Hello world?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012 -- 12:09 am

It has been a very long time since I’ve posted anything on my blog (for too many reasons to count), but one of the biggest reasons for this is that a security hole in my blog software was exploited, and at various points over the past few months, my entire site has been blocked by Google security checks twice, and completely taken offline at least once due to technical issues.  Each time the site was compromised, I tried to patch the holes, but this week I gave up and just uninstalled my entire blog.

I’ve re-installed the latest version of the software, and I’ve done what I could to restore the existing posts. However, there are still issues and configuration settings that need to be updated. Please bear with me as I try to bring the thing back online.

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A Sad Day in Oslo

Friday, 22 July 2011 -- 5:26 pm

This was my immediate reaction to the bombing in Oslo, penned just a few hours after the attack.

I’ve always loved the fact that Oslo was such a safe city.  You can walk right up to the royal palace.  You can drive past the building with the prime minister’s office.  It’s happy.  It’s neutral.  Things like this don’t happen.  …Until they do.

This whole thing makes me sad.  It makes me sad for the people who were killed or injured.  It makes me sad to see the trust and comfort of the happy people around me undermined.  It makes me sad to know that Oslo is not going to be the same city for a long time, if ever again.

I’ve walked down that street many times.  The library is there.  I have friends who live nearby.  It’s a quiet area during evenings and weekends, when the government is not at work, and it reminds me that I live in the capital of a quiet peaceful nation.  It will not remind me of that any more.

Now we’re all left wondering, “Why?”  What was the point?  Why now?  Why did it take place late in the day on a Friday during the nation’s summer holiday, when most people were away, and many of the rest had already gone home?  Of course, I’m glad that it did!  Otherwise it would have been an even bigger catastrophe.  Was it a crazy local?  Did it have anything to do with the charges filed against Mullah Krekar (up until now, even our local terror suspect was more of a local oddity than a threat)?  What does anyone have against Norway, other than the fact that it’s an easy, trusting target?

I’m glad that my friends are all fine, and now I find myself refreshing the news feeds, waiting for answers that will be a long time coming.

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Scrum Task Origami -
Part 6: I Don’t Want to be an Architect

Tuesday, 14 June 2011 -- 11:23 pm

Thanks to the success of our distributed workforce, we had so many team members contributing to the project that not surprisingly, integration quickly became a pain point. We had lots of people folding components, but we needed someone to make sure they went into the model in the right way. To address this, I had to take on a role I’ve been avoiding for years. I had to become a project architect.

Over the past months, the team has folded over a thousand modules, and I have spent each morning looking at the growing model and determining the most painless ways to fit the new pieces into it. It’s up to me to keep the big picture in mind, because when we make a mistake and connect a piece in the wrong way, it’s almost impossible to take it back out without damaging the structural integrity of the whole.

Honestly, I long for the days when I got to fold. Folding is my passion and the thing that drew me into this project in the first place. I understand that I have an important responsibility, and that as the model grows, it is because of my vision that the structure is growing and maturing smoothly. But instead of delicately forming each perfect crease, I spend my mornings with glue on my fingers (we need robustness, and I cannot let external teams come in and tear down everything we’ve built; one cannot be a purist in an enterprise environment). A few times I have stepped back and let the team go where they will, but they often go for the easy wins, building up the outer walls first — the result of which is hardly extensible. As I find ways to fit the pieces together, It is up to me to make sure we stick to the structural principles of the model and to find ways to adjust for those modules that didn’t come out of folding exactly right (no one is perfect, and we can only afford to refactor those pieces that are blatantly flawed).

The end of the project is in sight, and when we get there, hopefully I can return to my roots as a folder and embark on a new, smaller project with my fingers back in the fold. Given that we are always pushed to bigger and brighter things, I fear this will not be the case.

Related: The complete Scrum Task Origami series

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Scrum Task Origami -
Part 5: Distributed Development

Tuesday, 14 June 2011 -- 11:05 pm

Origami WorldOne of the best parts of working for a multinational company is having colleagues from all over the world. From my perspective, I love that I get the chance to learn all kinds of new things about new places and new cultures, but from a corporate perspective, it’s about spreading ideas, aligning the company culture, and fostering tolerance and diversity.

