A Trip to Bekal

So Uma took me on a surprise trip to Bekal recently, and it was a lovely break. We got to stay in an old Nair Tharavadu that has been converted into a homestay, and the food there was just plain amazing.

I took along my Leica, and got some nice photos.

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From the Bekal fort. A great old ruined fort.
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The fort has these nooks and corners that lead to some really nice light.
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When we went on an unofficial thoni ride.
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Some good light at the numerous beaches that dot Bekal.
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The “Grandmom” of the tharavadu where we stayed. Wonderful family, great conversation and amazing food.

Having used the Leica for a bit more, here’s my observations:

  • It’s a 10 year old camera, and that shows. If I had more of a budget, I’d have bought the M9, the M240, or maybe even the M10. But the Leica experience is very immersive for shooting photos. I’m more focused on the scene and the feel of the photo than fiddling around with camera controls.
  • I’m not so enamoured with the shoot RAW, use Lightroom RAW conversion, and get a JPG workflow that I’m using now. Even though it provides me a lot more flexibility, I’m more of an in-camera conversion guy. Might be that I’m spoilt by the great Fuji X100S filters.
  • There’s no beating the Leica colours, especially the M8 black and white shots. Even the colour shots — the greens have an otherworldly feel.

 

The Engineering Metrics Dashboard at SV.CO

We recently built an engineering metrics dashboard at SV.CO. On a single page, it tracks nine things that are like health statistics for a project. In addition, it provides me as an engineering lead, a bird’s eye view of our team performance.

Here’s how it looks like:

Engineering Metrics Dashboard

This is what we track

  • Deploys: The number of deployments per day. Because we use continuous deployment, this number is often north of single digits. What I look for in this stat are long stretches (2 weeks+) of stalled deployments: this often means that we’re not breaking down work into small units, and it’s time I stepped in to take a look.
  • Bugs: The number of bugs reported per day by the team. We want to improve this with the number of bugs fixed and also include in our production automated error reports. This stat, which a slightly lagging indicator of code quality, is still useful especially immediately after our feature sprints. At SV.CO, we try to go by a tick-tock cycle (with the tick representing new features, and tock the needed stabilization or bug-fixes necessary for those features), and examining this stat after a tick cycle will provide a good thumb-rule for the time necessary for the tock.
  • Git Commits: This metric tracks our velocity. As all our stats, it’s not a perfect indicator (especially when team members pair off), but it’s a good way to track slow periods. Since we emphasize atomic commits, it’s also a warning flag when a big feature lands with a lesser commit count.
  • LOC Change: I’m a strong believer in the adage that the best code you write is the code you do not. Or better yet, the code you delete. So we track both LOC additions and deletions. And we celebrate the code that we throw away.
  • LOC Language Split: This is a companion metric to LOC Change, and the one thing I track here is removing older deprecated languages (like CofeeScript).
  • Test Coverage: is a good useful indicator of code quality. As a development shop, we’re not anal-retentive about TDD or unit testing, but we do like to cover features with good integration test coverage. This usually means Selenium-style testing with capybara.

While building this dashboard, we kept several common criticisms in mind.

  1. These are vanity metrics. I’ve explained the usefulness of these metrics above, but this requires a bit more explanation. As a human being, I don’t see a problem with taking pride in the work we do. And as a software engineer, most of the work we do happens to be ephemeral: we work with building blocks that do not stand the test of time. What we can be proud of constantly is the programming journey. So I call these metrics what we can (or should) be proud of.
  2. It’s hard to keep them updated. What we’ve done is hooked them up to APIs that our services provide. For example, the code commits are pulled directly from Github, and the Bug reports are pulled off our Trello boards. This still will require maintenance but hopefully far less than if these were manually tracked.
  3. Why don’t you track these data where they originate? The answer to this is pretty simple: we use quite a lot of software to manage our work, and it’s nice to have all the data in one place.

That’s it for our dashboard! Any feedback appreciated.

 

Bought a Leica M8

So I feel this should be a life event 🙂

I first got into amateur photography when I bought my Fuji X100S around two years ago. It’s been one of my best purchases to date. It’s changed the way I photograph: from random shots on the iPhone to more thoughtful composing and framing. I’ve also learned much about the photographer exposure trifecta: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. As an aside: the X100S is one of the perfect beginner cameras: I would very highly recommend it for great photos and easy shooting.

My X100S is still going strong, but recently I’ve been having inklings of the gear upgrade syndrome. I first looked at the latest in the X-series: X100F, but that camera seems to epitomize everything that’s wrong with electronic gear nowadays.

Adding truckloads of features is not a feature.

