Spring in Paris

The spring is here, and we’re trying to get as much of it as we can. The days are long, the flowers are in bloom, and we feel great. Well, except for my seasonal allergies :)

Two weeks ago we opened the longboarding season on the banks of Seine with our friends. That was lots of fun!

Too cool for school.

Too cool for school.

It takes two to tango

It takes two to tango

Last week we went to Oise to reserve our future kittens. We were planning to rent a car, as the cattery is a few km away from the nearest train station; but eventually we chose to make this a small adventure and rented electric bikes. It was the first time trying e-bikes, and they are a lot more fun than I imagined.

Anna and her e-bike on the road by Oise

Anna and her e-bike on the road by Oise

Our future kittens! They wont’t come until end of June, and we can’t wait!

Our future kittens! They wont’t come until end of June, and we can’t wait!

Of course I had to fly my drone ;)

Of course I had to fly my drone ;)

Today we chose to just enjoy our city. We went to a Russian restaurant called La Cantine des Tsars, and then had a nice walk in Jardin des Plantes.

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Jardin des Plantes is a very popular place right now, and for a good reason!

Jardin des Plantes is a very popular place right now, and for a good reason!

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Ski Trip 2019

I just came back from an exciting ski trip to Les Arcs. Basically, this is the same trip we did last year. I was really excited about it in many ways, including photographically.

I had a great time out there. The conditions for skiing were pretty terrible, with only 2 days of good visibility, and a few snowstorms so bad that the entire resort was closed. I went there motivated to improve my snowboarding, but I feel like my skill didn’t improve at all because of the poor conditions and lots of downtime. I also was planning to spend a lot of time with my friends and coworkers, and I indeed enjoyed it a lot.

As I was preparing for the trip, I packed a ton of gear. Thing is, the transportation is really convenient, and I was confident I won’t have to lug my heavy bags for hours. I also knew the location very well, so I knew which tools I could use in which conditions from last year’s experience. Unfortunately, the conditions were much less picturesque compared to last year, so I came out with very few pictures. I made a few technical mistakes, and I definitely overpacked. Let’s talk about my impressions and every piece of gear I took, with pictures :)

Sony A7R III + lenses

This is my main camera. I primarily took it for shooting a panoramic of Mont Blanc in the sunrise. That’s also why I took my big and heavy 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G and a tripod. That’s 1500g of camera + 1200g of tripod + roughly 150g of the L-bracket.

The result? This 100+ Megapixel pano of the first light of the day kissing Mont Blanc.

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And this other, 75+ MPx pano a few minutes later.

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So was it worth it? I would say yes. To me, these are special images, and I enjoyed hiking uphill with a heavy backpack to be rewarded with this pano. Special landscape images often require heavy, bulky specialty gear in a special location at an early hour, and in this case I was able to get an image I’m proud of within roughly 1 hour from waking up, a few hundred meters from my hotel. Basically the only price I had to pay is the few laughs I got from my friends when they looked at my camera bag.

Drone selfie of me taking the panorama of Mont Blanc. My camera, on the right, is recording a timelapse, now that the best light has passed.

Drone selfie of me taking the panorama of Mont Blanc. My camera, on the right, is recording a timelapse, now that the best light has passed.

The other two lenses — the 16-35 zoom and the 55 f/1.8 prime — I only used once for some causal portraits. I hoped for slightly more use for them, especially the zoom, but the conditions didn’t materialize. A total overkill.

One of the casual portraits with the 16-35 zoom

One of the casual portraits with the 16-35 zoom

Mavic 2 Pro

Last year I took my Mavic Pro with me, and the video I got from it was excellent. This year, I upgraded my drone for two reasons: higher image quality, and follow-me mode that allows the drone to go downhill. My hope was to get some video of us on the slopes, but really we got only 10 hours of riding in good weather, so I didn’t waste it taking videos: I came there for snowboarding first, photography and parties being just a compliment.

This type of perspective you can only get with a flying camera.

This type of perspective you can only get with a flying camera.

