Sunday, 31 May 2015
JD, from Ithilien Stables near New York, was clearly thrilled at his birthday celebrations and knew exactly what to do when his human friends sang to him.
As the song finishes, the steed perfectly blows out all his candles, before drawing his mouth back in what is unmistakably a big grin.
The stable workers around him were clearly thrilled, laughing and cheering as JD enjoyed his special day.
Happy birth-bray JD! (Sorry.)
Saturday, 30 May 2015
This one goes out to a special lady who likes pickles, sandwiches, Coheed and Cambria, coffee, and puppies. I'll take that bribe now, T. Smith. :D
Friday, 29 May 2015
The Byzantine Empire was the predominantly Greek-speaking eastern half and remainder of the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Even though this vast empire survived for more than one thousand years, spawning a rich tradition of art, literature, and learning; and serving as a military buffer between the states of Europe and the threat of invasion from Asia, people may not be aware of its great legacy. From the longest continuously reigning Byzantine monarch to their outrageous love for sweets, here are 25 things you may not know about the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantium was an ancient Greek city founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 657 BC. The city was rebuilt and re-inaugurated as the new capital of the Byzantine Empire by Emperor Constantine I in 330 AD and subsequently renamed Constantinople in his honor.
In 476 AD the Western Roman Empire fell and the Eastern Empire survived as what we know today as the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantion is said to be named after Byzas, the leader of the Megarean colonists and founder of the city. The form “Byzantium” is a Latinization of the Greek Byzantion.
However, “Byzantine” is a nineteenth-century term that modern historians applied to this culture. Byzantines, on the other hand, called themselves “Romans” from the beginning of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
The Byzantines were the first to try rosemary to flavor roast lamb. They also were the first to use saffron in cooking. These aromatics, well known in the ancient world, had not previously been thought of as food ingredients.
The Byzantines loved sweets and desserts more than anything. There were dishes that we would recognize as desserts such as grouta, a sort of frumenty, sweetened with honey and studded with carob seeds or raisins, and the Byzantines loved to eat rice pudding served with honey and cinnamon. Since antiquity quince marmalade was known to the Greeks and Romans, but in the Byzantine Empire other jellies and conserves made their appearance as well, based on pear, citron, and lemon. The increasing availability of sugar assisted the confectioner’s inventiveness. Rose sugar, a popular medieval confection, may well have originated in Byzantium.
Flavored wines, a variant of the Roman conditum (spiced wine), became popular, as did flavored soft drinks, which were consumed on fast days. The versions that were aromatized with mastic, aniseed, rose, and absinthe were especially popular; they are distant ancestors of the mastikha, vermouth, absinthe, and ouzo in modern Greece.
The Byzantines enjoyed seafood, specifically a very popular dish they called “botargo,” which was salted mullet roe. By the twelfth century the Byzantines were familiar with caviar as well.
Certain fruits were pretty much unknown to the ancient European world but the Byzantines became the first to appreciate the aubergine (eggplant), lemons, and oranges.
The bakers of Constantinople were in a most favored trade, according to the ninth century Book of the Eparch, a handbook of city administration: “Bakers are never liable to be called for any public service, neither themselves nor their animals, to prevent any interruption of the baking of bread.” Apparently, bread was hot stuff to the Byzantines.
Justinian is widely considered the emperor who made the Byzantine Empire a powerful force. He re-conquered parts of the fallen Western Empire in Africa, Italy, and Spain and codified the previous Roman laws into one document. He made Constantinople the most glorious and rich city in the world, with over half a million inhabitants. He was also the emperor who built the Hagia Sofia.
Justinian was also the last emperor to use the title Caesar.
The longest continuously reigning Byzantine monarch was Basil II Bulgaroktonos (976–1025). The most memorable story associated with him is that after decisively defeating the Bulgars and re-conquering Greece from them, he had all of the prisoners blinded, except for sparing one eye of every hundredth man. Each group of ninety-nine was tied together to a one-eyed man, who then led the group back home.
