Transition to Mac, Pt. 2

I got the first part of my ‘Transition to Mac’ project (almost) ready by the end of my summer vacation. This was focused around a Mac Mini (M1/16GB/512GB model), which I set up as the new main “workstation” for my home office and photography editing work. This is in nutshell what extras and customisations I have done to it, so far:

– set up as the keyboard Logitech MX Keys Mini for Mac
– and as the mouse, Logitech G Pro X Superlight Wireless Gaming Mouse, White
– for fast additional ssd storage, Samsung X5 External SSD 2TB (with nominal read/write speeds of 2,800/2,300 MB/s)
– and then, made certain add-ons/modifications to the MacOS:
– AltTab (makes alt-tab key-combo cycle through all open app windows, not only between applications, like cmd-tab)
– Alfred (for extending the already excellent Spotlight search to third-party apps, direct access to various system commands and other advanced functionalities)
– installed BetterSnapTool (for adding snap to sides / corners functionality into the MacOS windows management)
– set Sublime Text as the default text editor
– DockMate (for getting Win10-style app window previews into the Mac dock, without which I feel the standard dock is pretty useless)
– And then installing the standard software that I use daily (Adobe Creative Cloud/Lightroom/Photoshop; MS Office 365; DxO Pure RAW; Topaz DeNoise AI & Sharpen AI, most notably)
– The browser plugin installations and login procedures for the browsers I use is a major undertaking, and still ongoing.
– I use 1Password app and service for managing and synchronising logins/passwords and other sensitive information across devices and that speeds up the login procedures a bit these days.
– There was one major hiccup in the process so far, but in the end it was nothing to blame Mac Mini for; I got a colour-calibrated 27″ 4k Asus ProArt display to attach into the Mac, but there was immediately major issues with display being stuck to black when Mac woke from sleep. As this “black screen after sleep” issue is something that has been reported with some M1 Mac Minis, I was sure that I had got a faulty computer. But as I made some tests with several other display cables and by comparing with another 4k monitor, I was able to isolate the issue as a fault with the Asus instead. Also, there was a mechanical issue with the small plastic power switch in this display (it got repeatedly stuck, and had to be forcibly pried back in place). I was just happy being able to return this one, and ordered a different monitor, from Lenovo this time, as they had a special discount currently in place for a model that also has a built-in Thunderbolt dock – something that should be useful as the M1 Mac Mini has a rather small selection of ports.
– There has been some weird moments recently of not getting any image into my temporary, replacement monitor, too, so the jury is still out, whether there is indeed something wrong in the Mac Mini regarding this issue, also.
– I have not much of actual daily usage yet behind, with this system, but my first impressions are predominantly positive. The speed is one main thing: in my photo editing processes there are some functions that take almost the same time as in my older PC workstation, but mostly things happen much faster. The general impression is that I can now process my large RAW file collections maybe twice as fast as before. But there are some tools that obviously have already been optimised for Apple Silicon/M1, since they run lightning-fast. (E.g. Topaz Sharpen AI was now so fast that I didn’t even notice it running the operation before it was already done. This really changes my workflow.)
– The smooth integration of Apple ecosystem is another obvious thing to notice. I rarely bother to boot up my PC computers any more, as I can just use an iPad Pro or Mac (or iPhone), both wake up immediately, and I can find my working documents seamlessly synced and updated in whatever device I take hold of.
– There are some irritating elements in the Mac for a long-time Windows/PC user, of course, too. Mac is designed to push simplicity to a degree that it actually makes some things very hard for user. Some design decisions I simply do not understand. For example, the simple cut-and-paste keyboard combination does not work in a Mac Finder (file manager). You need to apply a modifier key (Option, in addition to the usual Cmd-V). You can drag files between folders with a mouse, but why not use the standard Command-V for pasting files. And then there are things like the (very important) keyboard shortcut for pasting text without formatting: “Option + Cmd + Shift + V”! I have not yet managed to imprint either of this kind of long combo keys into my muscle memory, and looking at the Internet discussions, many frustrated users seem to have similar issues with this kind of Mac “personality issues”. But, otherwise, a nice system!

