Dec. 11, 2009

Photos from Thanksgiving 2009

Dad and Angelika Talking

I joined my family for Thanksgiving in Charlotte, NC. Well, not my whole family—my brother Adrian has been living in South Africa since August-ish and so he wasn’t able to join us. I missed him a bit; he’s a good brother. Fortunately, I’ll be seeing him (and the rest of the fam) for Winterfamilytime later in December, so I’m looking forward to that.

My family doesn’t often have big Thanksgivings—sometimes it’d just be the four of us—but this year we had something like fourteen people. My dad’s sister Angelika’s family was all there including my cousin Ian’s new wife Brianna—uh, would that be cousin-in-law?—and some friendly neighborhood folks as well.

In my effort to try to be a good host to everyone, I ended up neglecting my photography a bit. In all, I took a few dozen shots and I’ve posted four of them. Interestingly enough, my Canon 40D’s autofocus system ended up leading my astray on one of my shots (the one with my Dad and Angelika talking, which is also featured at the top of this post).

My intention at the time was to keep my Dad in focus while placing Angelika outside the depth of field. As I later found out—and this was when I was reviewing my shots on my computer screen back here in Dallas—is that Canon’s autofocus system (at least on the 40D) apparently places a focal-preference to objects that are closest to the lens (even if they aren’t the largest objects in the scene). To be fair, I’m not really blaming Canon for this; I could have (and perhaps should have) used manual autofocus-point selection to ensure the precise focal point that I had in mind.

In the end, I still kinda like the shot for some reason. Maybe it’s the canonical Dad Face that my dad has at the time. (He tends to have that look on his face when he's listening intensely to someone. It’s part of what makes him my dad.) As my friends are fond of chiding me about, I only post a fraction of the shots I take on Flickr; put another way, if I didn’t like a shot, I wouldn’t be sharing it with other people. Even though I can’t quite put a finger on it, part of me wants to be able to put a finger on what I like about it (and I can’t).

Aug. 4, 2009

Photos from the Rangers Game

Rangers Ballpark in Arlington

Our chum Nick hooked us up with some tickets for the Rangers game on Sunday and I took my camera along to see if I could get a few shots. The game was super fun and I think the Rangers may have even won—to be honest, as long as I get some beer in my gullet and ballpark munchies in my pie-hole, I’m almost assured to enjoy a ballgame (and this was no exception).

The one part I wasn’t quite sure about was how my shots might turn out. The game started at 7:05 p.m., I believe, and given that we we’re in Texas and it’s August, the sun was still a good ways over the horizon at this point. So, for the first hour or two, I didn’t have that many chances to take shots—the sun always ended up in the corner of my frame and was blowing out my sky. After the sun started to go down, though, the lighting situation got a bit more manageable.

During the sixth inning, I walked around to the seats behind home plate and tried my hand at a panorama from that area of the stadium. I ended up taking fifteen shots and I’m generally pleased with how it turned out. Pro Tip: If you’ve opened fifteen RAW files and you’ve just told Photoshop to stitch them all together, you may as well go get a sandwich. You may even have time to brew a cup of tea while you’re at it.

June 17, 2009

Eating a Klondike Bar Without Having It Melt

Preface: This tip might not be practical for picnics. Then again, you never know. [*]

So, you enjoy a succulent Klondike bar more than life itself? Or, it’s at least one of your favorite frozen confections? Either way, one of the common hazards of such treats is that, even if you wrap the keep the bar's wrapper snuggled around it as you eat it, the bars tend to melt toward glopitude by the time you get around to your last bite.

The solution? Oven mitts. Indeed, I came across this one by accident, but after grabbing a Klondike bar from the freezer and dreading its inevitable demise toward meltification, it struck me that an oven mitt—much in the same way that it insulates one’s hands when taking hot items from an oven—might also serve to insulate the Klondike bar from my own five-fingered 98.6° heat source.