Emperor Irene of Athens (797–802), one of the most powerful women of all time, was certainly no paragon of maternal love. To secure the power of the throne, she had her son Constantine VI (780–797) blinded and then imprisoned him for life in the room in which he was born. Irene was the first Greek woman to rule the empire alone and specifically took the title Emperor, not Empress. She ruled at a time of magnificent contemporaries, especially Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne. Apparently the latter wanted to marry Irene, but she refused.
The first Byzantine emperor to lose the throne by violent revolution was Mavrikios Tiberius. He probably ranked in competence with the best, but his strict economizing cost him the crown and his life. He refused to allow troops stationed at the frontier to return home for the winter. Moreover, he insisted they live off the land rather than be sent winter rations. The army, led by Phokas, rebelled and entered the city in collusion with its militia.
Phokas was probably one of the cruelest of all Byzantine emperors, as well as one of the ugliest. However, it was he who began a fashion followed by almost every adult emperor who succeeded him: wearing a beard. Prior to this time, the emperors were clean-shaven in the classical Roman fashion, except for those who affected the Greek “philosopher’s beard,” like Julian. It is believed that Phokas probably grew his beard to cover a scar.
The longest Byzantine dynasty, almost two hundred years, was also its last. The Palaiologos dynasty began with Michael VIII, who in 1259 blinded and imprisoned his ten-year-old predecessor (John IV Laskaris), and ended with Constantine XI, who died bravely in battle when the Ottomans took Constantinople.
During the eighth and early ninth centuries, Byzantine emperors (beginning with Leo III in 730) spearheaded a movement that denied the holiness of icons, or religious images, and prohibited their worship. Known as iconoclasm—“the smashing of images”—the movement waxed and waned under various rulers, but did not end until 843, when a Church council under Emperor Michael III ruled in favor of displaying religious images.
What many people ignore or don’t realize is that most of the classical literature that survives today was preserved thanks to the Byzantine Empire. The majority of the works of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, and the historical texts of Greece and Rome, were saved by Byzantine scholars who maintained the ancient traditions of literature and learning. Works that were lost for centuries in the West were reintroduced by the Byzantines.
According to many modern historians, Byzantine civilization is very important because without it the modern Western world would not exist. Byzantium preserved and protected the very foundations of Western civilization from the invasion of Islam in many cases. This is why many scholars often refer to it as the Shield of the West.
Georgius Gemistus, a Greek scholar of Neoplatonism, was one of the most important thinkers the empire ever produced and is considered one of the early pioneers of the Renaissance in Western Europe. In the last years of the Byzantine Empire, he advocated a return to the Olympian gods since he openly preached that Christianity had severely damaged the ancient Greek spirit. He was also the one who reintroduced Platonic thought to Western Europe during the 1438–39 Council of Florence.
The civilization of Constantinople is sometimes misunderstood as a poor imitation of classical Greece and Rome. From the perspective of medieval Western Europe, however, Constantinople was a city of magic and mystery. Early French epics and romances tell of the wondrous foods, spices, drugs, and precious stones that could be found in the palaces of Constantinople.
In 1054 the most defining moment in the history of the empire occurred: the Great Schism. The Latin Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church broke from each other. The Latins began referring to the Byzantines as “Greeks” and used this term more and more, until the fall of the empire in 1453. This defined the Byzantine Empire’s legacy in that modern historians distinguish it as being clearly oriented toward Greek rather than Latin culture, and characterized by Orthodox Christianity rather than the Latin Roman Church.
So what is Google Photos?
Google Photos was announced at the company's Google IO 2015 event in San Francisco, and it offers photographers free, unlimited storage (with file size restrictions – see below) and the ability to see, organize and edit their photos on any device, anywhere.
It's a standalone spin-off from the Google+ Photos service, so although the basic premise is similar, you no longer have to subscribe to Google's complex and unloved social networking platform to save, show and manage your photos.