Nature Photos Update

During the Spring Term of 2022, I have taken (according to my last count) photos of 129 different species of birds. Here is featured a selection, along with some random other samples of my nature photos. Excellent summer, everyone!

Transition to Mac

Apple’s M1 Processor Lineup, March 2022. (Source: Apple.)

I have been an occasional Mac user in the past: in 2007, I bought a Mac Mini (an Intel Core 2 Duo, 2.0 GHz model) from Tokyo where I was for the DiGRA conference. And in November 2013, I invested into a MacBook Pro with Retina Display (late 2013 model, with 2.4GHz Core i5, Intel Iris graphics). Both were wonderful systems for their times, but also sort of “walled garden” style environments, with no real possiblity for user upgrades and soon outpaced by PC systems, particularly in gaming. So, I found myself using the more powerful PC desktop computers and laptops, again and again.

Now, I have again started the process of moving back into the Apple/Mac ecosystem, this time full-time, with both the work and home devices, both in computing as well as in mobile tech being most likely in Apple camp, at some point later this year. Why, you might ask – what has changed?

The limitations of Apple in upgradability and general freedom of choice are still the same. Apple devices also continue to be typically more expensive than the comparably specced competitors from the non-Apple camp. It is a bit amusing to look at a bunch of smart professionals sitting next to each other, each tapping at the identical, Apple-logo laptops, glancing at their identical iPhones. Apple has managed to get a powerful hold on the independent professional scene (including e.g. professors, researchers, designers and developers), even while the large IT departments continue to prefer PCs, mostly due to the cheaper unit-prices and better support for centralised “desktop management”. This is visible in the universities, too, where the IT department gets PCs for support personnel and offers them as the default choice for new employees, yet many people pick up a Mac if they can decide themselves.

In my case, the decision to go back to Apple ecosystem is connected to two primary factors: the effects of corona pandemic, and the technical progress of “Apple silicon”.

The first factor consists of all the cumulative effects that are results from three years of remote and hybrid work. The requirements for fast and reliable systems that can support multitasking, video and audio really well are of paramount importance now. The hybrid meeting and teaching situations are particularly complex, as there is now need to run several communications tools simultaneously, stream high-quality video and audio, possibly also record and edit audio and video, while also making online publications (e.g., course environments, public lecture web pages, entire research project websites) that integrate video and photographic content more than used to be the case before.

In my case, it is particularly the lack of reliability and the incapability of PC systems in processing of image and video data that has led to the decision of going back to Apple. I have a relatively powerful thin-and-light laptop for work, and a Core i5/RTX 2060 Super based gaming/workstation PC at home. The laptop became underpowered first, and some meetings are now starting maybe 5-10 minutes late, with my laptop trying to find the strength needed to run few browser windows, some office software, a couple of communication and messaging apps, plus the required real-time video and audio streams. And my PC workstation can still run many older games, but when I import some photo and video files while also having a couple of editing tools open, everything becomes stuck. There is nothing as frustrating as staring on a computer screen where the “Wheel of Death” is spinning, when you have many urgent things to do. I have developed a habit of clicking on different background windows constantly, and keeping the Windows Task Manager all the time open, so that I can use it to immediately kill any stuck processes and try recovering my work to where I was.

Recently I got the chance to test an M1 MacBook Pro (thanks, Laura), and while the laptop was equal to my mighty PC workstation in some tasks, there were processes which were easily 5-10 times faster in the Mac, particularly everything related to file management, photo and video editing. And the overall feeling of responsiveness and fluency in multitasking was just awesome. The new “Apple silicon” chips and architectures are providing user experiences that are just so much better than anything that I have had in the PC side during the recent years.