The bad side to this is that the project budget doesn’t always align with these lofty goals — especially when you’re based in one of the most expensive cities in the world. To combat this, our project has historically been divided across three major offices with teams of contractors based in two more.

When we first started to introduce Scrum, the natural divide was along geographic borders, not the least because each of the three centers was already home to a specific area of domain focus. The hiccup was that our team of contractors, who held key framework knowledge and responsibility, sat far, far away in Budapest. Our team in Oslo faced the problem of incorporating these invaluable team members into a very hands-on, interactive software process.

After months of trial and error, we finally got a decent sound and video system in place, so that they could easily participate in our daily standup meetings. The crucial part of this was finding a way to talk to them each morning  that would not hinder the already-irritating process of attending a daily meeting. Traditionally, videoconference systems (and even teleconference systems) have been difficult to set up and often require a dedicated meeting room, but we knew we needed videoconferencing, because too much meaning is lost over the phone.

Our contracting team works for an external company, so with no dedicated team room in their office, the overhead of finding a meeting room at all was prohibitive. We needed something simple and painless enough that we could meet every day. The solution we found was to set up a dedicated system with a microphone and roundtable webcam in our team room in Oslo (where the Post-It-generating task board is located) and to have the contractors each connect via headsets and webcams from their desks.

The team dynamic changed instantly. Suddenly our contract developers were real people with faces — not just names on emails and login IDs in the source control system. We continued to rotate out one of the contract developers on site here in Norway, but when a new team member arrived, the only real difference was that we could see his legs.

The three Level 1 prototypes and the base of the Level 2 Menger Sponge

Scrum was working fine! Origami, on the other hand, was not.  By this point, we had three full-time folders in Oslo (including our new PM who recognized the benefits of the origami project and has even been known to fold during management calls). We also had two contractors who had learned to fold during their on-site rotations. With so many hands, we were running out of raw material! (There’s a problem you don’t usually see in software: too many resources and not enough work!)

Obviously we couldn’t increase our velocity just to generate more used task Post-Its per sprint, so instead we enlisted the help of our sibling Scrum team in the UK. For a few months, they diligently collected their used notes at the end of each sprint and eventually sent over a packet of papers with a visiting colleague. Like any component that has been developed fully independently, there were some integration issues when the new pieces arrived. Unlike our square Post-Its, the UK team was using rectangles. Thankfully we were both on 3M sticky-note technology, so the shorter dimension was identical to our notes, and it was a relatively simple process to cut the new notes into to the required squares.

Used Post-Its from the RE team in Abingdon
Adapting rectangular Post-Its into square task notes

Now we had a huge pile of unfolded notes, but one of our best folders was back in Budapest with idle hands. To address this, we sent him a stack of unfolded notes, and eventually we got back a big pile of Japanese Brocade Sonobe modules to integrate into the model.

In spite of the challenges, we had found a way to work as a distributed team!

Zoltan folds on the other end of the videoconference

[Editor's note: This article should have been posted in late 2010. Apologies!]

Related: The complete Scrum Task Origami series

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My Favorite Yuri Gagarin Story

Tuesday, 12 April 2011 -- 11:07 pm

In honor of Yuri’s Night and the 50th anniversary of manned space flight, I thought I would share the story that I think of whenever Yuri Gagarin comes up.  Then I thought I should preface that story by explaining how on earth I even have a “favorite Yuri Gagarin story.”  And then I started thinking of other strange ways that my early knowledge of the space program shaped my perspective on aeronautic history.

So now let me preface this post with my favorite Yuri Gagarin story:

Back in college, I once went to a party and randomly met a guy named Yuri.  I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly (How many people named Yuri have you met in the Midwest?), so I tried to clarify.

“Yuri?  As in Yuri Gagarin?”  He didn’t reply right away and was giving me a strange look, so I added, “You know?  Like the first man in space.”

“Yes, I know who Yuri Gagarin is.  It’s just that you’re the first person who’s ever made that connection.”

