (fewer than their 5-7 working-day estimates) I received an enormous parcel, and eagerly opened it. And was quite impressed. The print was well wrapped – I had trouble getting into it, not wanting to put my knife anywhere near the thing – and it came with a sheet of maintenance instructions (don’t put it in direct sunlight, don’t wash it with liquids) plus two hanging kits. We used to latter to put it on the wall this weekend, and it’s cool. I like it.

Here’s an in-situ photo, but bear in mind it’s difficult to provide an accurate representation. By the time the photo has gone through camera/RAW  processing, with all of the relevant contrast and colour biases and decisions, the result isn’t a fair depiction:

print in-situ2

The detail is great: I can make out the number of the bus up and to the right of centre, as well as all the faces visible in the original (it’s quite fun, and very vain, to hunt for people looking at me). The colour is fine, and not oversaturated – it’s just right, in my view. Highlight detail is excellent – the white of the steel-band marquee isn’t too glaring, and the Waterstone’s building has kept all its detail. The shadows have been compressed a little: the facing-us panel of Nelson’s column is pretty much devoid of detail above the highlights – but it’s pretty dark in the original, too, and I suspect anything other than photographic paper is going to struggle with that kind of tonal range.

The canvas is securely attached to the wooden frame, which is itself firmly held-together and very light (the whole thing weighs surprisingly little). We were able to drill into the wood to attach the hanging-brackets without any worries.

Overall: I’m very happy with it. I try not to be too anal, but if I notice an annoyance it’ll always niggle, and I have no niggles. I can’t claim any particular expertise on canvas prints, but this print is certainly amongst the equal of anything I’ve seen, and I’m happy to recommend mcanvasprints.

The only annoying thing about it? I want some more now. I notice they do panoramic prints, too

  1. sorry, it’s just easier for this particular bit []
  2. the print is straight, my monitor is apparently not []

The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder - CoverEarlier this year I read Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder – a glorious book about the intertwining of science and Romanticism, before the latter decided to go it alone. I’ve reviewed it over at HumanistLife:

I spent the first few months of 2009 travelling around humanist groups and asking their members one question: ‘what are you happy about?’. I was collecting answers for a book, and I quickly hit a snag: people kept giving the same response. It seems that many, many humanists are happy about the joys of the world, the thrill of experience and the fact of their very existence – in short, the wonder of life. Which is a lovely thing. Somewhat problematic for me, but buoying nonetheless.

The sentiment was so prevalent that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s a rare (unique?) point of agreement among self-described humanists. I started asking for more details, and found a surprising level of agreement on the inspiration for said wonder. Biology was a common source of delight, as were cosmology and quantum physics. Others waxed lyrical on the power of the arts, or the pure elegance of mathematics. But science was by far the most popular.

It’s clear that many humanists see science and wonder as two sides of the same coin, but the concepts have a fractious relationship. During the 19th century the Romantic movement declared that rational thought in fact stifles wonder and dulls the artistic spirit. A deeper understanding of the world, they said, could only be found through feeling and emotion: insight comes from wonder, never the reverse. Such ideas continue to this day. How often do we hear cultural commentators – and religious apologists – decrying science for destroying mystery? It’s reductionist, we’re told, mechanistic and soul-destroying. Wonder, it seems, lies in the nebulous unknown, and the truth is grey in comparison.

Of course, scientists did, and do, object. Richards Feynman and Dawkins have whole books decrying the idea, and Carl Sagan was a walking counter-example who devoted his life to spreading the opposite message. But the old clichés still have traction, and into this gap steps Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a hugely ambitious book that argues for scientific/Romantic union by detailing what the author calls ‘the second Enlightenment’, during which science and wonder were as one.

Continued.

2008 Review

2008. Pleh. In my head it went: uni, The Summer of Teenage Angst, uni. But looking over my archives it seems a bit more did go on. Particularly memorable bits:

Most of which is quite good, really. 2008 got a solid ‘meh’ before I started typing this, but I’ve now upgraded it to ‘ok’. Lots of room for improvement, though.

Bring on 2009. It’s a much better number than 2008. 2008 is numerologically pants.

eStarling wifi photo frame review

eStarling frame and JeremyWe bought my Dad an eStarling Wifi Photo Frame for his birthday. I picked it out, after specifically looking for a frame that worked over the wifi. In my experience memory-card based units are disappointing – you update the images regularly for a couple of months, then the novelty wears off. I wanted a frame that would be constantly changing.