I gave it a shot, and sure enough, it worked like a charm. Better than I could have imagined, even. Oven mitt on-hand and with only just enough wrapper present so as to shield the mitt from the bar’s chocolaty coating, I took a leisurely pace as I savored a (dark chocolate) Klondike bar after dinner this evening. I had an episode of Top Chef Masters rolling on the screen and it probably took me 20-25 minutes to make it all the way through. Sure enough, the ice cream was barely more melted upon the last bite as it was during the first.

Splendid. I may have just conquered the heat-borne menace that happens to attached (and inherent to) each of my opposable thumb-bearing appendages.

[*] Okay, okay—if you happen to enough oven mitts for everyone at your picnic, I suppose this could theoretically be put to use there. But, if you’re anything like me, I'm guessing you don’t exactly have a closet full of oven mitts.

June 6, 2009

The Palm Pre: 8 GB Must Be Nice

I’ve just realized that the Palm Pre, with 8 GB memory, has 25,500% more memory than my Treo 650. That’s the actual math; I’m not kidding.

[My 2005-era Treo 650 — which I still use — has 32 MB memory, of which 24 MB of which is user-accessible.]

(For those curious, AppleInsider has a pretty good roundup of the major Palm Pre reviews that are already out. The reviews from Engadget and Pre Central are two of my favorites so far.)

May 14, 2009

Blu-ray Discs for Home Theater Demos

My friend Mike recently asked for some suggestions on Blu-ray discs for demoing one’s home theater setup:

Could you recommend a Blu-ray movie that would make a good “demo” to show off the capabilities of a new A/V system? From the few Blu-ray movies I&Rsquo;ve seen, the encoding quality varies dramatically from disc to disc. I’m sure that some of the variation is due to lower quality or older original film stock, but even a few “new’ movies sometimes have picture quality more like DVD than Blu-ray.

For that, I’ve found The Blu-Ray Picture Quality Thread at AVSForum to be rather handy. There, commenters suggest rankings for movies and the thread maintainers aggregate those into overall rankings. More specifically, they group movies into six categories from best to worst:

  • Tier 0 — Blu (Reference): Blu-ray titles in this tier consistently offer reference level high-definition picture quality.

  • Tier 1 — Gold (Excellent): Blu-rays in this tier are demo-worthy and exhibit many of the same image qualities as titles in tier zero, albeit with a few qualifications.

  • Tier 2 — Silver (Good): The titles in this tier are representative of good picture quality that is above-average and a significant upgrade over standard definition.

  • Tier 3 — Bronze (Average): The titles in this tier are representative of average picture quality considering all Blu-rays.

  • Tier 4 — Copper (Below Average): The titles in this tier typically represent below-average picture quality that is subpar for the Blu-ray format.

  • Tier 5 — Coal (Unacceptable): The titles in this tier have severe limitations in their picture quality that is strongly underwhelming compared to the average Blu-ray.

In general, a good approach might be to look over the list, particularly the movies in the “Blu” and “Gold” tiers, and pick out a few flicks that you personally enjoy.

Just to get things started, here’re a few that I might go for:

Baraka (Tier 0 — Blu): As High-Def Digest put it in their review:

The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is framed at the original 2.20:1 aspect ratio of its 70mm source. The image is very sharp and detailed, often breathtakingly so. Even the widest of master shots exhibit a tremendous clarity throughout the frame. Facial expressions can be read on individuals within a huge crowd. Colors are vivid, yet always natural, without looking digitally manipulated. […]

The Dark Knight (Tier ‘1.25’ — Gold): Also from a review at High-Def Digest:

Don’t worry — ‘The Dark Knight’ does not disappoint. Easily Warner's flagship title for the year — if not the most highly-anticipated Blu-ray of all-time — this is a superlative 1080p/VC-1 encode that is guaranteed to be the new demo disc of choice in home theaters around the world.