Yuri and I didn’t really hit it off, so I didn’t see him again for a few months.  Eventually I bumped into him again, and it turned out we had a mutual friend.  Not knowing that we had met once before, our friend made the effort to introduce us.

“This is my friend Yuri.”

“Right!  Like Yuri Gagarin!” I laughed, figuring it was an easy way to point out that we’d met before.

“Wow!” he replied.  “You know, you’re only the second person to ever make that connection?!”

Sometimes when I tell this story, I still get a blank look when I mention Yuri Gagarin.  I always assumed he was a household name, which I suppose he is, in the right context.  Apparently Yuri Gagarin came up a little more often in our household while I was growing up.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen The Right Stuff.  I started watching this film when I was so little that I couldn’t sit through the entire movie or completely understand what was going on.  For years I think I assumed that the shuttle astronauts still went through that test of blowing bubbles into a tube with floating ping pong balls.  Even years later, when Apollo 13 came out and I was much older, I just couldn’t fully get behind Ed Harris’s character.  After all, what was John Glenn doing working in mission control?

Strangely, seeing the film’s clips of the failed rocket launches over and over acclimatized me to the image of rocket explosions.  I’ve heard from other people my age that seeing the Challenger disaster on television was a poignant childhood memory.  While I remember the event, it didn’t phase me as much as it did my classmates.  I can only assume that it just didn’t look all that much different from those early failed test launches I’d seen over and over.

A few years later, our elementary school Explorations class (our skip-recess-once-a-week-in-favor-of-more-learning gifted class) focused on a space exploration theme (which may have led in some small part to my best friend‘s lifelong astronaut obsession).  We learned about the space program and its history, and we did all kinds of cool things like driving across town in order to create a scale model of the solar system.  My end-of-year project was on commercial products developed from NASA spin-offs, and I’ve never been able to look at a handheld vacuum cleaner in quite the same way. (Did you know that Dustbusters were first developed to collect moon rocks?  Now you do.)

I’m pretty sure that was the only time I actually studied the space program in school, but somehow it kept creeping into things that I was doing.  The last bit of my space exploration history was fleshed out while working on a stamp collecting project for 4-H. (Yes, I collected stamps and researched space exploration for 4-H.  It’s not all pig farming like some people think!)  I put together a collection of commemorative stamps outlining the history of space flight from the first rocket launches up to the most recent shuttle missions.  It even included an actual stamp that had been up in the shuttle — a Christmas gift from my parents.  The project involved writing 20 one-page summaries explaining the different phases of space exploration (to accompany the related stamps).  This probably wasn’t the way most high school students spent their summer afternoons, but I was willing to go the distance for that frilly purple ribbon and the satisfaction of winning.  And all these years later, I guess I have a better-than-average knowledge of early space exploration history to show for it.

Well, that and an amusing anecdote to share on Yuri’s Night.

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How to get to the North Pole

Wednesday, 8 December 2010 -- 4:18 pm

Help Meg get to the North Pole!If someone offered you a trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?

For years I’ve been answering this question, “An icebreaker to the North Pole.”  What an incredible chance to explore more of the Arctic and to reach one of the coolest (literally and figuratively) spots on the world map.  Unfortunately, the trip is well out of our price range, so it remains a dream.

How does one reach the North Pole?  The process involves a two-week journey on a seriously heavy-duty ship that plows its way through the icy Arctic waters from Murmansk, Russia (up near Kirkenes) to the top of the world and back.  Quark Expeditions has been offering this sailing for years, along with their array of more traditional Arctic and Antarctic Expeditions, and for years I’ve been longing to go.

However, this year as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations, they’re giving away a free trip!  I felt that I owed it to myself to enter and to do the best job I could to collect votes and possibly win my dream trip.  The five entries with the most votes will continue on to the next round, where they will be judged by the company, and one winner will be selected.

Help me get to the North Pole!
Vote for my entry!

It’s free and safe to vote, but you have to register a valid email address (or connect via Facebook) in order to prevent ballot stuffing.

If I win, I promise to post a fully detailed recap of the entire trip, complete with plenty of photos from the top of the world!  So vote, get your friends/family to vote, and then read the blog this summer to enjoy the trip with us!

