Dec. 25, 2004

Most Ridiculous Black Metal Pics

Well, it looks like this MonkeyFilter thing is working out already :). A thread yesterday points to RuthlessReviews’ Top 10 Most Ridiculous Black Metal Pics of All Time. Being a metal fan myself, I can laugh along with some of these pictures. It’s not uncommon for metal artists to attempt to appear ghoulish or macabre — which sometimes comes across well — but sometimes just looks silly ;).

Really, I think the commentary accompanying the photos may be the best part:

  • “This is some serioulsy shoddy corpse-paint on everybody…”
  • “What exactly is going on here? Is this the new WWF tag-team? […]”
  • And, my personal favorite, “Wait, are those suspenders? […]”

And, while the commentary is often on-point, I would have preferred that the author didn’t use “gay” to mean “bad” or “stupid” (as one of the comments put it). That aside, I think the metal world sometimes takes itself too seriously and some self-deprecating humor can be just the antidote needed.

Dec. 24, 2004

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” in Flash

I was reading my brother's blog entry about fat people on airlines and, curious about whether this had been discussed elsewhere, I was led to a post on MonkeyFilter about the cost of overweight people to airlines. And, not having heard of MonkeyFilter before, I checked out their main page…

And, in the spirit of Friday Flash Fun, someone had discovered a Flash slideshow based on Billy Joel’s pop hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Not that the original was brilliant in the first place (it was mostly a list, after all), but I can appreciate the effort put into finding 100+ images and timing those with the pace of the original song.

PS Can anyone enlighten me on “MonkeyFilter”? Their home page describes it as “a Metafilter clone, only with more bananas and less flinging”. Is that just hyperbole or is this site worth checking from time to time?

Dec. 22, 2004

Don’t Bother With This Nutella Brownies Recipe

I enjoy some of the cooking shows on Food Network and one of the episodes of Sweet Dreams (a show on desserts) focused on just brownie recipes (w00t). And, rather than Gale (the host) coming up with her own recipes, she baked brownie recipes submitted by viewers. One in particular, the Peanut Butter-Hazelnut Brownies, caught my eye. Of course, the “hazelnut-chocolate spread” to which they refer in the recipe is really just Nutella.

That recipe sounded pretty good to me at the time and so I exported that episode from my TiVo to VHS for safekeeping. Then, when the December Cocktail Event/Holiday Party came up, I figured that I could put the recipe to good use. So, the weekend before, I bought all the ingredients which I didn’t already have — which was primarily flour, cocoa powder and Nutella. And, on Tuesday evening (the day before the party), I baked the brownies.

Per the instructions, I baked the brownies at 350° for 30 minutes and then I let them cool to room temperature before cutting. In my case, the brownies weren’t quite cool when I was heading for bed and so I left the cutting for the following day. Then, after work that next day, I proceeded to cut the brownies and place them into a rectangular Rubbermaid container for the party. And, as I am wont to do, I tried one to ensure that they turned out all right.

It was horrible.

Somehow, the brownie had completely dried up; I was actually so dry that I needed a glass of water to help wash it down. And, the peanut butter and Nutella flavors were nowhere to be seen. Figuring that maybe the outside edge had dried, I then tried a square cut from the center — no such luck, it was just as bad. I couldn’t even make it through eating the whole square and I ended up throwing out the batch. Of course, I still had to bring something to the party (“a snack or dessert”) and so I stopped by Super Target to buy some cookies from their bakery department.

Not to be discouraged, I recalled that the Dallas Camera Club’s Holiday Dinner was coming up (which was also a pot-luck) and I decided to try the recipe again. Fortunately, I had enough ingredients left over from the first attempt that I didn’t need to go back to the store. So, as before, I followed the recipe exactly but I baked the brownies for just 15 minutes this time, and added increments of 5 more minutes until a knife came out clean (for a total of about 23 minutes).

Of course, I had to allow the brownies to cool before cutting them and so I didn’t know right away whether I had succeeded. And, the following day, I sliced the brownies into squares and sampled one — it was distinctly moister but still a bit chalky. After rummaging through my cupboard, I found a legacy can of frosting (left from a former roommate) which I thought to try (Betty Crocker's “Rich & Creamy Mint Chocolate Chip”, fwiw).