The X100F has more buttons, more filters, and more everything. I was looking for less. And that’s where I ended up reading up about rangefinder photography and it instantly appealed to me. It’s one of those love-at-first-grok moments: the Leica philosophy of taking photos was exactly what I wanted.

The Leica however, was way out of my budget.

At least until I watched this video about the poor man’s Leica: the Leica M8. The M8 was the first digital rangefinder camera introduced by Leica way back in 2006—so that makes the camera more than 10 years old—but it’s still a Leica. So the rumor mill said if you found a good one on the used market, it’ll keep going strong for another 10 years or more. So that’s what I did. Two eBay Purchases later (one for a Voigtlander 28mm lens), I was the proud owner of a Leica.

I was lucky to have my first shoot at Bali

Because two good friends were getting married at a beautiful location, I went around and clicked lots of pictures. Overall verdict: beautiful. I’m in love with this camera. Here are some pictures:

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Pros:

  • It’s a true rangefinder.
    It’s really wonderful to look through an optical viewfinder and compose the shot yourself. This initially took some getting used to: I’ve had the X100S for a long, long time and I’ve never used the optical viewfinder there. But the rangefinder focusing mechanism on the M8 felt like second-nature after just around a day.
  • By a quirk of fate, the M8 has no filters on the sensor.
    Not even an IR filter. This means it takes some of the best black and white photographs ever. Yes, that explains the blog header images.
  • It’s got really pleasing IQ.
    Yup, probably even better than the X100S. And there’s something about the Leica shots that bring up a yesteryear charm. And the sharpness of the sensor is lickable.

Cons:

  • It’s a 10 year old camera.
    It’s slow to start, operate, and take pictures. Continuous shooting is impossible, and the screen on the back is a joke. Yes, seriously: it’s even hard to figure out if the photo is in focus, so I keep the back of mine entirely covered.
  • It’s noisy.
    Leica has a discreet tag, but frankly the lack of an electronic shutter in this camera means that it’s far, far more noisier than the leaf-shutter on the X100S. I wouldn’t take this to photograph a hostile street until I became a lot more confident.
  • Focusing is slower.
    While it’s wonderful to finally experience a rangefinder (and my photographs are better for it), I’ve been spoilt by autofocus and electronic rangefinders that offer focus-peaking and then some. I’m much slower focusing on the Leica than on my X100S. Hopefully, this will change.

A new Camera, a new Blog

I’ve been writing this blog since September 2003 (yes, just about 14 years). For most of it’s time, I’ve been using WordPress (& it’s predecessors). Around a year and half ago, I switched to Ghost. That was a mistake: my writing suffered, and Ghost itself became a bit of a feature ghost-town while WordPress introduced Jetpack that greatly simplified and modernized the writing experience. So I’ve switched back to WordPress now. Happy times!

I’ll keep posting here. And the header image will keep adding my favourite images.

October Trip to Italy, Spain, and Portugal

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So Uma & I went on a very nice trip to Europe this October, and I’d like to jot down the itinerary and a few other things that might help people.

First off: some general thoughts:

  • Europe isn’t too far away. It’s like a 10-hour flight, but because you fly against time when you are going there, it feels like it’s much less. When you are coming back, of course, your trip is done, and well… who cares.
  • The costliest bit of the trip are the flight tickets to and fro. If you book really early (like 2 months+), there’s huge savings potential here.
  • The best times to go (& the costliest naturally) are the summer months. September & October is good because it’s either late season or end of the season in most places.
  • We went to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, in that order. All three places are friendly to tourists and we didn’t encounter any difficulty to speak of. Most big cities understand spoken English, and even if they don’t, getting by with hand signals and exaggerated gestures is possible.

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Here’s how we planned:

  • We picked the cities and places we want to go first.
  • Then we sat down and found out the best ways to travel between the cities, and especially within countries.
  • Then we booked hotels.
  • and we booked travel between countries and connecting flights.
  • & finally, we decided on the places we wanted to go within the cities and pre-booked tickets for those.

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For the cities and places we wanted to go, this was the list:

In Italy:

  • Rome
  • Florence
  • Pisa
  • Venice
  • Milan

In Spain:

  • Ibiza
  • Barcelona
  • Malaga
  • Madrid

& in Portugal:

  • Lisbon
  • Porto

The best way to travel in Italy in via Train. ItaliaRail is pretty amazing. We didn’t take the EuroRail pass but costs weren’t too expensive even when booking long-distance trains.

In Spain, train travel was rumored to be not too reliable and much too long with our packed itinerary. So we took internal flights. Honestly, it was a bit of a pain to reach the airport, go through all that security and then get out with the bags. If I’d had to do it all over again, I’ll pick the train even with added travel.

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We planned a day trip to Porto from Lisbon, but apparently, Porto is too far for a day trip. This is one of the perils of a trip planned without much research.