Icebreaker to the North Pole

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An Ex-Pat Thanksgiving

Thursday, 25 November 2010 -- 5:12 pm

As an ex-pat, I usually find Thanksgiving sneaking up on me with no fanfare and little notice. This year, I knew the holiday was coming, not because of any grand plans but because we were trying to schedule meetings with the office in Houston and were forced to work around the holiday.

So the holiday didn’t come as such a surprise, and when my friend Kathryn strong-armed me into taking a day off to help her prepare a proper Thanksgiving dinner, I willingly acquiesced. Besides, Kathryn is a pretty good cook, and somehow I’ve made it through my entire “adult” life without having ever cooked a Thanksgiving dinner.

How did that happen? In retrospect, the first few years on my own the idea of prepping a large dinner wasn’t really a high priority. I do remember one Thanksgiving spent in n Austin, when our project at work was under pressure, and anyone who didn’t already have plans to leave town was tasked with working over the holiday. That year, I spent Thanksgiving Day at my desk, nursing a terrible cold! And not long after we moved to Beijing and began life as ex-pats.

While it’s traditionally an American holiday (especially since the Canadians all celebrate a month early), in the ex-pat community, Thanksgiving tends to take on a very international flavor. In Beijing, we managed to get all the ex-pats at work together for a Saturday Thanksgiving (no Thanksgiving Thursday/Black Friday holidays in the international community) that included Brits, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Turks, and even a few actual Americans. Here in Norway, the ex-pat community is better integrated, so Thanksgiving tends to pass under the radar even more.

And so, fate and coincidence have intervened to keep me from ever needing to know how to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Until now.

Kathryn convinced me to take the day off with her, and together we made a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It was mostly Kathryn cooking, and me hanging out, drinking wine, and assisting with a few hard-to-screw-up tasks like tearing up bread for stuffing and mixing up green bean casserole.

Lucas should be leaving work soon, and he and Dee will come to join us. Two pies are baked, the turkey is in the oven, and the rest is all lined up to finish before dinner. The only thing that would make dinner better is if we didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow. Some people get up early to hit the Black Friday sales, but we have to drag ourselves away from the turkey coma to show up at the office.


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Happy Birthday, Dad!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010 -- 5:04 pm

Wishing you a happy birthday!

(PS – It seems I finally got the app working to allow me to post from the iPad!)

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How Facebook and the iPad Killed My Blog

Sunday, 21 November 2010 -- 11:50 pm

(Okay, maybe not “killed,” but it’s definitely been in a coma for a while!)

When I created my personal website over 10 years ago, it was my way of letting my friends and family know what I was up to, no matter how far away I moved. It was easier to publish my latest news online rather than sending a note to everyone, and for those who might be curious what I’d been up to, a simple Google search would turn up the site and thus answer their questions.

I started this year with a personal goal to post more, and I did rather well for a while. However, circumstances quickly put an end to that noble effort, and it has been months since my last post.  Looking back, I’ve tried to come up with the reasons for this, and I have a few theories.  At first my rhythm was destroyed by my frequent business trips to Houston, which kept me busy both while I was there (catching up with friends, shopping for things to carry home, etc) and while I was here (catching up on work, making up for time away, etc).  But this wasn’t the whole story.  I think the two biggest factors in my reduced blogging habits owe more to technology than scheduling.

First, the widespread adoption of Facebook provides a simple and well-followed platform for micro-blogging.  There’s no longer a reason to create a blog post with a few brief sentences or photos to share our latest adventure.  A quick status update easily shares an activity or event, and photos of friends can be tagged to let them know they’ve been uploaded.  This leaves the blog for more lengthy posts but also raises the bar a little.

The other thing keeping me from posting is the very thing enabling (I hope) me to post right now.  I pre-ordered an iPad when they first came out, and I’ve been using it incessantly ever since.  In fact, I rarely even use my laptop at home anymore.  If I can’t do something on the iPad, it probably isn’t getting done.  (If it’s extremely important, I can still do it from my work computer.). Blogging is one of those things that isn’t especially easy on the iPad.  I always like to find photos and pictures to illustrate my posts and to make them more aesthetically pleasing, and I don’t really have a good way to do more than the most basic photo editing on the iPad.  Also, I’ve had some problems posting from the device.  This, combined with an increase in my use of Facebook and my busy schedule has led to many months of website silence.