There are multiple reasons behind this, and there are technical people who can explain the underlying factors much better than I can (see, e.g., what Erik Engheim from Oslo writes here: https://debugger.medium.com/why-is-apples-m1-chip-so-fast-3262b158cba2). The basic benefits are coming from very deep integration of Apple’s System-on-a-Chip (SOC), where in an M1 chip package, a whole computer has been designed and packed into one, integrated package:

  • Central processing unit (CPU) – the “brains” of the SoC. Runs most of the code of the operating system and your apps.
  • Graphics processing unit (GPU) — handles graphics-related tasks, such as visualizing an app’s user interface and 2D/3D gaming.
  • Image processing unit (ISP) — can be used to speed up common tasks done by image processing applications.
  • Digital signal processor (DSP) — handles more mathematically intensive functions than a CPU. Includes decompressing music files.
  • Neural processing unit (NPU) — used in high-end smartphones to accelerate machine learning (A.I.) tasks. These include voice recognition and camera processing.
  • Video encoder/decoder — handles the power-efficient conversion of video files and formats.
  • Secure Enclave — encryption, authentication, and security.
  • Unified memory — allows the CPU, GPU, and other cores to quickly exchange information
    (Source: E. Engheim, “Why Is Apple’s M1 Chip So Fast?”)

The underlying architecture of Apple Silicon comes from their mobile devices, iPhones and iPads, in particular. While mainstream PC components have grown over the years increasingly massive and power-hungry, the mobile environment has set its strict limits and requirements for the efficiency of system architecture. There are efforts to utilise the same ARM (advanced “reduced instruction set”) architectures that e.g. mobile chip maker Qualcomm uses in their processors for Android mobile phones, also in the “Windows on Arm” computers. While the Android phones are doing fine, the Arm-based Windows computers have been generally so slow and limited in their software support that they have remained in the margins.

In addition to the reliability, stability, speed and power-efficiency benefits, Apple can today also provide that kind of seamless integration between computers, tablet devices, smartphones and wearable technology (e.g., AirPod headphones and Apple Watch devices) that the users of more hybrid ecosystems can only dream about. This is now also becoming increasingly important, as (post-pandemic), we are moving between home office, the main office, various “third spaces” and e.g. conference travel, while also still keeping up the remote meetings and events regime that emerged during the corona isolation years. Life is just so much easier when e.g. notifications, calls and data follow you more or less seamlessly from device to device, depending on where you are — sitting, running or changing trains. As the controlling developer-manufacturer of both hardware, software and underlying online services, Apple is in the enviable position to implement a polished, hybrid environment that works well together – and, thus, is one less source of stress.

Luontokuvat, nature photos 2021

I selected some of my favourite nature photos of 2021 / Alla on valikoima omia suosikkejani luontokuvista vuoden 2021 varrelta.

Happy New Year 2022! / Onnea uudelle vuodelle 2022!

Birds: 99/100

Naturephotography, and bird photography in particular has been an invaluable part of my life during these stressful pandemic times. The constantly changing and surprising nature has been there, at all times, challenging and providing gradually more and more also sense of achievement, as my understanding of both birds and their behaviours as well as of techniques of nature photography have evolved.

Soon after the start of this year I began tracking the species I have photographed more systematically. There is a challenge (supported by BirdLife Finland and other organisations) of trying to observe 100 different bird species during one year. I have followed a version where I also need to take a photo of such new bird species.

If my calculations are correct, I am today at 99 different bird species photographed, out of those 100. Exiting times. I will add below some collages of those 99 bird photos – there are probably some duplicates, as well as some species missing, as I did not make this in very systematic and careful manner. But there were a lot of important moments and happy memories packed in these photos, so it was a delight to go through and revisit them.

Update: I got photo of the species number 100 on the following day
after writing this – Osprey! Photo added as the last one, below!

My bird species number 100, on year 2021! Osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Life in winter forests

This year, we had a full week of “hiihtoloma” (Winter Vacation) – a very welcome break into the busy schedules. I took the opportunity and challenged myself to go out into the nature and look a bit closer at the nature this week.

Firstly, it was interesting to notice that even the “common birds” can provide new experiences and look indeed very different, depending the time of day, weather conditions and particularly light affecting the composition in different manners. Endless opportunities for improvement and experimentation there.

Secondly, during this week I learned to appreciate the winter feeding of birds better. There are people who dedicate countless hours every winter (and indeed considerable sums of money – which some of them have very little) into e.g. forest feeding of wild birds. For many birds this is the only way they can make it through the hardest, coldest parts of the winter alive.