Sadly, no consumer frames were capable of grabbing images from a networked computer1, but the eStarling comes close – it downloads its images from your account on the eStarling website. The site can grab images from RSS feeds, email or direct upload, and resizes them to 800px for the frame. This is a free service, but means you’re locked into their system. However, if eStarling ever go under the frame can work from memory-cards too (although not both at once).

Verdict after a couple of months: it’s ok.

The good:

  • The website picks up Flickr / Picasa Web Album RSS feeds pretty well, updating them every 6hrs (ish – it’s occasionally taken much longer). Or you can ‘push’ a manual update.
  • Emailing photos to the system has worked every time. You get a (somewhat garbled) confirmation response, and there’s a filter to prevent obvious hijackings.
  • The quality. Images are resized to 800 pixels and look terrible on the web interface, but pretty good on the frame itself. Viewing angles aren’t wonderful, but I’ve been spoilt by my fancypants LCD monitor. They’re good enough if you can put the frame at an appropriate height.
  • It’s a nice looking frame. Black and sleek, it looks good on the shelf. It’s not too deep, is heavy enough to be stable, and is completely silent.
  • It has a sensible 4:3 aspect ratio. This is the same as my parents’ digital camera. Mine’s a 3:2, and the frame puts bars on the edge rather than cropping. Plenty of other ‘widescreen’ frames might look nice, but they must either display *tiny* photos or crop them to hell.

The bad:

  • It originally crashed a fair bit, but turning it off overnight seems to have helped with that. It has a built-in activation/deactivation timer, but if it crashes overnight it just never turns back on. A bit of googling suggests this is common.
  • There’s no random mode, so images loop in the same order. This is a shame, and quite odd – the website lets you view/add/delete images, and I can’t think it’s too much database work to (roughly) randomise a list. It’s fair enough that the frame doesn’t support automatic randomising, but it’d be nice to do it manually.
  • It doesn’t remember all its settings. It can change images every 10s, 60s or 180s. I prefer 180s, but it reverts to 10s each restart.
  • The website claims ‘unlimited storage’, which is a bit OTT. Even at 800px, that’s quite the claim from a company I’ve never heard of.
  • Flickr’s RSS feeds are limited to 20 images. Not a problem with the frame, but annoying when you’ve added a batch.
  • The transitions are a bit…1980s corporate training video. And can’t be changed.
  • I couldn’t connect to WPA2 security, but to be fair I’m can’t see this explicitly supported anywhere.
  • It wasn’t cheap. ~£200 is pretty expensive for something with all these problems.

The ugly

I logged on last week and spotted a new feature: Facebook / Flickr integration. Great! I hoped that would get around the 20 RSS-image limit, so I clicked the button to link into my accounts (via the API so it doesn’t need any passwords). Nothing happened. I figured it was broken, and forgot about it.

A few days later I arrive at the house when nobody’s in. I’m walking through the kitchen and do a classic double-take. Why is the frame displaying drunk people in bars? Who are these people? Has the frame been hacked? Is the website broken? It’s not like Mum and Dad will mind, but it’s not exactly the intended use, and I have no idea what could appear next…So I log onto the website.

It turns out, they fixed the Facebook / Flickr integration. But it doesn’t grab my images, it grabs my friends’ images.

If you’re on Facebook, you’ll appreciate why this is Not A Good Thing.

So I turned that off pretty sharpish. The ‘organise’ section isn’t that great, and it took a while to manually delete each shot, but I got there in the end.

Verdict

The eStarling, as I said, is ok. I’ve managed to work around most of its little quirks, and my research suggests none of the consumer frames are any better2. I’m not sure it’s really really worth ~£200, but it’s not a total rip-off. Mum and Dad like it, which is the main thing.

I really like the idea of wireless photo frames. If I had one I’d set it to show images from my flickr contacts, updating every 5 minutes or so, and I’d probably waste half my day looking at the thing. I imagine the technology will improve and they’ll eventually be cheap and cheerful, but right now it’s way more effort than it should be.