The frostiing was a little hard to spread, right out of the can, but I nuked it for about 15 seconds which softened it up. And, I ended up using the whole can on the brownies’ 9x13 pan. I then sampled a square once more and found that this was reasonably all right. It wasn’t the best batch brownies I had ever had, but the frosting pushed them over the line from “bad” to “ok”.

Considering the ingredients, Nutella and peanut butter, I didn’t think I could go wrong. But, this recipe confounded me. I suppose can’t rule out that maybe my oven’s thermostat could be miscalibrated, though that wouldn’t explain the good results I’ve had with other baked goods. Anyhow, if you’re looking for a Nutella-based brownie recipe, I would try something else. And, if you can get this recipe to come out deliciously, then you’re a better man/woman than I.

Dec. 20, 2004

Fixing That “Could not open lock file” Gallery Error

(Preface: Gallery is an open source tool for hosting photos on your website.)

So, suppose you upgrade your copy of Gallery to the latest version (1.4.4-pl4 as of this writing), you follow the upgrade instructions, re-run the configuration wizard and then you get a goofy error such as this:

Warning: fopen(/home/abischof/httpdocs/albums/2003/photos.dat.lock): failed to open stream: Permission denied in /home/abischof/httpdocs/gallery/platform/fs_unix.php on line 55

Error: Could not open lock file (/home/abischof/httpdocs/albums/2003/photos.dat.lock)!

Yeah, that happened to me. Fortunately, there’s a known workaround. As it turns out, it’s not Gallery’s fault if this occurs — it generally only happens if your web host mucks up your permissions while upgrading your PHP setup. The solution? Just set the permissions on every file in your “albums” directory to 777.

As noted in the workaround, this is fairly straightforward if you have shell access to your web host (just run “chmod -R 777 albums” from the parent directory). But, if you only have ftp access, then you’ll need to set each set “albums” to 777 manually; and, if your ftp client can’t recurse through directories, then you’ll need to manually hop through each directory within “albums” and manually set every file to 777. That should do it :).

Dec. 18, 2004

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Blondies

I brought along some Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Blondies to the LucciHouse Holiday Party last weekend and I thought I’d share the recipe here:

Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Blondies

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup margarine
  • 2 cups white sugar [I used Splenda instead]
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chunky peanut butter [I used creamy peanut butter instead]
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Line a 10x15 inch jellyroll pan with parchment paper.

  2. In a medium bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla and peanut butter until smooth. Combine the flour and baking powder, then stir into the peanut butter mixture. Finally, fold in the chocolate chips. Spread the dough out flat on the prepared pan.

  3. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until the tops of the bars look dry. Cool in pan, then cut into squares.

I got the idea for blondies from a cookie run earlier that week — Leia and I walked to Eatzi’s to grab some cookies from their bakery section. In addition to a dozen peanut butter cookies, I also picked up a peanut butter blondie. It was pretty tasty and I pondered whether I could make some myself.

So, I checked AllRecipes’ cookie section and searched for blondie recipes. While there were a fair number of recipes for regular blondies, there were relatively few for peanut butter blondies (why, I have no idea). In addition to the recipe on which I decided, I also considered the recipe for Best Ever Chocolate-Free Blondies but I ruled that one out as I didn’t want to deal with peanut butter chips (at best they tend to resemble peanut butter).

I was pleased with how the blondies turned out, though their consistency was different than I had expected. The blondie which I had at Eatzi’s was fairly chewy but these were flaky in texture. Their texture was almost like that of a thick peanut-butter flavored sugar cookie. I’m curious whether swapping the sugar for Splenda, as I did, had any effect on their chewiness.

Dec. 13, 2004

Splenda Coke!

I’ve been pining for Splenda Coke for some time, but it looks like my wish may come to fruition. Apparently, Coke is considering introducing a new Coke variety in 2005 made with Splenda (!).

The new drink, which could be called Coke Zero, Coke Light, Tab or a variation of Tab, would have no calories and be sweetened with sucralose and another artificial sweeter, according to a report in Beverage Digest.