In winter feeding spots it is possible to take photographs of even some rather rare and elusive bird species, if you are patient, stay still and quiet for long periods of time (sometimes in freezing temperatures) and respect the disturbance-free, peaceful environment that such birds require for getting their daily nourishment. Unfortunately it seems that as nature photography is getting increasinly popular, some rare winter birds (such as herons and kingfishers in Finnish winter) attract so many photographers that the huge interest can even endanger the survival of some of these birds. There are only few hours of light and milder cold time every winter day, and the birds need all that time to find the food they need to make it through the next, very cold night. Note though, that no doubt the majority of experienced nature photographers behave responsibly, respect the safe distances, and keep the well-being of the birds as their top priority.

I did not personally visit any sites of such “super rarities” this winter. There was a lot of interesting things to photograph, even without risking the rare ones.

There are many places in Finland, such as our national parks and many hiking areas that have paths that are accessible also in winter time. And when the crust of snow is hard (“hankikeli” is Finnish), one can rather easily walk over marshland or at lake shores, sometimes spotting interesting bird species, but primarily to enjoy the nature and beatiful winter weather. I also visited e.g. Siuronkoski rapids, where white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus; koskikara) lives – there is a popular walking path going just next to the rapids, and the birds are so accustomed to humans moving in the area that it is possible to photograph them without disturbing their feeding.

One delightful theme that appeared this week was encountering woodpeckers. There are nine woodpecker species that one can theoretically see in Finland – though some of them are super rare (like Picus viridis). Visiting local forest paths and some winter feeding spots, I managed to photograph four woodpecker species this week, which really delighted me: Dendrocopos major (Käpytikka), Dendrocopos minor (Pikkutikka), Picus canus (Harmaapäätikka) and Dryocopus martius (Palokärki). Previously I had only met the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), so this was three new species for me – in just one week. This proves the value of getting our of one’s common paths and trying exploring some new, also less-visited areas every now and then.

The 2nd of March was a particularly excellent day, as it was rather warm, sunny, and we made a longish trip with the entire family, exploring some Pirkanmaa and Satakunta region nature areas together. There were fields where a number of whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus; Laulujoutsen) had already arrived – a sure sign of Spring! While driving home in the evening, we had another surprise encounter: a white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla; merikotka), accompanied by an inquisitive and plain greedy crow. These eagles are are the biggest birds of prey in Finland, and also the biggest success story of our nature conservation efforts: in 1973, there was only 35 nesting couples in the entire county, and the species was facing extinction due to chemical pesticides and other factors (in the early 20th century, there was even bounty paid for killing the eagles – and negative attitudes towards birds of prey persisted for a long time). WWF Finland volunteers started winter feeding the eagles, carrying clean and safe meat into islets and rocks where birds could find them, for two decades. Today, it is estimated that there are 450 nesting couples living in Finland. One of the main remaining threats is the use of lead birdshots particularly in Åland islands, leading to lead poisoning of eagles eating carcasses. A third of young eagles continue to die of lead poisoning in Finland every year (see https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-7889294).

To sum up this week of nature experiences: there is so much to see, experience, study and learn in nature – both next door, in one’s own yard or city park, or in the surrounding nature areas. One thing that I became also aware, was that I was using our petrol-powered family car to drive into some of these, more far-away nature locations. I have now started planning of upgrading into an electric vehicle (EV) – but more about that perhaps later. Let’s enjoy and study the nature, responsibly!

Winter wildlife

During the long, isolating months of 2020, and at the start of bright new year 2021, wildlife photography has been one of my constant comforts. Like all photography, it challenges one with its surprising combinations of accidental conditions, changes in lightning, and need to attempt pushing the boundaries of technology. When photographing animals, there is the additional challenge of trying to keep cover, stay silent and undisturbing, while simultaneously trying to find the perfect angle of view, and artistic composition to the subject.