The Fall (Tier ‘1.25’ — Gold): And, again, from a High-Def Digest review:

‘The Fall’ features a stunning, near-flawless 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that’s ripe with vibrant primaries, lush bronzed tones, and exquisitely inky blacks. Contrast is spot on and never buckles under the intensity of the beating sun or the low lighting of Alexandria’s hospital. Detail is remarkable and precise as well. Every cracked rock, parched patch of skin, and tattered costume reveals fine textures and minute imperfections that simply could not be achieved on DVD. […]

In addition to the scores in that AVSForum thread, there're also lists published elsewhere such as this 10 Best Movies to Show Off Your Home Theater article from PCWorld.com. On the plus-side, those types of articles often suggest specific chapters within movies, which can be handy, but on the other hand, they do eventually become dated as more movies come out.

For instance, that article offers these scene suggestions for Baraka and The Dark Knight respectively:

[Baraka]

Chapter 1: After some stunning shots of mountains, the camera zeros in on a monkey sitting in a hot spring, surrounded by snow. I found myself looking at one hair wiggling in the wind.

Chapter 4: As the camera slowly moves across terraced gardens, you feel the movement. When it glides through a tunnel, people’s voices seem to come from all around you. When it finds a large crowd of men performing a “monkey” chant, it just stuns you. […]

[The Dark Knight]

Chapter 1: After nearly a minute of logos, you get an astonishingly clear and detailed IMAX cityscape, bringing you into a weirdly funny yet shockingly violent bank robbery. Shot entirely in bright daylight, it’s crystal clear.

Chapter 20 and 21: A big chase, this one at night, shot in IMAX and showing plenty of shadow detail. It also shows a big rig turning over. And the sounds, coming from all directions, show why Dolby 5.1 was invented. At 1 hour and 16 minutes into the film, gunshots fire all around you. Duck! […]

In the end, it’s up to you. There’re plenty of good discs at the AVSForum thread and if you find a movie that you like within, say, the Blu (Tier 0) or Gold (Tier 1) groups, I think you’ll be off to a good start.

May 12, 2009

I Might Buy a New Satnav, But Not a TomTom Go 740 Live (Updated)

I’ve been thinking about buying a new satnav ever since Dash cut away most of its employees and decided to, shall we say, hibernate. So, I've been mulling over my options and TomTom’s Go 740 Live had looked tempting — after all, it’s a GPRS-connected GPS with live data, just like the Dash Express.

Then I came across this review of the Go 740 Live on Gizmodo; they weren’t exactly raving about it:

The main screen is still a mess, mainly too much unnecessary clutter: Satellite signal strength? Minutes till turn and distance till turn and time at turn, plus time at destination? Traffic alert icons even when there are no traffic alerts? The road graphics still look horrible, and the refresh isn’t always fast enough to tell you where you are. […]

Youch. I enjoy a well-designed interface as much as the next guy (such as with OS X or my TiVo), but it sounds like TomTom is pretty much going in the opposite direction on this. Disappointingly, it appears that many of Gizmodo’s gripes fall across the TomTom line and don’t necessarily afflict this model in particular. I guess I’ll have to keep looking.

Update — May 13: Reading over GPSReview.net, I came across this rebuttal to that Gizmodo review, going over many of the items point-by-point. In fairness, I thought I should include the portion that addresses the bit that I excerpted above:

Minutes until turn? I don’t even see that as an option to turn on in the preferences. The same goes for “time at turn”. (Both of which don’t even exist.) If you don’t like the clutter, use the ‘Status Bar Preferences’ screen to turn things off you don’t use such as time to destination. […]

Well, that certainly paints a different picture. And, while I’d like to be able to say that this gives the TomTom Go 740 Live a clean slate, I’m still wary (irrationally so?) of a GPS unit that has sub-optimal interaction design by default (though, to be sure, an interaction design that is configurable toward better arrangements). In all, I don’t think I’ll cross this one off my list, but it’s decidedly not a slam-dunk for me.

April 21, 2009

Is This What RSI Feels Like?

Is this what RSI feels like?