The product is still in the “concept testing” phase, Beverage Digest said. A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola refused to confirm or deny speculation that the drink was in the works. […]

Of course, sucralose-based colas are already here, namely Diet RC and Diet Rite (both of which are made by the same company, but Diet RC also has caffeine). And I could probably drink Diet RC for the rest of my life and not mind it, but Splenda Coke has the additional advantage of Coca Cola’s marketing muscle — it should be available just about anywhere.

Dec. 5, 2004

Airline Credit Cards?

My Discover card is expiring soon and so I’m thinking about trying another card. Discover has been fine and, of course, they’ll automatically mail me a new one before this one expires; but, this is the card that I have setup to auto-pay many of my monthly expenses and I’ll have to contact each of those companies which are setup for auto-pay anyway (since they’ll need the new expiration date). So, it would be just as easy to tell them a new credit card number if I found one which I liked more than the Discover.

I’ve given some thought to getting an airline miles card since that would give me something back for my purchases. Of course, I already get 1% back with Discover, but I’m curious whether I might be able to get a bit more from another card. It seems that each airline has its own card and there are also some any-airline cards; and, I’m currently leaning towards a non airline-specific card since I rarely use the same airline from one trip to the next.

I thought there might just be a handful of cards from which to choose, but there seem to be several dozen :-/. I picked out a few of them to compare:

  • Discover Miles Card — little did I know that Discover has its own airline miles card. It has a $29 yearly fee and offers airline tickets at 25,000 miles (up to $500) and 30,000 miles (up to $650).

  • TravelerMiles is a card from Travelers Bank. In addition to tickets at 25,000 miles (up to $500) and 32,000 miles (up to $600), this one also offers discounted tickets at 8,000 miles ($100 off) and 28,000 miles ($400 off). However, I’m couldn’t find a yearly fee listed anywhere (or even a link to apply for the card).

  • CapitalOne has two airline cards — their Go Miles and their Go Miles Ultra cards (the difference is that the Go Miles Ultra card doubles miles on the first year). And, their maximum ticket values are calculated on a multiple of 90; so, for example, 9,000 miles are needed to get a $100 ticket. Calculating for some of the more common mile-amounts, 25,000 miles would work out to a $278 ticket and 30,000 miles would be about $333. Hmm, come to think of it, this card is starting to look kinda lame.

After looking over those, I then found this article at Kiplinger from last August about airline mile cards. The article is fairly general but they also suggest a couple cards for those who are undecided (like me, natch). From Kiplinger:

  • Quicken offers a MasterCard which, contrary to the Kiplinger article, apparently has no annual fee. Interestingly enough, their rewards program is called TravelerMiles and it links to the travelermiles.com site as well — it looks like this is the card that’s tied to the TravelerMiles program. As before, this has tickets at 25,000 miles (up to $500) and 32,000 miles (up to $600.

  • The WorldPoints Visa from MBNA is the other card mentioned. This one has no annual fee, which is a plus, but the lesser maximum ticket values aren’t as high as some of the others — 25,000 miles gets a $400 ticket while 35,000 miles gets a $600 ticket.

Looking over them, I’m still not entirely decided. But, considering that it would probably take me a few years to rack up enough miles to get a free flight, those annual fees may more than offset the higher ticket amounts. So far, the Quicken Mastercard looks tempting — it has no annual fee and its maximum ticket values are on par some of the annual-fee cards. I’m open to any suggestions here.

Nov. 26, 2004

Penn St. Nikolaus Bock Bier

I’m back in Pittsburgh to visit my parents for Thanksgiving. And, as my dad isn’t a beer drinker (he prefers wine), we didn’t have much beer in the house when my brother and I arrived. So, it was time for a beer run :). And, in case you're not aware of Pennsylvania’s silly beer laws, beer can only be sold by the case here — the logic is that people would drink less that way (or something).

So, my brother and I headed off to a beer store (yeah, a beer-only store, since beer can’t be sold in supermarkets here). As we perused the aisles, we came across St. Nikolaus Bock from Pennsylvania Brewing. There were a couple other tempting beers, such as Sam Adams Octoberfest, but we decided to go for a case of the St. Nikolaus Bock as we’d probably have a hard time finding Penn Brewing beers elsewhere.