I suppose many professional wildlife photographers resort to the use of purpose-built wildlife hides, and some kind of baits to increase the odds of seeing a rare animal in the first place, and then getting it into a position where an impressive composition – with the right light, background, depth of field, etc. – can be achieved. If one is under the pressure to produce results from one’s photography, such approaches obviously make a difference.

As a hobbyist photographer, I am happy to just go out and enjoy the nature. If I’d see wildlife that is a plus, and having some kind of photograph from the encounter is even more special. The common skills of nature photographers are something that I continue to learn, slowly over the years. Moving slowly and quietly – using one’s ears a lot: listening bird sounds, tiny cracks or snaps within the foliage. I have gradually started to realise that moving restlessly from photo position to another will make me less likely to achieve anything, and also lessen the mental effects of nature photography as a sort of ‘zen practice’ towards joy and peace of mind.

It is good to wake up early, make some sandwitches and coffee, and be at an interesting site before the sunrise. The upside of short winter days of the North is that “before the sunrise” can be rather easily achieved, during the winter months.

It is also interesting to learn to read the tracks: combining whatever knowledge one has about the daily and annual rhythms and behavioural patterns of different species can be combined with the signs, footprints and animal tracks that are particularly visible in fresh snow. Seeing the tracks tells stories, and one can learn that at least there are certain species in the area, even if they are too wary to make an appearance.

I think Hannu Hautala, the famous Finnish wildlife photographer veteran had sometimes said that luck favours the hard workers (or something like that). I do not really have time, opportunity or motivation to make long nature photography trips into exotic or spectacular places. I just move around our home and city, sometimes making small hiking trips in the close surrounding forests. And I do not put too many hours into this, and accept that my odds are thus not very high for seeing anything except the most common species of birds and animals that can be met in this area. But it is fascinating regardless to see what one is able to make out of those rather modest starting points.

Today I met an energetic, furry fox hunting for bank voles during my morning photo walk. It was rather dim, it was cloudy, and there was a bit of snowfall. But fresh snow made everything soft and somehow luminous, and I was happy to test using silent shutter and long telephoto (600 mm in crop, equal to 930 mm full frame) not to disturb the fox too much. It could see me, and moved a bit farther away to continue its hunting. There must have been plenty of bank voles; I counted it catching at least three while I was watching.

Another happy encounter in the life of amateur nature photographer. It is moments like these that enrich our lives, and motivate one to find fresh respect for the beauty and diversity of nature.

Why take bird photos?

I have always enjoyed moving in the nature and taking photographs, but I have never been a particularly passionate ”birder” – someone who would eagerly participate in bird observation, or learn details about bird species and their lives. Nevertheless, for some time now I have taken bird photos in an increasingly active manner. Why – what is the fascination in bird photography?

A fieldfare (räkättirastas).

I can only talk for myself, but in my case this is like combining location-based game play of Pokémon Go with my love of photography. While living still mostly under self-quaratine style conditions of pandemic, it is important to keep moving, and taking my camera and going out is as good reason as any to get fresh air and some exercise. And birds bring the important aleatory element into this: you never know what you are going to see – or not see.

A swan (laulujoutsen).

Mostly my short walks are in the close neighbourhood, and the birds I will see are thus the most common ones: the great tit, the sparrow, the magpie, a flock of fieldfares. But then the challenge is to get a new kind of photo of them – one with a nice disposition, interesting lights, great details or posture. And sometimes there will be more rare birds moving in the area, which brings additional excitement with it: how to get close to the shy jaybird, get good details on the dark dress of blackbird, or a woodpecker.

Blue tit (sinitiainen).

There is also a very nice lake for birdwatching rather near, Iidesjärvi, which means that it is possible to go there, and try getting some beautiful pictures of swans, goldeneyes, goosanders or many other waterfowl with a rather short trip. Which is important, since I typically need to get back soon, and make kids breakfast, dinner or such. And this is also why I call myself a Sunday Photographer: I mostly take photos in weekends, when there is a bit of extra time that weekdays do not currently allow.

Blackbird’s eye (mustarastas).