In fact, I didn’t even fly it in follow-me mode. All the flying was done in convenient time, and every photographer will tell you that best images/videos come when the light is right, which is almost never a convenient moment. Therefore, I cannot really say much about the improved features of the Mavic just yet. I will say, however, that the photo quality is on par with the Sony RX100 III, which is just great.

I made a small video from the drone clips. You can see that the dynamic range is decent, for a flying camera that is. You can also see how I’m a terrible pilot. Most of the footage comes from the 1.5 days of good weather that we had, with one clip where I sit on the slope coming from the snowstorm, to demonstrate the typical conditions we got in there.

RX100 III

I just love this little camera. I borrowed if from my wife, who’s not shooting with it anymore, using the Fuji X100T and her phone instead. For many, it’s hard to justify having a compact camera like this when you have the phone. For me though, it has a couple of important advantages. A tilt screen and a viewfinder really help taking a shot in bright sunlight; the mechanical controls are more usable in gloves; and the image quality, especially when zoomed in or in low light, is noticeably better than any phone, when viewed on something larger than a phone screen. I tend to view my pictures on at least an iPad, so the phones are still lacking in image quality for me.

And yet it’s so small that I took it with me every day when skiing. This let me take some of the best images on the trip, as the light comes and goes in the mountains.

Last light of the day coming into the valley, as I’m taking the last chairlift up.

Last light of the day coming into the valley, as I’m taking the last chairlift up.

Quick shot on the way home.

Quick shot on the way home.

Avalanche control: snow powder rising after a controlled avalanche release explosion.

Avalanche control: snow powder rising after a controlled avalanche release explosion.

A snow storm rolling into the valley.

A snow storm rolling into the valley.

Honestly, most of these shots on a phone screen will look identical to something taken with a Pixel 3 or an iPhone X. But these I will be able to use as my desktop background on a 5K screen.

Osmo Pocket

Finally, a new small tool in my kit. I bought this mainly for video. I often shoot some video on my hiking trips with my iPhone, but the jerky movements look terrible. I was hoping that this will smooth out the shots when walking and when panning; I also was looking forward to the motion timelapse feature.

For the purpose of this trip, I had high hopes for the subject tracking. In the ideal world, I should be able to double-tap on a person and just follow them on my snowboard while sticking my hand out, with the gimbal pointing in their direction automatically. In reality, the subject tracking is disappointing: it is really hard to acquire the correct target using the small screen, and the camera often just loses the subject seconds after locking on it. Interestingly, one time it worked in fairly low light and low visibility; other times it didn’t work in ideal conditions like bright light, colorful skier on a white background. Here are two short clips demonstrating the issue.

But despite the average ergonomics, video quality equal to a good phone, and poor subject tracking, it’s hard not to like this camera. It is really small and the stabilization is a lot better than any phone I tried. It is more comfortable to use in gloves, and pans look beautiful. I think this will stay in my pocket for many years, unless its non-weather-sealed body dies soon.

Lessons learned

I have made a couple of regrettable mistakes in terms of photographic technique that I regretted quickly. For instance, when I was taking the panoramas, there was a tractor grooming the slopes nearby. I should’ve increased the ISO to drop the shutter speed, but this never occurred to me; besides, I only checked some of the pano shots for sharpness on the spot. The annoying part for me here is that I made the same exact mistake last year - trying to chase a lower ISO made me discard most of my panoramic shots. Luckily, I made it out with two whole panos with no motion blur, but I could’ve had 10 to chose from.

The other thing I came to regret is not learning how to use the follow me mode on the drone. The only time I attempted it on the slopes, I chose the wrong mode and managed to not start recording at all. As a result, I didn’t really use the capabilities of the new Mavic, and I didn’t get any of that sweet follow-cam footage.

One more issue that I have to admit is that I overpacked. I could’ve left at least two lenses at home and I would’ve come out with just as good of a result.