  1. a couple had some kind of Windows Media Player link, but they all had major issues []
  2. which is weird, if you ask me – making one is obviously much more difficult than you’d think []

2007 Review

So. 2007. Pretty good, overall. Particularly memorable moments for me:

  • After an early-morning phone call, nonchalantly driving to the hospital where my sister was due to give birth. I had books and food to share with my father, assuming we’d be in for the long haul. In fact Aimee was born ten minutes after I arrived.
  • Meeting Abi.
  • Feeling completely bloody stupid at a university interview.
  • Walking into the first day at said university, as terrified as I’ve ever been.
  • Trying not to shake as I photographed a friend’s wedding ceremony and reception.
  • Walking around Stratford in the snow, and building Boris.
  • A bad week in June.
  • Photographing a couple dancing in Stratford’s floods – this shot became my most popular photo on flickr.
  • Putting everything on hold to read Harry Potter 7 spoiler-free.
  • Asking Neil Gaiman to sign a book on photographic theory.
  • Finally, finally nailing the foxtrot at my dance group’s Christmas Ball.
  • Keeping friends and family up until all hours on a Sunday night by making them perform various ridiculous acts to create a bonkers photo.

Resolutions:

  • Get more organised. All my free time is now completely taken up with photography, dancing, guitar and blogging – I’m pretty much running at full capacity. I don’t mind this at all, but a bit more organisation would be a very good idea.
  • Practice the guitar more, as I’ve been slack for a few months.

Thanks to everybody who’s read / commented on / linked to my blog this year, and particular thanks must go to Damian for his hard work deflecting massive spam attacks.

Numerologically speaking, 2008 feels boring. Eight is definitely the least interesting of digits. Still, I won’t hold that against the next twelve months, especially as there are important things like a new Indiana Jones film to look forward to. Bring it on.

Atonement preview screening

The local cinema had a very early preview of Atonement today, followed by a live-via-satellite question and answer session with its director: Joe Wright. Abi and I were there, and the following is spoiler-free…

The cinema was only half-full, and I was probably the only person in the room not to have read the book. It’s been heavily recommended by many people over the last few years, but after getting distracted two chapters in I never got around to carrying on – there’s nothing duller than re-reading for forgotten but necessary details1. It’s one of Abi’s favourite novels, and she was very concerned the story would be changed for the film. She’s not a purist, and shares my view that it’s unreasonable to expect what works on paper to work on-screen, but didn’t want the spirit altered, particularly in relation to the ending. We thought it would be interesting to see our differing reactions if this did happen, given that I didn’t know the story in advance.

Abi was very, very happy to find the film was almost completely faithful to the book, and she had no quarrel with the ending. She’ll have a review up shortly on her blog2, and will likely focus on this aspect, so I’ll stick to the non-book elements.

I enjoyed it. I liked the different, clever story, and thought it was well-structured. I was concerned for a while that it might wander off into Closer-like endless introspection, but it didn’t: this made me happy. I don’t think I’m as easily moved as I used to be3 but plenty around me were in tears for one reason or another, and I could see that it was touching at times. There was plenty for the filmmaking-geek in me to watch, too: interesting camerawork and filter effects, and one shot in particular was stunningly composed (waiting; outside; green dress; you’ll know it when you see it).

Joe Wright said afterwards that he felt Keira Knightley had grown into a woman since working with her in Pride and Prejudice, and I could see what he meant. She’s always had a girlish element – not a criticism, by the way – but here she was fully mature, and completely convincing. I couldn’t fault any of the acting – spot Brenda Blethyn, if you can – but she was the standout performer.

The Q&A session with the director was fascinating. He apparently read and completely rejected the original script, which changed the entire structure and major plot elements of the story, then worked with the same writer to fix it. That can’t be an easy conversation 🙂 He had some insights into working with actors, notably the trick of spotting and eradicating the ‘tick’ that actors default into when they don’t know what to do – for Miss Knightley, it’s apparently pouting. He also slagged off the ‘adolescent’ notion that happy endings are always trite, and had things to say about the stand-there-and-look-pretty portrayal of women in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Los Angeles audience asked questions, which ranged from pretty vague ‘I love James McAvoy, please talk about him’ to specific questions on styles of camerawork, all of which were eloquently answered. Perhaps the most interesting was the woman who asked what he’d like to improve upon, which, to his credit, he answered honestly – he picked out a scene which doesn’t match the vision in his head. The session lasted perhaps 45 minutes, and although a little sycophantic was definitely worthwhile in my view.