Assuming this post actually works (without too much trouble), I’m hoping to rekindle my posting regularity.  It will likely come with fewer images, but I guess it’s better to post something plain-text than to post nothing at all.  And there’s always a bit of a barrier to re-entry when posting for the first time after a long silence.  I always feel like that first post needs to be more worthwhile for some reason.  Like I can’t break the dry spell with something frivolous.  Yes, it’s silly.  But the hiatus is over, and hopefully I can continue to find something to write about! 

A final note: It seems I’m still having trouble posting from the iPad. The WordPress app isn’t working at all for me, and there are some annoying things about the web interface. Oh, well. At least I’ve ended the post coma.

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An Incredibly Inexpensive Safari

Tuesday, 29 June 2010 -- 6:30 pm

African SunriseAn African safari is one of those experiences that’s on most traveler’s wish list, and I fully expected that someday Lucas and I would plan this adventure.  However, it hasn’t been especially high on my list of destination priorities, because I feel like this is the time in our lives for budget travel.

When I think of safaris (and whenever I hear about them for that matter), they involve expensive safari lodges or fancy safari tents and small jeep tours into the African wilderness.  Since I can rarely justify spending so much on a single vacation, the concept has never held that much appeal.  The idea of visiting Africa and seeing the animals in the wild is certainly attractive, but it would mean spending a bundle to book a safari package, right?  After all, you need a place to stay and eat out in the African wilderness.  And you can’t just go driving around looking for elephants, right?  You need a jeep with a safari guide to take you to the right places and drive you out over the untamed African wilds!

I had no idea how wrong I was.

We headed off to our first safari  in South Africa back in April, invited along by some friends in Oslo who’ve traveled to the area before.  Although we split the cost of the trip four ways, doing a similar trip for just the two of us would have cost under $600 for a 3-day safari (including food, car, accommodations, park fees, etc, but excluding airfare to South Africa of course)!

Thanks to the infrastructure at Kruger National Park, there actually are budget safari options that mesh with our independent travel style.  Park visitors can simply drive around the park in their own cars between sunrise and sunset, and there are a number of rest camps inside the park providing food and accommodations.  There’s no need for a swanky lodge; no need for a jeep and a safari guide; no need to spend a small fortune!

We flew into Johannesburg, where we rented a car at the airport and then spent the night in a guesthouse nearby (since our flight arrived quite late in the evening). The next day we set out driving east toward Kruger.  Our first destination was the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga province.  We had originally planned to drive part of the scenic Panorama Route, but we arrived late in the day, and after a late lunch of pancakes in Graskop, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the views before it got dark.  We did make it to God’s Window, and Lucas convinced the guard to let us in for a quick look at the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, even though it was past the park’s closing time.

God's Window

Both places were well worth visiting, and I think it would have been a good place to spend a night or two en route to/from Kruger.  Our GPS directions took us back through the area when we left the park (giving us a second chance to stop for pancakes in Graskop), and we were all struck by the scenery along the drive (the weather was much clearer on the return trip).

Since Kruger’s park admission is a little expensive (around $20/person per day) and the best game viewing is in the early morning and late afternoon, most people recommend spending a night on the edge of the park so that you can enter the gates when they open (around 6:00 am depending on the season).  We stayed in a cottage at the very pleasant Komati River Chalets, where we had a kitchen and a braai (barbecue) to self-cater our dinner and breakfast.  We weren’t sure what kind of groceries we would be able to get inside the park, so we visited the local supermarket the night before to stock our cooler with meat for grilling and materials for sandwich lunches.

Our original plan had been to enter the park through the Crocodile River Gate, but the gate was closed due to flooding, forcing us to drive 45 km back to the Malelane Gate.  We left early and got to the park just before the 6:00 opening.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect driving a little Volkswagen Polo around a safari park in South Africa.  How would we know where the best spots were to look for wildlife?  How much would we really be able to see from the car?  Would the car even make it over the park roads?