But by far the most important lesson is that when the weather isn’t good for skiing, and isn’t good for photography, there is still a lot of fun to be had. I just had a wonderful time with my friends, going to bars, watching Game of Thrones, having a conversation over a dinner — basically being a normal person and not a gear-obsessed photo geek. I am looking forward to the next year’s ski trip :)

Autumn in Père Lachaise

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Many of you know that I live next to Père Lachaise, a famous cemetery in the East of Paris. It’s a charming place, and I love to walk there on a weekend. Unfortunately, it opens very late and closes really early, plus the entrances all close at a different hour, and as a result I can’t really go there during the week.

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While there are many really original graves and statues, my favourite thing about it is the greenery - the trees, the flowers, the moss on the old stones. And of course all of this comes alive in autumn, when the trees turn bright red and yellow.

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Today I took my camera with me, because I knew the place looks beautiful right now. The light wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t come for masterpieces - I came to capture the beautiful autumn, and to enjoy life. I also wanted to take a few pictures with Helios 44-2 which I had for a while but had no adapter for my new Sony body. You can tell the pictures from it by the characteristic swirly bubbly cateye bokeh.

My stopover

This February I was going on a business trip to Seattle, and I used this opportunity for a stopover in Iceland. The plan was to have a three night trip of the South coast, where the most exciting place for me is Jökulsárlón. However, due to unexpected circumstances, I had to change my tickets and only had one day in Iceland. I canceled my hotel reservations, got a room near the airport, and after dealing with a delayed (due to a snowstorm in Iceland) flight, I landed in Reykjavik. 

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Since it's impossible to rent a car for less than two days, I was getting around by bus. Icelandair lost my luggage, which was actually to my advantage, as I had a change of clothes and all the warm winter stuff with me, alongside my camera. Therefore I was able to just head to the city, without making a stop in the hotel to drop my bag.

Our bus took twice the normal amount of time to get to the city, because the road was covered in snow. Sitting in the bus, watching the dark road and the snowflakes in the headlights, I felt like I was back in my hometown. Everything was going quite well, except my jetlag, which was totally killing me. 

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When I got off the bus, I found myself on a dark street with a pile of snow and a sign for a bus stop. By the magic of Google maps, I figured which way I needed to go to get a coffee. Everything was still closed, as it was 7 AM, but after walking on that street for half an hour, I found one open pastry shop that served me an extremely expensive salmon sandwich and a cup of coffee. Yes, one thing I didn't miss about Iceland is the prices!

Reykjavik feels a lot like the old part of Akademgorodok, the small town in West Siberia where I'm from. I always found my home town charming, and therefore it was an absolute pleasure to wander around Reykjavik. As I was jetlagged, I didn't do anything of interest: I found a museum built around an archaeological site, admired the architecture, and spent an hour picking a late lunch spot. Having finished my (expensive) sandwich and my two (expensive) glasses of excellent Einstök beer, I got some Apelsin and Maltextact, then headed back to the hotel to take a shower and get some sleep before my morning flight. 

In conclusion, I really enjoyed my time in Reykjavik. It was a pain to get around by bus - driving is infinitely more practical in Iceland. Food in cafés is expensive, but the beer is really, really good. I will definitely try to make a stopover again if I go to North America, although next time I really hope to get out of the city and spend my time in the nature!

A Weekend in Étretat

This May our best friend Sandra came to visit us in Paris. She knows Paris very well, so we offered her to go to Normandy together to see something new and get away from the city life. She readily accepted, and we booked a trip to Étretat, a small town in Normandy famous for its cliffs.

The right trail has the best view of the cliffs

The right trail has the best view of the cliffs

The weather was nice for the first two days, and the third day was cold and foggy. The coast offers a lot of easy hiking, especially on the pebble beaches during the low tide. There are many tourists in the town during the day, but early in the morning and after the sunset it’s quite empty. In fact, in the evening Étretat is pretty much dead. 

From the beach, there are two trails. The one to the right has a great view to the most famous cliff (see above). There you will also find a small church. The trail continues over the cliffs in the Northern direction. 