There's a heavy tie-in with mobile Android devices and the whole Google ecosphere, but this is more than just a social tool for smartphone users. Regular camera users can use Google Photos to back up, share and edit their pictures too. The process is designed to be automated, so whether you shoot pictures on your phone or add them to folders on your computer, they still end up safe and sound on Google Photos without you having to lift a finger.
There is an important limitation. You only get unlimited storage if you let Google compress and resize your photos. This is the same system used by the old Google+ Photos service – the difference here is that Google+ restricted you to images 2048 pixels wide or high (somewhere around 2-4 megapixels), whereas Google Photos raises that to 16 megapixels.
This will be fine for smartphone photographers, but if you use a DSLR or compact system camera with a sensor larger than 16 megapixels, and especially if you shoot raw files rather than JPEGs, Google Photos is not going to be a proper backup system – it'll still be useful for sharing photos and checking them out on any device, but you'll need to archive your full-res originals and raw files elsewhere.
Actually, you can upload full resolution originals, but this will count against your Google Drive allowance – this is how Google+ Photos worked too. When your Google Drive fills up you can upgrade but you have to pay.
With that in mind, it's worth remembering that Google Photos is not the only game in town. It's new for Google, but that doesn't mean no-one's done it before. See our Google Photos alternatives at the end of this story.
How it works
If you've got a Google account you can start using Google Photos right now. If you're on your computer, go to the official About Google Photos page. When you've taken it all in, you can click on the 'Go to Google Photos' button top right. If you're already logged in to your Google account, you'll see all your photos so far. If not, you'll need to log in – and if you have more than one account, choose the one to log into. Each Google account has separate photo libraries.
If you're on your mobile device, download the Google Photos app (it's on both Android and iOS) and use it to log in to your Google account. Now sit back and wait – and then maybe wait some more – while your mobile device and your Google Photos account figure out what to synchronize and in which direction.
If you have a lot of photos on your mobile device, you could be in for a long haul – but this initial synchronization should be a once-only process; after this, it's only new photos which will need synchronizing.
If you like, you can watch what's happening in the mobile app. Image thumbnails with no badge have been synced, those which are waiting will have a circular sync badge in the bottom right corner, and those just synced with briefly show a tick in a cloud. Nice symbolism.
That 16-megapixel limitation
All this is fine if you use your mobile device for photography, but it also works if you shoot with a regular camera and copy images across to your computer. Google has uploader apps for both Windows and Mac and you'll find the links in the left sidebar menu on your Google Photos page. Once they're downloaded, look for the 'Google Photos Backup' app.
These are not like the Android or iOS mobile apps – they're simple uploaders that prompt you go choose specific folders on your computer, for example 'Pictures' or 'Desktop'. Any photos you add to these folders will now be synchronised with your Google Photos account.
Once it was running on a test Mac, the uploader minimised to a toolbar icon and a drop-down menu for program Preferences, including the folders you want to sync (if you change your mind), the Photo size (remember, high quality and free, or full res that counts against your quota). You can also use the drop-down menu to check sync progress and view your uploaded photos – though annoyingly this will link to your main/default Google account, not necessarily the one you want to upload your photos to.
So is 16 megapixels enough? Actually, for a lot of photographers it will be. We tried round-tripping a 16-megapixel JPEG image from a Fuji X-T1 (3,264 x 4,896) pixels by sending it to Google Photos via the uploader (choosing the unlimited storage option, not original size), then downloaded it from Google Photos and it arrived back at exactly the same dimensions – though the file size was 4.9MB compared to the original's 6.8MB, so Google Photos clearly added some compression, even though the image dimensions stayed the same.
Trying the same trick with a 24-megapixel file from a Nikon D3200 showed the resizing effect – the version stored on Google Photos was resized from 6,016 x 4,000 pixels down to 4,905 x 3,261 pixels (yup, 16 megapixels, as promised).
There is an option to upload raw files as well as JPEGs, but if you go for the unlimited storage option, Google Photos will not only resize them but convert them to JPEGs too.