This Sunday was a day of achievement, when I got my first decent photos of goldcrest – the smallest bird in Europe! It is not that rare actually, but it is so shy and so skilled in hiding itself within foliage, that I was mainly able to locate it with the faint, high-pitched sounds it makes. And even while I knew the bird was there in the trees, front of me, it took a long time, c. 200 frames of missed photos and some quiet crawling from spot to spot to finally get an unobstructed view and a sharp photo of this tiny, elusive bird.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

Thus, taking photos of birds combines so many different interesting, challenging and purely luck-based elements into one activity, that is just perfect diversion – something rewarding, surprising, joyful that can even have addictive holding power: a hobby that is capable of taking your thoughts completely away from everything else.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

My old camera

I wanted to revisit my old gear tonight, so I dug up my trusty EOS 550D, coupled with the BG-E8 battery grip and the classic, Canon 70-200mm f4L USM lens. The Friendly Cat provided again the modelling services.

I was immediately reminded by the obvious strengths of this older, bigger camera body: the ergonomics are just so much better when you can really hold the camera comfortably and steadily in your hand, and have large, mechanical control knobs that you can quickly and effortlessly experiment with.

On the other hand, the limitations were again also immediately obvious; in particular, the mirrorless digital camera (EOS M50) that I am mostly using these days allows one seamlessly move from using the viewfinder to the live view in the rear display, while making the composition. 550D also has rear display live view, but you need to specifically switch it on, and it is slow and imprecise, and the autofocus in particular is just terrible when shooting with it.

The optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is excellent, and the very limited nine (9) AF points do their job just well enough for this kind of slow “portrait” work. The low maximum ISO of 6400 also does not matter when taking pictures under the bright evening sun, and sharpness of that old Canon L lens fits nicely the 18-megapixel image sensor’s resolution capabilities.

Thus, if I would think about a “perfect camera” for my use, I would be happy with current M50 image sensor resolution (24,1 megapixels), but I would be really happy for a bit more capable autofocus system, and for more low-light performance in particular. The single most beneficial upgrade could however be a body with larger physical dimensions, with better/larger mechanical controls for selecting the program mode, aperture, and making the other key adjustments.

While the new EOS R series Canon cameras provide exactly that, the issue for me is that those are full frame cameras; and I am very happy in taking my photos with APS-C (the “crop sensor”). Full frame lenses, and new Canon RF lenses in particular, tend to be both large and expensive to a degree that does not make much sense for my kind of “Sunday photographer”.

There are alternatives like Fujifilm, with their excellent APS-C camera bodies (X-T30, X-T4, for example), and their sharp and relatively compact and affordable lenses. But I am deeply invested in the Canon ecosystem – it would be so much easier if Canon would come up with a well-designed camera like Canon 7D Mark II, but updated and upgraded into current, mirrorless sensors’ and image processors’ capabilities. One can always make wishes? Happy weekend, everyone!

Chilis 2020, update

Hainan Yellow Lantern
Hainan Yellow Lantern pod

There were originally 12 chili saplings that I decided to cultivate further this season, summer 2020. There was only one fatality: a freak summer storm suddenly completely broke and killed my single Pimenta da Neyde (C. chinense), This was a sad loss, it would have been interesting chili to grow. But it is now August, and I have still 11 chilies growing: in the greenhouse 7: 2 x Lemon Drop + 2 x Hainan Yellow Lantern (these are in the hydroponic system, still looking forward to the main crop), plus one Bolivian Rainbow, one Purple Bhut Jolokia and one Chinese 5 Color (these three grow in fertilised soil cultivation). Outdoors there are 4 chilies: the ornamental chili peppers Buena Mulata, Filius Blue, Numex Twilight and the very pretty “Kanon Pepper F2” (C. annuum) cultivar. I have yet to start seriously testing the tastes of this season, but e.g. in Lemon Drops there certainly is the lovely, very fruity and aromatic (medium-hot) taste I like so much; in the two Hainan Yellow pods that I have tested so far there were great differences (both were quite aromatic, but were tasting very different, and the other was very hot, the other very mild – I need to study this crop more, later). I have not tasted many of the ornamental chilies yet, but e.g. Buena Mulata (C. annuum) was hot indeed.

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