We booked hotels throughout. You can also reliably book through Airbnb (in fact, for a budget trip, that’s what I’d suggest). There are tons of hotels to choose from but here are some thumb rules:

  1. Don’t splurge on any expensive ones. The one time we did (to treat ourselves), we regretted it. On this kind of a schedule, you stay max for a day or two, and the differences are simply not worth it.
  2. Pick spots very near the places you want to visit within a city. Or, pick spots very near a train station or airport.
  3. Don’t pick the seedy places. Read reviews & look at user pictures on sites like Tripadvisor.

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The standard deviation of experience and quality between hotels wasn’t too high, and most provided a good, safe, clean place to stay.

Booking travel between countries depends on your itinerary, so it’s best to first check that the things you absolutely want to do during the trip are possible during the dates you pick. For us, one major change (after booking a lot of flight tickets) that came up was attending the Ibiza parties. Ibiza shuts down after the second week of October, so we had to rejig a lot of the travel to account for it.

Pre-booking tickets for venues and museums and places you want to go is the secret to a hassle-free and cheap trip. Ticket prices, when booked in advance, are easily 30% off, and when you skip queues, that’s heaven. We pre-booked tickets for pretty much everything we went to online, but we did it only a day or two before. This meant that we missed a trek of a lifetime in Lisbon. So if there’s any lesson to be learned from this post: book early.

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Here’s our final itinerary, listed down:

  • Day 1: Kochi to Rome Flight. Stay in Rome.
  • Day 2: Checkout from Rome. Train to Florence. Stay in Florence.
  • Day 3: Checkout from Florence. Day trip (Train) to Pisa. Train to Venice. Stay in Venice.
  • Day 4: Stay in Venice.
  • Day 5: Checkout from Venice. Train to Milan. Stay at Milan.
  • Day 6: Checkout from Milan. Train back to Rome. Stay in Rome.
  • Day 7: Stay in Rome.
  • Day 8: Checkout from Rome. Flight to Ibiza. Stay at Ibiza
  • Day 9: Stay at Ibiza
  • Day 10: Checkout from Ibiza. Flight to Barcelona. Stay at Barcelona
  • Day 11: Stay at Barcelona
  • Day 12: Checkout from Barcelona. Flight to Malaga. Stay at Malaga.
  • Day 13: Stay at Malaga
  • Day 14: Checkout from Malaga. Flight to Lisbon. Stay at Lisbon.
  • Day 15: Stay at Lisbon
  • Day 16: Stay in Lisbon. Day trip to Porto.
  • Day 17: Checkout from Lisbon. Flight to Madrid. Stay at Madrid.
  • Day 18: Stay at Madrid
  • Day 19: Checkout from Madrid. Flight to Rome. Stay at Rome
  • Day 20: Stay at Rome
  • Day 21: Stay at Rome
  • Day 22: Flight back to Kochi

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Here are a few places that we saw that were great:

  • Colosseum in Rome. It’s simultaneously bigger and smaller than you expect.
  • The Vatican Museums in Rome. The ones that contain much of the loot of the civilized world 🙂
  • The Pantheon in Rome. Probably my favorite of the Rome tourist sites. It’s really amazing.
  • The Leaning Tower. In Pisa. Get that Leaning Pisa photo checklist out of the way 🙂
  • Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. The sunset from here is pretty great.
  • Pretty much everything in Venice. This was my favorite stop on the trip. The Rialto bridge, Grand Canal and the Bridge of Sighs are awesome. Also, don’t miss the St. Mark’s Square at night.
  • Milan was a bit of a disappointment. Too much fashion and nothing much else.
  • The closing parties at Ibiza. We, unfortunately, caught the early start of the rains and so a daylight party was canceled. If possible, go earlier in September.
  • La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Probably the weirdest church ever.
  • Palau de la Música Catalana. The most beautiful theater I’ve been to yet.
  • Tibidado. The to and fro journey via funicular is great. The amusement park is so-so, but the views are spectacular.
  • Alcazaba in Malaga. I loved this city and its history: Phoenician roots, Moorish conquerors, and the eventual Christian reclamation.
  • The Lisbon Oceanarium was the best I’ve been in. Beats Kuala Lumpur’s and Dubai’s hands down. I really liked the temporary exhibition that was about Ocean Forests.
  • El Retiro Park in Madrid was nice, especially the boating.

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Now, one section that’s here at Uma’s request. Food! These are the two best items we had on the trip:

  • The African food in Lisbon is really great. Do try to find a traditional African place, that serves the best food. We went to Restaurante Cantinho do Aziz.
  • Seafood from Malaga is a must-have.

That’s pretty much it. If you have any questions, do ask.

And finally, to remember our visit, we made a small booklet about it.