I could have done with a little longer between the film and the Q&A to get my head around some of the themes. It doesn’t give anything away to say that the concept of storytelling has a major structural and thematic role, but I’d have felt more intellectually satisfied if I’d figured it out myself rather than had it explained to me. That’s my fault, though – I should have read it before 🙂

I personally can’t see anybody leaving the cinema and not thinking it time well spent. Even if you don’t like the story, it’s interesting enough to linger, and fun to analyse. Definitely recommended by me.

Incidentally, such an early screening prompted huge security from the cinema. A burly security guard on the door warned the queue that all mobile phones and recording devices must be switched off. This was reiterated once we were seated, and there was somebody sitting next to the screen throughout the film, watching the audience. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, I’m intrigued that cinemas are willing to do it, and wish they’d bother for enjoyment as opposed to copyright protection. I’d happily pay more to attend a cinema that has guards watching for people making noise – I’d say it’s a problem in 1/3 films.

  1. I’m 2/3 through Saturday, my first Ian McEwan, atm []
  2. may not be spoiler-free []
  3. which annoys me, actually – I like dramatic emotional responses! []

2006 Review

I don’t know what happened to the last six months of 2006. January – July passed at the usual speed, then suddenly it was Christmas. I suspect rogue Dalek involvement.

Highlights:

  • Watching Moulin Rouge at a drive-in cinema, even if they did show the reels in the wrong order.
  • A very last minute trip to New York for a date. It didn’t work out, but was worth the attempt. While I was there I got to skate on the Central Park ice rink, a long-time ambition of mine.
  • Arguing a lot about Richard Dawkins on this site, and getting my copy of The Blind Watchmaker signed when he came to my local civic hall.
  • Sitting in the Strictly Come Dancing audience when Mark and Karen did their salsa.
  • Meeting up with fellow bloggers on a number of occasions.
  • Generally coping ok with living on my own.
  • Two dancing weekends, one in Symonds Yat, the other in Blackpool.
  • Writing (the first draft of) a novel.
  • Climbing Snowdon.
  • Ann Druyan leaving a comment on this blog.

Films: Good Night and Good Luck, The Last Kiss, Children of Men, Superman Returns, Team America: World Police, Corpse Bride, Walk the Line.
TV: ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ episode of Doctor Who, and the final five minutes of the second series (I don’t know many people who didn’t cry), Lost, Sports Night, Strictly Come Dancing, The Root of All Evil?, Scrubs, The West Wing, 24, Green Wing.
Books: The End of Faith, The War for Children’s Minds, The Sandman, The God Delusion, Blink, The Tipping Point, Snow Crash, Neverwhere.
Music: The Feeling, Muse, Scissor Sisters.
Theatre: Jerry Springer: The Opera (my review of which got this site banned in libraries), Much Ado About Nothing.
Other: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, too many blogs to mention.

Lowlights:

I’m incredibly lucky that there hasn’t been much. We lost the family dog in March, which was dreadful; I upset a couple of people with online comments about religion – I still don’t think I did anything wrong, but I don’t like that it happened; a couple of fallings out with friends that thankfully sorted themselves out; three interviews that didn’t result in jobs…Plenty of people have it far worse.

Resolutions for 2007:

  • Write more. Stephen King says six days a week, and he probably knows what he’s talking about.
  • Read more. I’ve read a fair bit this year, but not as much as I’d like.
  • Get more involved with the BHA.
  • I like Scribbles’ idea, too.

Overall, I award 2006 a B+ and smiley-face sticker. Thanks to anybody who’s read/commented/linked to this blog over the year – it’s very much appreciated. Happy 2007!

Superman Returned

In the autumn of 1997, while flicking through an in-flight magazine, I read the first reports hinting at a new Superman film. Despite the rather worrying prospect of Nicolas Cage in the suit, it was then that I started looking forward to a new big screen outing for my favourite superhero. Nine years, many directors, stars and false starts1 later, and Superman Returns opened last Friday. And, thank goodness, it was worth waiting for.