After chilling a few bottles in the fridge, Adrian and I popped open a few later that evening. I took a few sips and realized that this was undeniably a bock — there was plenty of malt flavor without much of a hops presence. And, it reminded me a bit of Paulaner Salvator (a dopplebock) as both had overtones of caramel and raisins.

Both of them are good beers but they’re not really sipping-beers. As sweet as they are, they’re almost unpleasant when drank on their own; but they can be rather enjoyable with the right food to accompany them. And, just to assuage my curiosity, I decided to check on which foods would be suitable for a bock. BeerTown has a section on food/beer pairings where they suggested barbecued salmon with a dry bock (that and limburger cheese, but I’m not sure when I’ll next run across some limburger).

And, RealBeer offers the interesting suggestion that sweeter bocks could be paired well with “heartier, spicier desserts, such as pumpkin pie or spice cake.” Now, are you thinking what I’m thinking? Considering that we’re in the Thanksgiving season, my family had both pecan and pumpkin pies yesterday; and, we had some leftover as well. So, perhaps around 10pm one evening, I may have to partake in a snack of some pumpkin pie along with St Nikolaus Bock :).

Nov. 21, 2004

Digital Cameras for Under $400

A friend asked me to suggest a digital camera for under $400 which would be good for general use including traveling (no, not it’s not Gary this time). And, while I pay attention to the digital camera market in general, I wasn’t certain of a recommendation just off the top of my head.

So, I decided to check a few of the digital camera websites which I regularly read. My first stop was at the Digital Camera Resource and, conveniently, they have a Digital Camera Holiday Buyers Guide (including a section on under-$400 cameras).

To their credit, the DC Resource folks chose a wide variety of cameras to encompass just about any camera need; however, that also meant that many of their picks weren’t suitable for this scenario. For instance, while several of the sub-$400 picks are 4 megapixels & 5 megapixels cameras, some of them were just 3.x megapixels — sure, they had some extended movie modes and such, but I’d rather use a camcorder for taking movies.

Two cameras that stuck out — primarily for having at least 4 megapixels — were the Canon PowerShot A95 and the Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH. But, before comparing the two, I also decided to also check Digital Photography Review for their take.

While they didn’t have a guide with specific picks, they do have a list of their Top 20 cameras (determined by user click-throughs per camera). Looking down the list, I could tell that users of the site had good taste in cameras — three out of the top four cameras were digital SLRs in the range of $1000 (or more). The one camera of the four which wasn't a D-SLR? It was the Canon PowerShot SD300 Digital ELPH. And, the Canon PowerShot A95 followed closely behind.

Looking over the two cameras, here’s how they compare:

  • Image Size: 5 megapixel (A95) vs 4 megapixel (SD300)
  • Zoom: 3x (A95) vs 3x (SD300)
  • LCD Screen: 1.8" (A95) vs 2.0" (SD300)
  • Included Memory: 32 MB (A95) vs 16 MB (SD300)
  • Battery requirements: 4 x AA (A95) vs proprietary lithium-ion (SD300)
  • Price: $293 including shipping (A95) vs $356 including shipping (SD300)

So, it looks like the A95 wins on image size, included memory and price. And, I also give it the edge on batteries — while some may not mind a lithium-ion battery, they can be much more expensive than regular AA batteries. And, if needed, it’s easy to pick up another set of AAs while traveling.

Considering that, is there any reason to consider the SD300? Well, the SD300 is part of Canon’s thin & stylish ELPH line (see also the pictures in DC Resource’s review). If they were the same price, it might be a harder choice; but, in my mind, the larger image size along with the lower price would make the A95 the camera I’d go for.

(Though I’d probably go for the A95, I’ll consider both paths for the remainder of this entry.)

Buying the Camera

PriceGrabber is a handy website for comparing product prices across the web and here’re the respective pages for the PowerShot A95 and the SD300 Digital ELPH.