Tourists on the left trail

Tourists on the left trail

The other trail goes on the cliffs, past a golf field, and allows you to see more cliffs and even spot some ships headed to Havre. If you follow the trail past the few first cliffs, you will leave the crowds behind, and find yourself alone on a narrow path surrounded with tall grass. The trail goes above the water, and for the first 30-40 minutes there are a few dangerous footpaths going down to the beach, mostly marked as closed. Eventually, there is a wide, safe trail that brings you to an empty beach, way nicer than the one found in the town. 

Anna and Sandra heading to the beach. Note the lack of people there.

Anna and Sandra heading to the beach. Note the lack of people there.

In low tide, it is possible to return to Étretat by the beach. The walk is mostly very easy, there are only a few slippery rocks, and there's one hard place where you have to jump down from a rock. There is a rope to help you get down, but it’s not very useful, and we were considering coming back the way we came. After much debate, I jumped, and helped Anna and Sandra descend, but we’re still unsure if this was a safe thing to do.

I left my camera gear at home and went with only RX1R. I met a German guy with a heavy backpack and a full size tripod headed in the opposite direction, and it was clear that the walk was quite a challenge for him. I was counting to come back to my photo bag by the sunset where I will have great light.

We came back just in time for me to sprint to the hotel, grab the backpack, and rush to the other trail for the sunset view. After taking a few dozen steps, we found ourselves at the top with the beautiful views in every direction. The town and the cliffs were bathing in the soft golden light.

The one mistake we made that day was expecting to find food in Étretat after the sunset. There was only one restaurant that would still let people in, and it wasn’t great.   

 

The next day we drove to the nearby picturesque towns of Fécamp and Yport. With charming streets and pebble beaches, they offer views to more cliffs, although the cliffs in Étretat are more impressive. We went for a walk on one of the beaches, too, because it was low tide again. 

We came back to Étretat in the evening to eat (this time a bit earlier to get to a decent café) and catch another sunset on the same spot.

We then descended to the beach to see the stars. There are big lights pointed to the cliffs, but otherwise the light pollution is fairly low, especially compared to Paris. I get so excited every time I get to see the stars!

On the final day we woke up to some dense fog and strong cold winds. Despite the low visibility, we ventured out for a walk on the cliffs one last time. 

 

We than drove back to Havre, where we had a few hours before the train. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of the city, but the parts we’ve seen were pretty incredible. The city was bombed heavily in WWII, and when they rebuilt it they went for constructivist architecture. 

In conclusion, the trip was certainly a success. We were lucky with tide times - if you go, please review tide schedule and be sure to leave the beach before the tide rolls in. Also plan your dinner in advance, as everything closes very early. 

A Spring Walk In Jardin des Plantes with Sony RX1R.

Every spring one of the places we love to go to is Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden in Paris. There are a couple of cherry trees, and when they are in bloom, it's spectacular. We call one particular tree with white flowers "the dude". This spring is no different, and since it's the first sunny weekend, we happily headed to our favourite park.

It was a good opportunity to test my new camera. Just a couple of weeks before I got a Sony RX1R off Ebay. It’s a fixed-lens full frame camera with a 35mm f/2 lens and a 24Mpx sensor. 

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I was curious about it for a while, since I always liked the Fujifilm X100 series, and my favourite lens on my X-T2 is the XF 23mm f1.4. The RX1R offers the same focal length in a very compact package. 

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In use, it is not the easiest thing to handle. While I don’t mind it’s slick gripless design, I definitely missed a tiltable screen when photographing close to the ground. Furthermore, not having a viewfinder on such a bright sunny day made framing difficult.

Thankfully, 24 megapixels is plenty for my walkaround photography needs, so cropping images in post to correct framing and straighten the horizon was fairly easy. 

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But not everything can be corrected in post. Nailing the focus on an f/2 lens using only the screen was quite a challenge. Manual focusing isn’t great: the focus ring is too loose to my taste, and the focus-by-wire is pretty terrible. Not only that, checking that you have nailed the focus is annoyingly slow: the camera really takes its time writing the file to the card, and while it’s doing it, it doesn’t let you view the picture.