As someone who types for a living, I’ve always kept in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to lose the use of those appendages. Back in college, before I really started thinking about this, I noticed some of the early signs of carpal tunnel and, after stopping by the campus health center, they did also confirm that I was seeing those types of symptoms.

After doing a bit of research on the matter, I then bought a Kinesis keyboard (video example) and, since then, I haven’t had any problems; I could type all day and my wrists felt as good at the end of the day as they did at the beginning.

Over about the past week, though, I’ve noticed a bit of an ache at the base of my pinkie finger in my mousing hand, right around that finger’s knuckle area. (I’ve also added a Note to that Flickr image outlining the general area.) At first, I wondered a bit if I had broken it, but after thinking about it, I realized that the ache was coming and going—which I presume wouldn’t happen if it had actually been broken.

I wasn’t quite sure how I’d describe the ache/pain, but I’ll give it a shot. It doesn’t hurt enough that it stops me from sleeping. And, if I’m watching tv or otherwise pleasantly distracted, I can usually ignore it. Every now and then, the pain does occasionally reach to the level where I have to let go of my mouse for a minute and let my hand rest. Or, to put it another way, if you’ve ever punched a wall or otherwise slammed your knuckle into a hard surface (by accident or otherwise), it kinda feels like that sort of pain.

So, what now? Well, if I have any say in the matter, I still plan on typing for the rest of my professional career. And one might think, “Well, let's just add some ergonomics in there.” All of that makes sense, I think, but what I'm finding to me the tough part is separating the ergonomic myths from the legitimate guidelines. Let’s take a wrist rest, for example—I honestly don’t know if that would help or hinder. On top of that, I’m not entirely certain how I would figure that out.

For instance, this page at OSHA.gov suggests:

“Use a wrist rest to maintain straight wrist postures and to minimize contact stress during typing and mousing tasks.”

On the other hand, this page from the “Cornell University Ergonomics Web” says:

Don’t use a Wrist Rest — research has shown that using a wrist rest doubles the pressure inside the carpal tunnel, because the floor of the tunnel is a more flexible ligament that transmits external pressure changes directly into the carpal tunnel (the roof of the tunnel is bone so the pressure doesn’t get transmitted on through the hand). […] ”

Now, I’d usually be more inclined to believe something if it’s posted at a .gov address (especially osha.gov, at that), but this case, it does seem that the Cornell page cites more evidence for its case. Come to think of it, after reading over that Cornell University Ergonomics Web page a bit more, it does appear that they know what they're talking about. I mean, when the footer of your page includes a link for “More information on our Mouse research studies”, that seems like a pretty good sign, no?

One way or another, I’ll need to take care of this. If you have any suggestions—even if they’re suggestions on how to tell the good ergonomics info from the old wives’ tales—I’d be open to them.

April 3, 2009

Oh, So That’s Why Some Blu-ray Discs Don’t Resume

The HD Advisor is a weekly Q-and-A column at highdefdigest.com in which readers can send in questions to which the staff tries to help answer. Anyhow, in this week’s column, they go over why some Blu-ray discs don't support play-resume:

[…] Just to clarify, the lack of a Resume Play option is tied to BD-Java […]. While all BD-Live discs are authored with BD-Java (so they do go hand-in-hand to a certain extent), it’s also possible for discs without BD-Live to share this problem. Java-enabled discs will usually start with a “Loading” icon before the main menu, and tend to take longer to load than non-Java titles. All of Fox Home Entertainment’s James Bond Blu-rays are programmed with BD-Java, even though none have BD-Live content, for example.

I agree that this is a major shortcoming of BD-Java, and I’m flabbergasted that none of the Blu-ray format developers ever gave this issue serious consideration. […]

So, that’s the scoop, apparently; I’m glad it wasn’t just me. (Up until now, I wasn’t quite sure if maybe I just hadn't configured my Blu-ray player quite right.) That aside, though, Blu-ray still offers a phenomenal picture, so I'm going to continue happily buying Blu-ray discs :).