Yield to GiraffesIt turns out that we saw an amazing amount of wildlife, even from the car’s low vantage point.  A lot of animals were right alongside (or in) the road.  As for the roads themselves, even the dirt roads were very well maintained, so driving was quite easy even in the little Polo.  Although you are more likely to see certain types of animals in different areas of the park, based on their climate and landscape, figuring out where to look isn’t all that difficult.  The easiest method is simply to look for a big crowd of vehicles stopped along the road and ask someone what they’re all looking at!  Even with no one else around, a lot of the wildlife isn’t that hard to spot.

We had read and heard quite a lot about the park’s Find It guide that allegedly contains great information for where to spot the different wildlife, but we never actually saw a copy of it at any of the park’s shops.  Instead, I picked up a copy of Andy & Lorrain Tinker’s Kruger Park Guide & Map (The Tinkers are responsible for most of the photos seen on the  park’s postcards).  Along with maps, a brief wildlife guide, and a spotting checklist, the booklet contained a list of the Tinkers’ favorite drives for wildlife spotting and photography.  It gave us some great ideas for some of the best routes to travel between camps, and we got a lot of use out of it over the next few days.

During our three-day stay, we got to see all of “The Big 5” (lions, elephants, buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros) along with plenty of zebras, giraffes, antelope, etc.  Unbelievably, we were even lucky enough to see a pack of wild dogs and a pride of lions with a large kill.

Lions with a Killed Giraffe

A lot of people have asked if we were worried about being so close to such large predators in our little rental car, but the park has strict rules about staying inside the car except in specific designated areas.  For the most part, the animals are completely indifferent to the vehicles and don’t really pay them any mind.  Of course, a bit of common sense is called for, but as long as you follow the rules, the risks are relatively minimal (to both you and the wildlife).

Baby ElephantSince one of the rules is that overnight visitors must be inside the rest camps from sunset to sunrise, the larger rest camps offer sunrise, sunset, and night drives to allow wildlife viewing outside the daylight hours.  We opted for a sunrise drive, which began before dawn, and while we didn’t see much in the dark (even with the spotting lights), the sunrise itself was beautiful.  In retrospect, I might have opted for the sunset drive, since we seemed to find some of the most exciting wildlife in the half hour before the gate closing!

We spent our two nights in the park at Satara Rest Camp, where we opted to tent camp.  On our first night, the camp was fully booked (because of the South African school holiday), but we had reserved a campsite early in our planning.  Arriving just a few minutes before gate closing, we had a bit of trouble finding a campsite, since the spots aren’t really marked, and there is no way to reserve a specific location.  For dinner, we used one of the campground’s braais to grill the meat we had packed.  Satara had a small grocery section in the store, which would have been good to know in advance, since there was no refrigerator.  Instead, we had to keep all of our meat and perishables in our cooler (in the air-conditioned car during the day), and each night we bought a new bag of ice.  Our campsite was right across the road from one of the camp’s “kitchens” which was equipped with sinks and a small electric stove top.  Mostly the kitchen served as a communal charging station, and the many outlets were all filled with digital camera chargers and laptops.  The campground was also equipped with a bath house, so we had running water, showers, etc.

Our Campsite at Satara

Had we chosen not to pack our tents, the rest camp also contained a number of cabins of varying levels of amenities.  We did opt to eat in the restaurant once, and I was quite surprised by the quality of the food.  It was a little expensive, but the menu had a good variety and some very tasty dishes.

For safety and peace of mind, the entire rest camp is surrounded by a high electric fence.  This was understandably comforting when I woke for our sunrise drive to a lion roaring outside the camp!

Overall we had a great time, and based on our sunrise drive, I think we had a lot more fun going it alone than we would have had being shuttled around on a safari truck all day.

African Wild Dog Young Hyena
Lions
Zebra Crossing Baboons

The rest of our photos from Kruger are posted here.  (For reference, all of them were taken with a basic 3x zoom point-and-shoot Canon Powershot.  It would have been nice to have a fancy telephoto lens, but so many of the animals were close enough that it wasn’t a necessity.)

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