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And did I mention the tiltable screen? It’s even more desireable when you consider that the lens can focus as close as 20cm! With a satisfying turn of the macro ring, you extend the lens by a few millimeters, and you’ve got your focus range limited to 20-35cm. You would think that 35mm field of view is not great for macro, but boy does this lens deliver!

Framing your macro shots is a challenge without a tilting screen.

Framing your macro shots is a challenge without a tilting screen.

It is not immediately apparent, especially when trying to view your pictures on a tiny glaring screen in the park, but when you get the images on a big screen, there is no doubt. This lens is truly outstanding.  It is so good, that I barely touched my XF 23mm f1.4 ever since I got the RX1R.

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The sensor also delivers outstanding results. The shadow and highlight recovery are beyond what I had on my X-T2, and I don’t need any tricks to get beautiful colors and sharp images in Lightroom. I was really surprised that a camera introduced in 2012 was really delivering a better result than my 2016 X-T2. It makes sense as it’s full frame, but I was very surprised still.

Check out the shadow recovery. Shooting straight into the sun.

Check out the shadow recovery. Shooting straight into the sun.

All in all, the RX1R has become my main camera, replacing the X-T2 for 90% of my photography. I carry it with me every day, and the results are so good that I’m willing to tolerate the lack of a viewfinder and a tiltable screen. 

In 2015, Sony released a RX1R II with a pop-up viewfinder and a tiltable screen. I heard it’s still slow and eats the battery a bit faster, but I’d love to upgrade to it some day. It’s expensive, and there are very few of them on Ebay; buying a new one is also not that easy - very few shops have them in stock.  

I’m hoping Sony will release a RX1R III with a touchscreen and a faster CPU. It’d be great if they also improved the focusing ring, the current one really feels cheap compared to everything else on this camera.

A ski trip to the Alps

It's been two years since our last ski trip. Last time we went to Alpe d'Huez as a part of a university group, and it was quite fun. I still remember the pain in every muscle I got after two days of snowboarding. Literally everything hurt: I distinctly recall the sensation of the exhausted diaphragm when breathing. The pain was so omnipresent it was funny (and it hurt to laugh, too).

View from our apartment.

View from our apartment.

That's because I'm a fairly inexperienced snowboarder. I'm compensating for my poor technique with muscle power, and two years ago I frankly wasn't in a great shape. My wife's a great skier, though, so she was doing much better. 

Having fun on the slopes.

Having fun on the slopes.

Planning a ski trip is a bit tough: you usually have to make a connection from the train to the bus, find a place to rent the equipment, compare the ski passes - all of this for a couple of resorts and on a number of available dates. I am not very familiar with places to ski in Europe, too - so I need to read about the resorts to check if they are not too boring, not too hard, and not too flat for a snowboarder. This kind of research often overwhelms me and I decide that I don't care enough for skiing to go through it. For this sole reason we didn't go anywhere last winter.

This year, however, there was a trip organized by my job's work council, and we happily joined a group of my colleagues. We went to Les Arcs 2000, a large ski resort in the French Alps.

Everything was great! The weather was mostly good (we got two dark, snowy days; two really sunny days, and three days in between), the snow was wonderful, and the accomodation was not bad at all. 

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Being a camera nerd, I took my camera and drone for a ride. I was lucky enough to get a pink sunset light on the peaks once; and on two mornings I got clear skies. Both mornings I was one of the first people awake in the hotel, running to the slope with a tripod and a camera bag. I felt really happy to be almost one on one with the epic view of Mont Blanc.

But this was not a photography trip by any stretch; instead I promised I will put snowboarding first. I feel an improvement in my technique, and I am looking forward to riding again next year!

The last light of the day on Mont Blanc

The last light of the day on Mont Blanc

Iceland (day 2)

On the second day of our trip we woke up in Lambastadir Guesthouse in Selfoss. We enjoyed a breakfast with hot waffles and nice jams; and I'm pretty sure we also tried Skyr this day. This guesthouse was really a highlight of the trip, but the beautiful golden light rushed us out of the door. 