It might be tempting, then, to just buy from the retailer with the cheapest price. However, some online retailers are more reputable than others — and that’s where ResellerRatings comes in handy. Much in the same way that PriceGrabber compares online retailers on price, ResellerRatings compares them based on customer service and reliability. And, starting from the cheapest listed, I looked over the retailers listed for each camera’s entry at PriceGrabber. I found that the retailers with the lowest prices along with above-par service for each camera were BestPriceAudioVideo for the A95 ($293 including shipping) and BuyDig.com for the SD300 ($356 including shipping).

Memory

Though each camera comes with a starter memory card of either 32 MB or 16 MB, neither is particularly useful. At around 1.4 MB for a full-resolution fine-quality photo, even the 32 MB card can only hold a little over 20 photos. Fortunately, spare memory cards are fairly reasonably priced.

And, for memory, I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Crucial — their prices are good and they include free 2nd-day FedEx as well. Each camera uses a slightly different memory card type; but, a 256 MB card should be adequate in either case. For the A95, you’d need a CompactFlash memory card, of which Crucial has a 256 MB card for $33. And, the SD300 uses SD cards, of which Crucial has a high-speed 256 MB card for $43.

Batteries

The A95 uses regular AA batteries and a high-speed charger could save some money on buying fresh batteries each time. The Imaging Resource has a very positive review of the Maha/PowerEx C-204W charger — he even calls it “My new favorite AA Charger”.

Among other goodies, this charger has no wall-brick (just a regular two-prong cord) and it has automatic overcharge-protection to provide only a trickle-charge once the batteries are full. And, as Imaging Resource mentions at the bottom of their review Thomas Distributing has some good prices on C-204 charger/battery combos (about $40 for the charger + 4 AAs).

In the case of the SD300, it uses a proprietary battery. And, though you can’t buy spares at your supermarket, there are generic versions of Canon’s battery which are a bit cheaper. Though stores such as BestPriceAudioVideo and BuyDig are good for cameras in general, I often turn to B&H Photo for accessories.

B&H isn't as cheap as the other guys on cameras, but they have a great selection on accessories and they aren’t priced badly. For instance, B&H sells the SD300 for $369 + shipping (compared with $356); but, if you scroll down that page, you’ll see many of the accessories offered. Among them, the official Canon-brand battery is $50 but a generic version from Power-2000 is $30.

Closing Words

The respective totals would work out something like this:

  • A95: $293 (camera) + $33 (memory) + $40 (batteries/charger) = $366
  • SD300: $356 (camera) + $43 (memory) + $30 (spare battery) = $429

The A95 has a higher resolution (5 vs 4 megapixels) along with a lower price ($293 vs $356) than the SD300. And, the use of standard AA batteries may also be easier to deal with than a specialty Canon battery. Both of these cameras are competent but I think I would still lean towards the A95.

Nov. 13, 2004

Macromedia Fireworks for Digital Photography?

Leia recently pointed out a deal at the Macromedia store — until November 15th, they’re offering Fireworks MX 2004 for $199 (whereas it’d normally be $299). This seemed like a good deal and it was rather tempting.

I currently use Jasc’s Paint Shop Pro for my digital photography editing. And, it’s basically fine — I can do color correction, contract correction and the usual adjustments. However, it doesn’t have as much documentation and books as its competitors. And, that's one reason why I’m considering investing in another app such as Photoshop or Fireworks.

I’ve previously talked with several of the other members of the Dallas Camera Club and Photoshop generally seems to be their editor of choice. And, with that kind of endorsement, Photoshop might otherwise be a shoo-in; unfortunately, it also costs at least twice as much as any of its competitors (Fireworks and Paint Shop Pro).

Given that a lack of specialized books is one of my primary reasons for considering a switch from Paint Shop Pro, I decided to check on how many books on digital photography were available for Fireworks. I loaded Best Web Buys — an online price comparison site with an excellent section on book prices — and I searched for the keywords “Fireworks digital” and “Photoshop digital”. The results: 50 books for the former and 2 books for the latter (one of which was only a curriculum guide).

Leia has told me about how much she enjoys using Fireworks for general image slicing and optimization; and, she assures me that it can be used for photo correction as well. But, with this November 15th deadline looming, I’m still unsure about going ahead with the purchase. I'm open to any photography nuts’ opinions on this, either way.