March 28, 2009

GreenDimes, erm, Tonic, Is Great For Reducing Junk Mail

I’m not a big fan of junk mail. In part, I don’t ever order from catalogs; even if I quite like an online company, I’m just going to buy their stuff online (even if they send me a catalog). So, it takes some mental processing to sort through junk mail at the end of a day at the office; I’d also rather not fill up landfills with paper, if I can help it.

Enter GreenDimes (well, now the company is calling themselves Tonic Mailstopper):

For $15 [now $20], GreenDimes offers a series of services that you could probably do yourself, but which become much, much easier if you get GreenDimes to help you. Here’s how it works:

First, you register your address and all the names which receive junk mail at your house. Then GreenDimes goes to work, filing letters on your behalf to the thousands of direct marketers to remove you from their mailing lists. That works for credit card mailings and the like, but not for catalogs. Those you have to unsubscribe from individually, so when you get a catalog you no longer want, you visit the GreenDimes website and select the name of the company spamming you. GreenDimes then tells them to cut it out. […]

It does take a couple weeks to start working—due to the printing lead-times for junk mail—though I started noticing small improvements even within a few days. Now, it’s been a couple months since I signed up and I can say that it's worked a treat. Some days, I go to open my mailbox and simply discover that it’s empty. Bliss.

Along these lines, one other service that may be worth mentioning is YellowPagesGoesGreen.Org. On one hand, it’s an advocacy site for curbing yellow-pages distribution (such as by promoting an opt-in model), but what's also handy is that they have an opt-out form in which you can unsubscribe from the yellow pages.

Though they’re not associated with the various yellow-pages companies, they apparently then contact the phone companies in your local area, on your behalf, and get you unsubscribed from your local yellow (and/or white) pages. Since yellow pages don’t arrive with as much regularity as junk mail, I can’t say with absolute certainty that it’s successful, but I signed up back in September (’08) and I haven’t received a yellow-pages since then.

March 26, 2009

Photos from SXSW 2009

Kevin Lawver and Alex Bischoff

I look forward to SXSW every year—it’s heaps of fun. Sure, there’s the web-stuff learning (which is good), but it’s also nice to be able to see friends again that I’ve made over the years. (For instance, that shot above is with Kevin and I—I can’t even remember how many years ago he and I had met, but it’s always good to chat with him again.)

In all, I think I took around three hundred fifty photos and I believe I’ve posted around twenty five. Last year, I had rented Canon’ 17–55 f/2.8 lens and I was really pleased with how it worked out. I just happen to have bought one a couple months ago, though, so I didn't need to rent one this time around.

My new photography gadget, though, was a Lumiquest Softbox. Unlike a traditional softbox that one might have off-camera on a light stand or the like, Lumiquest’s Softbox is designed to attach right to one’s flash. Granted, there’re about a bajillion flash diffusers/bouncers on the market (and many an online discussion thread on which one is “best”), but the reason I went with this particular product is that I was pretty sure I wouldn't have much in the way of ceilings of which to bounce off.

I’m still getting a feel for flash photography and the nuances of manual exposure toward balancing one’s ambient light with the light from one’s strobe, but I think I’m getting closer. On the other hand, I’m sometimes unsure about metering modes (evaluative/matrix, center-weighted, spot, and so on) and which ones may be most suited for flash photography.

Part of me wants to lean toward spot-metering, but on my Canon 40D, the spot metering is always done off the center focal-point (as opposed to the active focal point). I’m sure that’s messed up my exposure more than once, but I haven't quite decided if maybe I just need to learn how to use spot-metering better or if another metering mode would be more worthwhile.

In all, though, SXSW was awesome. Part of me was a little worried that it could have been even more crowded than last year, but whether through room rejiggeration or maybe scheduling tweaks, the organizers seemed to have largely taken care of some of the crowding issues that had crept in last year. Plus, this year, my brother and I had a chance to get dinner together on the Tuesday night as I was heading out (from Interactive) and he was heading in (for Music). What a great way to round things out.