This stretch of the Ring road is spectacular. On the left side there was a mountain wall, maybe 50 meters tall; on the right side a plane or a beach separated us from the ocean. Every few minutes we would see another waterfall on the wall of stone - big and small, free-falling or touching the stone. Passing the creeks and the rivers made by the waterfalls on the one-lane bridges we would see many little rivers on black volcanic sand floating down into the ocean. Great rocks a size of a house on both sides of the road in between large open spaces where Icelandic horses casually wander around.

The start of the mountain wall also hosts one famous waterfall - Seljalandsfoss - our first stop of the day. It's a single 60 meter drop can be walked around, thanks to a small cave behind it. The place is pretty popular with tourists, and we were happy to be there off-season and early in the morning. I was really happy that we came prepared - we've changed to our waterproof jackets on the parking lot. Half an hour later with my jeans completely covered in dirt and water and my camera out of three (!) batteries I realized that my preparations clearly weren't as good as I had hoped. Note to self: get waterproof hiking pants, get more batteries and maybe even a battery grip for the camera.

Following the road, we quickly arrived to our next stop: Skógafoss. Another 60 meters tall waterfall; this one has a convenient staircase that you can take to get to the top of the hill and see the Skógá river cascading down through multiple small drops into the spectacular final fall, going through the plane and finally reaching the black sand beach. The bottom part and the first 100 meters past the staircase were a bit crowded, but if you follow the path further very soon you'll find yourself alone by the river. We really enjoyed this feeling of being alone in this crazy beautiful place, and I think I'll return to this memory for a long, long time.

On the way down we went closer to the waterfall where I met a handful of fellow photographers who were clearly more prepared than I was - in wader boots, with raincovers for their cameras - they were standing there and waiting for something. At first I dismissed them as I thought they're doing long exposures, but very soon I learned what they were really waiting for. A beautiful golden light shined from the clouds and hit the mist from the falling water to create a beautiful, vivid rainbow. A feeling of childlike happiness overwhelmed me. This was a very special moment. 

The day was halfway over, but we managed to squeeze two more stops into it. We quickly drove to Sólheimajökull, resisting the urge to stop and see stuff around - I hope one day to have a lot more time in Iceland to stop just as much as I'd want. 

A short and winding road brought us to the Sólheimajökull glacier where you can walk on a glacier with a guide. Since we were running a bit late, we only walked to the foot of the glacier to see the melting ice with the volcanic ash. I was amazed by the thin crust of ice on the edge of the lake formed by thawed water. The wind from the glacier is cold enough to make the water freeze! 

At this point the lunch was long overdue, but we haven't seen any restaurants on the way. We were happy to find a small cafe near the glacier where we ate a bunch of Icelandic lamb soup (really good, fat, meaty stuff; perfect after a walk in a freezing place like Sólheimajökull).

From here we had two more things we hoped to do on that day - the WWII airplane on the beach and the black beach with the crazy volcanic columns. However we were running so late that it was clear that we'll have to choose one. We heard that the plane was not that special and that it wasn't worth the 30 minute walk (one way!); but we figured we'll be able to go to the beach early in the morning. So the airplane it was.

For reasons that we aren't sure of, part of the road to the airplane was closed for the cars. It used to be a minute's drive on a beach and a one minute walk from the parking lot; but now the parking lot has moved quite a bit further from the ocean (and the plane). This means that you have to walk this stretch. The walk was really weird - the road is absolutely straight, and all you see is rocks on the side of the road and the road cones.

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The sun was quickly setting, and we had to hurry up. After a brisk walk, we reached our destination, and obviously we walked on every part of the plane. Honestly, the plane wasn't worth the walk. But at least I can now be sure to skip it next time.

The walk back to the car felt surreal. It was pretty dark now that the sun had set; we saw almost no people. Now were were walking on an endless dark plane, and in the far end of it we could see the lights of the passing cars with a glacier on a mountain. The objects were so distant that for the first 20 minutes they didn't appear to move toward us. It was as if there were no end to this road. My brain started to play tricks on me - with so little stimulation from the environment and such great fatigue, it was in a weird, sleep-like state. 

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