Spoiler break…

Continue reading Superman Returned

  1. one-time scriptwriter Kevin Smith later described how the producer had demanded Superman lose the suit, not be able to fly, and fight a giant spider. I read this script. It was bad. This producer is actually listed on Superman Returns, but it must be in name only. []

Watching The Da Vinci Code

The release of The Da Vinci Code inspired vast amounts of pretension. Every mention of it was prefaced with a side remark about the book’s “terrible writing style”, followed by sarcasm regarding Ron Howard and mainstream blockbuster hollywood capitalist manipulative blah wanky blah. I had to go see it. Spoilers follow…

Continue reading Watching The Da Vinci Code

My Review of the Year

To put it bluntly, my 2004 was shit. 12 months ago I was very glad to see the back of it. Was 2005 any better? This feels terribly indulgent, but I like going back over the last twelve months as there are always things I’d forgotten about. So, in no particular order…

Highlights

Live 8 – spectacular in every respect. I have many fond memories of that day, and it was one hell of an experience. Overall, the Make Poverty History campaign achieved a great deal. It may not have managed every goal to the levels they’d hoped for, but the sheer force of will changed the political landscape of the year. The 14 poorest countries’ debt was cancelled, and millions are better off as a result.

Discovering blogging – despite having written a blog for more than a year, I didn’t really discover blogging as a phenomenon until the first months of 2005. I can’t believe I was so far behind the times on this one! I’ve made some great blogging chums, found out how to use feeds properly, discovered podcasts and generally learnt a lot.

Discovering Flickr – I’m definitely addicted to flickr! I love posting my photos and reading what people think of them. It’s also one of the few online communities where the trolls are almost unnoticeable.

Completing NaNoWriMo – it may not be very good, but it’s a 50,000 word novel written entirely by me. The biggest discovery was that it wasn’t too hard. Ignoring the calibre of the content, physically writing the thing was easier than I’d expected.

Megan – my sister’s puppy is insane, but eminently lovable.

Gliding / flying a plane – I took part in both of these as part of the Spice activity group, and they were great! When I’m rich, I’ll definitely be learning to fly 🙂

Dancing – Lynsey and I started learning ballroom and latin dancing on the 4th of Jan, and have been going every week since. The feeling of satisfaction you get when you manage something tricky is great! Many thanks to Lynsey for putting up with me treading on her for all these months…

Katie Melua in concert – It was entirely down to Ed that I attended this, and I had a great evening.

Wandering around London in the sunshine – Nod and I headed down to London for a comics convention, then met up with Ed and Simon and walked around London embankment before coming across an anti-war march in Trafalgar Square. I just remember it as being very pleasant. The day was definitely memorable, for a number of reasons.

Paris – I went to Paris for a weekend for Dad’s 50th birthday. I’d never been before, and it was fascinating to walk around. Unfortunately I lost half of my photos due to a faulty memory card.

Learning the guitar – I picked up a guitar ‘starter pack’ on a whim in January, and have enjoyed it a lot. I started having proper lessons in June-ish. I think moving to an electric guitar will help with the problems I’ve had with some chords.

Getting help for my various social problems – the life coaching has helped a fair bit, and hopefully I’ll continue to improve. I’m definitely far more confident and less prone to worrying than I was a year ago.

Moving house – Moving to my lovely flat in Stratford is undoubtedly the largest change of the year! I’m scared about keeping myself above water financially, as well as being lonely, but it’s still very exciting!

Lowlights

Join Me – Although I still love the idea of Join Me, the voice of the online community was increasingly one devoted to getting drunk and being snide. I slowly became disillusioned and drifted away. I started forgetting the Friday ROAKs, too. I know that the forums were eventually moved to a new location and the more vocal members banned, but it was too late for me by then. I’m sad that I don’t feel as enthusiastic as I once did, as it was a great thing.

Spice – The activity group I signed up for in the summer. Unfortunately I convinced myself that everybody else at the gliding and flying meetings had hated me, never plucked up the courage to take part in anything else and let my membership lapse. I think I need to go with somebody else so I don’t feel quite so out-of-place.

Exam results – My A-levels didn’t go quite as planned. In hindsight, trying to complete the Maths a-level in a year was too optimistic. Also, I ran out of motiviation in late spring, and struggled to keep working. Still, the C in physics was good.

Funerals – A friend of my age from school died from cancer in February, and a month or so later a teacher from my old magic club died in a fall while mountain walking. Both funerals were very sad.

Friends moving away – many friends finished university and scattered across the country.

Conclusion

Holy crap, this was a busy year! Overall, it was definitely not shit 🙂 2006 should be mighty different, hope it’s a good one!