For that reason, Google Photos could work well as a free, unlimited backup solution if you shoot 16-megapixel JPEGs or smaller. But even if you use higher end kit, it could still be useful as a solution for showcasing and sharing your photos with a wider audience. It's also a way of having your entire photo portfolio available on your mobile device.
Google Photos in action
Your organizing and editing experience varies slightly according to whether you're viewing Google Photos on your computer or a mobile device.
On a computer, you'll be looking at them in a browser window, so you don't get the same pinch/zoom/swipe navigation you get on the mobile apps. Broadly, though, the system is the same: Google Photos uses a mixture of image metadata (using the date information embedded by all digital cameras, plus location for pictures taken on a smart device) and some clever behind-the-scenes image analysis to group your photos into themed Collections.
You can select images and create your own Albums too, which sit alongside the Collections (Google needs to make these terms a bit more consistent, maybe). The website had a glitch where a new album name was displayed as 'Untitled' in the main view, even though we gave it a name – though the iOS app reported the name correctly. It's early days yet, though.
Interestingly, Google Photos also offers to make things with your photos, such as collages, from related photos, stylized photos (with image effects) and, on the iOS app, 'stories' made up from related photos again, but this time with a narrative timeline and caption boxes.
It looks as if Google may add to these 'Assistant' types in the future, so it's going to be interesting to see what comes.
There are editing tools too. Beginners can use simple auto enhancements, while more advanced users can push Light, Colour, Pop and Vignette sliders around. There's also a selection of effects filters named after planetary moons in our solar system, such as Phobos and Diemos, the two pint-sized moons of Mars.
These are a tiny bit disappointing, though, because they just shift the colors around. So why oh why (oh why) didn't Google link Google Photos to Google Snapseed, which already exists as a set of web tools and mobile apps? Snapseed is a fantastic image-editor and effects generator but now it's fallen into Google's hands it's being cruelly underused.
By now you may be noticing some similarities between Google Photos and Apple Photos. By 'similarities' we mean 'identicalities'. They're essentially the same thing, except that Apple Photos relies on paid storage upgrades to be of any use to anyone and is locked into the desktop Photos app, while Google Photos works on both iOS and Android and can sync any folders on your computer that you nominate.
Apple's editing tools are better and more sophisticated, but Google Photos fights back with some smart organizational tools.
Google Photos alternatives
Google Photos is a smart, fuss-free way to backup and share your photos online but it's designed primarily for casual photographers. Enthusiasts and pro photographers using higher-res cameras and shooting raw files may still find it useful, but it won't be a proper backup solution.
And there are some other very good online storage & sharing sites already out there. We've already mentioned Apple Photos, which isn't the best for keen photographers, but there are others which could fit the bill rather well.
Dropbox offers fairly basic photo organizing and viewing tools, but it's the perfect solution for no-frills online backup and sharing – as long as you don't mind paying for storage. The Dropbox Pro plan currently comes with 1Tb storage, and that's enough for a pretty big image library, even one containing lots of raw files.
And then there's SmugMug, another paid-for service which can organize and showcase unlimited JPEG images at their full resolution, with custom web page designs and controllable privacy options for different galleries. SmugMug is currently 'transitioning' its raw file support so it's not quite clear how this will pan out yet.
Or, if you've signed up for Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography Plan, you can synchronize Lightroom Collections with mobile Lightroom apps where you can also apply simple edits and ratings which are synced back to the desktop version. Online storage is limited, though, so currently this is a sharing/mobile editing tool rather than a large-scale backup solution.
Finally, don't forget Flickr. Although it's designed primarily for sharing and social interaction you can control the privacy settings and use it as an archiving/synchronizing tool for your own benefit. You get 1Tb of free storage, which is good, but although Flickr won't stop you trying to upload raw files, it will convert them to JPEGs.
It all depends on which photography 'ecosystem' looks like it might suit you best and which tools you use already.
"Thank you for the ride, Emanuel. It was full of surprises."